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The Students' "Splendid Misery"

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Students at Harvard Law School have always complained about their splendid misery, citing the cutthroat competition, overcrowded classes, and aloof faculty. But last year Dean Robert Clark decided to do something about it: he brought in the consulting firm McKinsey and Company to survey students, faculty members, and six alumni classes on their discontents. The McKinsey study, completed last summer, finds—to nobody’s surprise—that classes are too big and professors too inaccessible, but indicates that improving the school’s ambiance and some physical facilities will help morale.

“Students’ complaints are not really against the faculty,” insists Gottlieb professor of law Elizabeth Warren, who chairs the committee overseeing the McKinsey study. “They like their teachers. What they actually want is more intellectual engagement with the faculty, but that problem cannot be easily solved, because professors are a scarce resource.” Not only do they carry a heavy teaching load, but they also pursue public scholarship as well as handle a plethora of correspondence recommending clerkships for those few outstanding students they do get to know. The rest of the class can choose to share one of the group lunches that many faculty members host for their first-year students.

Students accept this inevitable distance as a norm. “It’s impossible to get to know a professor unless you aggressively set out to do so by yourself,” says one 2L. He did so himself in one course, but says, “The majority do not seek it.” Most students blame the overly large classes—their leading dissatisfaction, according to McKinsey. “It drives me nuts,” says a 3L. Even with a broad selection among later electives, she insists, “They haven’t gotten any smaller.”

Warren’s committee is taking an emboldened look at class size. Is it perhaps time to change dramatically the student-teacher ratio, maybe even doubling the number of professors teaching the core curriculum during the first year? More immediately, however, they are prepared to do something about “the amenities,” where the law school scores poorly in the annual analyses by US News and World Report.

“Social life has changed at the law school, particularly with the arrival of women,” says Warren. “There is less drinking than before, more healthy physical activity. And most of our students come from pretty lavish undergraduate facilities.” In fact, among a round-table of students originally graduating from Williams, Columbia, the University of Connecticut, Bowling Green, and SUNY-Purchase, all agreed they’d once been far better accommodated. “Everything that Gropius built,” said one about the 50-year-old dormitories, “should be razed.”

That is a far cry from the students’ protests a decade ago, but it definitely fits with their hope of doing, and getting, their personal best out of the place. That first year is still a rude shock—“something near to panic,” as Scott Turow, J.D. ’78, wrote in One L, “a ferocious, grasping sense of uncertainty”—but by second and third year, they are definitely looking for something more than agony and austerity. That is why the dilapidated Hemenway Gymnasium has become an odd focus of student discontent. In this unisex age, Warren observes, “The gym is the safe social place to get together”—so a new gym is the priority item.

The ultimate reward, of course, is the job after law school, and that grows richer for Harvard graduates every year. As usual, 65 percent of the class of 1999 went into the country’s most prestigious law firms, at greater compensation than ever before. Starting salaries for associates hired by New York City firms are $100,000.

Twenty-five percent took up clerkships with the federal and state judiciary, a resounding testament to the quality of legal scholarship at Harvard. The remaining 10 percent went variously into government, education, and other pursuits, with a rising number moving directly into business—but as venture capitalists, not as legal counsel for some corporation.

But student activity does not entirely reflect law and economics. Last year there were protests over the drop in the number of minority students enrolling at the school, a problem that has lately beset all graduate institutions. The orderly demonstrations—a far cry from past strikes and sit-ins during “Diversity Week”—brought agreement from the administration to keep closer scrutiny on minority admissions.

So affirmative action remains a settled commitment, but interestingly, it has brought a new breed of conservatives to the student body. “I think there is a place in this country for elitism,” remarked a black student from Randall Kennedy’s class “Race Relations and the Law.” The student, who was raised by his aunt after his single mother died, is pro-life, pro-family values, even pro-death penalty. He had good LSAT scores, but says he is definitely at Harvard thanks to affirmative action. “The elite are people at the vanguard,” he insists. “Jefferson, Hamilton, Washington, they were part of the elite. The elite are the people who make things happen in our country. Without the elite, where would we be?”

That present law-school elite has become harder to join. Prior to 1999, with rampant grade inflation, upwards of 70 percent of law students graduated with honors. But now only the top 40 percent are granted cum laude status; the top 10 percent are designated magna cum laude.

In the class of 1999, a law student graduated summa cum laude, strictly limited to a cumulative grade point average of 7.2 or above—only the second summa awarded since 1982. He is Julian Kai-Wing Poon, a Canadian from Toronto who earned his undergraduate degree at Stanford. “I usually work hard, but first year,” he admits, “I never worked harder in my entire life.” He “maybe eased up” a little during second and third year, but still won the Ames Diploma for highest three-year cumulative average. He is now clerking for Judge J. Michael Luttig, the staunch leader of a newly formed conservative majority on the bench of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“I was mainly drawn by his fine attention to detail,” says Poon, “and his judicial conservatism.” Judge Luttig is already famous for his opinion in Rice v. Paladin Publications that allowed civil damages, despite the First Amendment, against the publisher of a manual called Hit Man that was used as a blueprint in a murder. He has also recently struck down the federal Violence against Women Act.

Poon, who will go on to clerk for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, agrees doctrinally with “limiting federal action.” When pressed, he calls himself “an adoptationalist.” That term has got to be mint legal coinage, and Poon says he regrets, with so much legal theory around, that you actually need some such term to indicate your independence from theory, your willingness to adopt various legal arguments to support the basic rule of law.

For Poon believes the law does indeed exist “independent” of any present theory, and says candidly: “I can see myself being comfortable back at Harvard Law School in the ’50s”—learning law the way the Grizzer wanted the law taught.