Public interest law finding new degree of respect

Issue June 2011 By Christina P. O'Neill

Back in economically flush times, public interest law careers were regarded as the vocational redoubt for those who didn't make the cut at a law firm. David Stern, CEO for the nonprofit Equal Justice Works told The National Jurist in May 2009 that he noted a change in attitude, with a newfound respect for the accomplishments of public interest lawyers, and increased competition among students for positions leading to careers in public interest law. 

It's not because there are more jobs on the public side. The poor economy cut job opportunities in the public and nonprofit sectors as much if not more than in the private sector. Instead, it's students' perception of what constitutes the real value of a law degree, and the realization that training in public service careers broadens their experience, making them more employable when the market picks up.

Diane Ring, co-academic dean of the Boston College School of Law, says that today's grads examine options they might not have considered in better times. She ponders reviewing this year's graduating class 10 to 12 years from now, to ask what they did in the first three years out of law school, and what will have become of it.

Alasdair S. Roberts, first holder of the Jerome Lyle Rappaport Chair in Law and Public Policy at Suffolk University Law School notes: "You don't have to go into private practice. You can go into government, non-government organizations … it's the Swiss Army knife of degrees."

Curriculum vitae of today's accomplished lawyers and jurists confirm his observation. But the cost of a law school education has ballooned since many of those high achievers got their law degrees. In response, Massachusetts law schools are putting more money where they say their mission is, by strengthening their loan repayment assistance and forgiveness programs for graduates choosing public interest careers. Several schools we interviewed note the number of loan assistance recipients has increased by multiples over the past decade.

Bay State law schools, whether public or private, have various forms of loan repayment and loan forgiveness programs for students going into public-interest work, and students are well-advised to compare the terms of these programs as if they were shopping for a car loan or mortgage. Varying eligibility criteria include income levels, the amount of need-based borrowing  (Harvard's Low Income Protection Program, for example) and set time requirements for participating in public-interest employment.

The sources of funding also vary, from graduating-class gifts to donations from alumni and private enterprises founded or directed by alumni. The Boston College Law School received a $3 million gift early this year to establish the Francis X. Bellotti Loan Repayment and Forgiveness Program for public-interest graduates. Bellotti, a former Massachusetts attorney general, is an alumnus of the Class of 1952.

Federal legislation enacted in 2007 codifies and translates into hard dollars the same concepts for which many of the state's law schools have been advocating, in various ways, for decades. The College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007 (CCRAA) established a nationwide standard for forgiveness of federal school loans for graduates who enter public service and stay in the field fulltime for 10 years, which don't have to be consecutive. The CCRAA discharges any remaining debt after 10 years (see sidebar, top right). 

A new model of legal education

Two of the state's law schools address the affordability issue up front by offering tuition that is low compared to $33,000 to $38,000 annual tuitions charged by other schools. Adhering to the ethos that one can get an excellent law education at a public institution, the UMass-Dartmouth School of Law sets its tuition at $23,555 for in-state students and $31,210 for out-of-state students. But it also offers a 50 percent reduction in tuition and fees for students who agree to practice public-interest related law for at least four years after graduation. Twenty-five students a year are chosen on a competitive basis from those accepted into the program.

Margaret Xifaras is chairman of the UMass-Dartmouth School of Law. She notes the importance of combining the value of giving time to public service with the programs and life strategies that allow it to be financially possible. "You can lateral in and lateral out," she notes. "You can do five years of public service, and then say, you've got a family and you need to worry about getting a house or putting aside for college. I've seen many people come back into public service later, and they enjoyed that time."

Michael Coyne, associate dean of the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover is also a staunch advocate of accessible legal education. Annual tuition at the school is just under $15,000, and the administration has long gone head to head with the American Bar Association and in the realm of public opinion on the issue of cost and accessibility.

In editorials this year to the Worcester Telegram & Gazette and The National Law Journal, Coyne noted that MSL has garnered various regional and national advocacy awards while competing against the country's top law schools. In the latter editorial, he cites a training model patterned on medical school education: to wit, the school trains law students "not to just think like lawyers but how to act like lawyers while representing real clients." This, in essence, is what the legal clinics, pro bono assignments, internships and community-involvement initiatives of other law schools also seek to imbue.

Interviews with law program administrators at the state's law schools reveal a common thread: public interest work should be an integral component of any legal career, whether one serves in a government or nonprofit sector or spearheads the pro bono work of a private law firm.

How the machinery works

The Rappaport Center for Law and Public Service at Suffolk University Law School was established in 2006 through a $5 million gift from the Phyllis and Jerome Lyle Rappaport Foundation and the Rappaports individually. It seeks to foster creative thinking on public policy issues, offers career development, counseling and mentoring to public-service career aspirants, and foster a sense of responsibility to engage in pro bono work, promote access to justice and serve the public. Suffolk's Alasdair Roberts observes, "There are so many different fields of law that are affected by the government, or deal directly with the government, that even if you're not going into the public sector for your career, you have the opportunity to learn. … You want to know how the machinery works."

The Rappaport Fellows Program in Law and Public Policy is open to all Boston-area law schools and exposes students to the crafting of public policy issues that affect Greater Boston. Students work in paid summer legal internships with state or local government offices and are matched with experienced lawyers, government officials and civic leaders in a mentoring program. The fellowship is not done for credit, but it is structured, and the center is careful about placement to ensure that useful work is done over the summer, Roberts says.

Susan Prosnitz, executive director of the Rappaport Center, cites the faculty's public-service roots. Students are able to engage with faculty to learn how they got to where they are, and examine all the different options for public service work. For the fellowships, she arranges connections with public service movers and shakers. A session on press politics and policy brings in press secretaries for the governor and the mayor, and a reporter, to help students understand what goes into the news that gets into the papers.

