The Good Life


Take a good look around, everyone. 1Ls, look up from your books. 2Ls, look up from your resumes. 3Ls, look up from your Us Weeklys. You may not realize it, but you are witnessing the glory days of Harvard Law School.


It almost pains me to make this observation. Students are naturally predisposed to complain, and for upwards of $30,000 a year, they should. I’m no exception to this rule, and, certainly, in my two-plus years here at the law school, there has been much to complain about. And yet, with the 3L year providing an opportunity to engage in a bit of short-term retrospection, and armed with some understanding of the history of the law school in the last several decades, I can only come to the grudging conclusion that Harvard Law School is undergoing a renaissance. And we are all part of it.

Consider some tangible examples, for starters. We’ll begin with the simplest: the renovation of the Hark. The modifications are so stunningly successful, it’s easy to forget what the old girl used to look like. The pea-soup interior. The truck-stop condom dispenser in the men’s bathroom, untouched since 1986. That solitary television hanging from the ceiling, discount-motel-like, blaring CNN and giving the former “lounge” room the cozy feel of an airport waiting area. Remember that? All swept away, and good riddance. The only remaining vestige of the bad old days is the building’s exterior, which still calls to mind a dilapidated, underfunded branch of a public library – the kind you see when you drive through the bad parts of town. But for the most part, the transformation is complete.

Other cases abound. For those just starting out, 1L-only reading groups have been created, giving the young whelps an opportunity to forge close and lasting relationships with wisened faculty members. For those heading into the home stretch, the school now covers all the mailing costs of sending – by Federal Express, no less – clerkship applications to judges across the country. On the public service front, it can no longer be plausibly argued that the law school is a front for corporate America, a charge the disaffected so often find fashionable to level. Half the damn Adviser consists of OPIA announcements; if the law school isn’t funneling students into public service careers, it’s not for lack of effort. You want parties? We’ve got parties. State of the school party. Reopening of the Hark party. Journals fairs. Pro bono fairs. Student organization fairs. Everything’s just a swell old time. And, floating in the distance, the holy grail: a new Hemenway, gleaming with shiny new aerobics equipment and nonfungal shower stalls.

But new facilities and programs do not entirely a renaissance make. After all, they don’t come free. Somebody pays their price: students, in the form of higher tuition; alumni, in the form of increased pleas and expectations for donations; and faculty, in the form of heightened demands on their time. So an amplified tax-and-spend approach only gets us so far. Rather, something more fundamental is at work as well. Something so intangible as a change in attitude – the mere existence of a “State of the School” speech, for example. Even if it did happen to be 90% populated by 1Ls, it’s the thought that counts.

More notably, but assuredly more invisibly to the student population, the faculty is seemingly at peace. This is no small matter: to adapt the old yarn to the law school context, the students are here for three years, the faculty for a lifetime, and the institution forever. When the faculty spars, the school suffers. And throughout much of the 1980s, spar it did, as the school gained national notoriety for a “civil war” in which factions of the faculty barely acknowledged each other, let alone worked together in the common interest of the institution and, accordingly, students. And suffer the school did as well: it became known in legal circles as, according to one professor at the time, “an institution devoted to guerrilla warfare.” Between 1981 and 1985, so fractured was the faculty that the school made not a single appointment of an outside professor to a tenured position. Compare that quagmire to the appointment of two outside professors in just this past year. Moreover, a visit to the first-floor wall in Pound, with its pictorial roster of recent hires, many of whom came from elsewhere – including the Dean herself – relegates that era to ancient history.

Even our scandals have become progressively more benign – when they were anything significant to begin with, that is. Three years ago, two particularly idiotic students – one not even twenty-one years old, and the other an LLM – triggered a racial hysteria across campus that evaporated once its principal agitators (on all sides) graduated. Last year’s supposed scandal, which found The Record devoting the better part of its first-semester newsprint to covering gender disparity at the Law Review, turned out to be no scandal at all once the paper published the Review’s own documents on the subject. The matter abruptly vanished from The Record’s pages as everyone realized that, gee, the Law Review had thought about the issue pretty hard, and, by gum, it is a tough matter to resolve. These days, the only scandals we can muster up are low-grade plagiarism charges against a couple professors – junior-varsity stuff, to be sure, and largely fomented by ideologically motivated actors.

Lest you think I’m merely Dean Kagan’s ghostwriter (speaking of Ogletree), there are, of course, plenty of problems that remain at the law school. Some are minor: the nice ladies at the downstairs Hark cafĂ© must continuously bend down to retrieve one’s Nantucket Nectars. Some are major: statistics show a skew in top grades toward males. But many of the most pressing concerns are not endemic to Harvard Law School. They appear, to some degree, at many top institutions, or, more often, they arise from the current model of legal education. As to matters particular to Harvard Law School alone, and comparing the present to the past several decades, it is difficult not to maintain that, if HLS is the “New York City of law schools,” as the Dean is fond of commenting, then we have emerged from the bankrupt-and-dirty New York City period and entered its Friends/Sex and the City period. We’re hot.

But is all this good? Should we be concerned that the law school is on a roll? After all, even New York City experiences a downturn from time to time. And Friends and Sex and the City are, you’ll notice, no longer on the air. One might raise valid concerns about the happy-go-lucky ethos of today’s Harvard Law School. Do we as students suffer in the long run when the school is more accommodating, more appealing, more friendly? Dean Kagan, in her State of the School speech, said she wanted law school to be not just “intensely serious” but also “intensely fun.” But can the two really coexist? Law practice is assuredly not intensely fun. Does it do a disservice to students to indulge them in fantasy-camp legal education and then send them out into a real world of demanding clients, billable hours, and twelve-hour workdays? One might also caution against the present dearth of controversy on campus – the danger of losing the “vitality that only healthy controversy can provide,” as one professor put it in 1985. At the very least, a little rabblerousing certainly gives us opinion writers more to talk about.

For once, though, maybe we should just sit back and enjoy it. We as law students are conditioned to question, challenge, argue, doubt. We hate the status quo, for if nothing ever changed, nobody would need lawyers. And we have an uncanny inability to enjoy ourselves – to just let go. Maybe, just maybe, after a long road to get there, things really are, comparatively, pretty good at the law school. All we need to do now is to accept it. A tall order, sure, but one I would hope most of us would be willing to undertake.

George Hicks is a 3L. He welcomes all comments, complaints, and compliments by e-mail at ghicks

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