Forget the Rankings – How Harvard Really Compares


A couple of weeks ago, The Record published the penultimate ranking of law schools according to Harvard Law students. In what was no doubt a concerted effort to rebuke the age-old accusation that Harvard grads are far too humble, the students ranked their school numero uno. While I’m certain nearly all of the students participating in the survey used a very sophisticated methodology, I suspect a few of the students may have pulled the numbers out of their ears (or some other orifice that probably wasn’t as close to the brain).

Aside from transfers, most of us can really only make a well-grounded comparison of the legal education at Harvard Law School to the legal education at Harvard Law School. Outside of that, we’re merely ranking according to perceived prestige and ego. While prestige is a strong factor in determining the opportunities a graduate receives, it speaks almost nothing to the real quality of the education. This is because prestige basically perpetuates itself regardless of the underlying substance until it is interrupted by acts of truly remarkable stupidity. And when your name is “Harvard” it takes a ridiculously long string of such acts before people dismiss them as aberrations – the entire 3L class could graduate thinking legal briefs should be worn as uncomfortable, disposable undergarments and over a hundred employers would still return for on-campus recruiting next year.

Which leaves us with the real question: how does the education at Harvard Law compare to other schools? I observed classes at Hastings College of Law in San Francisco over fly-out week, and it helped to shed some light on the matter. To keep the classroom experience as close as possible to my experiences here, I did absolutely none of the reading unless I was in serious danger of getting called on. Luckily for me and my gloriously lazy vacation plans, not being enrolled pretty much eliminated that danger.

One of the first differences I noticed between Harvard and Hastings is that the professors at Hastings would begin class in a Paper Chase-like way by asking for the facts of the case. I was amazed that anyone discussing the application of the law would pay significant attention to concepts as quaint as the conflict that gave rise to the case and the practical effect of the ruling on the parties. They acted like legal rules were somehow tethered to reality. It was almost as if the real world had some relevance to thinking like a lawyer. Pshaw! Here at Harvard we know reality is a thing for those lowly empiricists to toil in. Let them sort out what really happens; we have greater things to attend to. Like hypotheticals about what would happen to the statute of limitations if time stopped moving at a constant rate and all the trees in the Amazon died of Avian flu, causing a severe paper shortage that made filing difficult.

I also noticed that, in accord with popular myth, students at other law schools actually learn what the law is. While I know learning any law at law school may sound like crazy talk to some, I assure you no one at the school seemed to be insane or exhibiting any side effects of electroshock therapy. At Hastings, the professors asked pointed questions about a line of cases in order to bring out the controlling rule. The students were then asked to apply the rule of law in a number of hypotheticals, most of which had a probable answer.

This is in direct contrast to how things are done here at Harvard. We spend about half a nanosecond on the existing rule before diving into hypotheticals that have no real answers. We love to wallow in those areas where there’s no decisive rule to learn, making it hard for many us to understand what we’re learning aside from how to wallow, which would be great if we were going graduate to become hogs in a mud pen. A major part of our education is trying to stay awake and listen to our classmates argue whether under the existing code only three and three-quarters or a full four angels can dance on the head of a pin. As common as the never-ending hypotheticals are discussions about what the law should be, which occasionally has a tangential relationship to what the law actually is, but only in cases of bizarre coincidence. Harvard students must compare and contrast rules all the time and make the argument for what they feel is the best rule, despite the fact no one in their right mind would want someone in their twenties with little or no relevant life or legal experience to craft a rule. (Note: I am aware of how a number of appellate judges use their clerks, and the previous statement still holds true).

Also in contrast to Harvard, the professors at Hastings had a far greater tendency to lecture. Combined with the use of sharp, controlled questions, there was thankfully almost no room for gunnerism. I didn’t hear a single LLM begin an answer with “In my country…” or any long discussions between the professor and a single student who had a clinically fetishistic interest on a minute point of the doctrine.

But the Hastings professors much more readily inserted their own personal opinions and stated the counterargument to the adopted rule rather than having the students struggle with it themselves. In this and other instances, I sometimes felt the professor was giving the Hastings students too little credit, though perhaps some of it was probably merely an effort to expedite the learning process. This is in contrast to our classes where the professors occasionally give the students too much credit by inviting them to implement their own theories and reject the court’s analysis out of hand. Such a practice often leaves much of the class unsure as to what the important issues are (our classmates’ admission to Harvard certainly does not guarantee that their ideas aren’t crackpot) and ends up feeding the student’s superiority complex. Some approach in between Harvard and Hastings would be best, though admittedly I’d probably err on the side that my future alma mater errs time and time again.

In the end, I felt most of the differences in the classroom environment between the two schools stemmed from their respective educational philosophies. Whereas Harvard places more emphasis on its students being able to conduct a viable appellate (or academic) career, Hastings places more emphasis on its students being able to advise a client. We pay our Harvard tuition to learn a heck of a lot about the type of thinking required for appeals, which probably is much more difficult to learn from books or on the job after law school. But considering that the reality of legal practice is that almost no clients go to trial, much less appeal, you have to wonder whether the Harvard way really is the “smarter” way.

Taylor Dasher is a 3L who has compounded his sins of writing almost no columns this year by writing a sorta long-ass one.

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