HLS moves to encourage public service

Slate's blog on legal issues.
March 19 2008 6:37 PM

HLS moves to encourage public service

Amidst all the reporting about massive first-year associate salaries at big law firms, greedy lawyers who will do anything to win a case, and other shark tales , every now and then there comes some positive news.  This time the good news comes from Harvard Law School , where a number of our Convictions contributors teach.  HLS is planning to waive the third-year tuition for any law student who commits to spending their first five years after graduation in public service (broadly defined).  According to the Washington Post :

The initiative will save students who start their law classes this fall more than $41,000 in tuition. The school estimates that the program will cost about $3 million annually over five years.

* * *

Harvard described the initiative as the first program of its kind in legal education. Students will be asked to demonstrate a commitment to public service during their time in law school. Although the program is geared toward students entering the school this fall, current students will be eligible for smaller tuition grants of $5,000 and $10,000.

The school defines public-service work as any full-time job in government (federal, state and local and the military), any full-time job for a nonprofit organization and any full-time job for a political campaign. Up to one year of a clerkship can qualify toward the five-year commitment.

Like many schools, Harvard Law also offers a loan repayment assistance program for graduates who choose careers in government, public interest and higher education.

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So far, so good .  I think it's generally a good idea for law schools to encourage public service.  But is this the best way to do it?  One can easily imagine the enormous enforcement headache this will create on the back end.  I've had some experience with that in the context of the Truman Scholarship , a federal grant which aims to encourage public service, but has a mediocre track record at doing so because Truman Scholars often change their career plans after graduation.  And there are other concerns too.  Carolyn raises some good points at law.com's blog regarding potential effects on the legal labor market that may disadvantage graduates at schools (particularly those without the resources to waive their 3L tuition).  And she points to this note by UCLA economist Matthew Kahn, who thinks there may be important socioeconomic consequences which flow from this program that lead to more of a "glass ceiling" at law firms down the road.

I'm curious what my Convictions colleagues think.  Should law schools be in the business of encouraging public service?  And if so, how?

Phillip Carter is an Iraq veteran who now directs the veterans research program at the Center for a New American Security.

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