Continuing to Prioritize Public Interest Support
Dean Gillian Lester shares a message to the community about the Law School’s commitment to public interest and support for students pursuing public sector pathways.
Dear members of the Columbia Law School community,
In November 2021, when I announced the generous gift that endowed the Max Berger ’71 Public Interest/Public Service Fellows Program, I took the opportunity to outline and affirm the many ways in which Columbia Law School has mentored and supported students and graduates pursuing careers in the public and nonprofit sectors. As we close out 2022-2023—another year in which we have made significant progress in this area of urgent and continuing priority—I write to share some updates with our community, and to express my gratitude to the many faculty, staff, students, and supporters who have helped us to make progress toward achieving our goals.
Our commitment centers the continued growth of Columbia Law as a public interest destination—through both a rich array of programs and opportunities for students pursuing public sector pathways, as well as access to financial reinforcements to support those paths. Over the past few years, we have deepened our public interest curriculum, including experiential learning opportunities; developed co-curricular education such as leadership training; and expanded community building and pro bono opportunities for all our students. We have also broadened post-graduate opportunities in the public sector by growing our alumni and employer network and increased our number of public interest postgraduate fellowship opportunities. Additionally, we have significantly increased our financial investments and extended the reach of those resources. Today, the Law School’s annual public interest/public service expenditure is $4.6 million—or 58%—more than it was in 2015.
In that spirit, here are some highlights. The information below is divided into three broad categories: accomplishments, efforts currently underway, and priorities that are still taking shape in advance of the next academic year. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, nor can it capture the fullness of the hard work and commitment that so many of us are engaged in every day.
Enhancing the Student Experience in Public Interest Tracks
Columbia Law School has trained some of the most influential and impactful public servants of the past two centuries. Sustaining and growing the Law School as a public interest destination requires a core belief that serving the public good should be part of the professional life of every student. Opportunities in the public interest should be affirmed and advanced through coursework, community building, programming, and career resources.
What We’ve Accomplished:
- Built a large, diverse, and committed team at Social Justice Initiatives (SJI) with deep experience, knowledge, and connections in public interest, human rights, and government sectors
- Enabled all students seeking public interest employment to obtain jobs or fellowships (internal and external) upon graduation, with data shared on placements
- Created new postgraduate fellowship opportunities in each of the last two years, further bolstering the wide range of existing fellowships offered
- Added 19 new public interest courses in 22-23, with 12 more added or returning in 23-24
- Expanded membership in our distinguished PI/PS Council, which represents an extraordinary depth of experience and leadership among our alumni community
- Updated our Pro Bono program (effective fall semester 2023) to allow for earlier participation by 1Ls and fuller recognition of sustained contributions of PI/PS students
- Published general and specialized career tools to guide students through PI career tracks
- Celebrated the 3rd annual cohort of Racial and Social Justice Fellowship awardees
- Renaming our career offices this summer to better reflect each office’s individualized goals and work:
- Social Justice Initiatives (SJI) will become the “Office of Public Interest/Public Service Law and Careers” (PI/PS office” for short)
- Office of Judicial Clerkships (OJC) will become the “Office of Judicial Careers”
- Office of Career Services (OCS) will become the “Office of Private Sector Careers”
- Beginning this fall, career offices will have a new approach to communications, allowing students easily to opt in to information based on their chosen paths
- Providing additional guidance to faculty, instructors and T.A.’s, in the semi-annual Letter on Teaching, to avoid private-sector default assumptions and give additional recognition to public service career paths in classroom and student-facing dialogues
- Faculty will also receive updated directories on connecting public interest students to existing resources
- Building on the current salary surveys of PI alumni, launching a more expansive alumni survey to gather and share still further details on employers and post-grad paths
- Continued work by members of the Public Interest/Public Service Lawyering committee to improve the culture and support for student organizations focused on public interest
- Creating a repository of supplemental teaching resources to be launched this fall to help instructors further incorporate public interest and social justice themes into course content
What We’re Still Pursuing:
- Exploring ideas on new programming for incoming students, highlighting public interest as a strong option among the many career paths available to law students
- Exploring new ways to approach community building among students pursuing a public interest path
- Working with the Registrar and Vice Dean for Curriculum for greater coordination in public service course scheduling
Financing Public Interest Careers
In order to further empower Columbia students to pursue the career path of their choice, we have expanded the scope and generosity of financial aid programs designed to foster public interest and public service career opportunities.
What We’ve Accomplished:
- Implemented the largest increase in LRAP benefits in the Law School’s history—covering 100% of eligible loan payments for participants with calculated income of $70,000 or less; reducing participant contributions; and expanding the eligibility of room and board expenses
- Launched a two-year public interest/public service targeted fundraising campaign, building on the success of the recently completed Campaign for Columbia Law, to further deepen support for low-income and first generation scholarships and pathways to expand career choice in the public interest
- Extended the duration of the Columbia Summer Funding (CSF) by two weeks: now up to a total of 10 weeks for rising 2Ls and 12 weeks for rising 3Ls, which is among the most generous in our peer group
- Introduced dedicated 30-minute personal finance coaching sessions conducted by independent financial advisors with expertise on budgeting, post graduate legal salaries, taxes, benefits and LRAP options
- Offered 16 financial literacy sessions and expanded outreach to affinity groups to provide planning tools and transparency about loans, LRAP, and other aspects of personal finance in the context of public interest careers
- Authorized advance payment on May 26 for summer holiday hours (Memorial Day, Juneteenth, & July 4), to provide CSF participants upfront funding prior to the start of summer placements
- Publishing, this summer, 5-year aggregated LRAP participant data with additional contextualization of LRAP pathways. Going forward, the Law School will survey all participants who complete or leave the program and will include an option to provide additional demographic data.
- Undertaking, this summer, an evaluation of the University’s payroll timesheet system to streamline CSF approval processes.
- Adding a new financial subcommittee to the existing PIPSL committee, to create an ongoing forum for dialogue on financial issues between administration, students, and faculty
What We’re Still Pursuing
- Exploring the viability of new financing models that involve partnership with external lenders.
- Sustaining fundraising momentum over the course of the two-year public interest/public service targeted campaign.
These initiatives have been undertaken in partnership with multiple student, administrative and faculty groups, including the Columbia Law Student Senate, Public Interest/Public Service Lawyering Committee (PIPSL), Student Public Interest Network (SPIN), Concerned Students of Columbia Law School, Committee on Teaching, Social Justice Initiatives, the Vice Dean for Curriculum, and many other individuals throughout our community. I am grateful to each of you, as well as the members of the faculty and administration who have helped to develop policies and lead us forward in implementing them.
For students interested in becoming (or remaining) involved in this ongoing work, I encourage you to consider applying to join one of the public interest-focused faculty committees, or the host of others that develop policy in related areas, such as curriculum. So much thoughtful work has already been done in these domains and there is more exciting work ahead where student voices will be critical. A new call for applications will be included in The Gavel this fall.
I hope you share my enthusiasm for all that we have accomplished, and that you will consider lending your support as we press forward through the summer and into the fall semester.
Dean and Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law