Public Interest Career Offices Are Not the Answer

Below are excerpts from a Memorandum which I sent last year to the Professor at Stanford Law School who was heading up the search committee for an Executive Director for its Levin Center for Public Service and Public Interest.


(O)ver the last 44 years since I graduated law school in 1963, I have continued to be concerned about whom graduating law students represent. As critical social issues continued to come to the attention of the public (poverty, health, housing, education, the environment, as well as the rights or women, children, minorities and gays), as many as 95% of those graduating from law schools, especially the highly selective ones, took positions in the largest law firms representing the largest corporations and the wealthiest 1% of our citizens.

I am not writing this because of any specific knowledge I have of Stanford Law School other than reading a press release entitled “Stanford, Harvard Plan Ambitious Curriculum Changes” nor have I written a letter like this to any other law school. For all I know recent graduates from Stanford Law School are taking positions that reflect the hopes and concerns of the law school, its students and the larger community. If not, what I am suggesting is that the hiring of an executive director of the public interest law center be put on hold while a one year study is undertaken aimed at developing a comprehensive strategy meant to implement the law school’s mission found on its website:

“Despite these differences, 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.”

After a number of years founding law firms representing individuals, creating lawyer referral programs, developing the field of divorce mediation and an advocacy training institute, I began to work in 1983 at Harvard Law School as the Public Interest Advisor, continuing the pioneering work of Doug Phelps, the first to hold such a position in a law school.

From then until 1989 when Bob Clark temporarily closed the office, I worked with about 40% of all students. There were workshops, speakers panels, mentoring with alumni/ae, job fairs and individual counseling sessions.

For the next five years after I left Harvard, I presented programs and consulted to twenty five law schools and law related associations. Through these programs and in my book,

Lawful Pursuit: Careers in Public Interest Law published in 1994 by the ABA Law Student Division, I warned law students about the ways in which law schools divert them from careers serving the legal needs of the public and advised them on how to overcome these barriers and find satisfying positions in the law.

Some of my conclusions, based on my personal experience and involvement with career planners at other law schools, are: at least 40% of those entering law school planned to use their legal degree to serve the legal needs of the public; very few were interested in practicing commercial law as an employee of a large law firm; and the highly selective law schools “funneled” their students into large law firms because they:failed to implement a mission of serving the legal needs of the public; failed to teach the fundamental skills of the profession; failed to teach the fundamental values of the legal profession; failed to make students aware of the wide range of options in the practice of law; permitted large law firms to have operated for their benefit, an on-campus hiring program; and charged exorbitant amounts for the services they provide.

The predicable result of this diversion was the extraordinarily high job and career dissatisfaction found not only in law firm associates but also in the legal profession as a whole.

The underlying questions are: what does the law school believe its graduates should do with their degrees; what do the students want to do with their degrees; are a high percentage of its graduates going to work for large law firms; is this what the law school wants; is this what the students want; and is this in the best interests of our society?

The urgent need for lawyers to represent the public should be a primary mission of the law school not a separate subsidiary “office”. The creation of public interest offices was a positive step in the 80’s but many law schools staffed the offices with low level administrators with little law practice experience whose role was to familiarize students with a few well-known organizations (ACLU, NAACP, NRDC) with few openings (as opposed to providing awareness of the thousands of individual practitioners representing those with personal plight issues) resulting in those students taking fallback positions with large firms through on-campus interviewing. Moreover, the establishment of what began to be referred to as “loan repayment” programs were ineffective since the high cost of law school, as noted above, is only one of many factors diverting law students from their intended career paths.

On campus interviewing, of course, should be eliminated. At one annual NALP conference session in 1992 when I recommended this, the moderator asked for a show of hands and close to 80% of the placement staff attending from many law schools voted in favor of ending OCI. When asked why it exists, one placement staffer said her dean insisted on it because of its importance to the ratings in the US News and World Report which rewarded the law schools which sent the most students the quickest for the highest salaries to the biggest law firms and had no category for the best teaching of skills and values.

My suggestions are not simply relevant to those seeking to represent individuals. The MacCrate Report contains many of the solutions on how the law school curriculum should be revised so that graduates and be confident enough to go out on their own and represent any clients, including businesses. (In 1988, I compiled and analyzed the list of positions taken by the last 2500 graduates of the most recent 5 classes at Harvard Law School. One astonishing finding was that only 4 had NOT taken positions as an employee of some institution – two had started CityYear and two had started a legal services program.)

There is such an urgent need for service to so many members of the public. Hopefully, the implementation of well thought out proposals would be that careers in public interest and social justice would become a realistic option for those attending the law school.

Should anyone want to discuss this further, please feel free to contact me by e-mail or telephone.

Ron Fox

Ronald W. Fox, Esquire

Center for Professional Development in the Law