Professor hopes to write history of HLS


Have you ever speculated why grading is anonymous or why a casebook is used in law classes? Have you ever wondered who were the first African-Americans or women to graduate from Harvard Law School? Are you curious as to why Austin Hall was built to accommodate so many students in one classroom?

These are the type of questions that Visiting Prof. Daniel Coquillette hopes to answer as he completes his research on the history of HLS. Coquillette’s office could double as an archive of HLS memorabilia: every yearbook published at HLS, mid-nineteenth century HLS catalogs (with only two professors listed), even eighteenth-century legal documents with stamps attached (as prescribed by the Stamp Act). Fortunately, there is more to Coquillette and his work than his yearbook collection.

Coquillette graduated from Williams College in 1966 and secured a Fulbright Scholarship to attend Oxford for the next three years. “That was a wonderful experience for me,” Coquillette said. “The porter at Oxford said there was another American coming to the college, and he was a Baptist from Arkansas.” Though he said he didn’t have high expectations for his fellow American at the time, he turned out to be pretty impressive company. When the porter first called Coquillette to tell him that William Jefferson Clinton — the Arkansan in question — had just been elected governor of his state, he remarked, “Clinton? Isn’t that like being elected king to a country with two men and a dog?”

After Oxford, Coquillette returned to the United States, where he graduated from HLS in 1971. He remembers it as a turbulent time to be studying law.

“The law school was in the middle of uprisings about Cambodia and Vietnam,” he recounted. “You came in and people were questioning everything, from placement programs to the mission of the school.”

Upon graduation, Coquillette clerked for Robert Braucher at the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, and later for the Burger Court during the time Roe v. Wade was decided and Watergate was heating up.

“I remember sitting in Byron White’s office watching the Watergate hearings and listening to him make jokes now and then,” Coquillette said. “There is a theme in all this in that I lived through tumultuous times. It made you think hard about change and what causes it.” That questioning, he said, led him to think hard about a career studying legal history.

Coquillette started his academic career as a visiting professor at Boston University, and later took up the same position at Cornell. He was offered a permanent position at Cornell, but was told by his English wife (much to his amusement) that if he stayed in Ithaca, “she would go back to her country and her people.” Coquillette moved back to Boston, where he eventually became a partner at Palmer and Dodge.

After teaching briefly at HLS in 1984, Coquillette was named Dean of Boston College Law School, a position he held from 1985 to 1993. He returned to HLS in 1995, where he was named a visiting professor in 2000. He also serves as a reporter to the Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure Judicial Conference of the United States.

“I am the expert that advises the federal judiciary on drafting rules of civil procedure, evidence, appellate procedure, criminal procedure and bankruptcy,” Coquillette said. He continued with a chuckle: “In short, I am responsible for a lot of the misery of first year students.”

Currently, Coquillette’s history of HLS is his biggest unfinished project. “The project is coming to a close and the book is well underway. It will be more complete and candid than any history of HLS in the past,” he said.

Providing a taste of the work to come, Coquillette added that, “Langdell invented everything you love to hate about law school,” he said. “He invented big classes, three-hour exams, the Socratic method, class rankings and the case method,”

Aside from its historical value, Coquillette also stressed the importance of studying Langdell’s methods for the present: “The core of the school is still based on a model that was invented in 1871. We are studying that model… and it is clear to everyone that his model will have to be changed in order to deal with… a global economy, to emphasize more skills training and because Langdell’s formalism has been rejected by some, particularly legal realists.”

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