By Eric Ruzicka, HLS J.D., ’01
Partner, Dorsey & Whitney LLP
I will never forget the morning of my first class at Harvard Law School. 8:30 a.m., Civil Procedure, with Professor Arthur Miller. Truthfully, I found the event more fear inducing than inspirational. Yet, I was always in awe while sitting in a historic classroom learning the law from world renowned professors.
However, one of the bigger regrets I have concerning my years at Harvard Law School is not participating in one of the Clinical Programs. While the Clinical Programs were not as developed then as they are now, there were still many excellent opportunities. I can recall thinking at the time that I only had three years at HLS and that my time was best spent in the classroom. I also recall my concern that as a law student, there wasn’t much I could offer the individuals served by the clinics. After all, I was just learning the law and certainly didn’t know what it meant to be a lawyer yet.
It did not take long after graduation to realize how wrong I was about the clinical programs. My first day as an associate, I was given an assignment by a senior partner to draft a complaint in a contract dispute. After walking me through what needed to be done, he explained that if I was going to work with him on the contract dispute, I also needed to take on a pro bono matter and that he hoped I would always be working on at least one pro bono matter while at the firm. With very little guidance, I then found myself assisting a client in expunging his criminal record. Years ago, while battling depression, my client had broken into a home in a misguided plan to be shot by a cop. While his motive was clear – he knew the home was vacant for the season, knew the home was equipped with an alarm, and only stole a single pair of socks – this dark night left my client unable to find meaningful employment or consistent housing.
Quickly, I learned what I didn’t realize while at HLS. First, the unmet need for legal services is significant and requires the attention of every lawyer. Second, despite being in my first week of practicing law, I had a lot to offer my client. At a minimum, I had the ability to understand the legal process that he needed to navigate and the skill to persuasively present his story.
Currently, I serve as the pro bono partner for Dorsey & Whitney, overseeing the pro bono program in all of our offices. In this role I am reminded on a daily basis of both the never-ending unmet need for pro bono legal services as well as the amazing benefit that lawyers can provide. Sometimes, the most important component of providing pro bono services is simply letting the client know they have someone that is there for them and on their side. For these reasons, I strongly encourage students to get involved in the Clinical Programs at HLS. You will find the experience to be a great opportunity to learn how to work with clients and advocate on their behalf. But even more so, you may find it to be the most rewarding and inspiring experience in your HLS years.