Indulgences for the Trump Era: The Public Interest Pledge

At the height of the Catholic Church’s power in the late Middle Ages, parishioners could pay the church fees to reduce the amount of time their souls would suffer in Purgatory before entering Heaven. This practice of paying “indulgences,” as such fees were called, was one of the principal targets of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, and the practice has been a symbol of the medieval Catholic Church’s corruption ever since.

With EIP around the corner, and with 80 percent of Harvard Law students likely to participate in its orgy of cocktail mixers and free lunches, it’s a good time to reflect on HLS’s preferred means of moral salvation for those of us who feel guilty about settling for BigLaw: the Public Interest Pledge.

I first heard about the Public Interest Pledge in the wake of the election. In our horror at Trump’s win, many of us felt less comfortable at the prospect of easing into a life where our starting salaries are often more than double what our parents make deep into long careers.

Fortunately, our discomfort had a salve. We could still go into those lucrative careers guilt-free so long as we gave just one day’s paycheck to the public interest organizations of our choice. This was all we had to sacrifice to fight the Trump Administration, and it came with the added perk of getting our names put on a list of everyone who’s taken the pledge.

But let’s not kid ourselves. The Public Interest Pledge is not a sacrifice, and the minuscule amount of money it has raised for good causes – not quite $70,000 total – will do nothing to fight the forces we fear. It’s no more than an indulgence we pay to shrug a little more comfortably at the prospect of selling the immense power granted to us by HLS to the highest bidder. Starting bid: $180,000 per year (minus one day).

Of course, there are numerous justifications for going into BigLaw. Many HLS students have parents, children, or other family to provide for. Alternatively, “selling out” may not be a fraught moral issue for people who’ve grown up in and experienced real poverty. And some people may just love working on the kinds of legal issues endemic to firm life. For such people, the Public Interest Pledge may be a useful reminder to donate when they can. But for people without these reasons, i.e. likely the vast majority of people making the Public Interest Pledge, the Pledge is a placebo for the guilt we feel when we read each day’s onslaught of ghastly news and think I should be doing more.

Some might respond by saying that, regardless of the motives behind the pledge or its overall effect, it’s better to give some money than none at all, so why criticize what’s ultimately a good thing? But this response forgets that the effect of the Pledge is not only to allow a trickle of firm money to end up in the hands of public interest organizations, but also to give us a safety valve to release the guilt that we’d otherwise feel going into BigLaw. Without this valve, there would be no saving grace to selling out for BigLaw, and that decision’s selfishness would be fully exposed. But with the Pledge, the law-school-to-firm pipeline is all the more acceptable in a school where the majority of students already end up on this track. If we want to change our school’s culture away from this paradigm, we shouldn’t make it easier to justify the BigLaw decision. And since the amount raised by the pledge is so small relative to the change HLS graduates can make by actually choosing a public interest career, it’s not worth the cost of making the corporate culture at Harvard even stronger.

So if the Public Interest Pledge is no more than a symbolic gesture of penance for Harvard students who feel guilty about not doing enough, what should they do instead? Two options come to mind. The first is obvious: choose a public interest career. LIPP doesn’t let you live lavishly, but for most of us it will be enough to live comfortably. And the benefit of working in an area you truly care about is worth more than the golden vault the best firms stick you in.

The second option involves a utilitarian calculation: donate enough such that the money you donate is worth more than the value of you working in public interest yourself. The amount will vary according to each person’s situation, but it will be much higher than one day’s pay per year, per summer, or even per month.

These suggestions are by no means the only ways to meaningfully resist Trump or to fulfill the call to public service that got many of us into law school. But in searching for new ways to do this, let’s call spades spades. And let’s call the Public Interest Pledge for what it is: an indulgence for the Trump era.

Tom Wolfe is a 2L.