Harvard Law Should Teach Hacking

Change is not something that comes easily to legal education. We still employ the casebook and Socratic methods adopted by Christopher Columbus Langdell in the 1870s. So the prospect of something new—a “Problem-Solving Workshop” (PSW)—sounded like an innovative, practical departure from the norm. After all, I came to law school for the same reason as many of my classmates: to learn how to use the law to solve particular social and economic problems.

I began to identify those problems when, after college, I moved to New York to set up mentoring programs in public high schools around the city. I loved working with kids, and I saw the difference that a meaningful relationship with a mentor could make in helping a student graduate high school.

But as much as the program helped individual high schoolers, it did little to change the underlying problems affecting students and their communities. If anything, the “individual success” model of mentoring masks the deeper, structural problems affecting low-income communities and communities of color across the country.

Year after year, new students showed up to school with the same problems as their older brothers or sisters—years behind in reading and math, left with inadequate school supplies and resources, and often working considerable hours to support their family.

There are few things in life that make me as happy as working with students. Yet my happiness turned to frustration and anger as I realized that my students had been robbed of a real shot—that they never really stood a chance.

Like so many of my peers, I believed law school was the way to address these structural injustices. I remember thinking, “I want to go to law school so I can change the laws that shape my students’ communities. So I can strike at the root of their problems.”

The sad truth is that law school teaches very little about this. Don’t get me wrong. I love law school. I spend my day reading fascinating texts, talking to inspiring people, and thinking about issues that are important to me. But, on the whole, law school has not helped me understand how to practically change the laws that shape my students’ communities.

PSW could be the ideal space to cultivate such “practical” knowledge. Instead, like much of law school itself, it merely narrowed our expectations of what was possible.

For many 1Ls, PSW is when they realize that HLS is preparing them to be a certain kind of lawyer. A kind of lawyer they did not anticipate being before law school. A kind of lawyer that, in many cases, acts against the public good they came to law school to serve.

For example, the first problem 1Ls faced this January required students to adopt the role of general counsel to a toy company. The company’s products, you discover, contain dangerous levels of lead. Your job is to clean up the PR mess. In doing so, students learn to view the negative “externalities” of their clients’ actions as public relations—rather than moral—problems.

Soon after, we are a prosecutor in the “balloon boy” case, where some senseless father tricked the media into videotaping his weather balloon. At present, America imprisons more of its citizens than any other country and disproportionately locks up poor citizens of color. The selection of the “balloon boy” case seems either blind to what prosecutors do or deliberately obscurantist about the moral dilemmas prosecutors face every day.

The case I most enjoyed was counseling the state EPA director on the approval of a coal permit. A local administrator came in to role-play the exchange with my team. When we encouraged her to approve the permit in order to get re-elected, she put us students in our place: “I have this job precisely because I care about this issue and precisely because I want to make decisions like this that will actually help people.” We left feeling uplifted. And scared—scared that our concern for the public caved so quickly in the face of political pressure. It was a valuable lesson and one that I’m fortunate to have learned.

It’s no surprise that PSW suffers from many of the same problems as law school generally, but it’s an incredible opportunity to address at least one of them: how to use the law to solve public problems. Not to resolve contract disputes, not to smooth over corporate malfeasance, but to address the real problems faced by the vast majority of Americans everyday.

In his recent chair lecture, Professor Lessig argued, “hacking is something lawyers should celebrate.” By “hacking,” he meant “the use of technical knowledge to advance a public good.” Unlike finding loopholes that serve private interests (tax loopholes, for example), the Professor used “hacking” to refer to the practice of finding loopholes that serve public interests (like organizing free but difficult to access information online).

Perhaps it is self-evident to say that law school does not teach “hacking.” Still, courses that teach students how to use their technical knowledge to advance a public good are few and far between. There is common recognition that the law is malleable, but rare acknowledgment that it may be deliberately and actively refashioned to serve the public good.

If, for whatever reason, the school cannot plan such a curriculum, then perhaps the school’s clinics could lead the way. Why not let the Criminal Justice Institute (CJI) run a problem on plea bargaining? Or have the Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB) lead a problem on a hypothetical foreclosure case?

So many of my peers came to HLS because they cared about solving a public problem—whether environmental, educational, economic, or otherwise.

It’s time for the school to teach students what they came here to learn—how to use their technical knowledge to advance the public good. PSW would be a great place to start.

Sean Hamidi is a 2L. Follow him on Twitter @SeanSHamidi.

The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Record.

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