Post Date: April 12, 2005

The following story is from the April 2005 issue of Harvard Law Today. — By Mary Bridges

A typical 10 minutes inside the Office of Public Interest Advising in Pound Hall was like a train station full of students with questions about how to make their connections how to strategize, fund and secure summer public interest jobs.

While OPIA advisers can provide resources and answer questions like where to get their fingerprints taken for a job with the Department of Justice, a more difficult challenge has been finding enough money to enable students to take public service jobs.

Enter public service funding, which is now guaranteed to any Harvard Law student who takes a public service position over the summer. The demand is so great–50 percent of the first-year class and a total of 352 students last year used summer funding–that the school has nearly quadrupled funding for public service grants over the past decade from $280,000 in 1996 to over $1.1 million in 2004.

For students like Dan Mosteller ’06, summer funding has meant more options.

Last year, he relocated to Atlanta to intern with the Southern Center for Human Rights. Much of his work involved research on death penalty appeals, but he also gained firsthand insights into criminal law.

When he arrived at the Holman Correctional Facility in Alabama to interview inmates about a settlement agreement, he had to stand outside and yell to the guard in the tower to let him in.

“No intercom, no modern jail technology,” Mosteller said.

He also remembered the clanking of doors and locks. “It’s hard to imagine being there for a day, much less months, weeks or years.”

Mosteller doesn’t claim that his work freed anyone from jail or vastly improved conditions, but he said that “to have any sort of role in those steps is exciting.”

Lori Halstead ’05 arranged to parlay her summer public service work at the Becket Fund, an interfaith institute that specializes in defending free expression of religion, into a full-time career. Her work focused primarily on the effects of certain land-use and zoning laws on religious institutions. She discovered that she enjoyed the challenges of researching new legislation and defending religious organizations.

“Because the law is so new … there’s very little precedent to follow,” Halstead said. “It’s just a groundbreaking area of law, and everyone’s still trying to figure out how it’s going to play out.”

One case in particular struck a chord with Halstead. The Becket Fund is defending her high school, Castle Hills First Baptist Church School, in a legal battle with the city of Castle Hills, Texas, over the school’s plans to expand.

By contrast, Sergiu Troie ’05 seems relieved that his summer job did not turn into a full-time position. Two years ago, Troie spent the summer in Kandahar, Afghanistan, studying the local legal system.

“Harvard is very good about giving you resources for any kind of crazy thing you want to do over the summer,” Troie said. Troie wanted to learn more about countries in transition to democracy. Originally from Romania, he had a personal interest in seeing this process firsthand.

“There’s this tendency to see [transitioning countries] as blank slates,” Troie explained. In Kandahar, rather than a blank slate, he found a fully functioning legal system that blended formal and informal elements of law.

“Judges or lawyers would often refer cases to tribal elders or religious leaders to resolve,” he said. And the reverse also happened.

Troie worked with a local nongovernmental organization to interview attorneys, judges, mullahs and leaders of tribal councils to understand local realities, like the way tribal elders adjudicate a contract dispute over a car purchase.

“It was something you’d see on ‘People’s Court,'” he said, except that instead of appealing the decision to a higher court, a claimant might petition a religious leader, the police or a different tribal elder.

For his next summer job, Troie has decided to switch gears and work for a Manhattan firm.

“Why not try the summer associate thing?” he said.Troie said the combination of his summer experiences will let him see “the full spectrum” of legal careers, from sharia to securities law.