Letters from Berkeley: The final analysis

BY COLLEEN CHEN

As I near the end of my semester at Boalt, I thought it would be a good time to evaluate my experiences here as compared to life at HLS. I’ve been asked quite often by professors and fellow students if I like it better at Boalt or HLS, and what the differences are. My response has generally been positive towards my current situation, although that doesn’t say a lot considering I tend to validate the choices I make.

What I really like about Boalt: The classes are tiny, and the professors are incredibly accessible and friendly with the students. These two factors create intimate, warm and very interactive classes, where people talk because they are passionate and engaged.

I don’t encounter very much of the near-frightening brilliance of many HLS students, but then again, I also don’t encounter a lot of the emotional and other hangups, or the weird competitiveness, that often comes with that sort of brilliance. I have also encountered a lot less apathy at Boalt — at least a couple of my classes are full of activists embroiled in political situations. There are also a lot more women at Boalt, which really changes the communication dynamic in the classroom, and there are a lot more people who’ve taken time off before going to law school. Both of these have been refreshing to me, as a woman and as a person who has taken time off. I’ve also gotten a lot of permission to explore some very unconventional paper topics in my classes, and in presentations no one’s even batted an eyelid when I’ve shared my views — instead they have been met with enthusiasm and genuine interest.

I have experienced a lighter workload at Boalt, and much more blackletter law as opposed to the “thinking like a lawyer” kind of training HLS offers. One of my professors last week was talking about Harvard students failing the bar because “other schools teach answers, Harvard only teaches questions.” This dynamic could be seen as a benefit or a disadvantage, depending on what one individually wants from a legal education. I’ve enjoyed it as a change — it’s allowed me to live an active life outside of school, which I think is good training for my post-law-school career (which I don’t want to dominate my life either).

Weather? Berkeley wins hands down. Food? Much easier to eat healthy here, and the eats are cheaper and of a bigger variety. Drink of choice for law students? Here, everyone brings water bottles to class. At HLS, everyone has a big Starbucks coffee. San Fran versus Boston? What can I say except — Massholes!

On the other side, there are things to dislike about Boalt, too. The major thing that’s been glaringly evident is that this law school is much poorer than Harvard. There are fewer fancy dinners and freebies from firms. The career services office is nothing like what HLS provides in terms of resources and sheer coddling. The swimming pools here have restricted hours and at least five people per lane at any given time; at the gym, I have to wait a half-hour to an hour to use the elliptical machine. The rooms at Boalt are old, dirty, ugly, smelly and have limited electrical outlets, which results in students having to bring in power strips to share available outlets. The chairs are incredibly uncomfortable and often broken, making me realize how little I appreciated the plush seating at HLS. I won’t get started about the bathrooms, and the library here is such an eyesore compared to Langdell, I haven’t even gone in yet.

The professors at Harvard have a star quality to them that makes it worthwhile to take their classes even if they’re too busy to have lunch with you. At HLS, nearly every professor I’ve had a class with has blown me away with the sheer brilliance of their minds and the charisma of their presentation. The hierarchy and elitism and the intimidation game perpetuated by the atmosphere at HLS is worth learning from. And of course, there are some pretty awesome students at HLS too.

I found being in Cambridge and at Harvard incredibly intellectually stimulating and fast-paced, but rather emotionally cold. That context allowed me to really focus on some things I wanted to do and learn in those two years. Here, I cry a lot more, I have more trouble thinking, but this space allows me to focus on some other issues I want to work on. Yes, it’s all so perfectly synchronicitous!

My short answer to the question about whether I like Boalt better than Harvard is that I don’t know or really care. I’m glad to be where I am and in this context, and that seems to be enough.

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