Letter: Harvard should consider shorter, less expensive law degree


Open reply letter to John F. and Lynn A. Saverese, both J.D. Class of 1981, who are  soliciting funds for supporting financial aid and scholarships at Harvard Law School.
Dear John and Lynn Savarese,

The letter I just received from the two of you in your roles as Co-Chairs of the Harvard Law School Fund is the second such plea.  I don’t know how I am to interpret the shift from April to September in the salutation from “Dear Mr. Fisher” to “Dear Frank”.  As far as I know we have never met nor communicated directly, but I am going to accept the “Dear Frank” as an invitation to be as candid with you as if we did know each other.

How am to interpret your letter?  Surely, as a personal endorsement of the need for money to help finance student aid. But I wonder if you have given the matter the same review and attention you would give to the testimony of one of your clients in an important law suit.  For that matter, on whose behalf are you writing, on behalf of our law students or on behalf of the faculty and the school?

On cross-examination you might concede that the Law School could ease financial strain on students without reducing the quality of the J.D. degree.  One way would be to drop the third year, or postpone it to mid-career.       

Most of our students intern with law firms after the second year, and if found able are hired.  But we then require them to return to Cambridge for a third year in residence, adding to large student debt and, most significantly,  to forego a year’s earnings.  It is suggested that in the third year students can gain from “clinical” work, but “clinical work” sounds like what a young lawyer could do in a firm and be paid for. It is also said that the third year permits training in a legal specialty.  But at the outset of a career a student can not be sure about a specialty and in the third year often ends up working on the specialty of interest to a professor.

Northwestern University Law School now offers both three-year and two-year J.D. degrees.  Let’s watch how the market values the two. Clearly, the savings to students of a two-year program would dwarf any financial aid which might be received as a result of fund-raising efforts such as yours. Would you agree that a two-year program is something Harvard should consider as a way to help students?

Let me be clear. It does not make me less loyal to the Law School to wish it to consider changes. Since my great grandfather Henry Dummer attended the school (in 1829-30 as one of its first handful of students) the School has changed in big ways. And changes were experienced by my father and his two law school-attending brothers as well.  I simply wish the Law School might now lead the country to more cost-efficient legal education – as an alternative to funding the status quo, or as your letter suggests the status quo with bells and whistles.
Francis Dummer Fisher ’51       
Senior Research Fellow,
LBJ School of Public Affairs
University of Texas at Austin

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