Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

The Law School Looks Ahead

September-October 2001

The future of professional education at Harvard promises much closer interaction between professors and students, especially during their initial studies; more complex, intensive, and interdisciplinary research by faculty members; and further internationalization--of scholarship, of exchanges among academics, and of those who come to campus to learn. That will be the case if the themes expressed in Harvard Law School's (HLS) strategic plan resonate elsewhere around the University. Given that HLS preceded the rest of Harvard in formulating an academic plan in the late 1980s and then mounting a capital campaign to put it into effect, its new blueprint is of more than intramural interest.

Rakoff, Meltzer, and Warren
Todd D. Rakoff, Daniel J. Meltzer (seated), and Elizabeth Warren helped lead a strategic-planning effort intended to maximize students' engagement with the Law School's intellectual resources.

Photograph by Stu Rosner

The plan, crafted over three years by committees comprising half the faculty, was adopted last December by the faculty as a whole. It would continue the brisk growth the school pursued during the past decade, but toward different ends.

In the 1990s, following a sustained period of internal division which stalled new appointments (HLS faculty members vote on each proposed professor), the number of full and assistant professors grew by nearly one quarter, from 64 to 79. That expansion, and growth in the ranks of visiting faculty members, lecturers, and adjuncts, fueled continued curricular specialization--HLS offered 247 upper-level courses in the most recent academic year--and was accommodated, in part, by $100 million of investment in facilities: Hauser Hall (new faculty offices and classrooms); renovation of Langdell library and other core buildings; and acquisition of the North Hall dormitory on Massachusetts Avenue.

For all that growth, the school's essential character remained intact. HLS, says Dean Robert C. Clark, is "the city, the metropolis" of legal education. By that, he means that its large student body and faculty, extensive library holdings, and broad curriculum encourage diverse ideas, creative work in emerging areas of research, and support for pioneering in such expensive fields as international and comparative legal studies and training.

Offsetting these attractions, HLS suffers from a persistently higher student-faculty ratio than other elite law schools such as Yale, Stanford, and Chicago, each of which has a student body roughly one-third the size of Harvard's 1,870 full-time enrollees. That scale--combined with 140-person sections in first-year classes (most of which are required), the rigors of Socratic instruction, and reliance on examinations to the exclusion of written work and other forms of evaluation--has led to persistent concerns about students' actual engagement with the school's intellectual riches.*

[*The same concerns echo in debate over Harvard's undergraduate education. A vast course catalog (made possible because the College resides within a research university) intersects with the reality of large introductory and Core curriculum classes, despite evidence that students learn better in and prefer smaller, more interactive settings--a principal attraction of stand-alone liberal-arts colleges (see "The Storyteller," page 32, and "Face-to Face with Faculty," page 64, January-February). That is the motive for proposals to enlarge the faculty and expand freshman seminars, among other ideas.]

Employing a most unlegal simile, Gottlieb professor of law Elizabeth Warren, who chaired the strategic plan's "institutional life and structure" committee, says, "Harvard Law School is like a giant gourmet supermarket. People come in hungry and they're torn between the meat section and the cheese section and pasta." Standing in the way of making a good choice was the unappetizing first year.

After graduating, says Byrne professor of administrative law Todd D. Rakoff, HLS alumni report that they are happy they attended and feel they got a "terrific education," but "the experience students have while they are here is much more mixed. So we are trying to change the latter without changing the former." The principal means for doing so will be wholesale reinvention of the first-year student experience, under Rakoff's direction as the first dean of the J.D. program and chair of the plan's "academic development" committee.

Warren says a survey revealed an array of student wants, from amenities such as a better gymnasium and more relaxed grading to the highest priority: "more time in intense intellectual pursuit with the faculty"--in class, as research assistants, through responses to their work. Accordingly, beginning this fall, first-year sections have been reduced from 140 students to 78 to 80. Warren sees that change as fundamental, because professors will get to know students more quickly and students "will get to talk twice as often and need to speak half as loud" to be heard.

callout Much legal research...The classes will place more emphasis on student writing, rather than leaving all assessment to an end-of-term exam. Of the previous pattern, says Story professor of law Daniel J. Meltzer, who chaired the steering committee responsible for pulling together the strategic plan, "I don't think that is pedagogically the most effective way to teach students." In addition, the introductory legal reasoning course will be replaced by a more intensive "first year lawyering" program, with faculty-supervised research and writing projects. Upper-class elective courses will also be opened to first-year students in the spring semester, subject to professors' consent.

