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Harvard Law School
By Frank Sabatini, Harvard Law 2012, published October 2006, last updated by TLS August 2010
First of all, credit must be given to Lisa Haidostian, who wrote the brand-new Top-Law-Schools (or TLS) article on Michigan Law School. My own profile on Harvard Law School closely follows the layout and structure of the Michigan profile, so I cannot thank Lisa enough for her tremendous example. Lisa has set the standard of quality for all future TLS profiles and should receive proper credit for her contribution.
Harvard Law School: “Factory” or “Big City”?
While many people (aspiring law students or otherwise) get stars in their eyes at the very mention of the “H-Bomb,” the resident cynics of Top Law Schools can be a bit more critical. “What's so good about Harvard?” asks user kjunfood in a recent post. Almost the entire first page of responses to kjunfood's question lends itself to an easy summary: Harvard's reputation is commonly based on its name alone. Many threads like these have speculated on why people admitted to both Harvard and Yale/Stanford choose Harvard. Several TLS members have opined that a desire to “name-drop” leads people to select Harvard over these other fine institutions.
TLS users often criticize Harvard's large size. Time after time, our friends at TLS refer to Harvard as a “factory,” yet, as sockpuppet, one of TLS's most legendary contributors, notes, “A certain poster on here once referred to Harvard as a diploma mill. He's now attending.”
Ironically, Harvard Law School draws attention to its large size by marketing it as a quintessential and positive part of the Harvard experience. In her “Dean's Welcome” that begins the binder received by admitted students who applied for the class of 2009, Elena Kagan, Dean of Harvard Law School before accepting an appointment as Solicitor General in the Obama administration, writes:
Is Harvard a “factory” that pumps out almost 600 J.D. degrees each year and deprives its students of the quality of education found at its smaller peers, or is it a “big city” with exciting and unique opportunities not to be found at other top schools? As with most things in life, neither of these reductive descriptions tells the whole story. For this reason, TLS is pleased to offer this profile to help prospective students get a feel for the Harvard experience beyond statistics and clichés.
Statistics / Process
Harvard Law School boasts one of the most numerically outstanding entering law classes in the nation according to official ABA data.In terms of LSAT scores, Harvard's 75th percentile sits at a whopping 176, with the median and 25th percentile at an impressive 173 and 170 respectively. In addition to these notable LSAT statistics, Harvard stands out from most other schools with its superb undergraduate GPA range. Harvard's 25th percentile, median, and 75th percentile GPAs stand at 3.74, 3.88, and 3.95 respectively. While Stanford has the reputation (at least in the insulated world of TLS) for putting the greatest emphasis on GPA among the traditional “top three” of Yale, Stanford, and Harvard, Harvard's 75th percentile and median GPAs are in fact higher than Stanford's.
Probably due in part to its size, Harvard's admissions process is very streamlined. By glancing at the admissions decision charts for Harvard and its close peers, one can much more easily predict Harvard decisions than decisions from Yale and Stanford or even Chicago and Columbia. (It is little surprise that New York University, the closest in size to Harvard, is, like Harvard, rather predictable in its decisions.) Harvard also acts very quickly, typically issuing its first batch of acceptances before the other five “top six” schools.
Nonetheless, some research reveals that decisions at Harvard are not as impersonal as they may appear. In fact, the most distinctive feature of Harvard's admissions process, the phone interview, does not take numbers into account at all, except for the fact that, generally, only numerically strong candidates are invited at all. These interviews are more than a formality as a significant percentage, albeit far from a majority, of interviewed applicants receive a decision of either waitlist or denial, and numerous others are not included in the batch of acceptances that immediately follows. Former Assistant Dean of Admissions Toby Stock, who conducted the phone interviews at Harvard until recently, estimated interviewing 1000 potential students for the 2007-2008 cycle, more than the 800 or so students typically admitted each year. However, as Dean Stock notes in the same blog entry, “the interview should be viewed as a relatively positive sign.” The interview, it seems, counteracts Harvard's “factory” reputation in two ways: it refutes the argument that admissions to Harvard is based solely on numbers, and it also establishes a personal connection between likely future students and a member of the Harvard community before many of the former ever travel to Cambridge. Thus, one could conclude that Harvard is actively trying to disown its reputation as a cold, faceless conglomeration in favor of establishing a true community.
When to Apply
Because Harvard has rolling admissions, and because Harvard has a relatively fast turnaround time, applicants should send in their complete and polished applications as soon as possible after September 15, the earliest possible date to access the current application. One must submit his or her application by February 1. As stated earlier, the admissions committee at Harvard moves fast, so it is generally in one's best interest to apply by early October in order to open up the possibility of receiving an interview in late October. (I can personally attest to Harvard's speed and the benefits of applying early: I applied on September 20, received notification of my phone interview on October 17, had my interview on October 27, and was admitted on November 25.)
