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A group of Harvard law students are taking an unusual approach to bankrolling a new public interest fellowship: They are passing the hat. They hope to raise enough money to send at least one of their classmates into a public interest job for a year after graduation — in the ballpark of $50,000 — and continue to offer the fellowship to subsequent graduating classes. Public interest fellowships aren’t uncommon at law schools, although most rely on funding from the school itself or from a private endowment. The students behind Harvard’s new Post-Grad Student Funded Fellowship, 3Ls Sheila Lopez, Julie Ruderman, Alison Welcher and Maura Whelan, said they don’t know of any other public interest fellowship funded only by student donations. Many schools hold auctions or other efforts to raise money for public interest programs, although not specifically for postgraduate fellowships. All four of the Harvard 3Ls are heading to law firm jobs next year but are active in the public interest law community. “This is intended to be a grassroots effort that will create a community atmosphere on campus,” Whelan said. “So many of us are fortunate to be going into the private sector, and we have the opportunity to help those who want to do public interest.” The group began raising money in February and stepped up those efforts this month with weekly bake sales, pub nights and a dollar-a-day-for-a-month campaign. They recently published a letter in the Harvard Law Record encouraging law students to donate. “Discussions about post-graduation plans have turned into comparisons of starting dates, deferral periods, and the latest frustrations of trying to crack into the public sector,” they wrote. “Some of us find ourselves relatively well positioned; others are still busy networking, mass e-mailing, and polishing up fellowship proposals.” The organizers don’t yet know how much money has been raised, in part because they are soliciting donations online and through the Class of 2010 Gift initiative, which is still going on. “It would be fantastic if we could fund someone next year, but it probably won’t happen until the following year,” Lopez said. “So far, students have been receptive to the idea.” Quite a few law schools have responded to the tight job market by expanding public interest fellowship programs. Already this academic year, Harvard launched the Public Service Venture Fund, which will divide $1 million per year among qualified graduates who start their own nonprofit organizations or seek jobs at government agencies or public interest groups. The school also announced the Holmes Public Interest Fellowship Program, which will provide as many as one dozen 2010 graduates with stipends of up to $35,000 to work in public interest law for one year. Those fellowships will be available only to students who have proven that their attempts to land a job or fellowship have failed. Harvard’s new public interest programs came as the school suspended its Public Service Initiative. Under that program, launched in spring 2008, students who committed to public interest work for at least five years following graduation did not have to pay tuition during their third year. The cut was a result of financial difficulties at the school, although the benefit will remain available to students graduating through 2012.

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