Requirement connects law students to the practice of public service

Harvard law students have always felt the pressure to do well, but the Class of ’05 is the first that has to do good.

The 557 J.D. candidates are the first to be subject to the school’s pro bono requirement: 40 hours of law-related, uncompensated work. Developed four years ago by the faculty as part of the strategic planning process, the requirement is intended to provide all students with applied legal experience and to encourage them to incorporate public service into their professional lives.

HLS is now among 29 law schools around the country with mandatory pro bono programs. Professor Andrew Kaufman ’54, who chaired the committee that developed HLS’s, said it’s one of the things over the course of his 40 years at the school he feels best about: “It represents such an important professional ideal.”

Lisa Dealy, who heads the law school’s Pro Bono Service Program, has made it her mission to offer students a wide array of placements, in nonprofits and government as well as pro bono projects through firms. Her office also keeps track of the hours students work. Most are putting in many more than 40, and she estimates the average is as high as 400.

By the end of the first-year summer, more than half the Class of ’05 had fulfilled the requirement, mostly through summer internships in government or nonprofit agencies. (Although the school provides funding for the summer placements, it’s considered a living stipend rather than a salary, so they still qualify, Dealy explains.) A sizable number of class members participated in student organizations, such as the Prison Legal Assistance Project or HLS Tax Help, and many fulfilled the requirement through clinical work. These are the students–about two-thirds of the class–Dealy says, who most likely would have done pro bono work without a requirement.

But at the heart of Dealy’s job are the other 30 percent. “These students are the challenge,” she said. “And if they get something out of it, it means even more than for the students who would have done it anyway.”

For Dealy, selling the program to those who might be hesitant is all about providing options. “No matter what career students are going into, no matter what their ideology,” she said, “there are ways to do pro bono work that will appeal.”

Mark Yohalem '05 and Bryan Killian '05

Credit: Sadie Dayton Mark Yohalem ’05 and Bryan Killian ’05

For Bryan Killian ’05 and his classmate Mark Yohalem, that meant coming up with their own project. Yohalem said he was initially “more than skeptical” about the requirement, and both objected to the idea that anyone could benefit from being made to do good. Yet by spring semester, both are so enthusiastic about their project that they plan to continue working on it well after graduation. The friends, who both have an interest in intellectual property, are designing a legal crash course for teenage creators on the Internet, supervised by an IP attorney at a San Francisco law firm.

They got the idea from Yohalem’s connections to the world of video games, where he’d been earning income since he was a sophomore in college. One day, he was telling Killian about a question he’d received from a young Internet artist (“a classic second-week of copyright hypothetical”), and it clicked: Here was their project, an online and hard copy resource for young IP creators who don’t have the means to pay an attorney.

Dealy says Harvard has one of the most broadly defined public service programs. For Killian and Yohalem, getting to apply what they’d learned in class to a project of their own devising has made all the difference. “We come out of here and we’re taught that, for at least another eight years, we’re going to be taking intense direction from other people,” Killian said. “The way we’ve designed this project, and the way the pro bono office has blessed it, has given me an opportunity to take the education I have and run with it.”

Students can also fulfill the requirement by working with a professor, as long as the work isn’t purely academic. For Daniel Richenthal ’05, that wasn’t a problem. What he loved about his project, supervised by Professor Christine Desan, was how real-world it was–in this case, the world of politics in a Boston-area town. Desan worked with Richenthal and two other students to help the city of Brookline decide whether and how to implement campaign finance reform. “I’d been interested in campaign finance reform,” he said, “but I had no idea how it worked on the local level.” The students did research, wrote memos and went to town meetings. “We basically ended up serving as the town’s counsel.”

At the time, he was taking a local government class taught by Professor David Barron ’94. “It was a great experience,” Richenthal said. “We were discussing some of the very issues in class that I ended up working on.”

Suma Nair '05

Credit: Sadie Dayton Suma Nair ’05

While some students find that real-world experience enhances their classroom work, Suma Nair ’05 used her project to learn more about the world in which she’ll be working next fall.

Last year, after a paid summer at Goulston & Storrs in Boston, Nair tacked on an unpaid week for pro bono projects. Part of the firm’s appeal for Nair was its reputed commitment to pro bono, and the week gave her a taste of what it had to offer. It also taught her something about herself. Nair’s projects included research and writing for a tenants’ advocacy organization and for a nonprofit trying to spin off a 501c4–areas in which she’d like to practice. But she also helped a litigator who had sued the Massachusetts Department of Mental Retardation on behalf of clients who needed assistance taking care of mentally retarded dependents. As she called a long list of client family members, she discovered how much she liked helping just by listening to people who had stories they needed to tell.

Nair is committed to making public service part of her professional life. In fact, what first brought her to law school was an interest in social change through the law.

“Since being here, I lost my way a little and became more practical minded,” she said. “I’m glad there is a pro bono requirement. It brought me back to why I came here in the first place.”

Lea Weems ’05 fulfilled the pro bono requirement by the end of her 1L year. But she still reads the notices from the pro bono office about 40-hour opportunities, the way some people are drawn to travel brochures describing places they don’t have time to visit. “They sound so interesting,” she said. “Even if it’s just a small project for a law firm or a public service organization, it could be a really great add-on to what you’re doing in class.”

After clerking next year for Chief Justice Margaret Marshall of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Weems wants to use her legal skills to help poor people obtain and retain affordable housing. Both her summer jobs and two of her clinical assignments at the Hale and Dorr Legal Services Center have prepared her, giving her a range of experience, from eviction cases to policy work.

When asked why she is drawn to the legal services work she came to law school to do, she laughed. “I guess I’m just one of these people who want to make the world a better place.”

Tessa Platt '05

Credit: Sadie Dayton Tessa Platt ’05

When you ask Tessa Platt ’05 why she came to law school, her answer is the same. But the causes that drive Platt are different: “furthering religious liberties, protecting the sanctity of life and promoting traditional family values.”

During her 1L summer, Platt was one of three HLS students to hold a Blackstone Legal Fellowship, an internship for Christian law students through the Alliance Defense Fund. The Arizona-based public interest law firm’s recent efforts include defending religious holiday displays in public spaces, opposing a challenge to a parental consent law for minors seeking abortions and supporting measures that prevent gay marriage.

“It was exciting to be working on issues that were so important to me,” Platt said. “That’s what I really appreciate about the Harvard pro bono program. It doesn’t put you into a mold. The best type of pro bono, is pro bono you feel passionate about.”