Follow Professor King’s Lead: Without Experience with Legal Realities, 1Ls Left Unprepared to “Think Like A Lawyer”

It is often said that the purpose of Harvard Law School’s 1L curriculum is to prepare each student to “think like a lawyer.”  It would be much more accurate to say that the present curriculum aims to prepare each student to think like an attorney. The distinction is rarely articulated to students: an attorney is a legal representative to a specific client, while a lawyer is a member and caretaker of the legal profession, tasked with serving the justice system and advancing its public interest mission. Solely understanding important cases involving the major areas of law (Contracts, Torts, etc.) may be sufficient to “think like an attorney,” but if Harvard Law is interested in also helping each student to “think like a lawyer,” we must expand our 1L curriculum beyond solely case studies to include direct experience with the realities of the justice system.

Incorporation Legal Realities into the 1L Curriculum

There are three main ways to incorporate experience with legal realities into the mandatory 1L curriculum.

The first way is through visits from those who have been directly affected by the machinations of the justice system. These could include: discussions in Property courses with landowners who have been affected by eminent domain or creatives stymied by copyright laws; q-and-a’s in Criminal courses with those who have been incarcerated or been survivors of crime; panels in Torts courses with victims of environmental destruction who were made whole through civil litigation or hospital administrators who set up procedures to avoid medical malpractice suits; and chats in Legislation and Regulation courses with refugees who had to navigate our complex asylum system.

The second way is through visits from those who are, as Harvard Law’s mission statement challenges us to be, “leaders who contribute to the advancement of justice and well being of society.” This could include bringing: lawyers who advanced transformative tort cases to our Civil Procedure courses; criminal justice reformers who are advancing public safety through smarter corrections programs to our Criminal courses; and those working to ensure that consumers are not hoodwinked by small-print contracts to our Contracts courses.

The final way is through trips to the real-world sites of legal institutions. This could include visits to: courts, prosecutor offices, public defender offices, evening “know your rights” trainings with neighborhood groups, government agency offices, corporate interest law firms, public interest law firms, union worker interest law firms, public policy think tanks, grassroots community advocacy organizations, jails, prisons and immigration detention facilities.

When these issues have been raised with our administration, the standard response is that we do not need to integrate experience with legal realities into the mandatory 1L curriculum because one can voluntarily pursue real world experience through clinics, student practice organizations and other extracurriculars. Such a response makes one ponder what makes certain aspects of learning how to “think like a lawyer” mandatory while other are left voluntary. One could imagine, for example, a reasonable alternative arrangement where one hears talks and visits legal institutions in mandatory morning classes while having the option to learn case law in voluntary afternoon extracurriculars. The problem with that arrangement, of course, is that Harvard Law could not ensure that its degree-holders had learned blackletter law. Students would only learn the blackletter law of the areas in which they were predisposed to be interested.

Similarly, in the present arrangement, Harvard Law cannot ensure that its degree-holders have ever visited a prison, met an asylum-seeker, or saw what a public defender’s office looks like relative to that of a white collar defense firm. Voluntary elements of the Harvard Law experience are often sorted by what we were already predisposed to be interested in, resulting in the most important learning experiences — the future prison reformer hearing from a victims advocacy group, the future prosecutor learning from a formerly incarcerated person, the future corporate interest lawyer experiencing a union meeting or a visit with victims of corporate malfeasance, and the future government regulator meeting a startup entrepreneur — never happening. If we believe those experiences are necessary to “think like a lawyer” in 21st century America and if a Harvard Law degree is supposed to signify that its holders have been through the experiences necessary to “think like a lawyer,” then the curriculum of Harvard Law should incorporate those experiences. In short, we should put our mandatory 1L curriculum where our mouth is.

Professor Nancy King blazing the trail for an alternative

Unfortunately, for most Harvard Law 1Ls, the only mandatory experience with legal realities has been the Winter Term Problem-Solving Workshop’s required meeting with a representative from a corporate interest law firm. However, a visiting professor has blazed a trail in her Section 2 Criminal Law course that could serve as an inspiration for a 1L curriculum that forces Harvard Law students to face legal realities and thus better prepares each of us to “think like a lawyer.”

Professor Nancy King, a visiting professor this past Fall, had been taking her Vanderbilt students to corrections facilities for years. When King came to Harvard and was assigned to teach Section 2’s Criminal Law course, she continued the practice, working with the Dean’s office to arrange trips for her students to see local prisons and jails. She included the trips in her syllabus and encouraged her students to participate, explaining that such trips had impacted students in the past and that these trips would likely impact them as well.

At various points throughout the semester, groups of about twenty Section 2 students met early in the morning and traveled on Harvard buses to the facility they had selected from a list that included Framingham Women’s Prison, Cedar Junction State Prison, Concord Medium Security Prison and Nashua County Jail. Section 2 student Heather Artinian, who visited MCI Framingham, shared with me how her group spoke with correctional officers about “their process and experiences working in the system” and toured the prison’s segregation unit. Matthew Reardon’s group, who visited a medium security prison, saw the solitary confinement ward and learned how the prison goes through intake and daily rituals. They talked to an inmate in the prison’s educational wing, who explained to the group their processes of learning together and preparing for their reentry.

As King had expected, the experience was impactful on Section 2. David Kimball-Stanley, who visited a maximum security prison, described how the “powerful experience” gave his views on criminal justice some “important context.” Annie Manhardt was struck by how jarring it was to transition from taking a bus from a prison back to a law school classroom and how strange it was to hear her tour guides “pitch” their facility while walking past people locked up in cells. Artinian explained to me that, before their tour, she and her classmates may have “learned about the law and practiced the application in class,” but that only the tour gave her “a tangible image of what it means to send someone to prison.” It helped her “connect the implications of sentencing and charges with the end result.”  The tour, to Reardon, was a reminder of the human potential wasted by overzealous incarceration. “To see the waste… people withering away… [losing] a lot of their lust for life there,” made him feel “that they could be doing something productive for the world” and that there are “better ways to effect the purposes of punishment.”

The Section 2 students I spoke with believed such experiences with legal realities should be expanded at Harvard Law.  Kimball-Stanley told me that “it seems self-evident that the tours would be a good opportunity for law schools.”  Reardon believes “a lot of people come in without a real picture of what happens after sentencing” and that “it’s important for people who are thinking about going into criminal law to know what you’re really doing… to have a visceral sense of what happens.”  Annie Manhardt agrees, but believes experiences like these should be better integrated with “the actual curriculum” in “a careful way.”  “There needs to be a lot of conversations beforehand about what the experience is going to be like” she argued, and “there needs to be a lot of structured debriefing afterwards…incorporated into the classroom.”  

Manhardt’s right: one-off experiences are only the first step; they must be incorporated into the classroom curriculum. But Professor King’s import of experiential education was a great first step. We should build on her initiative by moving towards a 1L curriculum that fully integrates experiences with the realities of the legal system.  If we do not, our school may continue to produce competent attorneys. but will fall short of our duty to generate vigorous lawyers.

Pete Davis is a civic reformer from Falls Church, Virginia and a member of the Harvard Law School Class of 2018. Email Pete at Tweet at Pete at @PeteDDavis.