The Situationist

The Situation of Harvard Law Students

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 18, 2008

Dean Elena KaganThe Dean of Harvard Law School, Elena Kagan, today announced a first-of-its-kind program intended to relieve some of the situational squeeze that may have kept some students from taking public-interest jobs out of law school. Below we’ve pasted portions of Harvard Law School’s website summary and Jonathan Glater’s article in today’s New York Times about the new program.

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In a move that will further strengthen its commitment to public service, Harvard Law School is announcing that it will pay the third year of tuition for all future students who commit to work in public service for five years following graduation. Dean Elena Kagan ’86 announced the new program following a three-day “Celebration of Public Interest,” which brought more than 600 alumni back to the HLS campus.

The new initiative will operate in addition to the Law School’s current loan repayment program, which is—and will continue to be—the most generous in the nation.

“I want all of our students to have the ability to make public service their first choice after law school,” said Kagan. “We have tried in many ways to make this choice easier, particularly for students who have accumulated significant debt in college and law school. This initiative, which effectively provides a $40,000-plus grant to all our public service-oriented students, is the next big step toward giving our students greater career choices. There is no better time to announce it than now—following our first-ever Celebration of Public Interest.”

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To read the rest of HLS website summary, click here. Here are portions of the Times article.

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Concerned by the low numbers of law students choosing careers in public service, Harvard Law School plans to waive tuition for third-year students who pledge to spend five years working either for nonprofit organizations or the government.

The program, to be announced Tuesday, would save students more than $40,000 in tuition and follows by scant months the announcement of a sharp increase in financial aid to Harvard’s undergraduates. The law school, which already has a loan forgiveness program for students choosing public service, said it knew of no other law school offering such a tuition incentive.

“We know that debt is a big issue,” said Elena Kagan, dean of the law school. “We have tried to address that over the years with a very generous loan forgiveness program, but we started to think that we could do better.”

For years, prosecutors, public defenders and lawyers in traditionally low-paying areas of the law have argued that financial pressures were pushing graduates toward corporate law and away from the kind of careers that they would pursue in the absence of tens of thousands of dollars in student loans.

“The debt loads that people are coming out of law schools with are now in six figures,” said Joshua Marquis, the district attorney in Clatsop County, Ore., and vice president of the National District Attorneys Association. “When the debt load is that great, I have had a lot of applicants who’ve said, ‘I’d like to take the job, but I really can’t afford it.’ ”

Perhaps worse, Mr. Marquis said, some indebted young lawyers who choose to try to survive on a low salary as a junior prosecutor may decide to leave to earn more just as they gain enough experience to handle more important cases. For that reason, he added, Harvard’s program sounded like a “great idea.”

Harvard’s third-year-free program is expected to cost the law school an average of $3 million annually over the next five years, Ms. Kagan said, but that number is just an estimate because it is unclear how many students will take advantage of the offer. The law school’s share of the university’s endowment of $34.9 billion is more than $1.7 billion.

From 2003 to 2006, as many as 67 and as few as 54 of the 550 students graduating from Harvard Law went to work for a nonprofit organization or the government. That translates to 9.8 to 12.1 percent of the graduating class. A vast majority of students have chosen to join law firms, where they can earn well over $100,000 a year immediately after getting their degree.

“This is an interesting move,” Larry Kramer, dean of the law school at Stanford, said of the Harvard initiative. Compared with other loan repayment assistance programs, Mr. Kramer said, “It’s unclear whether it is more generous.”

It may be, he said, that loan forgiveness over a longer period of time may encourage more students to go into public service and stay there. He added that it would take time to see how students reacted to the program.

Brandon Weiss, 26, a third-year student at Harvard Law who plans to join a public-interest law firm after he graduates, said he thought the tuition waiver program might sway students concerned about their debt to consider more career possibilities.

harvard-law-students.jpg“Some students come in and know that public interest is what they want to do,” said Mr. Weiss, who will not benefit from the program himself because it does not begin until next fall. “There are probably other students that know they want to go to a big law firm. This program will help those students who are in between.”

Michelle J. Anderson, dean of the law school of the City University of New York, said the waiver of tuition sounded like an ambitious experiment.

“Harvard Law School is an extremely expensive, elite law school,” Ms. Anderson said, adding that tuition at CUNY Law was less than $9,000 a year. For Harvard, she added, reducing the price “is a different way of trying to attract students” interested in public-interest jobs.

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Lawmakers have also begun paying more attention to the ways in which student debt deters graduates from going into public-interest careers. Legislation passed in the fall by Congress provides student loan forgiveness for public servants, like public defenders, librarians, teachers, firefighters and nurses, after 10 years of service.

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To access the entire article, click here. To read some related posts on the situation of Harvard Law Students, read “Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” Part I, Part II, and Part III.

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