For law graduates, a public-service detour on road to success
By Rich Barlow, Globe Correspondent  |  April 27, 2009


With his degree from Harvard Law School due in June, Juan Valdivieso makes an attractive prospective hire, and last summer, he scooped up a postgraduation job offer from the white-shoe firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius in his native Washington, D.C.

But as the recession deepens, budgets tighten – even at top-notch law firms. Morgan, Lewis & Bockius e-mailed Valdivieso last month that it would have to defer his employment for a year, until the fall of 2010. But the company threw him a lifeline: It would pay him a $60,000 stipend if he spent the year after graduation at an unpaid public service job. The 28-year-old is looking for work in an organization that will indulge his interest either in civil rights or consumer protection.

Paying people to offer help to public service groups may be a noble endeavor, but it also reaps a practical payoff.

The stipend system saves a bundle for such firms as Morgan, Lewis, where starting salaries average around $160,000, according to Harvard’s assistant dean for career services, Mark Weber. It also allows them to hold onto promising future lawyers until a possible economic turnaround next year.

Meanwhile, students add a year of real-life work.

“Clients are, from what I understand, not so excited about having first-year associates without any actual experience working on their case,” said Valdivieso.

Alyssa Minsky, who is graduating next month from Suffolk University Law School, has had her employment deferred with a stipend by Ropes & Gray. A psychology major in college with an interest in healthcare, she is interviewing for jobs in that field.

“I really do think it’s a great opportunity,” she said. “I hope to do healthcare law at the firm, so I think I’ll have real exposure to healthcare issues.”

Law firms have postponed hires in previous recessions, but the public-service stipends are unique, say Weber and James Leipold, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement, a career counseling, recruitment, and development group based in Washington, D.C.

Valdivieso said he knows of 20 to 30 fellow Harvard students (the graduating class numbers 575) who have had their employment postponed, and many of them have been offered stipends. Students at law schools around the country are getting the same offer, and while no one tracks precise numbers, the trend “is pretty widespread,” said Leipold, with participants including such noted firms as Latham & Watkins, based in California, and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, based in New York.

Boston’s Ropes & Gray has offered stipends to new hires and current associates who’d like to do a year in public service, according to a statement from the firm. Staff lawyers, whose starting salaries are $160,000, receive $60,000 and health insurance coverage; deferred hires get those benefits plus moving expenses, coverage of bar preparation and exam fees, and eligibility for a $20,000 advance, to be repaid after the public service.

The firm has a list of 35 approved service organizations but is open to lawyers and hired students arranging a year’s work with other groups, the statement said. Eighty applicants have applied for placement with groups ranging from legal aid services in New York to a public defender’s office in Hawaii.

Greater Boston Legal Services, which represents low-income people in civil cases, has seen its finances crushed by the recession, as have other public-interest groups, so getting some help on law firms’ dimes is an attractive proposition, said executive director Robert Sable.

“We’re in tatters financially because of this thing,” he said. “These folks are showing up at just the time when we’re having to reduce staff.”

Weber’s office, which estimates that 10 percent to 20 percent of Harvard’s graduating students will be deferred by firms, sent a memo to the class last month to help them weigh options. A year in public service “can be seen as a tremendous opportunity” that will add luster to a student’s resume, the memo counseled.

That’s important, Weber said, because he predicts a coming boom for legal services when the economy recovers.

“There’s a lot of litigation that hasn’t taken place,” he said. “There’s a lot of regulatory work and a lot of appeals that aren’t being done right now. So when that stuff picks up, people are going to be busy.”

Getting paid to do good has some downside, however. Valdivieso has $60,000 in student loans to repay, and he had planned on a larger salary next year to help with that.

He’s hoping to tap a Harvard program that helps students entering modest-paying jobs repay their loans, but that won’t be enough, and he is considering moving in with his parents.

“I went from looking at potentially purchasing [a] new home to covering rent [and] covering health insurance,” he said. But he is counting his blessings: He is single with no dependents.

At a time when a student may feel pressure to be the next Clarence Darrow to secure one of the dwindling number of jobs, Weber said graduates may have few options. “It’s not like the next firm down the street is [hiring many lawyers]. . . . The issue here is making the best of a difficult situation,” he said.



There is another side to this story.

