Public-Interest Law Has Rewards

Students who join Voluntary Defenders value the work of helping low-income clients

LAWYERS are rarely on anybody's list of favorite people. Authors from William Shakespeare to John Grisham (a lawyer himself) have cast them as loathsome leeches; fiscally rich but morally bankrupt. While this negative stereotype shows no sign of waning, many aspiring lawyers at one school are beginning to buck it.

Nearly half the incoming class at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass., showed up for workshops on public-interest law this fall, says staff facilitator Naomi Cotter, and a record number joined the Harvard Voluntary Defenders, a student-organized group she oversees.

The Voluntary Defenders group, launched in 1949, provides free legal assistance to indigent defendants in district courts around Boston. The members represent needy clients at welfare-fraud hearings, show-cause hearings (where a judge decides if there is enough evidence to warrant a trial), and at trials involving misdemeanors and minor felonies.

``We're part of a network of agencies that serves low-income clients,'' Ms. Cotter says. ``Most state organizations don't have enough attorneys to do early hearings, so we're the only organization that does them on a pro bono basis in Massachusetts.'' She says that this year 100 defenders will handle 140 to 180 cases.

Damon Preston, a third-year law student from Kentucky, has participated in the Defenders for three years. He says his first client was a 38-year-old man with no criminal record who, as a favor, had bought cocaine for a homeless man who turned out to be an undercover police officer. ``If there is such a thing as being innocently guilty, this guy was,'' he says.

Mr. Preston adds that experiences like this convinced him that the legal system is stacked against low-income people.

``The State has so much in its arsenal. The general public gives it the benefit of the doubt sometimes, so it seems that if someone is arrested, he's considered guilty. The rap on public defenders is that we look for technicalities and try to win at all costs. I see it as stepping in on behalf of an individual who would otherwise not be stood up for.''

Despite the high salary he might have earned at a private law firm, Preston has already accepted a job as a public defender in New York City. He says his experience in the Defenders helped him to choose this less profitable path. ``I think the Defenders gets students involved in the system the way they can't be in the classroom. It taught me that this kind of law can make an exciting career.''

By all accounts, however, Preston's case is an exception. He estimates that even though the number is growing, only 15 percent of his graduating classmates will pursue jobs in public-interest law this year.

Fellow Defender Ronna Dershowitz points out that the vast majority of Harvard graduates still take high-paying jobs at prestigious law firms. She attributes some of the surge in public-interest law to students padding their resumes to compete in a tight job market. ``I'd like to think that's not true,'' she says, ``but I wouldn't want to be so optimistic.''

Cotter disagrees. ``I don't think this is an aberration,'' she says. ``I'm astounded by the amount of public service that these students have been doing before they came here.'' Participation in the Defenders, she argues, can spark an interest in philanthropic lawyering that follows students throughout their legal careers. ``Some of the people who go off to big law firms still keep their hand in public service by doing pro-bono work on the side,'' she says.

One such example is David Wright, a 1990 Harvard graduate and a lawyer with the firm of Brown, Rudnick, Reed, and Gesmer in Boston.

``I went to the Defenders for one major reason, trial experience,'' he says. ``By the time I graduated, I'd done five criminal trials. That's a lot, but I'd take anything that came through the door.''

Mr. Wright, a former president of the Defenders, lauds the group as one that ``allows you to see up close and personal how much effect you can have on people's lives. It's amazing the changes you can see.... It really makes you feel good.''

Although law schools in other states have initiated similar programs, Wright says the Harvard group is unique because it is operated solely by students, only a few of whom receive course credit for the effort.

``It's all students from top to bottom,'' he says. ``It's not part of any class; people do it over and above the classwork. It's something these students just want to do.''

Wright, who represents indigent clients in Charlestown, Mass., says the tendency of Harvard graduates who go to big law firms is misleading: Many do it to pay off loan debts from years of high tuition.

``They pay back their loans, and then they find the kinds of public-interest jobs they're interested in,'' he says. ``They want to affect a broader scope of people's lives.''

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