The Six Credit Shift: Why We Should Lower the Number of Required Upper-level “Law Classroom Credits”

During the HLS admissions process, prospective students are often wooed by information about opportunities like clinics, independent studies with professors, and the ability to cross-register for courses throughout Harvard University. HLS delivers on all counts. However, the current reality is that many students are not able to pursue as many of these opportunities as they would benefit from and be willing to prioritize due to one of HLS’s stricter degree requirements: the upper-level law classroom requirement. This article is about that requirement, why it is problematic, and how it could easily be fixed.

HLS students are required to complete 52 credits total during their 2L and 3L years (averaging out to 26 credits per year). This well-earned scaling back from the minimum 36 credits required during 1L helps free up students to pursue lots of amazing curricular and extracurricular opportunities.

Some of the more popular upper-level curricular opportunities include clinics, independent writing projects supervised by a faculty member, and cross-registered coursework. HLS will accept up to 16 credits of clinical work, 12 credits in writing, and 12 cross-registered credits towards degree requirements. Framed in this way, the flexibility seems generous (16 + 12 + 12 = 40 credits!).

In actuality, the flexibility allowed is far less generous. This is because of the “upper-level law classroom requirement” requiring a minimum of 36 “law classroom credits” during 2L and 3L. Law classroom credits are not awarded for clinics, independent writing projects, or cross-registered courses. Thus, unless a student takes more than the required number of credit hours to graduate, the amount of clinical, independent writing, and cross-registered credits a student can take combined is only 16 credits. This means that any clinical, independent writing, or cross-registration credits an HLS student takes beyond the first 16 credits don’t contribute towards the total number of credits the student will have to take to graduate from HLS.

To illustrate, let’s turn to the stories of three smart, hardworking HLS 2Ls: Mia, James, and Skye. While these students are fictitious, the sorts of issues they encounter because of the upper-level law classroom credit requirement are very real.

Mia is in HLAB. She loves the work she does and is glad to be doing it. But it’s a lot of work. Mia receives 4 clinical credits per semester for her work in HLAB, which she will do for 4 semesters. (In fact, as is often the case with HLS clinical work, the number of hours that Mia puts into HLAB is far greater than is reflected in the 4 credits she receives per semester, but that’s another issue.) As a result, all 16 of the credits that Mia has to take a clinic, do an independent study, or cross-register are taken by HLAB.

Mia had wanted to cross-register for some computer sciences courses at Harvard, and has a couple of awesome paper ideas that she would love to do as independent studies. But if Mia pursues any of these opportunities, they will only add to the total number of credits Mia will have taken by graduation because they would have to be in addition to the 52 credits she is already committed to (16 in HLAB and her 36 upper-level law classroom credits). As a result, Mia won’t pursue any of these additional opportunities.

James loves Europe and EU law and would like to do work in international law by bringing US legal expertise with him to the EU. In order to help him pursue this end, James had hoped to cross-list for foreign language courses in French, German, and Italian. And because of the somewhat limited course offerings in EU law at HLS, James had also hoped to do a couple of independent studies with faculty members on topics of interest in EU law. He also thinks clinical work is really important and had hoped to do a clinic.

James’s original plan was to use all 12 cross-registered credits to take 4-credit German, French, and Italian courses, to do two 2-credit independent studies, and to take at least one 4-credit clinic. After learning about the classroom credit requirement, James has had to rethink his plans. Recently James decided against taking a clinic and is disappointed about it.

Skye thinks they want to be a law professor someday. Skye was an economics major in undergrad and wants to cross-register for several grad courses being offered in the economics department over the next couple of years. Skye also has a few paper ideas that they would like to work on as independent studies with faculty. Skye is very interested in both the Predatory Lending Clinic and the Health Law Clinic and would love to do both before graduating.

Skye, being aware of the upper-level law classroom requirement, considered doing more than the minimum amount of credits, but is on law review and the board of ACS and ultimately decided that they were too busy to take on more than the required number of credits. Skye has decided to unenroll from one of the econ courses, to do one less independent study than they had hoped to do, and to only do one clinic. (Their 16 credits will be spent in total with 8 credits of cross-registration, 4 credits in independent studies, and 4 in clinical hours). Just like Mia and Jack, Skye is not able to pursue a reasonable plan of their choosing for their legal education because of the upper-level law classroom credit requirement.

HLS students are smart, strategic thinkers whose diverse goals are suited to a wide variety of different training opportunities. Requiring 36 out of the 52 upper-level credits to be “law classroom credits” can inhibit sensible, well-developed plans for how to structure a legal education. As a student body we would greatly benefit from a simply change in the policy by reducing the number of upper-level law classroom credits required.

Take for example, if the number was lower from 36 to 30 credits. With this simple 6 credit shift, Mia would be able to take a computer science class and do an independent writing project over Jterm 3L year without having to add to the total number of credits she’s taking as a busy HLAB student. James would be able to take two 3-credit clinics while still being able to take his desired foreign language and independent study coursework. And Skye could take another economics course and either add a second semester of clinical work or take that other independent study they had in mind.

One might worry that lowering the total number of required law classroom credits may lead to students not getting enough black letter law. But with 30 upper-level law classroom credits still required, Mia, James, and Skye could each take Fourteenth Amendment, First Amendment, Evidence, Tax, Corporations, Admin Law, and Crim Pro and still have between 3-5 credits leftover for seminars. That’s far more black letter law than many HLS students take already.

On the face of things, there doesn’t appear to be a good reason not to lower the number of required upper level classroom credits required for graduation, and up to 560 reasons each year for the requirement to be lowered. I ask that the administration lower the number of required classroom credits somewhere in the range of 6-10 credits. If, as an HLS student, you’d like to see this requirement changed as well, please consider signing this petition. HLS claims to pride itself on diversity, and the chance to have diverse learning experiences should be reflected in the level of autonomy we’re given in creating our portfolio of learning opportunities.

Mark Satta is a 2L. He is a Record contributor.

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