THE RECENT SELECTION OF O. Grace Bankole as a 2004 Soros Justice Advocacy Fellow is only the most recent example of a growing and influential public interest presence at Harvard Law School. There are real opportunities available for students who wish to forego or just postpone working at a law firm in order to fulfill a life-long passion, or maybe a recently acquired desire to work in the public interest sector.
Bankole said about her fellowship, “So many of us come to law school with the desire to make a real difference in the lives of others, but over time, certain pressures adversely affect that goal.” Not wishing to put words in Bankole’s mouth, certain pressures readily and easily come to mind: the six-figure salaries at most law firms for first year associates; the stress of law school; general apathy that can set in after a year or two of school; and the conception or misconception of HLS as an institution that primarily trains corporate lawyers.
These are real pressures, some more than others, but focusing only on these pressures is to miss the insight provided by Bankole’s example. There are so many opportunities available for students who wish to pursue public interest. Just last week The Record reported that eight HLS students received two-year Skadden fellowships for public interest, the greatest number from any particular law school in the country. In addition, there are human rights fellowships and overseas fellowships for those who wish to exercise their skills in war-torn or impoverished nations.
But students do not need to wait until after graduation to pursue public interest. The Office of Public Interest Advising has an effective staff that works diligently to let students know what public interest opportunities are available both inside and outside the country. OPIA has a certain advantage that it readily utilizes with 1Ls in that many law firms are not looking to hire first-years, which can make the task of securing a law firm job during the first-year summer a truly daunting task.
While it is understandable that law firms are hesitant to commit such resources to a first-year, this is not the case with most public interest jobs. First, the Law School’s stipend for public interest work is a wonderful selling point for students in that they can put themselves out there as free employment. Second, most public interest agencies are always looking for interested students, especially ones from arguably the most prestigious law school in the world. Finally, as opposed to some students’ experiences at a large firm, many public interest organizations do not have the resources or the time to provide two-hour lunches. Students will be expected to work as hard as the actual employees.
In the end there is much truth to Bankole’s statement that “certain pressures adversely affect” many students’ goal of pursuing public interest. But they are pressures, not determinates, and students can brush such pressures aside if they keep their eyes focused on the prize. In that regard the public interest offices at HLS deserve praise for being a willing source of information and resources.