Even Harvard Students Need Their Earnings

I’m a Harvard Law 2L (who plans to work in public interest, I note) writing to voice my discomfort with the marketing campaign employed by One Day’s Work, the program that encourages students taking firm jobs to donate a day’s worth of income to support our peers going into public interest work.

Since the promoters of this campaign have spoken only in the loftiest of terms in their promotional materials, here’s a numerical breakdown of what’s being asked of us. For those taking jobs with pay scales tied to the so-called market rate of $160,000 per year, dividing that by 12 gives a monthly rate of about $13,333. Further diving that by 21 work days per month gives us a one-day contribution of about $635. To put it in context, that’s 8.8 percent of the $7,200 Summer Living Allowance computed by the financial aid office.

Please Don’t Assume I’m Well-Off Because I’m At Harvard

While the good intentions of those promoting this program are laudable, organizers make an assumption about Harvard Law students that belies a certain good-natured naivete:  that we all come from well-to-do backgrounds and can happily part with the money we’ll earn this summer.  This just isn’t true.

My parents don’t have college degrees and have never paid the “parental contribution” here at Harvard (not that they were assessed much anyway).  Instead, I took out (more) loans. I got my first job as a freshman in high school and worked throughout college. When I wanted to travel outside the U.S. for the first time at the age of 19, I did so with a travel fellowship from my undergraduate school. Money has never been plentiful, but I made it here through a combination of luck, thrift, and hard work.

Now I’m fortunate to have a summer job with a law firm, which I’d like to try even though I remain committed to public interest. Any savings from this summer will go towards living expenses for next year and beyond, so that I’ll be able to set myself up wherever I go after graduation without falling further into debt.

Although I only speak for myself here, it isn’t hard to think of the many financial burdens we face.  Some of our peers have spouses and children to support, and others would like to give something back to their parents. A good number of people already carry significant debt from earlier educational programs. Many are considering long-term careers in public service and would like to start saving now to make that option viable.

In short, many Harvard students have legitimate reasons to not give away a significant percentage of their summer earnings. Yet I’m made to feel guilty every time I see a poster, table card, or e-mail asking me to part ways with the funds I need to live. It is awkward at best and offensive at worst to presume that my life is so hunky-dory that over $600 is a drop in the bucket for me and others paying our own way through law school.

Better Alternatives For Public Interest

Thankfully, Harvard Law students interested in public interest careers can already take advantage of multiple financial relief programs.  The best-known is the Low Income Protection Plan, where Harvard will pay back part or even all of our loans so long as we meet certain job and income requirements. Similarly, the federal government allows Income Based Repayment, which mandates loan issuers to refinance loans so as to make payments affordable.  Those who participate in the program for ten years while working in a public interest job get all their remaining loans cancelled.  Moreover, entrepreneurial students graduating in 2013 and thereafter can take advantage of Harvard’s Public Service Venture Fund, which will help students launch public service projects by giving them a way to pay their salaries.

Once I’m financially secure, I’d be delighted to offer my support to commendable public interest law programs like LIPP or the Venture Fund. But at this point in life, many of us simply need our summer earnings to maintain a decent standard of living. I hope that the high-minded folks behind One Day’s Work will accept this reality.

 The author is an anonymous second year Harvard Law student.