Harvard Law: The New York of Public Interest Communities


Friday night I went to the Spring Public Interest Potluck. Silly me, I had not realized that the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB) was right across the street from the law school. I had heard it was nearby, but right across the street? I wonder if I’m the only person who didn’t know how close it was. Don’t get me wrong, I have been enjoying my clinical over at the Legal Services Center immensely, but if I had known as a 1L (who lived on campus and considered walking from Hastings to Dane a long, cold walk) that the Legal Aid Bureau was that close to campus, I would have given it a second and third look. Don’t get me wrong about this either: the Legal Aid Bureau does valuable work, as I learned from the conversations I overheard at the dinner.

Last semester’s Public Interest Potluck was at the home of the director of the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising, Alexa Shabecoff. Alexa showed everyone around her home, which to my tiny apartment and dorm-acclimated eyes looked enormous. “Look around everyone,” she said to us, sweeping her hand to include the addition to the house, “This is what you can buy with two public interest salaries.” As gratifying as it was to see what financial planning can do, it was much easier to walk across the street, than to venture into the suburbs via the convoluted streets of Boston. (I should add, however, that Alexa does have the cutest dog in the whole world.)

But I digress. What struck me at this latest public interest potluck was the diversity of faces and experiences. It’s easy to start feeling lonely as a student who would like to do public interest work. That might sound strange to many PI types reading this column. It undoubtedly sounds even stranger to that cohort of students who saw the public interest office dismantled in 1989, only to have Dean Clark reinstate it after a negative publicity campaign led by the students. You may even think me completely loony when I say that I’m working at the Legal Services Center (LSC) this semester, so I spend two days a week literally surrounded by people doing public interest work.

Perhaps I’m not asking the right questions of the students who work at the LSC, HLAB, Greater Boston Legal Services, the Berkman Center, and any number of other organizations and offices that do public work. Maybe I approach people and simply ask, “How’s it going?” or “What are you doing this summer?” and the majority of replies that I get are about classes and law firms, so I don’t realize that they have a cool internship with a local judge, or that they incorporated two businesses last week, or that they do everything under the sun in their elder law clinical.

The public interest community at Harvard is huge, but still I feel somehow disconnected from it. It may be that there are too many options for things to do, so instead of gathering in one place and kvetching about how isolated we feel, we have to pick and choose among the dozens of groups and activities available. Do I want to teach kids about the law? Do I want to represent children in entering the foster care system? Should I work with immigrants and asylum seekers? What is it like to be a defense attorney, a criminal prosecutor? Maybe my time would be best spent representing tenants, and if that’s what I want to do should I join the Tenant Advocacy Project or take the Housing clinical at the LSC? Couldn’t I do many of these things at HLAB too? It’s a surfeit of riches.

As for my own clinical, I feel like I’m learning so much, but at the same time hardly doing it justice. I’m overdue on my answers to discovery, which makes me feel like a failure, and not having any prior litigation experience, I’m not sure if this is a common occurrence or if I’m incredibly slow. But there’s so much to learn! I came into my predatory lending clinical having no idea what a mortgage looked like or what a security was. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure were a distant 1L memory. I had never dealt with legal clients before. So far, the three intakes I have done have been nerve wrecking. I never seem to be asking the right questions, or at least when I go back to my supervisor, he has three or four questions I never thought to ask. Plus, it makes me feel guilty to listen to someone’s tale of woe and then have to say to her, “Sorry, but we won’t be able to help you.” These are all going to be valuable lessons if I ever have my own practice or work at a legal aid center and am forced to choose among individuals, but it’s hard to say no and it’s tough to feel like I’m behind all the time. Yet for my litany of doubts, I am learning.

In other (semi) news, my significant other is in a fantasy Congress league. Now, a few years ago, I might have thought that to be a nerdy pursuit. Today, it sounds cool. Law school certainly is changing my perspective on, or at least my tolerance of, politics, so I’ve decided to make an effort to keep up to date on what’s happening “on the hill.” To that end, I’ve been checking out OpenCongress.org, which highlights the bills that are passed that day and gives scuttlebutt on Senators and Representatives. It’s a new website/blog and it’s still working out a few bugs, but the concept is good and the user interface is intuitive. Yet another bookmark or Internet feed for your (in-class) entertainment or procrastination on 3L papers.

Mindful that this is HLS’s first admit weekend, I have this piece of advice for those of you making your decision. You aren’t going to find this range of options anywhere else. The combination of resources both material and human appears to be unique to Harvard. Couple those resources with some individual initiative and curiosity and you can literally do anything you want that is remotely connected to the law. It took me two phone calls to get a job last summer. A friend of mine studying ecotourism laws was able to spend winter break in Panama. Another friend organized a group to do work in Haiti. Anything is possible, Class of 2010.

Erin Archerd, a 2L, is going to sing a round of Kumbaya and then start reviewing loan documents. You can email her at earcherd@law.harvard.edu.

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