The Changing Role of BSA


The Board of Student Advisers has had a major impact on the first year education of Harvard Law students for over 90 years. Yet despite featuring luminaries like Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in its ranks over the years, the history and purpose of the Board remains a mystery to most students, whose only contact with BSA comes in their First Year Lawyering (FYL) workshops and perhaps when they watch the yearly Ames competition.

Opinions of BSA were further confused recently when a 1L Law School Council representative expressed concern that BSA instructors were told not to give negative evaluations of professors to 1L students when helping them select courses for the spring semester — a charge which turned out to be only partially accurate.

The role of the BSA at the Law School has been continuously re-examined, especially with implementation of the new FYL program. The truth is that the Board walks a fine line: attempting to serve as instructors and friends to incoming 1Ls while trying to stay relevant and involved in the new First year Lawyering program.

A Storied History

For almost 150 years, HLS students organized themselves into “law clubs.” These small and elitist groups (examples included the Marshall Club, the Kent Club and the Pow-Wow Club) were formed to discuss and argue cases, as well as to provide a social atmosphere for their members. Many clubs established their own moot courts which were run in parallel with the faculty-run HLS moot court.

By the turn of the twentieth century, enrollment at HLS had dramatically increased, which led to the cancellation of the faculty-run moot court, which had become too burdensome to administer. The law clubs became the only places where HLS students could receive training in court practice.

A number of new clubs were formed during the early part of the century, but they still included only a small minority of students. So in 1910, a concerned faculty passed a resolution establishing a Board of Student Advisers, “for encouraging among first year students early and intelligent use of the law library and also for rendering the work of the law clubs more efficient.”

The Board was originally an honorary society, with membership chosen by the faculty (students whose grades were directly below those of the Harvard Law Review editors were invited to join). They focused mainly on the Ames competition, writing the cases to be argued, teaching legal research and organizing independent law clubs so that any first year student could participate in the moot court.

Though its student-centered teaching methods were lauded, the Board ran into its share of difficulties, especially as it had trouble finding faculty who were willing to take responsibility for training its teachers. In addition, participation in the Ames competition steadily declined over the years. By 1970, most of the law clubs had disappeared. The Board was in need of a new role.

In response, the BSA began taking on duties such as offering courses (including Gambling, Bartending and Bicycle-Care), organizing social activities and leading orientation.

But that led many to conclude that the Board had drifted away from its dedication to legal research and education, which led the faculty to redefine the organization’s role again in 1993. The faculty agreed to directly oversee selection of BSA applicants, who then were enlisted to teach the 1L “Introduction to Lawyering” course. This course was later renamed “Legal Reasoning and Argument” (LRA), the precursor to today’s FYL.

The Move to FYL

The LRA program had several flaws. Again, there were not enough full-time professors willing to teach the class, and for those who did, there was no central curriculum, leading to widely diverging experiences between sections. In the fall of 1998, an LRA Committee was formed to explore ways to reform the program. These proposals would eventually lead to the First Year Lawyering program in place today.

From the beginning, the use of BSA instructors was questioned by the LRA Committee. Some proposed that they be replaced by independent student-teachers, while others felt that only professional lecturers should be used. In the end, a compromise was reached: only 3L BSA instructors would teach workshops. When a 3L was assigned to teach two small sections, he or she would have assistance from 2L instructors.

The BSA was initially hesitant to make any changes.

“BSA students were used to a system where they worked without real oversight from full-time teachers, and obviously they developed their own way of doing things,” said FYL Director Michael Meltsner.

Today, most changes have been gradually accepted. As BSA President Kati Robson, a 3L, explained, “I think it’s a great thing, personally. When you have a 2L and a 3L in the course, you have more chance for feedback. It also gives 2Ls the chance to spend a year with someone who really knows the curriculum and knows how to give feedback. [The 2Ls] can take on as much or as little responsibility as they want until they feel ready to take on the job.”

