The primary goal of the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising (OPIA) is to encourage law school students and lawyers to incorporate an ongoing commitment to public service work throughout their careers. We view our role as one of helping students and alumni find a vision of the type of work they want to do that will fit their unique values, interests and personalities. We aim to instill this vision not only in the students and graduates going directly into full-time public interest jobs, but also to those moving into public service at a later stage in their careers and those embracing public service work as an integral part of their professional lives through significant pro bono work in the private sector.
At OPIA, we strive to provide a warm and friendly environment for all students. We work to provide responsive and professional assistance, while also serving as a catalyst for and center of the public service community. In recent years, OPIA staff members have been awarded the Suzanne L. Richardson Staff Appreciation Award, given to one HLS staff member by the graduating class.
To meet these goals, OPIA offers numerous events to expose students to the wide array of options available to them and build community and support for public interest, invites public interest leaders and mentors to campus through the Wasserstein Public Interest Fellows Program, maintains a library of resources as well as a job search database through HELIOS, and offers materials and services for those planning a public interest career or seeking a new position. We also offer advising appointments, which are for discussing career plans and options, job search strategies for both summers and after graduation, and other questions students and alumni may have, as well as issues relating to the job search, such as course selection and building public interest experience and skills.
OPIA first opened its doors at Harvard Law School in 1990. Our office was created by the Dean in response to enormous student demand. The first few months were an experiment of sorts; helping students find public interest jobs had always fallen under the jurisdiction of the Career Services Office, whose time and resources were overwhelmingly absorbed by the private firm recruiting process.
Since OPIA first opened, students have flooded into the office in ever-increasing numbers. Students eager to explore public interest law come to the office for answers to quick job search questions, to meet one-on-one with attorney advisors and to network with for career advice.
Thanks to Bernard Koteen ’40, OPIA now has a generous endowment. Since 2002, we have been the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising, still known as OPIA to the Law School and greater public interest community.
For more on the history of OPIA, read A Private Battle for Public Service, published in The American Lawyer in January/February 1997.
Public Interest and HLS
The institutional support which Harvard Law School offers through OPIA for students seeking public interest work has made a dramatic difference in realizing the idealism and dedication of incoming students. The number of Harvard students and graduates pursuing public interest and government careers has more than doubled since OPIA was created, reaching an all-time high at Harvard Law School since the early 1970s. Now, over 15% of the graduating class take public service jobs immediately upon graduation or after a clerkship. Moreover, record numbers of students take public service jobs during the summers. In the summer of 2015 over 450 students spent their summer doing public service work.
This trend toward public service is fueled by a new wave of students entering the ranks of Harvard Law School, students already infused with a public interest spirit. More and more students entering law school have already gained exposure to community service through university-sponsored volunteer and service-learning programs, as well as work or internship experiences. They know firsthand the importance of taking an active role in the improvement of our communities, a role they want to expand upon as lawyers.