As a first-year law student (1L), it can be challenging to focus on anything besides looming cold calls, a monstrous pile of readings, and the new world of CRuPAC (no, that’s not a typo). However, this academic inundation might be all the more reason to consider involvement in one of Harvard Law School’s eleven Student Practice Organizations (SPOs), providing a necessary outlet to stay balanced and grounded in your first year. SPOs are also another opportunity to meet students outside of your section and join a community of individuals with similar interests and passions.

Upon arriving on campus, I was ready for a rigorous legal education (equipped with a rainbow of highlighters), but I was also itching to learn the ropes of lawyering and devote my time to the social justice mission that brought me to HLS in the first place. That’s why, in my first month as a 1L, I joined the Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project (PLAP). Besides purchasing Quimbee, it ranks as one of the best decisions I made as a 1L.

PLAP serves people incarcerated in Massachusetts prisons in various ways. During weekly office hours, students answer phone calls and letters from incarcerated persons. Some request basic legal research, while others request representation in disciplinary, parole, and classification hearings. In disciplinary matters, PLAP student attorneys advocate in hearings on behalf of clients charged with violating prison regulations. Last spring, I took on my first case and committed myself to fostering a foundation of respect and trust with my client and crafting a compelling argument through collaboration with my client.

PLAP, like all SPOs, presents a unique opportunity to make an impact—on both others and oneself.  PLAP student attorneys zealously pursue justice for incarcerated individuals who are not entitled to counsel during disciplinary or parole hearings. It is an honor to advocate on behalf of a client who may not always have the opportunity to speak their truth and share their story. PLAP also provides student attorneys the opportunity to hone essential litigation skills as early as their first semester of law school. Students receive training and mentorship from supervising attorneys and experienced upper-level students who exemplify what it means to put clients first.

My involvement in PLAP deepened my understanding of the Massachusetts prison system and the criminal legal system, providing greater insights into the challenges and injustices faced by individuals impacted by the criminal legal system, and offering a real-world experience that’s tough to find in a textbook.

Don’t just take my word for it. When asked to reflect on her decision to join PLAP as a 1L, Rachael Maguire—who now serves as one of PLAP’s  Disciplinary Hearing Coordinators—explained:

“PLAP is an incredible and welcoming community of law students committed to dismantling institutionalized oppression, and participation in PLAP as a 1L kept me tethered to the reasons I came to law school in the first place. Building a relationship with a client and then advocating for that client at a disciplinary hearing was the highlight of my 1L and confirmed for me the type of work I want to do with my legal career.”

I am confident that one of HLS’s many SPOs can provide a similar tethering, rewarding, and impactful community for any new student. And, if you choose to forgo this opportunity as a 1L, you’ll always have the chance as a 2L or 3L to become involved with PLAP and other SPOs.

–Elizabeth Coughlin ’25

Filed in: Student Voices

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