Multiple LSAT Scores
Harvard Law School looks at the average of one's LSAT scores when evaluating an applicant. The graphs for Harvard Law School at Law School Numbers seem to confirm this, as the profiles attached to many “anomalous” red and yellow dots (representing rejections and waitlists respectively) in otherwise green areas (representing acceptances) indicate an earlier, much lower LSAT score.
Advice for College Students
Former Assistant Dean of Admissions Toby Stock in the JD Admissions Blog entry of February 8, 2008, notes that taking undergraduate classes as Pass/Fail rather than for traditional grades hurts one's application. Presumably, this applies only to classes for which grades are an option.
In terms of undergraduate course selection, Harvard Law School recommends “a broad college education” tempered by “a showing of thorough learning in a field of your choice, such as history, economics, government, philosophy, science, literature or the classics (and many others), rather than a concentration in courses given primarily as vocational training.” Because of Harvard's propensity to rely on numbers more heavily than most of its peers, the sage advice offered on TLS is to select the major that will most likely result in an LSDAS cumulative GPA approximating 4.0. On the other hand, students who majored in Criminal Justice are very hard to find at HLS, if they exist at all.
Law School Culture
The acceptance binder for those students admitted to begin in fall 2009 offers perspectives from several current students and recent graduates. As is to be expected with promotional materials, the perspectives contained therein are overwhelmingly positive; the school would not advertise its weaknesses. One student, Trevor Cox, writes that “there is undoubtedly in Section 7 a shared commitment to learning, an interest in seeking out each other's talents and passions... and... a fundamental sense of commonality and partnership.” Cox appears to take issue with the ubiquitous impression of HLS, popularized in books such as Scott Turow's One L, as a hypercompetitive intellectual bloodbath with little room for collaboration and camaraderie. Similarly, Cox suggests that the HLS atmosphere facilitates bonds between students and faculty: “I have e-mailed still other professors out of the blue and have found them very receptive to arranging time for conversations with me and fellow 1Ls.” Megan Ryan, a recent alumna, echoes these sentiments: “From students to professors to administrative staff, everyone was very welcoming and open. [...] While HLS is a large law school, the ease of meeting students, professors and even [former] Dean Kagan makes the place feel small.”
In order to adequately understand the truth about the atmosphere of HLS, it is necessary to examine not only how HLS tries to present itself but also what hard data suggests about life at HLS. Moreover, we will take a look at what current students have to say about HLS—when the administration at HLS is neither screening nor editing their statements.
With 278 undergraduate institutions represented among the three classes present in 2008-2009, HLS students bring a wide variety of experiences to campus life. Students hail not only from the nation's most elite universities and colleges but also from many public universities, obscure small colleges, music conservatories, and overseas universities. Students from elite private universities, especially the Ivy League, Stanford, Duke, and Northwestern (among others), do seem to predominate, with a notable number of students from public universities. Students from small liberal arts colleges (elite or otherwise) form a conspicuously small proportion of the class. There are fewer students from Amherst, Williams, and Swarthmore than one might anticipate.
One-third of entering students for 2008-2009 are, according to the class profile, “students of color,” and the genders are fairly well balanced. In addition, students at HLS generally have limited post-college experience: ninety-two percent graduated from college fewer than five years before attending law school. On the other hand, more than half the students (sixty-one percent) have been out of college for at least one year. Seven percent of the incoming JD class come from countries other than the United States.
While Harvard's JD class may overall be skewed toward younger students with little or no full-time work experience, the large number of graduate students at Harvard adds diversity in terms of age, career goals, and background. It seems as though living in the dormitories is a great way to meet many interesting people (including individuals in the graduate law programs), especially given how the Gropius dorms are connected through walkways and a courtyard. The graduate students also prevent the dormitories from feeling too much like undergraduate living.
Statistics can only tell us so much. The experiences of TLS contributors who attend HLS are in some ways much more helpful to an understanding of the HLS student body. User BRama notes that “other students are... down-to-earth” and that, although students are driven to succeed, they are not cutthroat. BRama attributes the lack of competition among students to the efforts of former Dean Elena Kagan, and calls the association of HLS with ruthless competition “outdated.” Finally, BRama comments that students interested in public interest feel right at home.
User PinkTiki also notes the relaxed, relatively “gunner”-free atmosphere at HLS. She comments that her class of 550 students does not feel overly large, and that the class size allows for a diverse student body. She also warns that being under 21 may be a serious impediment to one's social life.
User brokendowncar compliments the social opportunities to be found in on-campus housing, even though the housing itself could be improved. He/she also notes that the ways to relax and have fun when one is not hitting the books are quite varied. Finally, a contributor with the surely sarcastic handle stupid33 comments that students are not the type to think less of a student who says something incorrect or poorly reasoned in class: everyone makes mistakes.
