BY VIC WU
The Public Interest Orientation, organized by the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising (OPIA), drew a standing-room crowd at Austin North last Wednesday. Students who attended the event noted that the orientation’s main speakers – Bryan Stevenson ’85, and Professor David Barron ’94 – delivered remarks that not only visibly inspired the audience, but also addressed key concerns prevalent among those who are considering public interest careers.
Lisa Williams, OPIA’s assistant director for J.D. advising, began the event by welcoming the new students and introducing OPIA’s staff to the audience. She encouraged the 1Ls to stop by OPIA and to utilize its wealth of resources as they consider their options in public interest law.
Dean Elena Kagan’86, then addressed the audience. Recalling one of the remarks she made in her welcoming speech to the new students on August 31, Kagan observed that every graduating HLS class will exert more influence than any other law school class. This is a function of not only what HLS is, but also of the remarkable quality of HLS students, she said.
The key question that HLS students should ask themselves is how they should utilize this unique position of power. Kagan expressed her hopes that the new students will strive to contribute to the public good and to help improve other people’s lives through their years at HLS and beyond.
OPIA Director Alexa Shabecoff echoed Kagan’s remarks and noted that students should carefully consider what kind of career will make them happy. She outlined the numerous opportunities available for students interested in pursuing public interest law and encouraged 1Ls to take advantage of OPIA’s events, publications, and advising resources.
The highlight of the evening was the speech by Stevenson, who received a standing ovation after his remarks. An HLS alumnus, a professor of clinical law at the New York University School of Law, and the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson told members of the audience heart-wrenching tales from his work in representing death-row inmates and other prisoners in Alabama. These included the story of an inmate whose execution the state expedited after it became clear that he had terminal pancreatic cancer, as well as the story of a 13-year-old teenager who has been sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole and who is thus condemned to die in prison.
There were also tales of hopefulness, however. For example, Stevenson described how a guard who had been hostile and difficult toward one of his clients confessed to changing his views of the client following a hearing during which Stevenson presented his client’s traumatic personal history. In relaying these stories and recalling his time as an HLS student working for the Southern Center for Human Rights, Stevenson urged students to make themselves present in the lives of people who are suffering and excluded. “Positioning ourselves near these problems,” he said, “allows us to understand justice and to make a difference.”
Barron followed Stevenson’s speech and addressed five factors that pull people away from public interest work. First, students should be wary of the herd mentality that is common among law school students. “What others are doing is not necessarily what you should be doing,” Barron observed. “You should feel free to create your own idea of what it means to be a lawyer.” Second, students should avoid “saint or sinner” thinking, which can become a powerful way to rationalize what one does. Third, students should resist pressure from family members, who may have outdated or misguided notions of what it means to work for a large law firm. Fourth, students should have realistic expectations of how much they would be earning and how much they actually need. “The public sector does not necessarily mean slave wages,” Barron noted, especially with the Low-Income Protection Plan that HLS offers to its alumni. The enjoyment of doing meaningful work, which may not be measurable in dollar terms, is also important, he said. Finally, students should shorten their time horizons when thinking about their legal career. Instead of thinking of the next job as a means to a future job, “think about what you really want to do,” said Barron.