Harvard Law Should Teach Hacking

Change is not something that comes easily to legal education. We still employ the casebook and Socratic methods adopted by Christopher Columbus Langdell in the 1870s. So the prospect of something new—a “Problem-Solving Workshop” (PSW)—sounded like an innovative, practical departure from the norm. After all, I came to law school for the same reason as many of my classmates: to learn how to use the law to solve particular social and economic problems.

I began to identify those problems when, after college, I moved to New York to set up mentoring programs in public high schools around the city. I loved working with kids, and I saw the difference that a meaningful relationship with a mentor could make in helping a student graduate high school.

But as much as the program helped individual high schoolers, it did little to change the underlying problems affecting students and their communities. If anything, the “individual success” model of mentoring masks the deeper, structural problems affecting low-income communities and communities of color across the country.

Year after year, new students showed up to school with the same problems as their older brothers or sisters—years behind in reading and math, left with inadequate school supplies and resources, and often working considerable hours to support their family.

There are few things in life that make me as happy as working with students. Yet my happiness turned to frustration and anger as I realized that my students had been robbed of a real shot—that they never really stood a chance.

Like so many of my peers, I believed law school was the way to address these structural injustices. I remember thinking, “I want to go to law school so I can change the laws that shape my students’ communities. So I can strike at the root of their problems.”

The sad truth is that law school teaches very little about this. Don’t get me wrong. I love law school. I spend my day reading fascinating texts, talking to inspiring people, and thinking about issues that are important to me. But, on the whole, law school has not helped me understand how to practically change the laws that shape my students’ communities.

PSW could be the ideal space to cultivate such “practical” knowledge. Instead, like much of law school itself, it merely narrowed our expectations of what was possible.

For many 1Ls, PSW is when they realize that HLS is preparing them to be a certain kind of lawyer. A kind of lawyer they did not anticipate being before law school. A kind of lawyer that, in many cases, acts against the public good they came to law school to serve.

For example, the first problem 1Ls faced this January required students to adopt the role of general counsel to a toy company. The company’s products, you discover, contain dangerous levels of lead. Your job is to clean up the PR mess. In doing so, students learn to view the negative “externalities” of their clients’ actions as public relations—rather than moral—problems.

Soon after, we are a prosecutor in the “balloon boy” case, where some senseless father tricked the media into videotaping his weather balloon. At present, America imprisons more of its citizens than any other country and disproportionately locks up poor citizens of color. The selection of the “balloon boy” case seems either blind to what prosecutors do or deliberately obscurantist about the moral dilemmas prosecutors face every day.

The case I most enjoyed was counseling the state EPA director on the approval of a coal permit. A local administrator came in to role-play the exchange with my team. When we encouraged her to approve the permit in order to get re-elected, she put us students in our place: “I have this job precisely because I care about this issue and precisely because I want to make decisions like this that will actually help people.” We left feeling uplifted. And scared—scared that our concern for the public caved so quickly in the face of political pressure. It was a valuable lesson and one that I’m fortunate to have learned.

It’s no surprise that PSW suffers from many of the same problems as law school generally, but it’s an incredible opportunity to address at least one of them: how to use the law to solve public problems. Not to resolve contract disputes, not to smooth over corporate malfeasance, but to address the real problems faced by the vast majority of Americans everyday.

In his recent chair lecture, Professor Lessig argued, “hacking is something lawyers should celebrate.” By “hacking,” he meant “the use of technical knowledge to advance a public good.” Unlike finding loopholes that serve private interests (tax loopholes, for example), the Professor used “hacking” to refer to the practice of finding loopholes that serve public interests (like organizing free but difficult to access information online).

Perhaps it is self-evident to say that law school does not teach “hacking.” Still, courses that teach students how to use their technical knowledge to advance a public good are few and far between. There is common recognition that the law is malleable, but rare acknowledgment that it may be deliberately and actively refashioned to serve the public good.

If, for whatever reason, the school cannot plan such a curriculum, then perhaps the school’s clinics could lead the way. Why not let the Criminal Justice Institute (CJI) run a problem on plea bargaining? Or have the Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB) lead a problem on a hypothetical foreclosure case?

