HLS200.org: A First Step Towards Re-Orienting Our Culture

You can tell a lot about the culture of a community by asking three questions:

  1. As the community looks to the past, whom does the community admire?
  2. As the community  looks toward the future, what challenges are deemed important?
  3. As the community looks at the present, which activities are worthwhile to the community?

What can we learn about ourselves, then, by asking these questions about Harvard Law School?

1. We admire the powerful and prestigious, while those working to meet legal needs in more ordinary ways are given second-tier status.

At Harvard Law School, we adorn our library walls with large paintings of famous alumni who became powerful jurists. We line the hallways of the campus center with photos of tenured professors. We name our new buildings and rooms after deans and wealthy donors. In our classrooms, we swoon over clever writing, analytical prowess, and complicated ideas. We hold up sharp-witted geniuses as the heroes of our new profession.

Meanwhile, we overlook the heroic efforts of many public servants. No prominent painting depicts Reginald Heber Smith, the HLS alumnus who popularized legal aid for the poor with his groundbreaking 1919 book, Justice and the Poor, or Mary Howell, the HLS alumnus who fought to open up medical schools to women. No photos in the WCC hall celebrate our daily clinical instructors or staff. There is no building named after Bryan Stevenson, the HLS alumnus whose Equal Justice Initiative is carrying on the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, or after Gary Bellow or Jeanne Charn, the HLS dynamic duo who set the standard for clinical instruction at American law schools. And importantly, we rarely discuss the efforts of lawyers who make riskier and less prestigious career choices in order to meet the legal needs of underserved and undervalued populations.

2. We prioritize our individual, personal challenges over our generational, public challenges.

At Harvard Law School, discussion about our future challenges often revolves around our own personal employment goals. At orientation, we learn about all the different career paths we could take and how each one bodesfor our lifestyle and reputation. During our 1L year, we endlessly discuss how different activities will lead to different opportunities. These choices are framed as individual ones, with even family, friendships, and community involvement  treated as things to be “balanced” with one’s career (or leveraged to facilitate it).

Meanwhile, we often fail to discuss our generation’s challenges — the challenges facing the legal system that we, together, are called to help address. Although Canon 8 of the ABA Model Code of Professional Ethics requires lawyers to “participate in proposing and supporting legislation and programs to improve the legal system, without regard to the general interests or desires of clients or former clients,” we rarely think about how we can help to identify and meet the legal system’s pressing needs. It is telling that our school’s 47-point law firm assessment grid — which includes criteria such as “Notable Perks,” “Library,” “Mentoring,” and “Revenue per lawyer” — contains only one point (“commitment to pro bono/community service”) about “advancing justice and societal well-being,” which is what our mission statement calls our school to be about.

3. We deem activities that expand our career options worthwhile, but make no time to ask what we’d like the effect of our careers to be.

It’s a law school trope: we’re busy. And if you believe the hype, Harvard Law School students might be the busiest people in the country. Still, we all find time to fit another SPO, affinity group, RA position, and so on into our schedule as we seek to craft the best resume possible to preserve the maximum number of career options. In subtle and overt ways, we are instructed to always consider how our current steps are queueing up our next opportunities. The message is reiterated in campus organizations pitches or calls to get to know your professors, and in career office recommendations that instruct students interested in the D.C. legal market to work for federal agencies that govern “the types of clients that have government problems and deep pockets” so as to develop “context and skills to re-apply to the private sector.”

Meanwhile, we find little space to explore the idea of developing a vocation: of assessing what is important and what is not, of making commitments to things bigger than ourselves, of foregoing options for the sake of doing what it takes to advance the law. When asked by Humans of New York about the time he felt the most broken, HLS alumnus Barack Obama explained that any time he was worried about himself — anytime he was asking “Am I succeeding? Am I in the right position? Am I being appreciated?” — he snapped out of it by reminding himself that “it’s about the work”: “if you can keep it about the work, you’ll always have a path… there’s always something to be done.” Vocation-building is about discovering what “The Work” is for ourselves. It is about practicing the virtue of snapping out of self-focused questions, so that we can return, over and over again, to the work that needs to be done. But here, when we ask each other if we are succeeding, if we are in the right position, or if we are being appreciated, we too often answer with a resounding “Yes.” Perhaps we are asking and answering the wrong questions.

An Alternative Direction: www.HLS200.org

Yes, an individualist, career-building ethos that values prestige and power has come to grip our campus culture. But it does not have to be this way. We can come together to take a first step towards a different culture: a more solidaristic, vocation-building culture that values civic-mindedness and public problem-solving.

It is with this belief that we, in advance of Harvard Law School’s bicentennial next year, have come together to launch The Third Century Project, an initiative aimed at imagining how Harvard Law can better live out its stated mission of “educating leaders who contribute to the advancement of justice and well-being of society.” We envision a third century for Harvard Law School centered on legal vocation-building in the public interest, in which the nation’s oldest law school prioritizes training students to improve the legal system for the common good.

To kick off The Third Century Project, we are starting with these same three questions that orient campus culture:

  1. Who should we admire?
  2. What challenges are important? and
  3. What activities are worthwhile?

To do this, we are are launching The HLS 200, a project of compiling and promoting three “200s” submitted by students, alumni, professors and staff:

  1. The PAST 200: 200 Harvard Law alumni and affiliates, living and historic, who advanced the public interest through their legal career.
  2. The PRESENT 200: 200 public challenges, broad and specific, in need of our generation’s attention Examples could include “how can we roll back mass incarceration?” to “how can we regulate developments in biotechnology?”
  3. The FUTURE 200: 200 vocational goals of present Harvard Law students, professors and staff. We will be gathering recordings — in text and video form — of these vocational goals over the coming months.

Once we have finished the project’s participatory compilation phase, we will promote the submitted materials throughout the school via the web, video, events, pamphlets and art.

If you have an alumnus worthy of recognition, a challenge that needs our legal generation’s attention, and/or a vocation you wish to share with our community, we hope you can submit at www.HLS200.org.

We have only been working on this project for a few weeks and we have already received dozens of wonderful submissions from around the school. Students and staff have submitted hundreds of HLS alumni and affiliates: from David Grossman, who spent decades fighting for tenant rights, to Alana Greer, who founded a community lawyering organization in southern Florida. They have spotlighted dozens of generational challenges, from “how can we responsibly manage health data?” to “how can we protect those whose homes will be lost by climate change?” They have signed up in droves to share their vocation with our community. If you have not submitted already, we hope you will at www.HLS200.org.

To close, we would like to note one common response to our project. Many of us like the idea of celebrating alumni of this kind, of collaborating to list legal challenges, and of making vocational commitments, but we struggle to think of an alumnus, an issue, or a goal to share. In response, we say: “that’s exactly why we need a project like this!” Regardless of any end product that comes out of HLS200.org, we are most excited about the opportunity it can provide for our community to take time to reflect on these important questions.

As we prepare to celebrate the bicentennial of Harvard Law School next year, we hope this little project can be a first step towards re-orienting our culture in preparation for a civic third century.

Nate Szyman and Pete Davis are members of the Class of 2018 and co-directors of The HLS 200, a campaign of the Third Century Project, an initiative aimed at imagining how Harvard Law can better live out its stated mission of “educating leaders who contribute to the advancement of justice and well-being of society.”

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