The summer before last, I worked with the Center for the Study of Responsive Law providing research support exploring how America’s law schools—and Harvard in particular—are falling behind on their public obligations and how that impacts the public they purportedly seek to serve. That work became “Our Bicentennial Crisis: A Call to Action for Harvard Law School’s Public Interest Mission,” an exhaustively researched report written by Pete Davis, a third-year HLS student who throws down the gauntlet to his school as it enters its third century to live up to its mission statement’s promise to educate leaders who contribute to the “advancement of justice.”
Eminent law professors like Randall Kennedy, Carol Steiker, Todd Rakoff, and Duncan Kennedy joined a roundtable discussion last month at Harvard that Davis led to discuss the report and its implications—and the obligations demanded. The students, faculty, staff, and clinic leaders that filled the Weissman Campus Center were deluged with facts, delivered with a touch of humor (in his opening, Davis relayed a story of when he asked a powerhouse firm’s rep if he could do pro bono work to unionize Walmart employees. Came the reply: No, they’re one of our clients).
Over two hours in Cambridge and over the 176 pages of his treatise, Davis challenged the nation’s law schools—most especially his own—to resist the temptation to churn out corporate lawyers (just one reason among many why public-interest lobbyists are outnumbered in Washington by corporate lobbyists 34 to one) and instead advance the public interest. He methodically picked apart excuses both tired (even Goldman Sachs has a right to a lawyer) and more reasoned (Harvard as a stepping stone to the upper class) for not doing so and, while strenuously reserving judgment about paths law graduates take, set a moonshot of 51 percent of Harvard Law grads to pursue public-interest work. To do this, HLS students may utilize the Low Income Protection Plan, where graduates working in public-interest law pay a limited portion of their income toward their loans, while LIPP covers the rest. Other schools offer a loan-assistance repayment program for those pursuing careers in public service.
The conversation last month at Harvard isn’t happening in a vacuum. Students there and at other law schools—Cornell, Yale, Stanford, NYU, and Michigan among them—have established similar programs that make it easier for graduates to commit to public-interest careers without drowning in debt. But it can’t be left to the leading law schools to pick up the slack, and so Davis revisits Reginald Haber Smith’s still-radical proposal from nearly a century past: levying a tax on all legal profits to fund legal aid.
A week after about 100 people filled the hall, the impetus for the round-table discussion was made clear: The new White House budget was a rehash of last year’s plan to starve the Legal Services Corporation of funding, a war waged against legal aid unabated since the Reagan era, when the right sought its abolishment (the program has remained reviled by the right wing in the decades since for “promoting liberal agendas”). Part of that agenda is apparently helping a kidney-transplant patient access her Medicare benefits. The indoctrination continues as the LSC helps survivors of domestic violence escape their abusers, and protects the elderly from predatory lenders.