The HLS 300 Project: Legal Challenges

Last year, in advance of the bicentennial, we invited students, staff and faculty to reflect on who we are and what we believe in as a school community.  With a focus on vocation-building, we asked three questions: (1) As we look to the past, who should we admire? (2) As we look to the future, what challenges are important? (3) As we look at the present, what are we being called to do?

We received dozens of submissions of: first, Harvard Law alumni, living and historic, with important legal vocations; second, important public challenges that merit the attention of our generation of lawyers; and third, exciting vocational goals of current Harvard Law students. To spur our collective reflection on who we are and where we want to go as a vocational community, below are submissions in response to the second question, “which challenges should we be tackling?”:

Legal Challenge #1: How can we promote economic development without displacement?

(Submitted by Dan Traficonte ’17)

Across the US and the rest of the world, economic growth demands space for new infrastructure, housing, and businesses. But new development often comes at the cost of displacing people—sometimes even entire communities.

Development without displacement is possible. e terms of economic development projects, most of them hashed out in contracts and in local land-use provisions, can be structured to minimize the displacement of communities and maximize the locally shared benefits of each new project.

Lawyers should work to create development for people, not just profit.

Legal Challenge #2: How can we restructure the family law system to reflect how families actually function

(Submitted by Gillian Schaps ’18)

Lawyers like rules—and we craft the law to function as a set of clear-cut, predictable rules. But if there is one thing that breaks this mold, it’s family.

Families come in all shapes and sizes, and thus far the law has been unable to keep up. Today outdated laws rip families apart when they don’t meet the two (cisgender, heterosexual) parent model.

We need to build flexibility and creativity into the laws that define and govern family life, rethinking parental rights and zero-sum frameworks. It’s time family law moves beyond white, normative views of the nuclear family to support the wide variety of loving, stable environments that enable people to grow and thrive.

Legal Challenge #3: How can we provide access to the justice system for indigent clients in civil matters?

(Submitted by Mitha Nandagopalan ’18)

The constitutional right to counsel only extends to criminal cases. Indigent civil litigants may therefore defend themselves in court without representation, but with their homes, jobs, and families at stake. They may be unaware of procedural deadlines and requirements, of the claims or defenses that they have a right to bring, and of the consequences of signing an agreement or accepting a settlement.

Pro se individuals struggling to vindicate their rights face a crisis in a system designed with the presumption that litigants will have counsel. We need to make the justice system more accessible, whether by establishing and enforcing civil Gideon or by restructuring the system itself to be more comprehensible and less burdensome for pro se litigants.

Legal Challenge #4: How can we guarantee that all basic human needs are met so that people can focus on innovation, creativity, and meaningful relationships instead of survival?

(Submitted by Daniel Wu ’17)

In our current system, many survive paycheck-to-paycheck due to the high costs of housing, feeding, and educating their families. Yet while many lack basic necessities, others have more than enough resources to provide to cover several lifetimes of these expenses.

When scarcities are salient, people cannot reach their full potential. Lacking the basic needs found at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy, we have no foundation on which we can build. Our structures not only cause suffering, then, but also waste human potential.

Imagine a society in which all people can engage in creative acts, innovation, and meaningful human relationships. We could better leverage our collective talent, capacity, and variety to advance and better society.

Legal Challenge #5: How can we innovate the law to be more inclusive of low-income people?

(Submitted by Mario Nguyên ’17)

The best statistics available report that only five percent of Harvard Law students come from the bottom 50 percent of the socioeconomic spectrum in the U.S. It is no wonder why our legal system not only largely ignores the problems low-income people face, but it also augments them.

It shouldn’t take a lawyer to be able to know – and exercise – your every day rights. We must start by reducing barriers to access the legal system and then revolutionize legal pedagogy to create law students who both consider the law’s implications on low-income people and reject the desire to have clients who are dependent on us to have a voice in the system of rules that govern our daily lives.

Ultimately, attorneys need to find ways to make ourselves unnecessary.

Legal Challenge #6: How can we build an effective international legal regime to combat the refugee crisis?

(Submitted by Katrina Braun, ’18)

There are really multiple refugee crises throughout the world. Indeed, according to the UN there are 65.3 million people displaced as of the end of 2015 – the highest number of displaced persons recorded at any time in history. Upwards of 20 million of these people are refugees, over half of whom are children.

Lawyers have an important part to play in managing these crises, both internationally in adapting the current worldwide regime to current circumstances and promoting compliance, and domestically in pushing for implementation of international standards and directly serving vulnerable populations to help them acquire documentation and navigate the legal hurdles to resettlement.

Legal Challenge #7: How can we build better child-sensitive legal frameworks to ensure the protection of our next generation?

(Submitted by Ha Ryong Jung (Michael) ’18)

Children around the world are suffering from weak legislation and inadequate law enforcement, whether in the courtrooms, detention facilities, institutions, schools, or homes. Especially in the field of juvenile justice, children are being indiscriminately shackled, subjected to incredibly harsh sentencing, forced to spend years in horrible detention without education or rehabilitation, and treated inhumanely in all steps of the justice system.

Children should not need to undergo the traumatic experience of being arrested by the police, standing in front of a judge, and being locked behind bars, especially when the system isn’t sensitive to their specific needs. The law should progressively find ways of better loving and caring for our kids, both at the systemic and implementation levels according to the context of each country.

Legal Challenge #8: How do we reduce the trauma the legal system inflicts on its litigants?

(Submitted by Gillian Schaps ’18)

Many individuals turn to the legal system to solve or fix a traumatic element of their life – they seek protection from physical or sexual abuse, to sever a controlling relationship, to keep a child safe. And while our courts offer legal interventions that can sometimes achieve those goals, the process isn’t easy. In fact it can take months of repeated court dates, hours of testimony about the traumatic experience itself, and coming face to face with your abuser dozens of times. Research tells us that many people would rather avoid the court system than seek its protection. Lawyers on the ground will tell you that litigation can make trauma worse by increasing animosity from parties who were already abusive and controlling.

So how do we reduce the burden on parties while still protecting due process? We think outside the box. Multiservice Centers are popping up around the country – they house lawyers, social workers, detectives, and forensic investigators all under one roof so a survivor of child abuse has to tell their story once and only once. We provide opportunities for shuttle mediation outside of court. We differentiate between cases that would actually benefit from legal force versus ones that are better suited for other interventions – housing assistance, relocation, social workers, family supports, rehabilitation. We get judges out of the courtroom and into community centers. Mostly, we stop pretending that the legal system can fix everything while also making it better at fixing the things that it can.

Legal Challenge #9: How can we make legal education accessible and affordable?

(Submitted by Mitha Nandagopalan ’18)

The cost of a legal education has skyrocketed in recent decades, well past inflation and wage growth over the same time period, to the point where law school graduates may find themselves carrying six-figure debt. It is in part this immense debt that pushes many recent law graduates, especially from elite law schools, into high-paying firms, even though there is substantial need for legal services in the public sector – and even though many of those students may have entered law school hoping to find public sector jobs and meet that need.

We cannot solve access to justice issues until we make legal educations more affordable and enable graduating lawyers to take jobs that address rather than perpetuate existing inequalities.

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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