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As it Happened: Harvard Commencement 2023
When I was a kid, I would go to a theme park in Colombia called Divercity that simulated adult life for children. I would work different jobs, like putting out fires or driving a taxi. I’d then get paid fake money, which I could then use at a variety of stores and restaurants within the park.
I found the whole concept very interesting. I’d perform useless routines that had no value in and of themselves. Yet because they were performed within the context of a larger game, I’d get rewarded with real food.
Sadly, in 2020, the financial crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic forced Divercity to close. That’s why I was surprised to find it again just off Mass Ave.
This Divercity was different, though. It was more polished, more academic. Instead of fighting fake fires, its participants studied tort law. Instead of redeeming fake pesos for tasty pasta dishes, they redeemed other pieces of paper for six figure salaries.
The Divercity I’m talking about, is of course, Harvard Law School, the subject of this week’s column. Throughout my conversations with students, I arrived at a picture of a school that, although lauded by its students for its academic excellence and collaborative student community, still felt, in some ways, fake.
Let’s back up. Overall, students at HLS seem to have a positive view of the school. Henrique D. Neves ’22, a first-year law student at the school, told me that he found the academics to be quite rigorous.
“I often tell people that nothing that I could have done before law school could have possibly prepared me for 1L,” he said.“It’s definitely tough.”
Even amidst the rigorous curriculum, Neves emphasized that the collaborative environment within the student population has been invaluable.
“Despite the general level of exhaustion, the workload that comes with it, there’s nothing more rewarding than having people that you’re doing it alongside with that are going through the same things,” he said.
Owen L. Averbuch, a first-year law student at HLS, echoed these sentiments.
“In the end,” he told me, “it’s going to be the people in my class who are going to be caring, who I’m going to stay in touch with.”
Slowly, though, I began to notice a specter hanging over this rosy picture.
Many students enter law school looking to serve the public good through public interest work. Neves, for his part, told me that “the majority of people that I’ve interacted with have been really on the more advocacy-centered side of things, where they have a particular cause that they’re really passionate about.”
Yet despite this interest, limited opportunities in public service law often force students to take jobs at large corporate law firms instead. Financial incentives certainly play a large role here as well. The median salary for first years at private law firms is $165,000, while at some public interest firms, salaries start between $40,000 and $50,000.
Averbuch told me that for students interested in public interest law, “you kind of have to carve out a little bit of a niche here to… not get so crazy, because people were talking about making $200,000 a year versus 50 or 65 with a quarter of a million dollars-plus of law school debt.”
There may be more than just the price tag attracting students to these jobs, though. In the past, some students have argued that besides the financial incentive, there is an institutional push at HLS towards the private sector.
Many post-graduation jobs at corporate law firms are secured by receiving a return offer after working as a summer associate at the firm the summer after your second year. These summer associate jobs are in turn obtained through HLS’s Early Interview Program, a two week recruiting program for private law firms held at the start of your second year. The EIP is such an integral part of the system at HLS that if you miss the sign up, the school will send you an email reminding you to do so. The same policy doesn’t seem to be followed for public sector jobs.
This debate is nothing new. People have been making this critique of HLS for years. In his 1999 book “Broken Contract: A Memoir of Harvard Law School,” Richard D. Kahlenberg critiques the school’s role in pushing students away from pursuing jobs in public interest and towards corporate law firms.
Potentially in response to complaints like these, HLS began emphasizing public interest law. In 2008, in an effort to encourage students to consider these careers, HLS waived tuition for third-year law students who promised to spend five years working for either nonprofit organizations or the government. In addition, the school began offering a variety of fellowships aimed to support students who pursue public sector or nonprofit jobs.
Yet the problem seems to continue. Josh M. Alpert, a second-year student at HLS, told me that students are still either “forced to do things like big law, because they have a lot of student loans, or they feel like they're forced to do it. Either one ends up having the same result, which is why you see increasingly low public interest numbers.”
Only 68 graduates of the class of 2021 went into public interest, while 456 went into private law firms or judicial clerkships.
