BY SARAH MCGONIGLE
Bucking a trend of troublesome 3L attrition, the Legal Aid Bureau is entering a renaissance of sorts as this school year begins. Bureau President Matt Watkins ’02 said of the decade-long slump in Bureau retention, “we’re sort of in an ongoing process … [we’ve implemented a] host of changes in just about everything we do, and our retention is definitely better this year than last year.”
Established in 1913, Harvard’s Legal Aid Bureau is, by its own accounts, the oldest student-run legal services office in the country. Its student attorneys, who join the Bureau in the beginning of the 2L year, take on cases involving landlord/tenant, family and public benefits law free of charge for low-income residents of Middlesex and Suffolk counties. The Bureau, funded by HLS and private donations, is headed by a nine-member board of student directors.
The Bureau’s retention problems go as far back as the ’60s, according to Watkins, when a sort of “anti-grade obsession” drove Bureau members to replace a grade-oriented selection process with a lottery.
“The system wasn’t measuring students’ resolve,” said Watkins. “It had no way of measuring that. You know the Law Review and BSA have competitions, but [applying to] the Bureau could almost be an afterthought — how much effort does it take to sign up for a lottery?”
Watkins pointed to this factor as a major contributor to Bureau’s high attrition rate, a rate that had climbed to almost 60 percent for the class of 2001.
After pinpointing the lottery as disruptive to the Bureau, the Board of Directors instituted a competition-style format for applying to the organization for the class that has just entered its 3L year. Watkins said that the retention rate — up by almost 20 percent so far this year — may be attributable to this simple change.
Other innovations around the Bureau have not been as straightforward. Watkins pointed to the daunting sink-or-swim style of induction as an area in need of multi-faceted change. In an attempt to ease the introduction to Massachusetts’ courts, Watkins has taken part in a “collaborative effort” involving the Bureau’s faculty advisor, Prof. Murray, its Administrative Director, Betty Allebach, and the Bureau’s past and present boards of directors to improve the mentoring relationship between 2Ls and 3Ls at the Bureau. This year, 3Ls have been assigned to oversee and advise one or two 2L mentees as they struggle with the steep learning curve associated with representing real clients. Current Bureau Member Barry Roe ’02 says the new system, which “keep[s] as much sinking and swimming, but without the possibility of drowning,” is “a huge improvement over last year.” New Bureau members are also expected to attend substantive seminars and skills workshops as part of their orientation.
Still, some suggest that regardless of the changes, the Bureau is just not for everyone. Current member Evan Norris ’02 called the Bureau, “hands down, far and away the best thing I’ve done at the law school — the best thing that exists at the law school.” However, he cautioned that “it’s obviously not for everyone, depending on how they think they should be allocating their time. It’s a big, big thing.”
Past Bureau member Najeeb Khoury ’02 echoed that sentiment, citing purely personal preferences for his decision to leave the Bureau. He mentioned his desire to focus more on broader policy issues and the “emotionally draining” nature of working for the indigent as reasons for leaving the Bureau.
Members past and present also mentioned that clients can be difficult or disappointing. Roe said that “clients can run the gamut from very helpful in their own cases to very, very difficult.” And Khoury suggested that even when clients are easier to work with, it can be difficult to focus so narrowly on individual circumstances when the system itself seems so flawed. The work, he said, “doesn’t very much allow you to advocate for more systemic changes,” a cause of personal frustration for him.
Of course balancing a social life with the demands of the Bureau also poses significant problems for some rising 3Ls. Norris, for example, said that he works 15 to 30 hours a week for the Bureau, a figure President Matt Watkins confirmed members can easily reach or exceed. Roe said that he for one was “firmly decided” on not coming back to the Bureau this year because of difficulties with juggling his personal life with his commitment to the Bureau. But during 2L recruiting last spring, a time when he said he was “reminded of all the wonderful things about the Bureau,” Roe “completely turned a 180 and decided that I could work it out.”
Still, Watkins seems to accept and expect some misfits with Bureau life.
“Everyone here has felt frustration and a has been little overwhelmed. This work is not for everyone — that’s just the reality of it,” he said. “I’m not going to sit here and say we’ll ever have 100 percent retention rate. We won’t. But I think that the people who do stay find it really rewarding. People who have left haven’t always had a support system and hopefully we’re taking care of that.”