Public Interest Orientation


Dean Kagan addresses students at the Public Interest Orientation
Bryan Stevenson addresses students at the Public Interest Orientation

Nearly two-thirds of the 1L class filled the seats and aisles of Austin North last Tuesday evening for the annual Public Interest Orientation. Many were visibly moved by hearing featured speaker Bryan Stevenson, ’85, describe his work as an advocate for death row inmates in Alabama and by his exhortations for students to “hold on” and “create justice.”

The evening began with welcome by the Office of Public Interest Advising’s Lisa Williams, who outlined OPIA’s role in providing students with the resources and support to get positions in public service or determine how to fit public service into their lives.

Dean Elena Kagan, ’86, then spoke of the obligations that come from Harvard law students’ extreme privilege, as well as the personal and professional satisfaction and, she emphasized, fun, of public interest work.

“Those who go into public service as a truly lifetime commitment are among the most fulfilled, interested, and engaged people throughout their lives and in the legal profession,” Kagan told students.

She expressed her satisfaction that Harvard Law School, “Betters human welfare and people’s lives through our students and through our graduates.”

The highlight of the evening was the powerful speech by Stevenson, an HLS alum, New York Univeristy clinical professor, and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. He started his talk by noting the change in the institutional structure at the law school, praising the work of OPIA and the talent of the students, which makes them much sought after by law firms with vast resources.

He warned students that they would have to be prepared to say things that would make them uncomfortable, that they had to “be the only person standing.” Students need to watch out for some of the negative effects of a law school education.

“You quickly become disempowered at law school, and you start to think that you really can’t change the world,” he cautioned.

He spoke of his grandmother, “Mama,” who taught him the important lesson of creating a meaningful identity for himself, and about the heartbreak of deconstructing the life of a person who has been condemned to death. Stevenson was unable to obtain a stay of execution for the first inmate whose case he took, a man sentenced to die in just 30 days. Twenty minutes before the man’s execution, he spoke with Stevenson and told him,

“It’s odd. All day long people have been asking, ‘What can I do to help you?’ More people have said what can I do in the last 14 hours than in the first 19 years of my life.”

Stevenson deplored the “racial apartheid” that exists in the American system of justice.

“Our criminal justice system treats you much better if you’re rich and guilty than poor and innocent,” he said, and explained how the Supreme Court has spent years avoiding the issue of racial disparities in death row sentencing because it would then be forced to address it in other crimes.

However, Stevenson continued, the disparities are not inevitable, a conclusion he has come to as the result of growing up in the Brown era, in which advocates came to his community and forced the authorities to start to integrate schools.

“But for that advocacy, commitment, and vision, I wouldn’t be standing here,” he said.

He told about his work with a young woman who had been condemned to death and then life in prison when she was barely 14 years old, and about defending a falsely accused black man in the hometown of Harper Lee, in which an old woman showed him what it meant to face one’s fears and stand up to injustice.

He finished by admitting how tiring and overwhelming it could be to spend one’s life creating justice, but related one final story. Stevenson had filed a motion to have his client – a 15-year-old being tried as an adult – tried as an elderly, rich, white man instead. While he and the judge hollered back and forth, an older black janitor came into the court room and sat down behind him. During a recess, when a bailiff tried to kick the janitor out, he turned to Stevenson and said:

“I came into this courtroom to tell this young man, keep your eye on the prize, hold on.”

“You really can create justice,” concluded Stevenson, who received a standing ovation.

Students were deeply impressed by Stevenson’s work and speech.

“He’s the best person they could have chosen to inspire people to work in public interest,” said Erin Carroll, ’09.

“It would be nice to have him every three weeks,” said Jacob Howard, ’09, “Everybody’s exhausted and having someone come in and inspire us was valuable.

Professor David Baron, ’94, followed Stevenson with aplomb, telling students to remember what Stevenson had said.

“Remember it in class,” Barron said. “I don’t make this kind of speech, but a lot of professors in the classroom believe you should be thinking about it.”

Barron went on to address five things that commonly steer students away from public interest work, even if they start law school thinking they may want to head that direction, or simply do not know which way they want to go.

First, students need to avoid the herd mentality and, “Carve out a path for yourself that’s your path.”

Second, students should keep from feeling pressured by family.

“They want life to be nice for you and for you to be happy…Have them call me; I’m happy to talk to them,” Barron said.

Third, it may be better to make less now.

“Right now is not the time when you need to be making a lot of money,” he said, “If you had to plot the chart, you want to go up over time. You’re actual happiness with doing something is not reduced to the paycheck.”

Fourth, get rid of the Saint or Sinner thinking, but “If you think of yourself as a sell-out, you should be doing something else.”

Finally, time horizons can be short-term.

“HLS gives you enormous freedom that you cannot imagine,” he said, “And the one thing HLS can do that will mess it up for you is to leave you thinking. ‘I don’t want to blow it.'”

OPIA Director Alexa Shabecoff concluded the evening by detailing the many opportunities students have to engage in public interest work and urging students to use the website, career guides, and other OPIA resources in exploring different types of work.

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