At Home with Harvard: Great Legal Minds

Our favorite stories on the legal minds reshaping American law

At Home with Harvard: Great Legal Minds

This round-up is part of Harvard Magazine’s series “At Home with Harvard,” a guide to what to read, watch, listen to, and do while social distancing. Read the prior pieces, featuring stories about the history of women at Harvard, the climate crisis, Harvard in TV and in the movies, and more, here.

Drawing from the expertise of Harvard Law School faculty, alumni, and students, Harvard Magazine regularly covers the legal minds who are reshaping American law, but whose contributions would otherwise be opaque to lay readers. From Supreme Court justices to public defenders to activist lawyers, we have written about people working on virtually every legal problem, always striving to avoid (or explain) legalese. Below is a non-exhaustive round-up of our favorites. 


Shannon Liss-Riordan
Photograph by Stu Rosner


InLabor Litigator,” I profiled Shannon Liss-Riordan ’90, J.D. ’96, the lawyer and worker advocate taking on companies like Uber and Lyft, just before national criticism of the gig economy really took off. As she put it in 2017: “If Uber is successful in rewriting laws, it’s not just going to be ride-sharing companies—it’s the whole social fabric of employment that’s at stake.” Liss-Riordan was prescient. At first, I didn’t quite get what she was driving at when she said that Uber drivers are no different from traditional employees, but of course, she was right all along. Changing the labor structure so that gig workers have the same rights in the workplace as W-2 employees is now a mainstream idea in the legal community, and we have early advocates like Liss-Riordan to thank for it. Read the profile to learn about her long career of labor rights cases—she has successfully sued some of America’s most recognizable institutions, like Starbucks, FedEx, and even Harvard. 

Phil Torrey
Photograph courtesy of Phil Torrey

I learned so much from reporting this story on “Crimmigration,” or the criminalization of immigrants, a rising legal field with a strong presence at Harvard Law School. If you’ve ever wondered how and why undocumented immigration became such a radioactive political issue, this is the story to read. (For a profile of a Harvard Law alumnus who is immersed in the politics of immigration, read “Rallying Cries,” about Steven Choi, J.D. ’04.)


Justice Stephen Breyer
Photograph by Jim Harrison

Two profiles of two very different federal judges by Harvard Magazine contributing editor Lincoln Caplan ’72, J.D. ’76, are very much worth your time: “Rhetoric and Law,” on Richard Posner, LL.B. ’62, a former federal appeals court judge credited with the rise of the law and economics movement, and “A Workable Democracy,” on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, LL.B. ’64. They graduated from Harvard Law School within a few years of each other but have markedly different outlooks and political projects. Caplan explains, interprets, and contextualizes the stakes of legal debates like no other. 

In “Death Throes,” Caplan profiles Carol S. Steiker ’82, J.D. ’86, RI ’11, and Jordan M. Steiker, J.D. ’88, the sister-and-brother team calling for an end to the death penalty. This is a harrowing read that draws attention to the real-life consequences of abstract legal debates. A separate story by former editor Sophia Nguyen, “Capital Punishment’s Persistence,” explores why the United States remains one of the world’s top executioners. 


Andrew Manuel Crespo
Photograph by Jim Harrison

This ultra-short profile of public defender and law professor Andrew Crespo ’05, J.D. ’08, is a shocker: “I remember walking in and just being stunned,” Crespo says. “Like, this is my job now: I represent eight-year-olds who are in handcuffs.” 

~Marina Bolotnikova, Associate Editor 


INTERVIEWING GERALD LOPEZ for “Rebel Lawyer”  is one of those reporting experiences that stays with me. A blazingly intense happy warrior of public-interest law, Lopez is a true social radical: clear-eyed and utopian all at once. Two years ago I flew out to Los Angeles to spend a few days talking with him about his long and prodigious career as a “wild-ass radical lawyer” and professor. His work with clients in poor and immigrant neighborhoods is inspiring and inventive, and his 1992 book Rebellious Lawyering helped reconceptualize the profession for a whole generation of public-interest lawyers. When I sat down with him in LA, this was how he summed up the work: “I always thought the idea was, you go back to some neighborhood with a bunch of poor people and fight like shit. Otherwise, why be a lawyer?” Clear as a bell. Even as a non-lawyer, I find myself returning often to the problems and ideas—and people—he talked about in this story.  

~Lydialyle Gibson, Associate Editor 


Much of the time, forgiveness is good. But not always. In her book When Should Law Forgive?, 300th Anniversary University Professor and former Law School dean Martha Minow names President Trump’s pardoning of Sheriff Joe Arpaio—known for his brutal treatment of undocumented immigrants—as an example of when forgiveness does more harm than good. I enjoy “Forgive, but Don't Forget,” a piece that succinctly reviews Minnow’s book and her thoughtful analysis of the benefits, and potential pitfalls, of forgiveness.

