An Open Letter to the Harvard Law Review: Break Open HLS’ Inner Ring

Dear Editors of the Harvard Law Review,

In 1944 at the University of London, C.S. Lewis gave a speech entitled “The Inner Ring,” in which he warned the audience about a perennial human failing that would not be unfamiliar to Harvard Law School students a half a century later. In the speech, he described how inside any community — in “whatever hospital, inn of court, diocese, school, business or college you arrive” — you will find Inner Rings: exclusive internal communities on which you find yourself on the outside.  If you break into any of the Inner Rings, Lewis explains, you will find “that within the ring there [is] a Ring yet more inner.”  To Lewis, the desire to enter the next Inner Ring — and the terror of being left outside — is one of the dominant forces in our lives.

He warned the audience against becoming an “inner ringer”: one who — whether “pining and moping outside Rings that you can never enter, or by passing triumphantly further and further in” — organizes his or her life around breaking into evermore exclusive communities. When we become Inner Ringers, Lewis warned, we run two risks.

First, when the next Inner Ring is perceived as so close and the reward for entry is perceived as so much — when “the cup [is] so near your lips”; when “it would be so terrible to see the other man’s face…turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected” — we become willing to bend the rules and sacrifice our values to get inside.  “And then, if you are drawn in,” Lewis cautioned, “next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still.”  Just like with any addiction, what one is willing to do to get their fix will spiral out of control, and the end will be a bottoming out, either externally, in scandal, or internally, in quiet dissatisfaction.

Second, the desire to enter the next Inner Ring is one that is never sated.  To build one’s life around the desire, Lewis argues, is to become like the mythic Greek Danaids: condemned to fill a perforated jug of water for the rest of eternity. As an Inner Ringer, “you are trying to peel an onion” and “if you succeed there will be noting left.”  

To avoid this fate, Lewis advises that we must “conquer the fear of being an outsider,” break the Inner Ring and become craftsmen, believing in our work as an end in itself:

The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it. But if you break it, a surprising result will follow. If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it. This group of craftsmen will by no means coincide with the Inner Ring or the Important People or the People in the Know. It will not shape that professional policy or work up that professional influence which fights for the profession as a whole against the public: nor will it lead to those periodic scandals and crises which the Inner Ring produces. But it will do those things which that profession exists to do and will in the long run be responsible for all the respect which that profession in fact enjoys and which the speeches and advertisements cannot maintain.

Here at Harvard Law School, we are especially susceptible to Inner Ringing. I think it is safe to assume that the desire for “being on the inside” was a major reason in why we all applied to come here. But this desire, as Lewis argued seventy years ago, is a danger. And this desire, in America — a nation built on the democratic faith in open institutions where all people, not just a select few, possess the constructive genius to co-create our shared world — is a vice. We should be working together to wean ourselves off this desire and become a community of sound craftsmen, devoted to our work — work, as our school’s mission statement impels, to advance justice and societal well-being — as an end in itself.  

Unfortunately, as it is currently structured, the Harvard Law Review, which selects about 8% of students to be welcomed into Gannett House each year and leaves hundreds of our community members outside, feeds this dangerous desire.  It is time to open up the Review — to break open Harvard Law School’s Inner Ring — and let any student who wants to participate to participate. This is assuredly workable: if the Review truly is the most impactful law journal in the country, it certainly has challenges, research opportunities, and areas of development and expansion to which more students could be of use.

Some may argue that exclusion is a fact of life. Indeed, Lewis draws a distinction between accidental or necessary exclusion versus Inner Rings that exist solely to exclude:

In any wholesome group of people which holds together for a good purpose, the exclusions are in a sense accidental. Three or four people who are together for the sake of some piece of work exclude others because there is work only for so many or because the others can’t in fact do it. Your little musical group limits its numbers because the rooms they meet in are only so big. But your genuine Inner Ring exists for exclusion. There’d be no fun if there were no outsiders. The invisible line would have no meaning unless most people were on the wrong side of it. Exclusion is no accident; it is the essence.

We should ask ourselves whether the Review’s desire to exclude resembles the former or the latter: whether its policy of exclusion is necessary due to a lack of available tasks or whether its policy of exclusion is because “there’d be no fun if there were no outsiders.” If it is the former — if there are not a sufficient number of tasks to welcome all interested students on staff — I would challenge the Review to have a higher estimation of its own civic potential. There are major crises in the law — mass incarceration, unequal access to justice, a weakened tort system that leaves consumers unprotected, and the institutional failure of Congress, to name just a few — that a larger, more ambitious Review could better help tackle. It would be a shame to let these crises go unnoticed by the Review next year due to a lack of staffing precipitated solely by a desire to exclude.

One can understand that there may be a certain pleasure that comes from being on the inside, watching the outsiders work hard to come in and selecting those who you believe deserve and do not deserve to join you. But, as Lewis reminds us, this pleasure is fleeting. What is not fleeting is the joy of good work.  And there is much good work to be done. End the Review‘s exclusion system so that students can get back to focusing on this work, rather than on entering the next Inner Ring.


Pete Davis
Harvard Law School, Class of 2018

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.