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Waiver Means Harvard Public Interest-Bound Students Wave Goodbye to 3L Tuition

Public interest-bound Harvard Law students can wave goodbye to 3L tuition, with the recent announcement that Harvard Law School will waive tuition for third years who pledge to spend five years working for nonprofit organizations or the government.  While many schools, including Harvard, have loan forgiveness programs, which help students who accept public interest positions repay part of their debt, according to the New York Times, Harvard is the first school to offer a tuition waiver which will save students $40,000 outright.  The program is expected to cost the law school an average of $3 million annually -- fairly small potatoes given that the school has an endowment of $1.7 billion. 

Currently, between 9.8 and 12 percent of Harvard's graduating class go on to work for the government or nonprofits.  Most choose to accept positions at large firms and the mega-salaries that go with them.  However, the Times story does not explain whether the point of the waiver program is to encourage more grads to enter public service or simply to alleviate the financial burden for those already inclined to make that choice.

There's general support for Harvard's program in the blogosphere, but surprisingly, not much discussion otherwise (at least that I've found), except for this post by UCLA economist Matthew Kahn.  Kahn posits that the tuition waiver will have the unintended consequence of keeping the glass ceiling intact at law firms because he assumes that more women than men will accept the offer.  By the time these women complete their five years of public service, Kahn argues that it is unlikely that they can join a "fancy NYC law firm" and make partner, especially because by that time, most women will be thinking about starting a family.   Kahn concludes:

If women have a higher probability of accepting this new offer then [sic] men, and if once you pick this path you can't return to the private sector and make partner then my proof is complete that an unintended consequence of this new policy will be to reduce the number of women from HLS who get promoted to partner at the fancy NYC law firms. Other law schools are likely to imitate Harvard and so this policy could have "macro" consequences. Is it a big deal if fancy NYC law firms do not have many women partners? Some measure gender progress by whether such convergence does take place.

I disagree with Kahn, because what he's overlooked is that many times, working at a position in public service makes female lawyers far more valuable to a law firm than if they had spent the early years of their career toiling at document review.   Look no further than the example of Akin Gump partner Michele Roberts, who spent the first eight years of her career at the D.C. Public Defenders' office, where she was counsel in over 40 jury trials.  Roberts' litigation experience made her indispensable to the firm, and that in turn helped her snag a partnership.  Women lawyers would be smart to take Harvard up on its offer and put in five years at a prosecutor's or Public Defender's office or Department of Justice and spend their time in court while their peers spend their time reviewing documents.  As I see it, the Harvard waiver program will help women advance, not deter them.

Meanwhile, I'm surprised that no one has yet mentioned another unintended consequence of the Harvard waiver program:  its potential to block opportunities from graduates from lower-tier schools.  Some students who plan on entering public service make an affirmative decision to attend lower-tier schools which may give them in-state tuition rates or part or full scholarship.  But unless these students graduate at the top of their class, they probably won't stand a chance against a Harvard grad in competing for a public interest job. And to make matters worse, lower-tiered students won't have a shot at big law jobs either.

Just to be clear (before you all start flaming me), I absolutely do not believe that lower-tiered law school grads are less qualified than Ivy League grads for public interest positions.  Indeed, many are arguably more qualifed because they may have access to skills training and practice courses that are more prevalent in the curricula at lower-tiered schools.  But the current reality of our profession is that for better or worse, most lawyers blindly follow rankings and are inclined to reward credentials over competence.  As noble as the Harvard program is (not to mention a terrific marketing tool), I can't help but view it as another way of making the rich (i.e., rich in terms of potential job opportunities) richer at a time when our legal profession is already overly stratified.   

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on March 19, 2008 at 01:39 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

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