Nation & World

Public interest lawyers come home to HLS

6 min read

Graduates talk about experiences working for the public good

Last weekend (March 13-15), current and future lawyers at Harvard Law School (HLS) discussed how to change the world.

The first “Celebration of Public Interest” at HLS brought together hundreds of the School’s alumni involved in public service careers to discuss their work, share their stories, and engage with the next generation of lawyers considering public interest professions. More than 700 people attended the event.

On March 14 in Austin Hall, HLS graduates discussed their career successes and how public interest work had enriched their lives. Their personal anecdotes were moving.

Robert C. Owen J.D. ’89, clinical professor of law at the University of Texas School of Law, spoke of defending criminals on death row.

His greatest success, he said, was convincing a client who was sentenced to death that his life was worth saving. Owen secured him a sentence of life in prison and later learned the man had subsequently saved the life of a guard during an attempted escape by other prisoners.

It was profoundly rewarding, said Owen, when the man told him, “I found meaning in my life. I saved someone else’s life and have done something to compensate for the harm I caused in the world.”

Maina Kiai LL.M. ’89, an advocate of the High Court of Kenya and chairman of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, recounted his efforts to change the repressive government in his homeland with nonviolent protests and community support. One of his greatest accomplishments, he said, was simply “getting young people involved.”

A critical element for success, agreed the panel, was a passion for the work.

Julie A. Su J.D. ’94, litigation director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California, chided those who once told her she was too emotional for the rigors of law practice.

“The reason we succeed [in public interest work] is not in spite of emotion, it’s because of it,” she said to loud applause from the audience.

Coordinated by HLS alumni, faculty, students, and staff, the three-day conference (March 13-15) included a series of panels and networking events.

Organizers hoped the HLS reunion would connect past generations with current students interested in the field, and demonstrate to alumni the recent steps taken by HLS to encourage and embrace public service.

“We wanted to tell those graduates that we believe in them, we really value their contributions, they are really important to us, and to show them that the Law School has changed … and embraced public service,” said Alexa Shabecoff, assistant dean of public service and director of the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising (OPIA) at HLS, who helped run the reunion.

Shabecoff said past graduates hadn’t always felt their interest in public service work had been fully supported.

Harvard Law School’s recent history of public service support is strong.

In 1990, in response to student interest, OPIA was created at HLS to encourage both students and lawyers to consider incorporating public service into their careers. Today, the office provides advising programs, a resource library, networking events, and access to a public service job database, as well as other services.

The same year, the School created the Wasserstein Public Interest Fellows Program, which brings public interest attorneys to the campus to meet with students and offer advice about working in the public service sector.

Celebrity guests were also part of last week’s event.

Attendees enjoyed a lively discussion Friday afternoon over lunch with the dean of Harvard Law School and Charles Hamilton Houston Professor of Law Elena Kagan J.D. ’86, and graduates Jennifer Granholm J.D. ’87, governor of Michigan, and her husband, Daniel Mulhern J.D. ’86, chairman of the Michigan Community Service Commission.

The dynamic couple urged the crowd to consider making a difference.

“We need a pipeline of people to make change,” said Granholm, who was an outspoken activist while at HLS. “I encourage people no matter where you are in life … run for office … [and] remember it’s not about you, it’s about the change you want to be able to create.”

Be clear about your passion and values, and don’t be afraid to go after it, advised her husband.

“Don’t think the big firm is going to let you do the great work,” Mulhern cautioned. “It’s not. Stick with your passion.”

During a public conversation with Kagan on Saturday morning, the dean announced a new tuition initiative. The nonselective program, which takes effect with students entering HLS in the fall, will eliminate the third year of tuition for law students who fulfill a public interest requirement while in school and commit to five years of work in the nonprofit or government sector upon graduation.

Lisa Dealy, director of the School’s Clinical and Pro Bono Programs, credited Kagan’s leadership and “entrepreneurial spirit” with the School’s strong support of public interest.

“She really expects students to do some kind of public interest work either in school or after graduation,” Dealy said. “She’s not afraid of change.”

Among the weekend’s other sessions were panels on climate change, international justice, preventing burnout, and a law school’s role in teaching integrity.

To conclude the event Shabecoff outlined some of the steps the School has taken to assist those committed to public service in a panel titled “Public Interest Renaissance at HLS.”

In addition to the support from OPIA, Shabecoff noted that HLS offers funding for students who pursue public interest positions during the summer months and provides generous loan-forgiveness plans for students who choose relatively lower-paying jobs often in the public service sector. HLS has also expanded its clinical programs to include a number of public interest options, and requires students to complete 40 hours of pro bono work before graduating.

Peter Winn J.D. ’86, who traveled to the reunion from Seattle, where he works for the United States Department of Justice, said it was inspiring to connect with people who shared a similar passion. Winn said he hoped the weekend would encourage students to seek professions where they could “actually have an impact on society,” and, he laughed, “more fun practicing law.”