Today there are 62 BSA instructors — 32 3L’s and 30 2L’s. Students are selected each spring based on grades, brief-writing, editing and feedback skills, and an essay. Selection is made by current BSA members, but the faculty are responsible for reviewing their choices. Positions are paid: Second year instructors are paid $2500 per year, while third year instructors are paid $5000 if they teach one class and $7500 if they teach two.

The exact role of BSA instructors varies from section to section. “[BSA instructors] are an important liaison to the students. Sometimes I won’t hear about problems that have come up, but the BSA instructors will bring them to my attention,” said Section III Lecturer Elizabeth Frumkin.

Mixed Opinions

Student opinion on the value of the BSA workshops is mixed. Some students believe that the BSA instructors need more training. As one first year student stated, “my BSA is only a year or two older than I am. Does one summer worth of firm experience really make them qualified to teach me legal writing?”

BSA instructors currently receive only three days of training in the summer before first year students arrive. However, 2L instructors are expected to take a class in the spring where they are instructed in legal teaching methods. Also, BSA instructors are required to meet once a week with their FYL lecturers in order to organize and coordinate materials.

An often-expressed concern among students is that material covered in the FYL lecture and the BSA workshops is redundant.

Frumkin explained that she attempts to make the two as complementary as possible, but that some overlap can be beneficial. “Just getting exposure to these basic skills is helpful. A lot of this development is going to happen over the course of a clinical program, a job, a lifetime.”

One final concern that surfaced recently questioned the independence of the BSA instructors. As Section IV representative Mike Ghaffary explained, “a first year student representative at the last law school council meeting expressed concern that the BSA instructors were told not to say bad things about professors. He was worried that their advice wouldn’t be worth much if they couldn’t speak honestly with their students, and that 1Ls were not being told about this.”

Third year BSA instructor Jenny Ellickson defended the policy, saying, “We’re not professors, but we do try to act as colleagues to the faculty. One professor wouldn’t criticize another professor’s class, and we want to follow the same professional guidelines. And our opinions about classes aren’t as important because people have such different views of professors anyways.”

Despite these concerns, most students seem to agree that the BSA instructors play a valuable role in their first year education. For many, BSA instructors are the only resource st
udents have for real-world information about electives, Ames and upper-class activities. Finally, some students simply prefer having student instructors. As one first year student stated, “I would pick my BSA instructors over my FYL instructor any day.”

The Future of BSA

The BSA has several challenges facing it in the future. Its students’ role as both teachers and advisers can be difficult to maintain. As Meltsner said, “On the one hand, a 2L or 3L can talk to a 1L in a way that may be more meaningful at times than a member of the faculty. On the other hand, to be an effective teacher you sometimes have to say things that people don’t want to hear. It’s often difficult for BSA instructors to be at the appropriate distance from their students.”

Another ongoing concern is whether the BSA will be able to maintain its independent voice, even though the organization needs to continually convince the faculty that it is relevant to first year education.

“I wouldn’t say we’re less independent now, but we are working as hard as we can to cooperate and work with the FYL lecturers, to make sure we serve a complementary role and meet the students’ needs,” Robson said. “We take the responsibility of our workshops very seriously, and we have a mechanism in place to tell the lecturers if there are problems.”

The largest source of uncertainty, though, remains the FYL program itself.

“We’re still in a state of transition in this relationship,” Meltsner said. “It’s not until next year that the 3Ls will have actually emerged from a 1L year where they took FYL. It’s not until then that we’ll have a firmer sense of the way the relationship has evolved. Our experience has been generally positive, but I don’t think you can ignore that the transition is difficult for everyone.” Robson added that, “I’ve seen major improvements just from last year to this year. I think some of these changes have made a huge difference in making sure students have the practical skills they need when they enter the workplace.”

When asked if she was concerned that the role of the BSA in first year instruction would eventually disappear, Robson said, “I worry about it in the sense that I think we provide something very unique and valuable to 1Ls. I would hate to see BSA phased out for that reason.”

Much of the background material for this piece is found in the third-year paper by Katherine M. Porter ’01: Learning by Doing: A History of the Board of Student Advisers 1910-2000, available in the BSA Office.

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