The HLS Experience: Reviewing Harvard Law School

BY GEOFF MCGOVERN

For this admitted students’ edition of the RECORD, I thought my epicurean column would be best served not in critique of local eateries, but in review of my alma mater. In welcoming the admittees to campus, I want share some views about HLS-candid and representative of no other opinions but my own-as well as introduce the newcomers to some of the struggles HLS students experience in the hope that the new 1Ls will adopt the challenge to improve the education at HLS. So, rather than recommend a good place for sushi or suggest a bottle of Cava for your next wine tasting, here’s my review of life at Harvard Law.

To begin, I should say that law school, generally, is an acquired taste. If, like me, you come from a liberal arts background, where class schedules savor of diverse delicacies like “Post 9/11 National Security Policy,” “The Cathedral and the Bizarre,” “Literature of the Caribbean” and “Ornithology” the routine of law school presents a rather bland palate. This is the nature of professional education, fairly uniform no matter which school you choose to attend. Just the same, new students should be prepared to utilize the limited tools of legal analysis by rote for three years (and ad infinitum should you pursue the profession-which you will). I’ve been compelled to cross register (a definite plus in HLS’s column) just to break the monotony.

Be certain of the subject you will be studying. Eye the Federal Rules of Evidence as if it were your life partner; cement yourself to Civil Procedure’s Offensive Nonmutual Collateral Estoppel and Property’s Rule Against Perpetuities, for these represent the tools you’ll work with for the rest of your days. Perhaps of greater importance, you should also analyze your classmates, for these represent the sort of people with whom you will spend the majority of your waking hours until you retire.

One need not inflate the HLS experience to proportions in the style of Scott Turow to recognize that law school is a transformative experience. Students feel depressed, grow ever more argumentative at inappropriate times, obsess over uncertain desires to practice law, and often appear quite the shell of their former selves. If nothing else, we law students little resemble the individuals we were prior to matriculation. One classmate tells a story that well describes the switch: “I recently had coffee with an old [Harvard] college friend, whom I had not seen since the summer before I came to HLS. I described the nature of the first-year section and the ‘gunner’ phenomenon to her, and she said, ‘Well, you must be one of those!’ I laughed and told her that, in fact, I hardly spoke in class at all.”

The story is not uncommon, in part because most students enter law school with wildly romanticized notions of legal education and the nobility of the practice of law, and in part because the actual methods of teaching and subject matter are not intended to slowly guide a student in professional development, but rather to jarringly forge a new identity that matches the demands of the corporate profession (for more on this phenomenon, I highly recommend Professor Duncan Kennedy’s “Legal Education as Training for Hierarchy”).1

As for HLS, Harvard is run as a corporation, not an academy-without any of the corporate efficiency. Be especially critical of the school if you intend to pursue public interest work; while LIPP is a great program, inestimable pressure, both student and institutional, will try to drive you into corporate work. Class registration, infuriatingly, is done a full year in advance, clinical classes (which take thrice the effort with half the academic credit) cannot be dropped once they begin, seminars are more often closed than open to interested students, classes in corporate law are given disproportionate academic credit (it takes three seminars to equal one class in Business Associations), and courses with Professors Dershowitz and Guinier are by special application only-an outrage that too often goes unrecognized. These are just a few examples. Few of us demand better treatment.

Relations with professors vary from student to student. Some have found mentors and professional contacts that will undoubtedly serve them well throughout their careers. Others, like me, who are more uncomfortable fighting for professor’s attention by bombarding them with questions at the end of lectures (a social sin committed almost exclusively by a gaggle of overly ambitious white men), or by scheduling rigorously observed weekly appointments during office hours, find the faculty slightly too indulgent of the gunner culture. Those who don’t follow these guerilla tactics suffer as a result: only two of my professors can name me on sight. Only one has had lunch with me, one-on-one.

Of those professors I haven’t had in class, some have little interest in encouraging a strong sense of community. Several faculty members cast queer looks in my direction when I greet them in front of the library, as if I were paparazzi seeking to catch them with a Grisham novel in hand. To Dean Kagan’s credit, she is a remarkably accessible administrator who is striving to improve the quality of student life.

