“You are on a list of students…”: The Office of Career Services Tracks and Nudges Public Interest Students

Harvard Law School’s official mission statement is: “To educate leaders who contribute to the advancement of justice and the well-being of society.”

Last November, in a letter to Dean Martha Minow, I attempted to account for why it is the case that for every Harvard Law School graduate in 2014 who pursued work designed – as our mission statement impels – to advance justice and societal well-being, five graduates joined corporate interest law firms. I argued that the school does not explicitly tell students to pursue corporate interest legal work, but rather nudges students into such work by making it appear that the “default option” for students is to go into such work.  Examples of such nudges include the fact that: the hypotheticals in courses often presume you are working for a corporate client; the only required field trip for 1Ls is to a corporate interest law firm (at the end of the winter Problem Solving Workshop); the office primarily tasked with encouraging corporate interest careers is given a generic name (The Office of Career Services) while the office tasked with encouraging public interest careers is given a specific name (The Office of Public Interest Advising); and the structure of student loan forgiveness results in those pursuing corporate interest careers having not just an easier, but a simpler, time paying back their loans than those pursuing public interest careers.

Today, we can add “tracking and pursuing students not interested in corporate interest work” to the list of ways Harvard Law School nudges students into corporate interest work. This morning, every 1L who has not expressed interest in participating in the Early Interview Program — HLS’ program designed to lubricate the process of entering corporate interest work — received the following email from the Assistant Dean of the Office of Career Services:

Subject Line: Checking in about EIP Orientation

Hi there – I am writing because you are on a list of students who have not yet RSVP’d for the EIP Orientation and Market Mixer event which takes place this Wednesday, March 9, from 5:00 – 8:00 p.m.in Milstein. If you plan to participate in the Early Interview Program (EIP) in August, then I highly encourage you to attend this program which will address important information about preparing for EIP over the coming months. This will be the last program about EIP before August. Additionally, you will be able to meet a lot of employers from the specific markets in which you are interested. It’s actually a lot of fun and there will be tons of food.

I know that some students have classes that evening. However, even if that is the case, I’m encouraging you to attend after classes end. If you are going to be late, please just let us know.

To RSVP click HERE. If you are going to be late, in addition to RSVP’ing, please reply to this email letting us know that you will be there after your class ends.

I hope to see you on Wednesday.

This reminder email was not sent to every student: it was only sent to students who had not shown an interest in pursuing corporate interest legal work. It resembled an official administrative email aimed at everyone — similar to ones that remind you to register for courses or to sign up for on-campus housing — rather than one about career or extracurricular opportunities specific to certain groups of students. In saying that students uninterested in legal work serving corporate interests were on a “list of students” who had failed to complete a task the administration was tracking, the email embodies the exact “default option”-setting that I described in November: it implies — like with the in-class hypotheticals, the Problem Solving Workshop field trip, and the loan forgiveness structure — that corporate interest legal work is the presumptive career choice for Harvard Law School students.

There are many reasons a student might not have RSVP’d to an EIP orientation.  For some, it will be the knowledge that if you enter corporate interest law immediately after law school, it becomes highly unlikely that you will enter public interest work later in your career: only 7.2% of lawyers who entered a large corporate interest firm immediately after law school were practicing public interest legal work a decade later; only 0.2% of those who did worked in legal services or as a public defender a decade later.  

For others, it might be that they had been turned off by the Office Career Services’ recent encouragement for students to participate in Washington revolving door corruption, in which they explicitly recommended that students who want to work in Washington should:  (1) work first for a corporate interest law firm, then (2) work for a government agency or department “that governs the activities of private sector clients facing specific regulatory issues” (which, the document reminds us, “provides contexts and skills to re-apply to the private sector”) and then (3) return to a corporate interest law firm as a senior associate.  

For others, it might be that they have learned that the lure of pro bono hours is often a mirage, because they read the reminder in one OCS document that “firms like to emphasize their commitment to pro bono” but that “firms are increasingly mindful of becoming more like a business where billable hours and profitability reign supreme.”

Whatever the reason, students who have avoided the pull of corporate interest careerism should not have to also fight off an Office of Career Services that keeps lists of them and sends them official emails encouraging them to participate in a corporate interest career program. If one insists that such a list is kept and such emails allowed, we should, at the very least, empower the Office of Public Interest Advising to keep a similar list of students who have not signed up for public interest work and repeatedly send them official emails encouraging them to participate in public interest programs, as well.  That way, students will not feel as strongly that there is an administration-endorsed career path.

Indeed, perhaps the first step the Office of Career Services can take in serving our mission of educating leaders who contribute to the advancement of justice and the well being of society is to take their official thumb off of our personal career choice scale.


UPDATE (March 9, 11:59 AM): A large poster advertising the EIP Orientation & Market Mixer has been placed outside the dining hall ramp with the statement that: “All 1Ls are strongly encouraged to attend”:


It makes one wonder: Why is Harvard Law School ‘strongly encouraging’ its students to begin the process of entering corporate interest legal work?  Why are civic-minded programs — Student Practice Organizations, Clinics, and, equivalent mixers for public interest career opportunities — not given the same strong encouragement?

Pete Davis

Pete Davis is a civic reformer from Falls Church, Virginia and a member of the Harvard Law School Class of 2018. Email Pete at Pete@CivicIdeas.org. Tweet at Pete at @PeteDDavis.
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