Harvard Law Must Rethink Its Summer Contribution Policy, Which Negatively Impacts Need-Based Students — Particularly Those of Color (Guest Column)

Harvard Law Must Rethink Its Summer Contribution Policy, Which Negatively Impacts Need-Based Students — Particularly Those of Color (Guest Column)

As the founder of LaPolt Law, a Los Angeles-based entertainment firm, I actively seek out talented students from underrepresented backgrounds to promote diversity within my firm and provide these students with an opportunity that their privileged counterparts may take for granted. I have been working with the Black Music Action Coalition (BMAC), co-founded by my esteemed colleague and co-writer of this piece, Willie “Prophet” Stiggers, since 2021, and I currently serve as their executive leadership council. Our collective aim remains steadfast: to champion diversity and promote developmental opportunities for minorities in the music industry.  

Recently, my firm was set to hire a Black woman from Harvard Law School for an internship position. However, the candidate encountered a significant obstacle due to Harvard’s Summer Contribution Policy. I was dismayed when I learned she couldn’t accept the offer because the school’s policy would require that she apply 90% of her summer internship earnings to her tuition bill, which would have made it impossible for her to afford to live in Los Angeles for the summer and pay her bills, while also helping to support her family. 

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Most aspiring law students seek admission to a top law school for the promise of excellent job prospects. This is particularly true for students from underserved communities and underrepresented students of color who face significant barriers at the outset of their careers. For these underrepresented students able to attend these high-ranked institutions and secure summer employment, it serves as an opportunity to not only change their own circumstances but those of their families.  However, at Harvard, the No. 5 law school in the nation, the financial support for need-based students becomes challenging as the institution deducts up to 90% of students’ summer employment income and applies it to the next year’s tuition bill. 

Pursuing a career in “Big Law” allows students to earn a salary upwards of $200,000 post-grad and a pro-rated version of this salary as a summer associate. For students from affluent backgrounds, this path often continues building generational wealth. For students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, it offers a chance to change the trajectory of their families’ lives by providing additional income to support household and medical bills.  

Harvard Law’s Summer Contribution Policy stretches beyond those students working in Big Law summer associateships by imposing this policy on any student earning over $9,500. Those accepted to Harvard Law are typically aware the school doesn’t offer merit scholarships, but many students only grasp the significant impact of the policy when they embark on their 1L summer job search, often realizing its implications too late. The policy disproportionately impacts those who receive need-based aid, the majority of whom are students of color. 

While some entertainment internships may escape the policy’s impact, others, such as at Disney and certain boutique/mid-sized firms, are impacted as their pay can place a student over the $9,500 threshold. Considering the difficulty of breaking into the entertainment industry, forgoing these summer opportunities can make a Harvard Law student’s dream of working in entertainment harder to realize. 

With its $9,500 allowance, the Summer Contribution Policy fails to adequately support students, especially those pursuing summer employment in major entertainment cities such as Los Angeles and New York, where the average monthly rent is over $2,000. This perpetuates a cycle for low-income students of color: they receive need-based financial aid, obtain high-earning summer employment opportunities and lose most of their earnings (which are absorbed by Harvard), leaving these students economically disadvantaged or reliant on additional loans. Rinse and repeat. This cycle persists throughout their time at Harvard and contrasts starkly with the experience of wealthier students who do not rely on need-based aid.  

Despite numerous attempts to eliminate or amend the policy through longstanding protests, the students’ informal movement has been unsuccessful. In a world where students of color from low socioeconomic backgrounds must work twice as hard to succeed and three times as hard to be heard, Harvard Law’s Summer Contribution Policy reflects the disadvantages these students face and thus, needs to be abolished or modified to accommodate these students instead of targeting them. My recent experience underscores the challenges faced by aspiring professionals from marginalized communities and emphasizes the importance of advocating for equitable policies within educational institutions to ensure equal access to opportunities for all students, regardless of their financial circumstances. 

Dina LaPolt, owner and founder of LaPolt Law, P.C., is an entertainment attorney and activist. LaPolt Law is the only firm of its stature owned and operated by a sole female attorney. As a result of her activism in the Black community, Dina was a recipient of the Black Music Action Coalition’s Change Agent Award, and she also serves on the organization’s Executive Leadership Council. 

Willie “Prophet” Stiggers is a lifelong activist, music executive and co-founder/CEO/president of the Black Music Action Coalition (BMAC).  Prophet has built BMAC into a unified force of action for racial equity and justice within the music industry and a catalyst using the power of music to improve communities and drive systemic change. 

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