Cutting funding for SPOs


Recent events on campus have led some to fear that the future of Student Practice Organizations (SPOs) at Harvard may be at risk. The Tenant Advocacy Project (TAP) was recently informed that the positions of its two clinical instructors were to be eliminated. (See Crimson article, 3/25) Student leaders at TAP were understandably distressed at this unexpected news and followed up with Dean Kagan to determine the source of and rationale behind this decision. Labeled a budgetary decision, it also proved to be a manifestation of a more significant plan for TAP. The administration has proposed the eventual integration of TAP into the Legal Services Center (LSC). Others have hinted that a merging of Harvard Defenders into the Criminal Justice Institute (CJI) may be next up on the administration’s agenda for the SPOs.

This past Monday night I attended a meeting called by leaders of TAP for student leaders of all the SPOs to update us on the issue TAP is facing and the course they were taking to address it. It was also an opportunity to communicate our reactions to this news and to voice any concerns about the future of our own SPOs. While the meeting began as something of a gripe session about how and why this decision could have been made without providing an opportunity for student input, it eventually evolved into something of a gushing love letter to the SPOs. Our mutual concern that Howell Jackson, Dean Kagan and the professors who comprise the Clinical Committee, Professors Minow, Bartholet, and Rakoff, might not understand the worth that the SPOs contribute to the law school, led us into a brainstorm session about just what that value is and, admittedly, the ways in which we may most effectively communicate it to those faculty and administration members who are in a position to decide the SPOs’ fate.

The SPO which I was in attendance to represent is The Prison Legal Assistance Project. I was first introduced to PLAP in the spring of my 1L year, I worked there full-time the following summer, I have volunteered with PLAP during the school year ever since, and I am a member of our student board. PLAP has been a central element of my law school experience. At a time when I’ve given up on reaping the benefits of most of what this place has to offer in favor of the “I just can’t wait to graduate” mentality, I continue to show up at PLAP every week. These days, I’m even over hitting up the occasional lecture for a dose of free pizza. Most of my friends would be taken aback that I forewent a dose of Access Hollywood and Extra in favor of a 7:00pm meeting with representatives of other SPOs out of concern for the future of the organizations. There wasn’t even food at the meeting! I’m sure these same friends will be utterly shocked at the sight of my name in a Record by-line. As a fellow 3L PLAPPER so clearly put it to me: “If it weren’t for PLAP, I’d be completely checked out of this place by now.”

Another student at the Monday meeting remarked, “Law review may have been the definitive law school experience for people on Dean Kagan’s track, but the SPOs have been mine.” And while I don’t live and breathe 204 Austin Hall (that’s the PLAP office, by the way) in the manner a certain law review friend whom I mock does Gannett House, I still felt a light bulb go off at this statement – PLAP has been my law review. I even rushed to share this revelation with a friend after the meeting. “Does PLAP really suck as much as law review?” she replied in horror.

You won’t find me mailing applications for clerkships, but you may overhear me talk about prison rights litigation as a prospective long-term career. This is an interest that I might never have discovered were it not for my involvement in PLAP, especially since the law school has recently eliminated the Prison Seminar from its course offerings. While I cannot fathom that anyone would subject themselves to the grueling hours and often tedious tasks of law review voluntarily, the fact is that many of them do it purely because they love it. In this way the SPOs and the law review are maybe not all that unalike. Every hour I pass at PLAP happens solely because I want to be there.

Dean Kagan’s plan for TAP looks to enfold SPOs into the clinical programs, but in doing so it may sacrifice a value unique to SPOs, one that cannot be found in the clinicals. Student participants in SPOs do not earn class credits towards graduation. Yes, pro bono hours may be received, but the (to me laughably) minimal pro-bono requirement is so easily completed by most during their 1L summer, that this is not a compelling explanation for why students participate. At PLAP, we could only think of two students in the whole organization who have applied their school-year PLAP hours towards completion of the pro bono requirement. I’ve watched too many friends complete clinicals in which they were given no work or horribly mundane desk work, that I can’t possibly understand why the clinicals should be the mold into which the SPOs are being squeezed. The rule of all non-gunner law students dictates that, if I can get class credits for sitting around surfing the internet for 10 hours a week, then that is a “sweet deal,” but if I’ve got nothing to do at an SPO, then I walk out the door. Intrinsically, the SPOs are a more valuable use of my time, and a more efficient use of the resources Harvard marks for addressing needs of underprivileged or underrepresented populations, like prisoners, and for training students in practical lawyering.

I certainly appreciate what the administration and the budget allow us to do at PLAP. I don’t think there is any other law school in the country that funds a student organization’s receipt of collect calls from inmates. However, I worry that although the administration may be aware of the great service this generosity does the inmates, they do not recognize the full value this opportunity confers upon its student participants. SPOs give students experience with case-ownership, client relationships, deference to judicial and administrative figureheads, and red-tape cutting that is not otherwise available to such a substantial degree. Moreover, precisely because they are student-run, SPOs, like other student organizations on campus, give us practical experience in dealing with administrative responsibilities which recur in the post-law school legal world such as operating within budgets, or conducting recruiting and training.

Beyond all of this, the SPOs also contribute greatly to the quality of life at law school. PLAP not only affords student the opportunity to assist those less fortunate while gaining legal experience but also provides a social outlet for its student participants. Mere participation in a non-academic enterprise can supply immense release to students. Beyond training more junior students in how to conduct disciplinary hearings, the more senior students share their suggestions about what courses to take, what dorms or apartment buildings to live in, what foods to eat, and so on.

These days, concern seems widespread that decisions about the fate of student organizations are being made without enough input from student participants in those organizations. It did strike me as pretty fishy that the BSA had to fight to get one of its members on the committee responsible for charting the future course of FYL, but I suppose it never really hit home until now. While I understand that we students may not always get a final vote in the way these administrative and budgetary matters get resolved, I am adamant that we should at least get an opportunity to heard for who else knows more about the value of student organizations than the student participants.

Betsy Zedek is a 3L and Recruiting and Hiring Coordinator of PLAP.

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