BY CHRIS SZABLA
The sequence is as common as the changing seasons: every year, 1Ls enter Harvard Law School bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, hoping to convert their liberal arts educations into an “engaged” career. Every year, they man the Public Interest Auction with the zeal of a religious revival. But after all is said and done, after summers spent staffing legal aid offices and NGOs from Seattle to Singapore, almost all of them will spend their summers, and then at least two years of their post-law school lives, working for firms.
Against these odds, the Student Public Interest Network organizes an annual event, “To OCI or not to OCI?” Aimed at convincing these students that the all-consuming vortex of On Campus Interviewing ought not be the be-all and end-all of their 2L experience, it functions more like a definite answer than an open question. By all indications, attendance is increasing; the free pizza was gone well before this writer arrived, and Professor David Barron estimated that there were at least sixty people in the room – up from 20 the year before. His goal, he said, was to reach at least 40 more: each years, he estimates, 40 – 50 people go to firms who never really wanted to at all.
Barron described the public interest student’s typical slide into OCI – the inevitable family pressure as 2L year begins, the pressure of being the only one of one’s peers disengaged from the process, and the ease of signing up. Most students then rationalize the process on the basis of a risk calculus.
The professor then moved to defang the risks most students believed they would face by not going through OCI, which, he argued, was “not the gamble you think it is”. The most common trope that most students believe, he asserted, was that there would not be public interest jobs for them available after graduation. Not so, he asserted: a concerted effort to make contacts through an internship with a public interest group during one’s 2L summer could be just as effective in locating and securing a job as going through OCI. OPIA’s Lisa Williams added that even if a public interest-inclined student exhausted every job and fellowship option, HLS would provide money to help fund whatever work a student was interested in. “Let HLS be your safety net,” implored student panelist Andrea Saenz ’08.
Saenz, the former editor-in-chief of the Record, did not do OCI. After graduation, she found and was able to take her dream job representing women with immigration problems. “I’m anti doing whatever it takes to keep all your options open ad infinitum,” she said. Such an effort could backfire: firm training, for example, was not useful everywhere, and “you’re going to receive the training you need wherever you go”. Williams added that it could actually be damaging for a future public interest career to have too much firm experience on one’s resume.
According to Barron, the two real downside risks of choosing a public interest career were the small salary and the risk of “not being conventional”. But, he added, not making a conventional career choice could actually be a strategic choice; with fewer competitors, there is a greater probability of success in one’s career especially if one gets in early, immerses oneself, and gets the right skills.
Williams then addressed the practicalities of finding a public interest job. She recommended beginning with an internship in one’s 2L summer – as a 2L, she asserted, there was a lot more interest from public interest groups. She also noted that a lot of regretful 3Ls came to the OPIA office seeking help – and a change in direction – after a difficult or disappointing summer with a firm. Yet without much public interest work on their resumes, she noted, their positions were much more difficult.
Williams also noted that many with public interest inclinations hoped to bag a job during OCI and then look into other options. This was possible, she noted, as job offers could be kept open until April 15th, as long as one told firms one was looking for a public interest position. But many, she asserted, became lazy about the job search after receiving their offer, and tended to drift into something. Saenz counseled that there was “always a stopping point to the madness – you can realize you have nothing to say to the firms, and cancel your interviews”.
Despite Saenz’ argument against keeping doors open, the audience appeared convinced that splitting the summer, at least, was a wise option. Williams recommended that students consult the OPIA job search database to see which organizations allowed splitting, and advised against breeching the subject without an offer. She also noted that many firms were linked with public interest organizations they underwrote, and picking one’s own organization could be difficult under such circumstances.