Take Advantage of Opportunities to Learn at HLS

The world you have entered as 1Ls is both daunting and exhilarating. Daunting mostly because ours is a time of broken politics, and – as most of you no doubt already know – the legal and political systems are densely interwoven. Exhilarating because you’re embarking on an adventure of learning about the most challenging puzzles of the legal process and the most innovative ways of tackling them, the areas in which human rights and needs are most neglected or overridden and the most effective ways to contribute to solving the problems underlying such conditions. As you’ll soon discover, those puzzles mix questions about history with moral and ethical challenges; questions about economics and behavioral science with inquiries into the limits of precision, modeling, and quantification; questions about geopolitics with matters of justice both domestically and internationally.

It’s not my role to offer advice on behalf of the school or its faculty, so I’ll just do my best to make some personal suggestions that I hope will prove useful.

First but not necessarily foremost, dig deeply into the materials you’re assigned and read around, as well as into, the specific topics you’re asked to study. Don’t hesitate to look things up – not just google unfamiliar terms or novel concepts but wander around related material – even if it means wandering to places, including libraries, that might seem to be far afield. And don’t try to leave behind whatever your education and experience have taught you before you got here: the myth that this is a place where you’ll “learn to think like a lawyer” contains a germ of truth but is mostly false. And try not to forget how to speak non-legalese, to formulate legal ideas and arguments in terms that non-lawyers can comprehend and appreciate.

Second, do your best to remain open-minded about everything you’ve brought with you to this place. You may think you’re confident about some things and confused about others but are likely to discover, if you approach your time here in a spirit of inquiry, that what you thought you knew is worth reexamining and what you thought you were confused about really isn’t all that puzzling. That means challenging premises without automatically assuming that the imperfect solutions of the past have little or nothing to teach you. There is wisdom in the accumulated norms and practices of those who came before you, deriving from every corner of the planet and arising from a not always shared past. Availing yourself of that wisdom means not being too sure that the horizons of our legal and political universe are irreversibly closing in on us – or that those who disagree with you politically are misguided (to put it politely) – if you happen to be appalled, as I am, by our nation’s current leadership and the directions in which it appears to be leading us. But it also means not being too sure, if you happen to like where our leaders are taking us, that those who are dismayed are just sore losers who aren’t worth listening to taking seriously.

Third, learn from one another and from the world around you and not just from the materials assigned and the teachers who lead your classes. Doing that means speaking up in class even when you think you may be on shaky ground, listening to what your classmates say, and taking advantage of the dizzying array of clinical and other opportunities available outside class. You can make a positive difference in people’s lives long before you graduate with a JD degree. Doing that is a responsibility. And the members of your 1L class are an astonishingly rich resource for that purpose. Learn from them. Work with them. One of the things that makes Harvard Law School the great institution it remains to this day is that the student body is, on the whole, pretty spectacular. It has gotten better – more interesting, interested, diverse, and deep as well as just plain smarter – nearly every year since I started teaching here fully fifty years ago, roughly when most of your parents were little kids or hadn’t yet been born.

Fourth, don’t let the obvious talent and diligence of those seated around you in class discourage you. If you think you’re the smartest person around, you’re almost certainly wrong and in any event would be wrong to act on that arrogant premise. Students who speak up the most often and voice their views with the greatest confidence might be the leaders of the next generation. Or they might just be jerks. And if you think you’re slower than most, rest assured that’s equally unlikely to be the case. Although it may seem to be a truism that the average student here is, well, somewhere in the middle of a really impressive group, the truth is that there’s no vector along which potential to benefit from this school can be meaningfully measured. If you harbor the doubt that you really “deserve” to be here, that something beyond your control gave you an undeserved boost, rest assured that nobody makes it to this law school without a lot of luck, that nobody is “entitled” to the unusual opportunities that being here affords or “deserves” to be part of this privileged cohort. So try to find your special talents and nurture them; realize that flattening the hills and valleys of ability to come out with a single measure of legal ability is basically an exercise in BS. Most of you were high achievers wherever you went to college; many of you emerged at what seemed like the top of the heap. Here, you’ll discover that the many qualities that matter most – creativity, perseverance, generosity of spirit, empathy, clarity and force of expression, the ability to see connections that others might miss – are present in abundance in each and every one of you. Form study groups and come to see the mastery of law and the recognition of its possibilities and its limitations as a mostly cooperative rather than purely competitive venture. There’ll be plenty of time to compete in the world out there; this is a time to collaborate and make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Make friends here; many of the friendships you form will last a lifetime.

Among those friends you should try to include some of the professors here. Some of my closest friends even today are former students I met when they were 1Ls at HLS years ago. Don’t wait till you’re a 2L to visit faculty in their offices and get to know some of the teachers at this place. Most of them are a lot less scary than you might have imagined. Quite a few hire RAs from the 1L class. I had a 1L RA last year who did really great work. Among my prior 1L RAs were an award-winning scholar and professor who now has a named chair at William and Mary Law School, Tara Grove, JD 2002, and someone else you’ve probably heard of: Barack Obama, JD 1991.

Fifth, take time to walk along the Charles and explore the natural world around you, to experience the seasons, to listen to music and visit the art museums (both the Harvard Art Museums and those in Boston, like the MFA and the Gardner and the ICA), read novels and go to some movie theaters (watching Netflix is fine but not enough), and try your best to avoid the narrow silos into which the internet tends to cluster us and limit our horizons. Law school is serious business, but life and love remain by far the most important.

Sixth, don’t let the pressures of the moment obscure your efforts, not just yet but over time, to formulate long-term goals, goals that relate both to what is most likely to give you a fulfilling life and to what you can do to make the society, and the world, better places than when you entered them. You needn’t know right now what sector of law you want to specialize in; increasingly, there is horizontal movement among legal fields and among law, government, academia, the NGO sector, and many others. If you come here with your post-HLS life all planned out, you’re bound to miss out on far too much.

Seventh and last, enjoy yourselves. It may be a cliché that the opportunity to learn, to expand your vision, at a school like this is a chance of a lifetime. But things don’t become clichés unless they express important truths. You’re really fortunate to have made it to this awesome Law School. One day, you’ll hopefully pay it forward. For now, you have the luxury to experience what you’ve been lucky enough to have ahead of you.

Larry Tribe

Larry Tribe is the Carl M. Loeb University Professor and Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School. He is a member of the Harvard Law School Class of 1966.

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