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Jake Howard did not follow what most would call a conventional path to the law. In many ways, that’s exactly what has made his story such an interesting one.

Originally from the Midwest, Jake now pursues public interest law in the heart of Mississippi. Though there was a time he would have never guessed he would end up here, now it seems difficult to imagine him in truly any other place. “I actually took the bar exam in Mississippi…even though I had no job prospects here,” shared Jake with a laugh on a recent phone call. “I remember it well, because I had moved from Cambridge to Montgomery right after school ended, I didn’t start my clerkship until August, and I didn’t have a car. I sold my car when I started law school. Turns out, they’re sort of important in Alabama. So I took the Greyhound from Montgomery to Jackson to take the bar exam. It’s only a four-hour drive, but it’s a twelve-hour Greyhound ride. I was just so excited, though.”

As a student at the University of Michigan, Jake had once been a Drama major before eventually switching to Philosophy. A few years, a cross-country move, and an Education master’s degree later, he found himself teaching Social Studies at a public high school south of Seattle.

It was here, Jake says, that despite enjoying many aspects of life as an educator he felt a growing sense of unrest spreading knowledge about major injustices while not necessarily knowing how to chip away at them. “One of the classes that I taught was Contemporary World Issues, and it was one of the reasons I decided to go to law school…Also, teaching is the hardest job in the world. I lasted for three years, which is not very long. I wanted to leave while I still loved it.”

So he moved again – this time to Harvard Law School. As a 1L, he first considered a career in international human rights. Life had different plans for him, however, and by the end of Jake’s second week on campus a speech by Bryan Stevenson, founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, had already changed everything.

Stevenson, speaking at an OPIA event on public interest law, laid out his work revolutionizing the concept of justice for historically marginalized populations. Jake was hooked. Not only did the talk alter his fundamental concept of what public interest work could look like in practice, but it also drew him back to the same event the next year and the year after that just to hear Mr. Stevenson speak again. “I saw the same speech three times, and I cried every time. Bryan is amazing. He’s one of my many heroes. I think Bryan is what convinced me that I wanted to work in the criminal justice system in the South.”

Over the course of his remaining time at HLS, Jake took every step he could to make that goal a reality. In addition to interning two consecutive summers in the South with support from the Summer Public Interest Funding program, he also became heavily involved in student practice organizations and the Criminal Justice Institute. Today he credits all of those involvements as major influences on his growth and encourages current HLS students to take advantage of them too. “We have these amazing resources at Harvard – they’ll pay for you to go work for people for free – so use that opportunity to figure out what you want to do.”

Ultimately, work experience wasn’t all Jake gained from his internships. Through one of his SPIF-funded summers, he also found Robert McDuff (HLS ’80), who quickly became a role model and a mentor.

Following law school, Jake clerked for the Honorable Myron Thompson in Alabama and then spent two years as an E. Barrett Prettyman Fellow at the Georgetown University Law Center. Though deeply appreciative of those opportunities and the first to call Judge Thompson “amazing,” he never stopped yearning for the chance to make it back to Mississippi. Thankfully, the twelve-hour Greyhound ride paid off before long.

These days, Jake splits his time between serving as Counsel for the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law and working alongside Robert McDuff as an Associate at McDuff & Byrd, a civil rights and criminal defense firm in Jackson. “I have the best of all possible worlds, really,” says Jake of working in two unique settings that both fit his interests so well. “One of the reasons I fell in love with working in Mississippi during my internship was there’s this very small but amazingly close and supportive network of public interest lawyers here…Everybody really seems to enjoy working together, and they aren’t territorial, which is refreshing. It’s just a great, great, community.”

Of course, in addition to the small size of the state there also remain the unique character traits that make public interest work just as important in the Deep South as it is complex, challenging, and fraught with social implications. “There are a lot of issues facing Mississippi, especially in the criminal justice system. It’s got the second highest incarceration rate in the country. Race is obviously a big part of the criminal justice system everywhere, and it’s a particularly big part of everything in Mississippi,” says Jake.

One of Howard’s most significant recent efforts has been fighting against the “Protecting Freedom of Conscience From Government Discrimination Act,” which threatens the rights and freedoms of same-sex couples, unmarried people involved in sexual relationships, and transgender people across the state. The Mississippi law seems to have attracted less of a national uproar than North Carolina’s so-called “Bathroom Bill” despite being, in Jake’s opinion, “much broader and in some ways much more terrible.” Nevertheless, within the state many have come out in strong opposition to the law, a wave of activism that Jake warmly states “made me feel really good about the people in Mississippi. Things are changing here.”

Another pillar of Jake’s legal advocacy involves juvenile offenders, hearkening back to work done years ago serving children in a classroom setting. “I’ve always been troubled by the fact that we prosecute juveniles under the legal fiction that they’re adults,” Howard states. The major issue that has guided much of his work in this realm is juvenile life without parole. The oldest of his clients, now about fifty years old, committed his crimes in the early 1980s as a child and is to this day still in prison. Following the United States Supreme Court’s decisions in Graham v. Florida and Miller v. Alabama, Howard and others working with him hope to secure parole opportunities for these individuals, over 80 of whom are serving mandatory life without parole in Mississippi as of now.

Unconventional as his path may have been, Jake has found a corner of the world where he makes a difference and contributes every day to the pursuit of social justice through the law. All along, he notes, the support of the Low Income Protection Plan has been essential in allowing that work to continue. “It would certainly be impossible for me to have my loans on a 10-year repayment plan without LIPP,” says Jake. “Absolutely impossible.”

For current HLS students considering LIPP, Jake recommends reading as much as possible about LIPP’s policies early on so that less will seem surprising when it comes time first to apply and then to make a series of life and career transitions following law school. Furthermore, Howard points out, it’s been a huge financial help to live outside one of the major cities where rent prices alone can be prohibitive, plus “a lot of the really interesting legal work is being done in places that are cheap to live.”

Mississippi, needless to say, is one of those interesting places and likely will be for a long time to come.

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The Low Income Protection Plan staff is always happy to talk with you about LIPP and your eligibility for loan repayment assistance. Whether you’re a prospective or current student or an HLS graduate interested in applying, we can help! Email us for more information or an appointment.