So many of my peers came to HLS because they cared about solving a public problem—whether environmental, educational, economic, or otherwise.

It’s time for the school to teach students what they came here to learn—how to use their technical knowledge to advance the public good. PSW would be a great place to start.

Sean Hamidi is a 2L. Follow him on Twitter @SeanSHamidi.

The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Record.

Closes a Door, Opens a Bottle

Note: This series is fictional.


FROM: Lisa Burns

SUBJECT: Fall 2012 Grades Now Available



Fresh off a resoundingly successful run of Solving Problems, Fenno was strolling to his first bit of Crim when his phone buzzed. In retrospect, you’d say “buzzed ominously,” but come on, that thing goes off about 85 times a day with crucial email dispatches (“Queueing Theory, Salad Bars, and You: A Message From Restaurant Associates”), and besides—three weeks of pass-fail stakes have a way of driving these sorts of things from one’s mind. But anyway. With the full benefit of hindsight, we can now say “buzzed ominously,” because that subject line sent a shiver down Fenno’s spine.


To dispense with the suspense, Fenno’s grades were fine. I mean, they’re not going to be naming any buildings after him in 100 years, but on the whole things could have been a lot worse. The author does not wish to leave that drama hanging over the remainder of the piece. Fenno himself isn’t going to have a chance to check HELIOS until after class, but there’s no reason we can’t get this out in the open now.


The First-Year’s Guide to the Law School’s “Grades” entry contains a subsection on “Getting Your First Results.” Fenno skimmed it while he walked to Austin:

Brace yourself. There are those who will try to talk you down, console you with stories about how Professor So-And-So TOTALLY got an embarrassing grade on an exam one time, and look how that turned out. Do not listen to these people. Like it or not, your 1L grades are pretty much the most important thing that comes out of law school. At most, your 2L grades come into play depending on when you start hunting for your second summer job, but if you’re a properly soulless EIP-type even those don’t matter.

If you’re at this school, there’s a… fairly good chance you’ve been getting good grades for a while. With that comes a better-than-average chance of being terrified of closing off any doors to possible futures: as long as your grades are solid, you can keep pushing off the “my life means this now” day of reckoning. That ends now. A good chunk of your fellow first-years just received confirmation that they’ll never be clerking on the Supreme Court or working for Wachtell. Now, this is fine. Life continues. You will not be thrown out of school. But if you’re part of the set who’s been living each day chasing that awesome sticker that says “Grape Job!” and there’s a little bunch of grapes with a smiley face and when you scratch it it smells like grapes, it’s time to get that soul-searching out of the way. This problem is particularly acute among those affected by Small Pond Syndrome. 

“Small Pond Syndrome” is cross-referenced:

A particular affliction common among small-town, state-school types. These kids come to Harvard from the top of their classes at middle-of-the-road schools, eager to test themselves in the big-leagues. Symptoms include an outwardly indifferent, folksy-charm manner masking an inner fear that they’re not really very smart at all and will be rapidly exposed as frauds leading to expulsion, shame, and ditch-digging. Remedied by an early Low-Pass and an evening with an old friend.


Fenno’s Crim class was one of those cruel, laptop-free affairs, delaying any immediate HELIOS run. (And HELIOS on a phone is the sort of hell only wished on one’s worst enemies.) This left him plenty of time to stew, to craft elaborate contingency plans, to steel himself for what was to come. (Here your narrator is compelled to remind you that everything turns out fine, and no grim fate awaits your protagonist.) A like mood hung over most of the class; you could tell who checked their phones on the way over on the basis of each unfortunate soul’s glazed-nervous look.

Post-class, walk back. Chevy was reclined in the common-room, bag of Haribo and a sixer within reach.

“Whoa there. You in some kind of hurry? Kick back, crack a barley-pop. Maury’s on.”

Fenno relayed the situation in re the unfortunate email and his current mission w/r/t computer access. He expected the characteristically blasé response typical of any Chevy/academics intersect. Instead, solemnity:

“Hmmmm. Yes.”

The first-year retired to his chambers, poured a stiff one, and logged in. Turns out, everything was fine. I mean, they’re not going to be naming any buildings after him, but… Anyway. More important things are afoot: is he the father or not?

