An Open Letter to HLS Students

BY LUZ HERRERA

When I talk with you and you express feelings of isolation or disconnection with your legal education, I completely understand. I applied to Harvard Law School because it was supposed to prepare me to be a great advocate for people in my community. Instead, I found it difficult to speak up in classroom discussions that discouraged the acknowledgment that class, race, gender and political ideology were intrinsically tied to the creation and execution of the laws we studied.

Further, the career options presented by OPIA and OCS did not fit my vision of the lawyer I imagined I would be. At some point I hung up my idealism and agreed to take the easier path. When I graduated from HLS in 1999, I left to be a corporate attorney. That diploma and that starting salary meant that by all standards I had made it! The problem was that I was a success in everyone’s eyes except my own.

When I read about starting salaries going up to $160,000 I worry because the incentive to live by others’ rules gets higher. I worry because more and more lawyers will flock into high rises and out of neighborhoods. I worry because lawyers across the country will feel they can now increase their hourly rate. I worry because all the vendors that service lawyers will increase the cost of their products and make it more difficult to keep the costs of legal services low. I worry because law schools will feel more justification in raising their tuition and fees.

I worry because there will be less and less lawyers willing or able to represent our teachers, our clerks, our small businesses, our community organizations, our families, our friends, and our neighbors. I worry because many of our country’s most prestigious and talented graduates will continue to trade in their courage for a six-figure salary. It is hard to pass up such lucrative offers.

It took me a couple of years after graduating to realize that the ultimate prize of an HLS degree is not a big salary but the opportunity to define my path. Being a high-earning laborer did not give my educational accomplishments the value that my parents hoped for me – freedom to choose my career. Placing my future in the hands of an employer that expected me to accept inappropriate comments and unfulfilling work assignments did not fit my idea of success.

When a partner at my firm told me that I should find another job, I was angry but relieved. For the first time in my life, I felt I was entitled to do what I wanted to do. I traveled, consulted, applied for jobs that I did not get, turned down job offers, and agonized about what I was going to do. It may not be the easiest of times for a “Type A” overachiever, but for me it was one of the best times in my life. I realized that I could be anything I wanted to be. It was my privilege to choose.

As Harvard Law School graduates, we have golden passports to go wherever we dream of going and to do whatever we dream of doing. It is not necessarily an easy thing to do, but our degrees can pry open opportunities and create realities that few others in the world can. When you realize your privilege, have the courage to be creative, entrepreneurial and socially conscious – whether that means you will do so at a large corporation or in a rural community. Our country needs lawyers who are critical of our profession’s institutions and incentives. Be fearless and unconventional if you believe that you have a responsibility to uphold the principles of access, justice and equality that our democracy promises. Have the courage to tackle difficult situations, to accept failures as needed lessons in humility and to challenge conventional practices. Our communities and the world await more visionary leaders. Dare to be one of them.

Luz E. Herrera graduated from Harvard Law School in 1999, and is speaking at the law school next Wednesday on solo practice.

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