At the “selective” law schools there is a powerful “funnel” established by the law schools and maintained by large law firms (BigLaw) that has led for decades to as high as 95% of graduates taking BigLaw positions.

My experience, discussions with those in the legal community and material I have read leads me to believe that without the combined defects and pressures of legal education, a minority of these grads would want to work for such firms, preferring instead a variety of other options, including representing individuals, consumers, small businesses in small firms or even starting their own solo practice.

Not surprisingly, there have been frequent stories over the last 20 years about the high level of dissatisfaction among lawyers. This misplacement is partially to blame.

Another aspect of this is that for decades the public has had an urgent need for legal services. ABA studies indicate that only 20% of the legal needs of 45,000,000 low income people are met. The funneling of these law students to BigLaw continues to divert them from serving the public, the stated mission of many law schools such as Stanford Law School:

“Despite these advances, Stanford Law School’s basic mission has not changed since Nathan Abbott’s day: dedication to the highest standards of excellence in legal scholarship and to the training of lawyers equipped diligently, imaginatively, and honorably to serve their clients and the public; to lead our profession; and to help solve the problems of our nation and our world.”

What is needed is primarily an overhaul of legal education: a reduction in cost by eliminating the wasted third year, teaching students the fundamental skills and values needed so they are prepared to practice law, making them aware of the options they have in SmallLaw/Solo, giving them genuine career advice and eliminating the funnel of on-campus interviewing.



This career choice is not a ‘detour’
May 2, 2009

WE ARE writing to express dismay at the implication of your headline “For law graduates, a public-service detour on road to success” (Metro, April 27) and the tone of the corresponding article.

Your headline assumes that the only definition of success is working at a large law firm and that public service work is merely a detour. This could not be further from the truth.

We have worked with, and are continuing to work with, many Harvard Law School students and alumni dedicated to careers in public service. These students and graduates define success as satisfying work through which they can make a contribution to society.

Among our relatively recent graduates who opted for public service rather than the private sector are Julie Su, who won a MacArthur “genius” grant for her work freeing enslaved Thai garment workers; the cofounders of City Year, Alan Khazei and Michael Brown; and one young man who chose to serve the urban poor in Chicago upon graduating in 1991 – Barack Obama.

Fortunately, many of the delayed-start associates with whom we’ve been working understand that they have been presented with a wonderful opportunity to use their law degrees to help society – and, in some cases, been given more responsibility than they would likely have had as first-year associates at large firms.

You do a disservice to idealistic law students and lawyers everywhere by reinforcing the image of public service as somehow second class.

Alexa Shabecoff
Assistant dean for public service
Ellen Cosgrove
Dean of students
Harvard Law School



How do they say it, “Give me a break”.

This letter to the editor from two staff persons at Harvard Law School is misleading.

Does anyone really think that Success at Harvard law School is defined as anything other than taking a job at BigLaw?

Open up the books and look at the jobs taken by HLS graduates over the last 25 years and you are likely to see that at graduation (or after a prestigious clerkship) approximately 95% will have taken jobs at BigLaw.

Think about one of the graduates mentioned, President Barack Obama. Of the many impressive comments made about him, one was that this Harvard law School graduate, the President of the Harvard Law Review did NOT, upon graduation, go to BigLaw but took a position with a small firm that represented individuals in civil rights and other personal matters. If Harvard Law School does not consider serving the public upon graduation as a detour, why was his career path considered so unique?

One of the reasons that Harvard Law School ranks so high in the annual flawed USNews ranking of law schools is its second highest ranking in the criterion for graduate employment. A significant factor of this criterion is the number of those employed at graduation. Since it is almost entirely only BigLaw which can know its needs far in advance, the prize goes to the law schools that send their students the quickest (for the most money?) to the biggest law firms.

(By the way, I recall an analysis I did of the first positions of HLS graduates from the classes of 1984-88. Of the 2500 after 3 years of legal education only FOUR (4) felt prepared to go out on their own and NOT become someone’s employee. One of them was Alan Khazei, another graduate featured prominently in the letter.)

Success at Harvard Law School must therefore be defined by the law school (though not by the students) and, I assume, by other selective law schools as going to BigLaw. With that in mind, students at HLS taking positions with public service have good reason to think they are taking a detour.