A personal story illustrates the attitude of the school. While attending a luncheon with judges of the U.S. Military Court of Appeals, I found myself in conversation with the senior judge, his wife, a classmate, and former Vice Dean for Academic Programming, Todd Rakoff. The discussion turned, by initiation of the judge, to summer plans, and I described my involvement with a new charity dedicated to Italian language and art appreciation.

“Sounds like a boondoggle to me,” snapped a dismissive Rakoff, who turned his undivided attention to the classmate yearning to spend life doing leveraged buyouts. (OED: “Boondoggle: A trivial, useless, or unnecessary undertaking; wasteful expenditure.”) Take the anecdote for what you will. As an individual pursuing an academic career, I shall consider myself a failure of an educator if my future students are treated the same way.

Some of the worst treatment actually takes place in class. A study conducted last year concluded that women (only 44% of the current student body; 16% of the faculty) are especially mistreated, often feeling silenced in classes. 2 This is no small concern in a pedagogy that develops oral argumentation skills through the Socratic Method. To date, the administration has taken no observable action to remedy the situation. (That venerable Law Review, too, has since its founding in 1887 been embarrassingly unrepresentative of the wider demographic).3 President Summers’ recent and highly publicized comments may have been directed towards women in the sciences, but his sentiments are echoed in certain corners of the law school.

Racial insults4 and discrimination against sexual minorities5 are not unknown at our über-exclusive Harvard Country Club. Incidents of such unacceptable behavior are poorly handled on campus, dealt with on an ad hoc basis without sustained administrative attention. Diversity among tenured faculty is significantly lacking despite prolonged student demands for more equitable hiring.

I don’t mention these on-going faults as a means to discourage attendance. Quite the opposite. I hope that by introducing these struggles, the new students may take up the fight for ever greater equality from their very first days.

Legal education is in the midst of a nascent reform. Class sizes are shrinking, clinicals are becoming more popular, the Socratic Method is showing signs of fatigue in the hands of practitioners who have forgotten that its true purpose is not intimidation but edification. But at the same time, the school is micromanaging and even cutting funding for clinical programs and student run practice groups like the Harvard Defenders, the Legal Aid Bureau, and the Tenant Advocacy Project, leaving non-traditional career seeking students l
argely on their own, and falling behind the national average in campus diversity. The progress of any change in the student experience depends on the fortitude of the students.

By memorializing the institutional memory of the struggle, and by introducing the newly admitted students to the challenges they are certain to face, perhaps the mantle will be passed to the new generation.

One must always be realistic: law school will be a difficult experience no matter where you decide to study. A friend describes: “It’s strange how they teach at the law school, they hide the ball so they can teach you to look for it, like the ball is all there is, so by the time you learn that the ball is also the cage they put around you, you’re tired, defeated, don’t care and you start feeling that the law really is looking for that ball. Or at least it feels like that.”

Frustrated that student concerns are treated as a lower priority for the institution than this student would like, I’m easing my conscience knowing that these ideas will be presented in at least one forum available to the admitted students present on campus on April 10-11. My hope is that it sparks some serious discussion about how to improve HLS, rather than discourage admitted students from enrolling.

The Harvard name casts a mystical crimson spell that is difficult to refuse. But at least in the opinion of this 3L, students who have proven their ability by receiving offers of admission to HLS deserve a much better education. As my friend said, “I think it’s a clear sign that there is something wrong with the school and rather than looking at [our frustration] like failing, think of it as the school failing you.”

Welcome to campus. I hope you don’t enroll in the same Harvard I attended, but a better one. I hope you can join the HLS network and work to improve its numerous faults.

1 Available at http://www.duncankennedy.net/ docs/Legal%20Education%20as%20Training %20for%20Hierarchy_Politics%20of%20Law.pdf.

2 See, “Study on Women’s Experiences at Harvard Law School,” available at http://www.law.harvard.edu/ students/experiences/FullReport.pdf.

3 See, “Women and Law Review: An Historical Overview,” available at “http://www.hlrecord.org/news/2003/10/09/News/Women .And.Law.Review.An.Historical.Overview-524700.shtml.

4 See, http://www.hlrecord.org/ news/2002/04/18/News/Administration.Responds. To.Blsa.Demands.As.Students.Stage.Protest-399620.shtml

5 See, http://www.hlrecord.org/ news/2004/10/21/News/Students.Rally. Against.Military. Recruitment.On.Campus-776143.shtml.

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