“Fenno” is a fictional serial written by an anonymous law student. The main character is always named Fenno and is always a 1L, but his or her character changes every school year. This installation is part of the series for the 2012-13 School Year, entitled “Fenno: Mostly Harmless.”


Fenno and the Final Countdown

Note: This series is fictional.

The First-Year’s Guide to the Law School has this to say on the subject of Thanksgiving break:

They say that time is an illusion; the reading period, doubly so. Law students have for decades observed the strange changes in the rate of time’s passage that occur each and every late-November. Tests that seem, when pondering them over a pile of dried-out turkey, to be eons away, suddenly upon a return to Cambridge accelerate over the chronological horizon with alarming speed. Or, put another way: oh no, tests soon.

Fenno was with his study group, talking through an old Torts issue-spotter and quickly realizing that he had not spotted very many issues at all. He’d barely come up with anything for the question about the landlord who didn’t repair the showerhead with a design defect that caused it to fire ball bearings at near-supersonic speeds instead of emitting water like it should’ve. That probably should have been caught at some point in the R&D.

“Christ,” sighed Fenno, “how do you guys catch all of this stuff? I’ve got a 50-word answer.”

“Oh, for this one the outline I got from ACS had all kinds of good stuff. But for that last one, I got a lot out of the FedSoc stuff. That one’s a bit shorter.”

“Wait. How short is ‘shorter’?”

“This one’s…what, 75 pages? Sounds about right.”

Fenno swallowed, hard, and quickly minimized his 13-page torts outline.

The Guide, on “outlines”:

It is vital to accumulate as many outlines as possible, from any and all sources. Do not shy away from making gray-market deals for bootleg outlines from student orgs you’ve never heard of; accumulating this wealth of past knowledge is one of two known purposes of these organizations.

Here the guide cross-references “Lunch.” The “outlines” entry continues:

A phenomenon dubbed “outline envy” by the health center is natural and healthy. A good 1L will quickly realize that the number of outlines in her collection is rivaled in importance only by their length. An outline should be easily consultable under time pressure, in order to alleviate the need to actually retain any information. Thus, an outline should be kept at a reasonable length. The classically accepted formula for determining the rough target-length of an outline is as follows:

(Length of the course’s casebook)/2 * (your worth as a student and a human)3 + 42

The equation’s result can be then adapted to fit your personal idiosyncratic habits, and to make sure it’s at least as long as everybody else’s.

It was late, and Fenno was hunched over a five-year-old Civ. Pro. exam. Chevy wandered past the younger’s open door, either going to or coming from the bar. He paused.

“Did I or did I not see you in the same position six hours ago?”

Fenno sighed. “Perhaps. But these tests loom large; the fear of the LP is strong.” He paused for a beat. “Don’t you have any exams?”

“Oh, sure. Four of ‘em. Better than actually having to write a paper; turns out, when you have more time people expect something resembling quality. Gotta embrace those low expectations.”

“So…you do…study, yes?”

“That would be one word for it.” With that, he was gone.

Fenno paused, and looked down at his 23rd practice exam. He pulled up his measly 17 pages of Civ. Pro. outline, and for a minute thought about plugging it into the Guide’s equation to solve for personal worth, and thought better of it. He poured a drink and went to track down Chevy.

“Fenno” is a fictional serial written by an anonymous law student. The main character is always named Fenno and is always a 1L, but his or her character changes every school year. This installation is part of the series for the 2012-13 School Year, entitled “Fenno: Mostly Harmless.”

Why I Chose Corporate

When I started law school I was sure I would be a litigator.  In part this was because the task of constructing and criticizing arguments was what appealed to me about law in the first place; but it was also because I had virtually no idea what a transactional lawyer did.  Finance had never much appealed to me, and my background prior to law school had been largely in academia, not business.  Litigation seemed like a natural fit.

But for a variety of reasons, I ended up choosing to begin my career doing corporate work.  The more I learned about what such work entailed, the more interested I became in it, and I realized that while litigation seemed to be a much better fit with my background, corporate was a better match for my personality and what I wanted out of my career.

There were some practical concerns that made corporate the best choice for me.  For instance, I knew that I wanted to spend at least part of my career working outside the U.S., and there are far more opportunities abroad for U.S.-trained corporate lawyers than there are for litigators.  While you may hear about some American lawyers working abroad in international arbitration, these positions tend to be few and far between.