The school's Marshall-Brennan Fellows engage in a yearlong, credit-earning project to study constitutional law and teach it pro bono in Boston and Cambridge public, charter and pilot high schools in urban minority population areas.

Suffolk Law School's pro bono program is voluntary. It challenges students to put in 50 hours of pro bono work before they graduate. During the 2009-10 year, the program had more than 300 student participants.

Clinic appointments

Harvard Law School's clinical law program is the country's largest and most extensive, covering more than 28 areas of law. The school offers more than 60 clinical courses annually and has more than 60 clinical faculty and instructors. Clinics are elective at Harvard, and they are in high demand. Clinical education grew during the 1970s and 1980s, but demand has increased significantly over the last five to six years, according to Elaine McArdle, communications director for Clinical and Pro Bono programs at Harvard Law School. Each year, about 900 HLS students do at least one clinic. In addition, the HLS Class of 2010 averaged 556 hours of pro bono legal services, with some far exceeding that amount.

The clinic experience, she says, is "one of the best ways to learn the law.

Practical components are played out, you confront real ethical issues, or recognize that while the law should theoretically play out one way in a court, [in situations] with very few resources, it plays out another way. This is better than going out after you graduate and trying to figure it out on your own." Employers, she says, no longer want to subsidize a new associate's learning process for the first year, and they now ask students if they have had clinical experience, whether public or private. "Clients don't want to pay for that any more, so law firms are hitting the ground running. We have students who, no matter what they go into, find that the value of a clinical education is tremendous."

Northeastern University School of Law has a public interest requirement which can be fulfilled by completing a public interest co-op, completing any of the law school's clinical courses, performing at least 30 hours of uncompensated legal work in a public interest setting or with a private firm on a pro bono project, or doing a public interest independent study.

Legal Skills in the Social Context (LSSC) is a required first-year class at the school. According to Jeffrey Smith, director for Public Interest Initiatives, Cooperative Legal Education at the school, LSSC students gain critical experience in developing legal skills and working to promote access to justice. They work in teams, serving a nonprofit organization, offering assistance on a myriad of legal matters, including homelessness, wage discrimination, public health, children's rights, immigrant rights and prisoner re-entry.

Professor Russell Engler is director of clinical programs at New England Law/Boston, and says that public service should be a key element of any legal education. Student demand for what became legal clinics began a generation ago, he says. "There are many more opportunities [for public-service participation today]. I think you can sort the schools by how front and center they put it."

He notes a dramatic increase of students coming to NESL seeking participation in legal clinics and public interest jobs. A public interest law seminar he taught in 2002 had 15 to 17 students. But during the last three years, "The applications had been so through-the-roof, I had to teach two sections totalling 40 students, and there's still a waiting list." The programs are drawing some students for the experience, some for the service, and some for both, he says.

The co-op pioneer

Northeastern University School of Law was the first law school in New England to establish a public interest graduation requirement, effective with the class that began in 1994 and graduated in 1997. Since then, more than 85 percent of each graduating class has done at least one full-time public interest co-op for 11 weeks, with 90 percent of law students in the last two graduating classes doing at least one.

Northeastern has built its reputation on co-op experiences, with Northeastern University School of Law students required to complete four full-time legal co-ops to graduate. While it is too early to get figures for the Class of 2011, on average, approximately 25 percent of each graduating class accepts positions with public-interest or government employers, excluding judicial clerkships, according to the school's Office of Career Services. The Class of 2010 saw 17 percent of those employed in legal positions going to public interest positions and 12 percent into government positions. The employment figures exclude nonlegal positions. From the classes of 2006 through 2010, the percentage range of students choosing public interest jobs is between 15 to 16 percent on average, though 17 percent of the class of 2010 went into public service. Since 2006, the range of students going into government work is 11 percent except for 2008, which was 15 percent because a group of graduates were hired for a special one-year project with a state government agency.

On average, 40 percent of each graduating class accepts post-graduate positions with private firms of all sizes. Many of these graduates, although not working full time in public interest positions, are volunteering in their community or doing pro bono work.

The law school provides a $2,500 guaranteed stipend to support an unfunded government or public interest co-op for every qualified law student. Northeastern's Smith notes that the school provided $850,000 in co-op stipend assistance for students working in unfunded public interest co-ops during the most recent funding cycle.

Four students a year get full-tuition scholarships, renewable each year, according to the Office of Career Services. They also receive a $3,000 stipend to pursue a public interest co-op. Northeastern University School of Law has provided $3 million in loan relief support for graduates pursuing public interest careers since 1990.

Creating a sense of community

Western New England College School of Law, based in Springfield, hosts a Public Interest Scholars program with the help of a $1.75 million endowed fund. Six scholars a year are chosen from individuals who apply under a separate process from standard applications. They receive scholarships and summer stipends of $3,500 per summer.

Sam Charron, WNECSL's assistant director of career services and public interest coordinator of career services, says the scholars create a sense of community at the school and develop an atmosphere that gets students interested in public interest and pro bono opportunities. The Public Interest Law Association ran an auction that raised $11,000 to provide five summer stipends of $2,200. "The scholars find their way into activities that best suit them," he says. Many have done volunteer work or public interest work before law school.

For five years, through the auspices of an active chapter of Equal Justice Works, the school has sponsored Street Law programs in greater Springfield and has organized student travel to Mississippi to provide legal services to communities damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Students have also traveled to Arizona to a Navajo reservation to give tax assistance, and to Texas to help provide legal aid representation to undocumented minors who had been taken into federal custody.

Margaret Xifaras of UMass-Dartmouth says public-service attorneys branch out into many different disciplines. "They flower at different times [in their lives]. They're like perennials -- they come back up. There's an underlying basic commitment that manifests in a certain way."