Hundreds Gather for Celebration of Public Interest


Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm ’87 and First Gentleman Daniel Mulhern ’86 at Friday’s lunch conversation with Dean Kagan. Media credit

The first-ever Celebration of Public Interest took over Harvard Law School last weekend, as alumni and current and admitted students gathered to honor HLS’s many contributions to public service and discuss challenges in a variety of career paths.

According to the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising (OPIA), over 600 registered attendees were part of the weekend, with participants in the simultaneous Admitted Students Weekend adding to that number.

After a number of Thursday night receptions, the conference kicked off Friday morning with two plenary panels in Ames Courtroom, “Public Interest Success Stories” and “The Public Interest Lawyer’s Toolkit: New Models of Advocacy.” The first panel featured some of the most impressive of HLS grads in the public service. Maina Kiai ’89, chairman of the Kenya National Comission on Human Rights, spoke about the difference between the poverty and dangerous political climate of Kenya and the world of Harvard, and the challenges of starting a non-governmental organization from scratch. He also made the room laugh by mentioning his relationship to a certain presidential candidate.

“I met Barack Obama here, and because of his background in Kenya we came together,” Kiai said. “So like everyone else, I like to say that Barack Obama and I are the closest friends.”

Julie Su ’94, litigation director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California, who has received the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and the Reebok International Human Rights Award for her work on sweatshops and other forms of discrimination, told the story of her work representing trafficked Thai garment workers. One of them was particularly grateful. “[The woman] told me, ‘If I’d gotten an education I would have wanted to be like you.’ I told her, ‘Actually, it was meeting you that made all those years of education worth it.'”

Rachel Brand ’98, former Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Policy, Department of Justice, spoke about her greatest career success: preparing Chief Justice John Roberts and Chief Justice Sam Alito for their Senate confirmation hearings, which led to the approval of their Supreme Court nominations. Brand led the team that put the men through 16 four-hour moots each, and noted that she was proud that with one exception, her team correctly anticipated every line of questioning that came up in the hearings.

The panelists agreed that law school should not give short shrift to “legislative lawyering,” since history shows many graduates will be in policy and not just litigation. Professors Jim Flug and Carol Steiker pointed out that Harvard’s new 1L curriculum and expanded Government Lawyer course are attempts to do just that.

In the second panel, graduates in very different organizations discussed strategies other than litigation for affecting social change. Alan Jenkins ’89, executive director and co-founder of The Opportunity Agenda, explained one such strategy that used blogging, newspaper coverage, and the creation of online interactive maps to show racial disparities in health care in New York. Jenkins also noted his own Obama connection, which would become a theme of the weekend. “Barack Obama was my subciter,” he said. “He did a pretty good job.”

Lori Wallach ’90 talked about lobbying, coalition building, and community organizing in the context of her work promoting government and corporate accountability surrounding globalization and trade. Wallach explained that what galvanized her commitment to public interest was actually a setback: the “ax murder of the public interest office” under Dean Robert Clark’s administration, when the separate public interest advising office was closed before pressure from the law school community helped bring it back in the form of OPIA.

Penda Hair ’78, co-director of the Advancement Project, noted the difference between “putting a finger in the wind,” which she said political administrations often do to gauge public opinion, and trying to sway public opinion itself to promote new initiatives. “What we’re trying to do is change the wind,” she said.

Saturday’s lunch featured a lively interview between Dean Elena Kagan and Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm ’87 and First Gentleman Daniel Mulhern ’86. Granholm, who was once a student protestor taking over University President Derek Bok’s office to push for disinvestment in South Africa, had lost none of her energy as a national political figure, volunteering a defense of Michigan’s early primary this year and promising that she would continue to support the seating of the state’s delegates at the Democratic National Convention. “We’re going to storm the Bastille somehow,” she said. “We will be there in Denver.”

Kagan asked Mulhern what he was doing at Harvard while Granholm was out protesting. “Trying to get a date,” he joked. Mulhern, who hosts a radio show and writes and speaks about leadership, went on to say that progressives should remember to get involved in changing people’s minds through talk radio, town halls, and other places where public opinion is shaped. “We’ve forfeited that space,” he said.

The duo had plenty of advice for public service-minded students and attorneys. Commenting on their successful marriage, Granholm said, “Marry someone who supports your values.”

Mulherm encouraged students who want to effect social change to jump into public service jobs. “Don’t think the big firm will let you do the great work, because they won’t.”

“Be doers,” said Granholm. “I want to hire someone who puts intelligence into action. Don’t be satisfied, and express your dissatisfaction through action.” She later added, “Dan taught me that you can exercise leadership from anywhere on the totem pole.”

The afternoon featured breakout sessions on career development for different practice areas, where advice abounded from panelists and audience members alike. “You should use what I call the ‘kick yourself in the ass’ method of job selection,” said Alan Morrison ’66, co-founder of Public Citizen Litigation Group, at a panel about nonprofit careers. “What is the job that, five years from now, you’re going to kick yourself in the ass for not taking?”

These sessions were followed by substantive area panels covering issues like climate change, racial justice, and separation of powers. Afterward, attendees had a number of evening receptions to choose from, hosted by Harvard clinicals and student practice groups.

Friday evening’s dinner featured a keynote speech by Equal Justice Initiative head Bryan Stevenson ’85, who told many of the moving stories of death penalty defense he shares with 1Ls at each fall’s Public Interest Orientation. “The opposite of poverty is not wealth,” he told the audience. “The opposite of poverty is justice.” He ended with the words of a courtroom janitor, encouraging those in the audience to “keep your eyes on the prize – hold on.”

“People have been telling me, what a wonderful event,” said Nadine Strossen ’75, President of the ACLU and honorary co-chair of the conference, while honoring Assistant Dean for Public Service Alexa Shabecoff on Friday. “Some people have been saying, what a wonderful annual event.” The law school does not plan to hold the Celebration of Public Interest again for several years.

Saturday started with a breakfast with Dean Elena Kagan, at which she first announced the launch of HLS’s new Public Service Initiative, which will pay 3L tuition for students committing to public service during their law school years. The day continued with more substantive issue and career panels, including ones on student debt, burnout, and teaching integrity.

The keynote speech at Saturday’s lunch was given by William Weld ’70, former Governor of Massachusetts and former Assistant Attorney General of the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. Weld told a number of entertaining war stories from his career prosecuting public corruption, leading a DOJ division, and directing the state. He explained that prosecutions of crimes like perjury were important to convict those who had committed more serious unde
rlying offenses, and the lack of such an offense was what led the libertarian-minded Republican to be a defense witness in President Bill Clinton’s impeachment proceedings. “As far as I know, S-E-X is not an impeachable offense,” said Weld dryly.

The day concluded with a plenary panel about the “public interest renaissance” afoot at Harvard Law School, and a closing cocktail reception. Alumni remarked frequently on the difference in the law school that they attended and HLS now in terms of the welcoming atmosphere and increased institutional support for public service.

Amy Copperman ’98, a housing attorney at Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, was among them. “In some ways, I wish I could go to this law school now.”

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