More important, however, was the fact that I realized the type of work corporate lawyers spend their days doing was more appealing to me than the litigation counterpart.  Junior litigation associates are largely tasked with performing legal research and writing memos.  I had gotten my fill of this during LRW, and this summer I quickly came to appreciate not having to spend my days logged on to Westlaw.  While junior corporate associates do more than their fair share of menial and mind-numbing work, my impression is that the work is oftentimes more interactive than that done by litigators, at least early on in one’s career.  I had been told that corporate partners spend their days on the phone, and I found that even as a summer associate, much of my time was spent communicating with parties involved in the transaction on which I had been assigned.  I found this interaction to be more satisfying than I had found legal writing and research, which is by its nature generally a solitary pursuit.

On a more abstract level, I realized that I had become disillusioned by the basic fact that litigation is at its heart a matter of persuading another individual of the correctness of your position.  It’s an inescapable fact that it doesn’t matter if you’re right, so long as you’re able to convince someone else that you are.  The fact that the winning side may be wrong but more persuasive is not bothersome to me so much because it offends my sense of justice, but rather because it makes the skills honed by litigators seem trivial.

It’s a commonly uttered refrain during the 1L Ames competition that many judges deem the briefs of HLS 1Ls to be better than many that are submitted in their courts.  While this remark is meant to be encouraging, hearing it always made me question why I should devote my life to developing skills that can be competently deployed by students in their second semester of law school.  I felt that if I couldn’t get excited about trying to master the skills of an effective litigator, then litigation was probably not the path for me.

Transactional work, on the other hand appealed to me because I was attracted to its complexity, and I felt as though the skills and knowledge I would acquire were more tangible.  Transactions have a sort of puzzle-like nature to them, and the fact that I had had so little exposure to them prior to law school made them seem all the more intriguing.  Only time will tell whether my interest in transactional work will withstand the beating it will surely take as a junior associate asked to make countless seemingly inconsequential revisions to some minor transaction document.  But many law students must make a choice without having the luxury of much experience in the work they’re signing up for, and as things stand now, I’m pleased with the choice I made.

One Foot Out the Door is a column written by an anonymous Harvard Law 3L. The column runs every other Thursday.

The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Harvard Law Record.

Some More Unsolicited Advice for 1Ls

1Ls certainly receive their fair share of unsolicited advice.  Not wishing to break from tradition, I humbly offer some more.  My advice will concern the timely topic of exams (and if you don’t think this topic is timely please see below regarding when to begin studying).

First, however, I will describe my approach to exams 1L fall, as an example what not to do.  I began outlining over Thanksgiving Break, although if I’m being honest, really I did very little until I got back to school.  I brought a lot of books home with me but barely cracked a single one.  This was a mistake.  There is in fact a lot to learn, and it takes time, so I should have started studying earlier.  But when I look back at my preparation for 1L fall exams, what I regret more than when I started studying or what methods I employed is my attitude toward exams.

I had been indoctrinated in the notion that the results of law school exams are, if not completely random, then at least very unpredictable in the sense that what law school exams fundamentally test is your ability to perform well on a law school exam.  Because I of course had no data on which to assess my potential law-school-exam ability, I figured that how well I did would be an interesting surprise.  I might be good at exams or I might be bad, I thought, and in any case, there wasn’t too much I could do about it.  I had heard countless stories of students who shut down the library every night only to be gravely disappointed with their fall semester grades, along with those of slackers who aced their way through law school despite rarely opening casebooks and only sporadically attending class.  Upon reflection, my basic 1L fall studying strategy seemed to be what we could call a “wait and see” approach.

I was right to some extent; it is hard to predict how well you’ll do, particularly with regard to individual classes.  But I now think the view that law school exams test some sort of innate ability is overblown.  You do, in fact,  have a great deal of control over your performance.  Shockingly, as much as you might hear otherwise, hard work is highly correlated to law school success.  Even though exams do test your ability to demonstrate legal reasoning, they are largely a test of whether you have learnt the material, just like any other test you have ever taken.  Yes, law school exams are structured differently than exams in college, but they’re really not all that mysterious, and those who know the material well tend to perform well.

