LIPP Works

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

Why Firmly Refuse?

You’ve made it into Harvard Law. The hard part is over. In a packed Memorial Hall, Dean Martha Minow recites the remarkable and diverse achievements of your peers. The future, you are told, will be even brighter.

But fast forward just a few months and the mood is hardly optimistic. Overwhelmingly, students say that they “have to“ work at a corporate law firm. That they are afraid of unemployment. That they will never pay off their loans. That the legal market, that their parents, that that that.

Can anything explain this violent shift? Was Harvard insincere in promising a world of professional opportunity, or is the 1L experience of desperation, pressure and job scarcity entirely contrived?

If Dean Minow spoke with hopeful assurance at orientation, the Office of Career Services quickly retorted with fear. As early as November, every 1L began to receive two kinds of emails from OCS: alarmist ones (“In the professional jungle, you won’t be helping your career very much by putting your head in the sand and avoiding these events.” November 3, 2011) and normative, culture-shifting ones (“You’ve decided that you’re going to participate in EIP… Now what?” March 19).

No wonder it didn’t feel like much of a decision.

In just a few months, the change in messaging was loud and clear. Your impressions of a legal career were naïve. Your time of passionate and inspiring work has passed. Harvard Law students join big firms. And they join them promptly.

A group of us began meeting regularly to discuss this silent transformation—silent because students refuse to ask their peers why they’ve changed their minds so quickly. Recognizing that we suffer as a community from such self-censorship, and heartened by more senior students, we decided to start a broader dialogue.

We began with posters that highlighted some of the empty rationales students employ to justify their enrollment in EIP: I don’t really want to, I’m just doing it to pay off my loans; just for a few years, then I’ll do what I really want to do; I’m just doing it because I heard they have a great training program. Such statements, frequently heard, but infrequently challenged, capture the desperation that contrasts so starkly with Dean Minow’s buoyant reception.

Our first event, “Real Talk Re: EIP,” proved that the lack of conversation is not for lack of interest: we ran out of seats in a 60-person classroom. The lunch event was billed merely as an opportunity for 1Ls to discuss their thoughts and opinions on EIP. To critically evaluate where they get their information about EIP. To ask whether EIP promotes a culture of choice or consent. To ask, in short: what happened between orientation and now?

In the rare event that a thoughtful conversation emerges about EIP, students usually justify their choice to interview by uncritically reciting an established set of reasons for joining a firm. For example, students claim they need to pay off their loans, but HLS has one of the most generous repayment programs in the country. Students also claim they’re joining a firm just for the training—but training for what? Corporate transaction work, years of document review and less courtroom experience than LRW are hardly training for a career outside of corporate law. Otherwise bright and opinionated students make pivotal career decisions based on inaccurate, privately held and therefore unchallenged assumptions.

In light of such information scarcity, recruiting students to sign up for a funneling system after only two semesters of law school—often during their second semester of law school—is coercive. Second semester 1Ls have been locked out of all clinical opportunities and allowed to choose only one elective class. After these students are denied any relevant professional experience, they are told to enroll in a lottery-based interview system for employers and work that they know little about.

By minimizing both relevant experience and volition, HLS has created a process that encourages students to cast aside long-held professional (and personal) aspirations while making premature, uninformed and fear-driven decisions. Similarly, requiring 2Ls to reject all but one firm offer by November 1st—far before most public interest jobs are solidified—unnecessarily exploits the reasonable fear most students have about turning down a job offer.

As firms wrestle to move their recruiting dates earlier and earlier, Harvard Law School must take a stand. It must, if you will, firmly refuse. Refuse to let fear and intimidation pressure students into foreclosing their professional ambitions. Refuse to let firm recruiting overshadow the educational experience of law school. Refuse to ignore the personal, professional and moral about-face that takes place during 1L year. HLS and OCS have a responsibility to respond with more than complicity as, year after year, 1Ls undergo this silent transformation.

Still, the blame for our silent transformation—and our lack of agency—cannot rest solely on the administration’s shoulders. We are willfully blind to the privilege that comes with attending Harvard Law School. And we are all too willing to scalp our sense of agency and morality to the highest bidder. An HLS degree provides incredible personal and professional opportunity. With such opportunity comes a commanding ethical responsibility—one we cannot renounce for a myopic, monetary brand of success.

Given the complexity of these decisions, we are in dire need of a more honest and informed dialogue. When can we discuss whom firms actually defend, why document review is good training or how little time associates spend with their families? When can we acknowledge the silent transformation that takes place during 1L, as students struggle to forget what brought them to law school and come to peace with a life they never pictured living? When can we discuss the coercive, premature and fear-based funneling system called EIP? Can we, at the very least, talk about it?

Firmly Refuse is a campaign initiated by Harvard Law students.