Supporting Student Access and Career Choice

Dean Gillian Lester provides an update on her strategic efforts to support students entering public interest and public service careers, and announces several new developments and investments. 

Dear members of the Columbia Law School community,

Two core beliefs have guided my time as Dean at Columbia Law School: (1) serving the public good should be part of every Columbia lawyer’s career and (2) the career options of our students and alumni should not be constrained by undue financial burdens. Acting on these values has been a core priority of mine, and the result is an annual investment in public interest/public service support that is 53%—or more than $4 million per year—larger today than it was in 2015.

This targeted support comes alongside a broader imperative to increase access to Columbia Law School through financial aid. Over the past seven years, we have grown the median financial aid award by 125% (from $16,000 in Fall 2014 to $36,000 in Fall 2021), as well as the overall proportion of students receiving aid. This increase in aid significantly outstrips the increase in tuition during the same period, making the median net cost of attending Columbia for those receiving scholarship aid 11% lower today than in Fall 2014. To accomplish our goal of significantly growing financial support, we have raised more than $45 million in gifts for student aid—including 87 newly endowed scholarships—as part of the Campaign for Columbia Law, which launched in 2017.

Today, I am thrilled to announce another major leap forward—a $3.3 million gift to endow the Public Interest/Public Service (PI/PS) Fellows Program. When the Fellows Program was created, we knew that an up-front investment would be required to put wind in its sails and support its growth in the near term. We also knew that, in order for the Program to thrive and become embedded within the Law School, a sustainable source of funding would be required.

leadership gift from generous and stalwart supporter Max W. Berger ’71 and his wife Dale will provide the Fellows Program with that stable, long-term support. The annual revenue generated from the Bergers’ endowment gift will support the programming, professional development, academic and career support services, and community-building events and activities that have become a core part of the PI/PS Fellows experience—ensuring that Columbia Law continues to attract and support the most talented students interested in public service careers.

The Bergers’ gift comes at a time when support for students pursuing public interest and government careers has never been greater—nor more urgent. Over the past six years alone, in addition to establishing the PI/PS Fellows Program, we have:

  • Enhanced our Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP), including adding a dependent child allowance and introducing a first-of-its-kind bridge loan program to cover expenses while studying for the Bar exam. These features make Columbia’s LRAP among the most generous in the nation.
  • Increased the generosity of our summer funding program—by 60% between 2018 and 2021—making it easier for students who want to gain valuable experience to work in public interest organizations.
  • Created a standalone office to support students in applying for prestigious judicial clerkships and to build more inclusive pathways into clerkship positions for students from diverse backgrounds.
  • Established the Greene Public Service Scholars program, which provides full-tuition scholarships to students committed to pursuing a career in public service, with a $7 million endowment commitment from the Jerome L. Greene Foundation.
  • Conceived of and launched a range of initiatives in support of the Law School’s commitment to inclusion and anti-racism, including a commitment to raise an additional $1 million over the next four years toward financial aid for first generation law students, incoming students from underrepresented backgrounds, and 3Ls pursuing careers working to advance racial and social justice. These new scholarships (see list below) will be available immediately, even as we work to secure sustainable endowment funds as part of the Campaign for Columbia Law.
    • Introduced in August 2021, the Bridge to Opportunity Scholarship is a three-year, full-tuition grant for a first-generation J.D. student.
    • Racial and Social Justice Fellowships provide $25,000 merit-based awards to five rising 3Ls who have demonstrated a commitment to working with historically underserved or underprivileged populations.
    • Diversity and Opportunity Scholarships support incoming Law students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, and/or who have demonstrated experience in or commitment to working with historically underserved or underprivileged populations. These $25,000 need-based scholarships are awarded to five students each year.

I am truly proud of the historic levels of support for our public interest/public service students, and of the significant individual and collective work that has gone into building such a robust infrastructure. But even more than the financial investments, I feel immense pride in the strong and interconnected community—with the caring support of our superb professional team in Social Justice Initiatives and allied faculty—that we have been able to foster here at Columbia. Though there is surely work left to be done, I hope you will share my enthusiasm and excitement for the myriad ways in which we have been able to advance our shared goals, and in the core values they reflect.

All the best,

Gillian Lester
Dean and Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law