Welcome to Harvard Law School! Isabel is the President of the Harvard Women’s Law Association (WLA), and Regina is a Co-Chair of the Public Interest Committee. The WLA is the law school’s largest student organization, reaching just under 300 members last year, and containing within it two affinity coalitions: the Queer Women’s Coalition and Women of Color Coalition. Our 22 committees host or co-sponsor nearly 150 events each year, which provide professional development and networking, social and volunteer activities, as well as opportunities for women to develop skills as future leaders through planning our conferences and events.
This year, one of the WLA’s main priorities is to provide more consistent, strong support for women seeking public interest careers, as well as to provide resources early on in 1L so that new students know exactly how corporate and public interest recruiting differ, and how to prepare.
Many students arrive at HLS eager to use their careers to address systemic problems, provide civil legal aid, and serve the public generally. As reported in Our Bicentennial Crisis, a compendium of data published in conjunction with the law school’s 200th year, addressing whether Harvard is living up to its public interest mission: 64.6% of newly admitted students planned to work in public interest jobs – but just 37% still planned to pursue such positions by graduation.
So what’s happening in between? While the two of us are entering our 3L years holding onto the intention to pursue public interest, one of the primary things we wish we’d known was just how different the recruiting processes, resources, and timelines are for corporate versus public interest employment.
HLS students have the privilege of an excellent Early Interview Program (EIP) for those who want to enter Biglaw firms during 2L summer and after graduation. Yet this program is the earliest formal recruiting process for HLS students, and the one you will hear the most about from every corner of campus. Beginning sometime 1L winter, you will receive information about EIP and an impressive amount of resources to guide you through the interview process, which will occur the August after your 1L year. Biglaw firms can also afford to sponsor several recruiting dinners and happy hours each winter, which public interest employers and smaller legal businesses cannot. These are incredible resources, but if you are not interested in these jobs, it can be a challenge not to be distracted by the volume of EIP-related emails, statistics, and campus chatter.
The next aspect of this issue we wish we’d understood earlier was precisely how the clients differ. 1Ls should be aware of the precise types of work the firms coming to EIP do. Large Biglaw firms primarily protect corporate interests; you as the lawyer will be on behalf of the bank against the retirement funds, the oil company against the EPA, the major contractor for ICE detention centers threatening defamation against a human rights organization. Which is not to say many of these firms don’t also undertake incredible pro bono work, and sign on as powerful allies in amicus briefs on national issues – they do, and this work is important. However, while many firms at EIP tell HLS students they can bill ‘as many hours as you want’ to pro bono, the fact is, “lawyers at the major corporate interest firms give less than half an hour a week and half a dollar a day to pro bono service and legal aid.”
In contrast, non-profits and private public interest firms usually serve the most marginalized members of our society: tenants facing eviction, clients facing incarceration in our ever-expanding prison system, and women and minorities denied their equal rights, to name just a few examples. Public interest clients are disproportionately women of color, while corporate interest firm clients are disproportionately white and male, a fact we believe students should at least be aware of.
Furthermore, women, especially women of color, struggle inordinately at firms to maintain work-life balance and become equity partners. Biglaw can be an extraordinarily difficult environment for parents; while firms may praise their parental leave policies, many associates fear the consequences of taking that leave, such as decreased career mobility. Biglaw also remains plagued by sexual harassment and stark gender disparities. Just 19% of equity partners across the industry are women, and the degree of the pay gap has recently been revealed amidst a flurry of gender discrimination and pay equity lawsuits. And the industry has resisted much of the accountability surrounding sexual harassment and assault brought on by #MeToo. As reported in a recent Wall Street Journal article, one Biglaw partner who forced a female associate to perform oral sex on him has been able to move from firm to firm, remaining lucratively employed because, in the words of his current boss, he “has been living up to his strict and solemn promises to us.”
Non-profits and private public interest firms are certainly not perfect either. Lawyers can and do absolutely face discrimination and harassment from employers in these workplaces as well. But the power differential is simply not as stark, and the racial and gender divides not nearly as wide.
Accordingly, we urge 1Ls to be proactive in remaining informed of their options, and to realize that Biglaw’s disproportionate contact with students can quickly create an illusion of one “normal” career path – but it is just that, an illusion.
Moreover, as the Women’s Law Association, we want to emphasize that public interest work, and improving access to it, is a women’s issue. While the WLA provides support for all sorts of legal careers in the private and public sector, we are committed to building out our resources for students seeking public interest jobs. We plan to add guides this year on public interest interviewing and fellowships, expand our programming around issues affecting marginalized communities, and we have already begun working to bring more recruiting public interest lawyers and alumnae to campus.
As you adjust to HLS, and actually begin considering future jobs, do not shy away from taking up space. We came into law school knowing that women especially suffer from imposter syndrome, and that it can be hard to do things like speak up in class, pursue that long shot professional opportunity, or push back hard when others question why you may not be following the status quo.
We want women on campus to take up this space, to question assumptions, and to succeed in whatever jobs they pursue, armed with all the necessary information. And we want them, along with all the students who will one day fill the offices of today’s most powerful lawyers, to change the landscape on discrimination, harassment, and access to justice.