So my startlingly unoriginal advice then to 1Ls who, like many 1Ls are shooting for the stars and aiming for a solid collection of H’s, is to work hard and begin studying early.  In fact, if you’re hoping to do very well, you should start now.  Even though exams are still many weeks, you should begin outlining, even if you don’t know what an outline is.  I don’t really know what an outline is either, and yet I make them for every class; they are quite useful.

All that being said, the other crucially important point to keep in mind is that you don’t have to start outlining in October in order for your law school grades not to be a complete disaster.  In fact, if you’re not dead set on “DSing” all your classes, then you can really relax.  Start studying over Thanksgiving or later; you’ll likely end up with some happy combination of H’s and P’s.  You’ll get a job; you’ll graduate; everything will be just fine.  A classmate of mine recently told me that he had been given the advice as a 1L that he should either work really hard or not very hard at all.  This seems to me to be great advice.  The choice is yours.

One Foot Out the Door is a column written by an anonymous Harvard Law 3L. The column runs every other Thursday.The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Harvard Law Record.

We Can Handle the Truth (About Grades)

We live submerged in information. Even when we don’t know it, we know how to get it. Anything is a Google search away. Arguments over facts still happen, but at least I, and my smart phone, know how to bring them to a quick and decisive end.

I have had two great frustrations at Harvard Law School. Like many of my classmates, I arrived here last August with a little anxiety, a lot of pride, and overwhelmed awe at my presence at this institution. This was Harvard. I am the first in my family. In my excitement to be here at the best, among the best, I thought that everything would be the best.

My first great frustration was finding that Harvard is a bureaucracy like any other large institution, and like its august companions, it keeps its secrets. Issues that seem to be fundamentally important in an academic environment are obscured. Grades aren’t important, says one professor. You should study hard and not worry about joining too many organizations, says another. No, really, no one cares about grades, say the 2Ls and 3Ls at those organizations I went ahead and joined. Well, unless you want a clerkship, someone else interjects. (What’s a clerkship, and why do grades matter for that but not other things? That’s another tangle, one I have not yet completely unraveled.)

Here I was—1L, part-student, part-detective, fully broke, thoroughly confused—and I asked the most salient question: “So how are exams graded here?”

You already know the answer, or rather how there is no answer. All that is clear is that some portion of the class receives a Pass and a smaller portion receives Honors. The first number is greater than 50 percent and the second is greater than 0 percent. That is all I can say definitively. Apparently, there is another grade called a Low Pass that a small or possibly null set receives. There is an even more mysterious grade called a DS that may be even rarer (or not, depending on which of my guesses about LPs is correct). Someone then tells me that the DS is assigned with names attached to exams. But I thought the system was blind! There is a shrug, a smile, and we both take another drink.

What does this all mean? It means a nontrivial expenditure of mental energy on my part, puzzling over the standard by which I may (or may not, depending on who’s right, see supra) be judged. It means this particular inefficiency of thought, multiplied by 559 similarly-situated inductees.

This brings me to my second great frustration with Harvard Law School. Law students talk about law school. 1Ls obsess over law school grades. All the time. I am guilty. I do not deny that this is unhealthy. I am writing about it now, at length. Last semester, we also talked about it, at length, repetitively, with no resolution. Remember what I said about arguing over facts? This time, the magic Internet could not help us. It was exhausting, and then frustrating. The answers are there, locked in some office not too far away, in the heads of those luminaries we see every day, but they’re not for us to know. Those who know are not allowed to tell us. This school doesn’t want to make us anxious or anything.

Please, put us out of our misery. Law students in grade-anxiety mode must be the most unattractive creatures on Earth. Free us to talk about anything else. All I am asking for is a little transparency: distribution, what is set and what is discretionary, what is blind and what is not. We will soon belong to a profession built upon rules. Can you please tell us the rules before we start the game? It may be too late for this 1L class, but August will come around again and a new batch of us will arrive. If not for us, then for them. Think of the children.

Geng Chen is a 1L. Her column runs every other Tuesday. 

The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Harvard Law Record. The comments posted on this Website are solely the opinions of the posters.