If HLS has made such an active effort to facilitate entry to a public interest career, why do some students still feel as if they’re being groomed for corporate law?
One possible answer is simple: That’s the way the world works. No matter what law school you attend, you’ll be faced with the same dilemma. We’ve seen this at the College, too, with students feeling that six figure salaries offered by finance or consulting firms are pulling them away from their true career goals.
But I think that the problem goes beyond simply an attractive salary. The prevalence of corporate law within student life at the law school is a product of the fetishization and commercialization of success.
Harvard Law School defines itself through success. The school doesn’t attempt to emphasize its role in, say, promoting upward mobility. Instead, it recognizes that its goal is excellence in the legal field. It aims to produce the best lawyers, the best teachers, the best entrepreneurs, and the best leaders.
Many HLS alumni have vindicated that mission. Yet not every HLS graduate is going to be President of the United States. This presents a problem. Are a couple of famous alumni every few years really enough to satisfy the school’s thirst for success?
This is where corporate law comes in. If you can’t be president, why not settle for a six figure salary? In a country where the median worker makes around $40,000 a year, making four times that your first year out of law school seems like success to me.
Of course, it can’t be too easy. In reality, success is the uncertain product of hard work and failure. For most, success is never ensured, and only comes after moments of deep frustration.
Thus, if every Harvard Law graduate could breeze through three years of legal education and expect several hundred thousand dollars placed in their hand purely by virtue of the “H” stamped on their forehead, the illusion of success would be shattered. Instead, there needs to be a way to ensure that students undergo the hardships necessary to merit “success.” This is where grades come in.
Grades are perhaps the most important factor in determining your job after law school. This makes them the perfect tool to simulate the hard work that real success necessitates.
HLS takes the epic journey that is the search for success and condenses it into a more palatable three years of academic struggle. While the 1L curriculum for most law schools is only four courses, at Harvard, students take five. These courses culminate with eight hour exams that often count for your entire grade. With corporate law summer associate positions on the line, students compete for the top grades during an academic year that has become notorious for its rigor.
Institutions like the Harvard Law Review also serve as proxies for real world struggle. Alpert told me that “a lot of either judges, or firms, or organizations care a lot about the Law Review.”
Alpert added that spending time working at the Law Review is “definitely a brutal two years.”
“Not a lot of people I met enjoyed it,” he said. “They do it because it’s part of the thing that’ll help you out.”
Save for those students who want to go into legal academia or do specific appellate clerkships, he told me, “it’s not really relevant to what you’re doing.”
This is where I see the link between HLS and Divercity, the Colombian theme park. When I put out a fake fire, there wasn’t any real value in what I was doing. Similarly, it seems to me that the academic intensity of HLS, both through classes and organizations like the Harvard Law Review, has minimal value in and of itself. Instead, its value comes partly from the fact that corporate law firms have implicitly endorsed the rules of the game.
At HLS, students go through what Alpert called a “three year hazing” to receive a degree that corporate law firms have agreed to value at hundreds of thousands of dollars.
This isn’t to say that students learn nothing of value at HLS. They certainly do. The Law School has not gained the reputation it has now without providing one of the best legal educations in the country. You see this in its innumerable alumni who have found real success outside of large salaries.
However, HLS adds a culture of intensity to their education that seems to me to be of no educational value, and rather only serves as a token within the game of corporate law.
Corporate law firms offer HLS students a 10 step plan to success. Together with HLS, they take the idea of success, remove the risk, and return it to students as a simulacrum of the real thing.
This is a problem familiar to most students at the College. Why take a risk and become a writer when you can ensure a hefty salary in the finance industry and pay off loans? The latter version of success seems just as enticing as the first.
My conversations with HLS students have led me to rethink my own definitions of success. Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the game, and to rely too heavily on the safe route. Yet when given opportunities like those offered by Harvard, it might be worth it to take the path less traveled.
Manuel A. Yepes ’24, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Cabot House. His column, ‘The Postgraduate Way of Life,’ runs on triweekly Thursdays.
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