Last week the press delivered a tsunami of praise for Dean Kagan’s tenure at Harvard Law School. The Boston Globe featured a glowing portrait of her improvements to the institution, particularly the school’s prominent new hires. The article, entitled “Crimson Tide,” was picked up by a number of national media outlets, and led to speculation that HLS would pass Yale in the next edition of U.S. News and World Report’s law school rankings.
For all the gloating over HLS’ enhanced academic prestige, however, the real world is slowly closing in on the coffee and bagels bonanza of the new Harvard Law. As the accolades poured in last week, Above the Law began reporting on serious cutbacks in legal hiring: some 2Ls’ callback interviews were being canceled, and others, who had shown up for callbacks, had not been extended offers. These moves came as many more law students accepted offers than firms had anticipated – students whose callbacks took place weeks ahead of HLS’. Above the Law cautioned that the stormy national economy’s widening gyre was poised to swallow HLS’ newfound pride.
Faced with these developments, many law school career offices admonished students to accept any job offers immediately. OCS did not follow suit. In an email that did not arrive in students’ inboxes until the weekend after fly-out week, it placidly asserted that firms’ problems were not widespread, and that there was no need to be concerned about accepting offers quickly. Of course, there was logic to back up OCS’ reasoning: one of the advantages of Harvard’s late interviews was that no other candidates were likely to be given offers later. Nevertheless, as firms collapse, dissolve, and lay off associates left and right, it may be time HLS acknowledges that it is not, for the most part, beyond the grip of the economy’s plunge. On Tuesday, OCS took a step in the right direction by directly emailing firms and asserting that they might be “missing the opportunity” to hire HLS students, but this only underscores the larger problem: HLS appears to believe it can solve the problem of declining competitiveness by brandishing the Harvard brand-name alone.
The dire state of the economy prompts a reconsideration of another HLS policy – the application of the new grading system. As Dean Kagan announced on Tuesday, 2Ls will be given letter grades for the remainder of this academic year, after which they will be assessed on the new scale. This was necessary, she asserted, because 2Ls were simultaneously concerned they would not be able to show academic improvement this year, yet eager to participate in the new system.
Better solutions to this problem had been proposed, including the ability of 2Ls who preferred letter grades to opt out of the new system. Several weeks ago, Dean Kagan herself said that it would not present a substantial burden for professors to grade some of their exams on another scale.Stanford’s solution – retroactively applying the new grading scale – might have also been preferable, erasing many of the flaws that students who wanted to show improvement feared. It may have also ensured that transcripts not become a disjointed patchwork of grading systems incomprehensible to – or worse, misunderstood by – employers, judges, or other graduate schools.
It is true, as the Globe article attests, that HLS has become a superior academic environment over the last few years. The question we must ask is: for whom? Law Review editor-in-chief Bob Allen ’09 recently bragged to the Yale Daily News that Dean Kagan had assembled “the greatest group of scholars ever to work in one place”. Not every student gets a chance to work with these high profile hires, however, thanks to a challenging course registration system and 1L classes that are still far larger than Yale’s. And while Prof. Jonathan Zittrain ’95 boasted to the Harvard Crimson that HLS is “eager to forge connections with…other disciplines,” we wonder if he’s looked very far beyond the Berkman Center: it’s still as hard as ever for students to cross-register for courses elsewhere in the university, let alone even hear what events are taking place there.
None of this is to deny that Dean Kagan’s tenure has brought an immense number of positive changes to the law students’ lives. If only for the sake of this year’s 2L class, however, HLS students need change that involves more than caffeine and cosmetics. That can start by taking a harder look at the implementation of the grading system, and a more realistic assessment of HLS’ vital toehold in the much less rosy real world.