Illustration by Taylor Callery

The Political Solicitor General” was one of the first Harvard Magazine features I read, even before I started working here. I had seen many stories about how different government positions and institutions had become polarized, but it was interesting to read about how this affected the solicitor general, an important but not-so-flashy position that is rarely the subject of front-page headlines. In the profile of the position, Lincoln Caplan dives into its history, asking (and answering), “How did this esteemed post, which the Court long regarded as the keel keeping the government balanced when it threatened to heel too far to the left or right, come to contribute to forceful tacks one way or the other, to the Court’s seeming indifference?” 

~Jacob Sweet, Staff Writer/Editor 


After graduating from the College in 1861, Holmes obtained a commission as first lieutenant in the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, known as the “Harvard Regiment.”
Photograph courtesy of the Harvard Law School Library, Historical & Special Collections

When Harvard Magazine published “America’s Great Modern Justice,” friends made a point of telling me how much they admired Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.—and Lincoln Caplan’s article. In this discerning piece based on new work by Stephen Budiansky, M.S. ’79, Caplan distills the observations of many Holmes biographers, but emphasizes the shaping role of the Civil War. Shot in the neck, Holmes barely survived, and his abolitionist idealism was joined by a deep skepticism that transformed him into one of the Supreme Court’s greatest dissenters.

Professor Sunstein in his Harvard milieu, teaching administrative law
Photograph by Jim Harrison

The first time I heard Cass Sunstein speak was September 17, 2008, when he delivered the annual Constitution Day lecture in a beautifully restored Lowell Lecture Hall. As Sunstein made a series of extraordinary and original observations about the way the Internet had distorted political discourse, I thought, “Wow, why aren’t there more people listening to this?” At the time, Sunstein had just assumed a professorship at the Law School. Today, all seats would be full, because Sunstein is “one of the country’s most influential and adventurous legal scholars in a generation,” as Lincoln Caplan describes in this astute profile of a man who, as much as anyone, shaped the modern regulatory state.  

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when the United States declared war on al Qaeda, dissenting voices asked why the terrorists were not deemed criminals, brought to justice and charged in court. “The War and the Writ” focuses on habeas corpus—the right of a detainee to have the basis for their detention reviewed in a court of law—and the way that ancient writ shaped the Bush administration’s response to the terrorist threat. As former deputy assistant attorney general John Yoo explains, enemy combatants were held at Guantanamo precisely because it was thought to be beyond the jurisdiction of U.S. courts—and habeas corpus. The late Ronald Dworkin ’53, LL.B. ’57, LL.D. ’09, and Anthony Lewis ’48, Nieman Fellow ’57, are also among those who weigh in on the legal and moral questions raised by the Bush administration’s policies, and the role of the courts.  

~Jonathan Shaw, Managing Editor


More from “At Home with Harvard”

  • Spring Blooms: Your guide to accessing the Arnold Arboretum as the seasons turn in Boston
  • Harvard in the Movies: Our favorite stories about Harvardians on screen
  • The Literary Life: Our best stories about the practice and study of literature 
  • Night at the Museum: Our coverage of Harvard’s rich museums and collections
  • Nature Walks: Walking, running, and biking in Greater Boston’s green spaces, even while social distancing
  • Supporting Local Businesses: Our extensive coverage of local restaurants and retailers, and how you can support them during this time of crisis
  • Medical Breakthroughs: Our best stories going deep into the ideas and personalities that will shape the medical care of tomorrow
  • Rewriting HistoryFrom race and colonization to genetics and paleohistory, our favorite stories about the people reshaping the study of history
  • The Climate Crisis: Highlights from our wide-ranging coverage of the environment
  • Crimson Sports Illustrated: With 2020 winter sports ending early and the spring collegiate season wiped out almost entirely, we look back at Crimson highlights from past years. 
  • The Real History of Women at Harvard: Stories covering the admission of women, the Harvard-Radcliffe merger, the rise of women in the faculty ranks, Harvard’s first woman president, and more
  • The Undergraduate: Our favorite student essays on the undergraduate experience
  • The Secret Lives of Animals: From zoology and evolutionary science to animal-rights law to the joys of local wildlife, a selection of our favorite animal stories
  • Harvard on the Small Screen: Our coverage of the creators, writers, and actors in your favorite TV shows
  • Extraordinary LivesFrom our “Vita” section, extraordinary profiles of authors, artists, activists, and more

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