Meltzer will be involved in an ambitious effort beyond the classroom to help students get the most from the law school's resources. Each "college" of 80 or so entering students will take its required courses together, much as entering cohorts of students do at the business and medical schools, and will be grouped under one of seven tenured "faculty leaders," including Meltzer. He and his colleagues hope to organize academic advising sessions for their students, aided by other members of the faculty, and to offer presentations on student-identified legal subjects or current research of interest. Although the present campus cannot accommodate physical facilities for each of the "colleges," Warren and Meltzer hope for such spaces in the future. Warren envisions student-proposed seminars and other unimagined innovations, all premised on the creation of "a structure by which more change can happen," as the school's "very smart faculty interact with very smart students," together pursuing "the ideas that literally careen through these halls, more than anywhere else in the world."

The plan calls for significant investment in further fostering those ideas. Dean Clark counts 18 research programs, centers, or projects already in existence, ranging in subject from negotiation, law and economics, and international tax issues to investigations of East Asian and Islamic law. Propelling faculty interest, he says, is "the enormous growth and differentiation of the legal system in the United States," as business becomes more complex and global and as society regulates such spheres of life as the environment, pensions, and healthcare. At the same time, he observes, other countries are adapting their legal systems, too, making them more like ours.

Moreover, legal research itself is changing. Where once the objective was to publish an article in student-edited law reviews, now academic law is giving rise to peer-reviewed journals like those in the social and natural sciences. Faculty members, who once had law degrees and some practical experience, now often do advanced degree work in an arts and sciences discipline, like economics, history, or sociology, or in another professional field (business or government), before pursuing academic careers. Although his own research principally requires traditional materials, Meltzer says other professors now "engage in kinds of research that typically require something more than getting books off the library shelves or a search on Westlaw [a law and business database]."

Apart from seeking significant funds to support the existing programs and faculty research generally, therefore, the plan seeks to bolster three areas of inquiry--international law, empirical studies, and the impact of the law on the disadvantaged--where travel, field work, data collection and analysis, and other tools are required. Consistent with those requirements, and the changing demands of legal practice, Clark also intends to develop management courses within HLS (for students who may work in business, but do not want formal M.B.A. training) and to pursue formal J.D.-Ph.D. programs with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and J.D.-masters' programs with the Kennedy School.

Beyond the relevant research efforts, HLS intends to expand its international activities substantially. That priority reflects both the globalization of law and commerce cited by Clark and what Meltzer calls the school's "longstanding leadership position in international legal studies." Nearly 200 students, most from other nations, are enrolled in advanced-degree programs at any one time--many in preparation for academic law careers. In addition, Meltzer cites extensive foreign-law library collections, faculty expertise, and exchanges of fellows.

Throughout the curriculum, he says, more courses "need to address international and comparative law"--witness, for antitrust students, the European Commission's recent veto of the G.E.-Honeywell merger--which are rapidly moving from specialized studies to an essential ingredient in much of the school's course development. In ways large and small, from faculty research funds and new professorships to summer orientation programs for entering master's-degree students from abroad, the plan envisions a much more international school.

Carrying out these initiatives will require significant resources. Although the school has committed itself to restructuring the first year of studies and augmenting financial aid (particularly the Low Income Protection Program, which relieves the debt burden of students who pursue government, public-interest, or other careers off the lucrative law-firm or corporate track), Clark hastens to note that those enhancements need permanent funding. The school is now in the quiet phase of soliciting support for a capital campaign ultimately aimed at raising $400 million. The big-ticket items include $75 million for 15 more faculty positions, both to sustain the increased number of first-year class sections and to augment expertise in new fields; $61.5 million for financial aid; $39 million for the research initiatives; and, inevitably, $100 million (to be augmented by borrowing) for buildings to house all the present activities and anticipated new ones.

In the close confines of Cambridge, the last of these items presents the knottiest challenges in securing Corporation approval for a formal campaign and then in realizing the school's ambitions, Clark acknowledges. The cornerstone is a proposed 200,000-square-foot quadrangle at the northwest edge of the HLS campus, where Massachusetts Avenue and Everett Street intersect--the largest possible chunk of new faculty offices, space for research programs and support staff, and small classrooms to accommodate the first-year sections. Clark hopes as well to expand North Hall and other housing (the school has rooms for only one-third of its students).

Other projects in the school's physical plan, but beyond the budget for the prospective campaign, might ultimately double the square footage to be constructed in the next decade. Beyond that, if the school is to stay in place, it would have to pursue far-reaching options such as constructing new student housing in Allston, in order to capture the existing dorm rooms in Hastings Hall and the Harkness complex for academic use. Such are the pressures in the housing market, Elizabeth Warren says, that students might well welcome that tradeoff, simply to be spared existing high rents and increasingly long commutes to campus.

In fact, making the physical plan work could be more difficult than raising the large sums the plan calls for. "The key idea," says Clark, "is to remember what we're all about--producing education and scholarship and ideas about law and legal systems, on the Internet or the printed page, and in the minds of our graduates"--a vision that resonated strongly with the school's friends who contributed $183 million during the effort that ended in the mid 1990s. In that spirit, Clark says, "We believe that we will contribute to the common good of humanity by being a better Harvard Law School."