I enjoyed the recent “Firmly Refuse” column on the Early Interview Program, as encouraging students who knew they didn’t want to work for large law firms to avoid arriving there by inertia was an interest of mine at Harvard Law. I wrote several pieces for The Record on this, one being not-so-subtly titled “You’re Not Weird if You Don’t Want to Do OCI.” (This was before the program switched to being called EIP.) It’s nice to see this spirit is alive and encouraging dialogue.
I can’t speak for Firmly Refuse, but the point of this dialogue for me, was never to vilify students who go to work for Biglaw firms, nor to dump on those who are actually interested in it. It was to provide a space for the hundreds of students who entered HLS committed to public interest work, but found themselves doubting whether they could or should leave HLS actually working in that field. Neither Firmly Refuse nor my friends five years ago invented these thoughts: to see how long back these pressures and doubts have affected HLS students, I recommend the flawed but fascinating Broken Contract by Richard Kahlenberg, which portrays the “Beirut on the Charles” days at HLS in the 1980s, and will leave you hugging the Office of Public Interest Advising staff and making them promise to never leave. Worth a library check-out.
I am really writing this letter to be counted as a data point. As a 2008 graduate who never interviewed with a large law firm, I am still employed, still in my chosen field, immigration and still paying my loans, thanks to availing myself fully of the Low Income Protection Program. More importantly, so are dozens of my classmates. It can be done. And since I recently heard that the Kaufman Dinner for public-interest bound 3Ls was one of the largest ever, I am optimistic that it is being done.
It is hard to explain what a blessing LIPP is unless you have run into excellent lawyers struggling to do the work they love and pay their bills even on 30-year plans or Income Based Repayment. LIPP has followed me through a city change, job changes for myself and my husband and the birth of my children. They continued to send me checks even when I switched from a modestly-paid nonprofit job for a higher-paid federal government job, and are the nicest people I have ever faxed my tax returns to.
While the forces and resources of OPIA helped launch me into the nonprofit and government world, it’s LIPP who lets me keep doing the immigration work I love. The bottom line is this: to date, four years into repayment, LIPP has paid $21,000 of my student loans, with no end in sight. I am not on 30-year repayment plans and will be student debt-free before I’m an old lady. Don’t take that as the amount LIPP would pay out for you; it all depends on your individual situation. But I wanted to put a real number out there because public interest lawyers, and aspiring ones, need to talk about money. Find out what real government, nonprofit, small firm and fellowship salaries are. Talk to the Student Financial Services staff. And as the Firmly Refuse crowd is doing, support each other. It looks like many of you are well on your way. Lots of luck.
Andrea Saenz, Law ’08