Spiffing Up SPIF: Increase Funding for Summer Public Interest Work

BY NICK SMYTH

Many Harvard Law students come to campus hoping to have fulfilling careers doing public interest work. Unfortunately, the number of students who take up those careers upon graduation is far lower than the number who come here hoping to do that kind of work.

One significant reason for this apparent change in interest could be the amount of funding HLS guarantees students for public interest jobs through Summer Public Interest Funding (SPIF). That amount, expected to be $5,000 next summer for students on aid, is less than what other top law schools give and less than what HLS expects the vast majority of students (those with private sector jobs) to spend on summer living expenses. HLS should increase the guaranteed amount to $7,000 for the second summer and make other changes to bolster the number of students who choose public interest jobs for their second summers.

The absence of more funding for the second summer may be driving 2Ls away from public interest work. A recent poll of students halfway through their first semester of their first year suggests that 25% of students expect to definitely or probably take a public interest job during their second summer. One year later, however, only 8% of students actually do.

Last year, SPIF guaranteed students on any form of financial aid (85% of all students) $4,500 for the summer, hardly enough. A poll found that 65% of 2Ls who received SPIF last summer had to supplement it with outside money – from parents, extra loans, or other sources – and 46% had to get more than $1000 from those sources.

Granted, students can also supplement SPIF with fellowships specifically targeting summer jobs, which last year increased the average award by $400.(1) But the vast majority of students do not receive fellowships, and many do not even qualify due to their personal background or the nature of their summer job.

HLS is certainly generous, but $5,000 for a summer is less than the amount other top law schools give to their 2Ls in public interest summer jobs. Yale guarantees a student on aid $500 per week (to a maximum of $6000) and Columbia guarantees all students in their second summers $6000 for ten weeks. In addition, Harvard’s grant of $5,000 is less than the $7,000 HLS students on aid are allowed to use for summer expenses if they take private sector jobs (90% of income after the $7,000 and taxes must be put toward student financial aid contributions). While private sector jobs will always pay more than public sector ones, students can make the choice between public and private sector jobs more freely if they are unconstrained by summer funding disparities.

In light of these disparities, it makes sense to raise the guaranteed amount of SPIF funding to $7,000 for the 2L summer.(2) This increase in funding would put Harvard at the head of the class compared to other top law schools, and it would close the gap between the SPIF salary and the private sector allowance. A recent poll of 2Ls suggests that 15 more people would have chosen public sector work if the funding levels had been $2,000 higher – a 1/3 increase over the 42 people who did it last year.

While such an increase would be enthusiastically supported by students, it is important to note several challenges. Since there is no endowment for public interest funding, SPIF’s money comes from our tuition.(3) That same pot of public interest money also funds the Low-Income Protection Plan (LIPP), the HLS program that helps to repay the debts of students who enter public interest careers after graduation. Harvard currently spends $1.2 million on SPIF and $2.2 million on LIPP. With a fixed pot of money, increases to SPIF may limit LIPP’s ability to expand.

It is important to note that the assumption that underlies this proposal is that students who want to have public interest careers should be spending two summers in public interest. Although the conventional wisdom is that a summer at a private firm is beneficial even for students who never want to go private after graduation, in fact such students should eschew private firms second summer. The world of public interest jobs offers endless career choices. Many students will not find their perfect job the first summer, and some get turned off by a bad experience in public interest. Taking a second job doubles the chance that a student will love the people, the work, and the mission.

Loving the job is critical to public interest work. Firm jobs are different: they need only be tolerable as long as they pay big money. But people choose public interest jobs because they get major satisfaction and fulfillment out of them. Harvard needs to make it easier for people to find jobs that they love in public interest, and giving them a second summer there is critical to that mission.

It is clear that raising the funding guarantee to $7,000 may take time. Thus, the Student Financial Services office should make other changes to SPIF that might increase the number of 2Ls choosing public interest summers. First, SPIF should begin funding the public interest portion of a split summer. Currently students must commit to ten weeks of public interest work to receive SPIF funding, making it almost impossible to split a summer between private sector and public sector jobs. Second, students doing public interest jobs should be allowed to take another job (legal or non-legal) to supplement the SPIF funding, without it being subject to the caps. A recent poll of 2Ls suggests that these two changes alone would lead 57 more students each year to split their summers and 33 more students to do a full summer of public interest.

Even if the poll results exaggerate the true number who would be affected, it is safe to assume that our suggested changes would lead to growth in the number of students taking public interest jobs for at least part of the summer (from 42 on SPIF and 20 splitting in last summer). The increase will bring Harvard into line with other top law schools,(4) and it will mean that more students are able to fulfill the hopes and passions that brought them here in the first place.

Nick Smyth ’09 is a Section Representative on the Law School Council. He chairs the Ad Hoc Committee for Increased Summer Public Interest Funding.

(1) SPIF caps total second summer earnings at $7,500, which means that any employer stipend or fellowship that pushes the total past $7,500 (or $6,000 during the first summer) will lead to a concomitant decrease in a student’s SPIF grant.(2) Along with that, the caps should be raised by $2,000, to $8,500, for the second summer.(3) A poll of 2Ls found that 57% of students (including a majority of those who do not receive SPIF their second summer) are in favor of raising SPIF, even if it means $50 more in tuition. (4) At Yale, more than 20% of students choose public interest work second summer.

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