When the Strategic Plan was announced last year, students applauded significant changes to the 1L curriculum, especially the replacement of the oft-maligned LRA with First-Year Lawyering and the creation of seven “law colleges” to replace the traditional 1L sections.
Results from the first six weeks of the school year are in — and they are mixed.
The creation of seven law colleges was billed as more than a simple reduction in class size; the new structure was supposed to reinforce a sense of community at HLS through the creation of smaller, unified groups operating under the supervision of college leaders. Those leaders are supposed to sponsor out-of-class educational and social activities.
Some section leaders have been pursuing those goals with a vengeance. Prof. Westfall, for example, has invited his students out for drinks and over for dinner and arranges semi-weekly speakers on topics of interest to the college. In Section 3, Prof. Hay has already organized at least one social event for his section.
Other section leaders, however, have been less attentive.
Much like LRA, FYL has evoked criticism from 1Ls on the Sound-Off Board. One writer, hopefully exaggerating, calls the class “an affront to human dignity.” Others have echoed the sentiment with similar postings, while one has defended the new program.
The most common complaint seems to be that FYL classes waste substantial amounts of time. Others say that the all-section lectures lack purpose and direction. After attending a lecture on “Legal Ethics,” one 1L said that all he had learned was who in the section did not have any.
Several 1Ls have also complained about the FYL grading system, where students can earn high-pass and low-pass grades, contrary to LRA’s binary pass/fail system. These new categories add the stress of a multi-tiered grading system without affecting a student’s GPA. In other words, doing well in FYL will not help a student, but a low-pass could raise awkward questions during interview season. The grading system sends students mixed messages: Either FYL is important enough to stand equally with classes like Contracts and Torts, or it’s not.
HLS has long been thought of as a cold, competitive place, and many students who choose to attend do so expecting their quality of life to drop off substantially. Fortunately, students are almost always pleasantly surprised with life at Harvard Law. But reforms like those envisioned with the law colleges and FYL plans are vital to transforming the school’s reputation.
Even more important, these reforms were enacted to address real needs — the needs of students to feel like members of a community, to develop relationships with professors and to learn practical lawyering skills.
Six weeks into the semester, changes to the 1L experience are being implemented with varying degrees of effort and with varying degrees of success. It is still early, and that is to be expected.
But the hard work is just beginning. For these proposals to be effective, the faculty and administration needs to tweak the new programs in response to student feedback and keep the pressure on effective implementation.