It might be expected that a school as expensive as Harvard that offers no merit scholarships may have its fair share of snobs. One student notes: “When people start talking about their $2000 spring break trips and their $3000 purses, it's easy to feel like you don't belong in the cabal.” On the other hand, the same student notes that this by no means describes the vast majority of students, who are unexpectedly “normal” in their interests and personalities.
Of course, the makeup of the student body is only one of the many factors that contribute to Harvard’s cultural identity. One inescapable facet of HLS is its large size, and, in its promotional materials, Harvard makes no attempt to escape this. The binder for admitted students emphasizes “Many Choices, One Community” and “Small Neighborhoods within the Big City.” User BRama confirms the tight bonds these “Small Neighborhoods” can share:
Of course, as Alexandra Davies notes, “spending all of your time with the same 80 people can occasionally make one feel like she is at Harvard High.”
While HLS's student/faculty ratio is the worst of the traditional “top six” schools, its ratio of 10:1 (as of 2008) is still better than many of the other top fourteen schools, which is quite a feat given its size. Different programs for 1Ls also allow for much closer relationships, both with other students and with faculty members, than one might initially assume. For instance, the majority of first-years students “sign up for 1L Reading Groups, which have 5 to 15 students and a faculty member, usually meeting informally over a meal and/or at the professor's house.” Besides being a great intellectual opportunity, the program also works to build up the Harvard community. Recent structural changes to the curriculum have changed the level of collegiality found at Harvard. For instance, Harvard has recently been pushing public service as an integral part of one's legal education, regardless of the kind of legal (or non-legal) career one is pursuing. In fact, the HLS binder declares that “Public Service [is] at the Heart of the Experience.” In addition, Dean Martha Minow is an outspoken proponent of public interest legal careers. The required forty hours of pro bono work before graduation helps to instill a sense of public responsibility among students, which probably contributes to the relatively uncompetitive atmosphere of HLS.
Even the way in which the 2L and 3L curriculum is organized leads to a more socially conscious student body. Harvard's relatively new “Programs of Study,” which are less like college majors and more like organizational tools to help students decide what classes to take, imply a strong slant toward considerations of public welfare. Two of the five Programs of Study are explicitly public-minded (“Law and Social Change” and “Law and Government”). As the intellectual property professors at HLS are frequently at the forefront of efforts to open up free exchange of information to the public, students engaged in the “Law, Science and Technology” Program of Study will almost certainly spend a lot of time thinking about issues of common good. Only the “Law and Business” Program of Study seems exclusively focused on private, corporate issues. Although the “Programs of Study” are fairly informal, they help emphasize an attitude toward law and society that looks beyond the immediate concerns of personal success. This can only facilitate an interesting, vibrant, and friendly law school culture.
None of this means that HLS students interested in corporate law will feel ostracized or otherwise unsatisfied with their education. One 2L planning to pursue a career in corporate law declares that he “couldn't be at a better place to prepare” for such a career. He does confirm that, despite the rumors of Harvard being corporately minded, “[m]ore students want to do public interest than want to do BigLaw, probably by a wide margin.” Yet his satisfaction with the school is obvious, as “[b]ecause HLS is so large, it is the perfect fit for everyone!” On the other hand, another student who secured an offer from a V10 firm says that Harvard does not confer an advantage for “New York firm[s]” over Columbia and NYU. These schools, as the student points out, may give scholarships that make the schools less expensive than Harvard.
Nevertheless, if there is one thing that is true about HLS, it is that it is very difficult to find students who are unhappy here. Certainly, one never hears students complaining about how they wish they got into Yale.
In general, one’s social life as a first-year student tends to completely revolve around one’s 1L section. Because the sections are so large, any activity in which 1L students participate will inevitably have fellow section mates, and the tendency to stick with these new friends and cohorts is quite difficult to overcome. Some of HLS's policies and programs, rather than working against this tendency, actually reinforce it. For instance, each section has $12,000 to spend on activities. These activities are sometimes open to the public (for instance, lectures), but are more often insulated by section. HL Central's 1L Cup, which pits the seven 1L sections against each other in cookie-eating, balloon-popping, and pretzel-passing contests, brings the whole class together, but in a way that solidifies bonds within each section and not among them. Still, this section camaraderie, by and large, is a positive aspect of life at Harvard Law School. Section parties and other get-togethers are frequent and provide a chance for extensive social interaction for even the shiest of law students. Upper-class students say that they have stayed friends with their former section mates, and professors and students alike note that one's section fellows will serve as career contacts in the future.
Section mates are also united through less official activities. For instance, my section has pulled two pranks on professors: turning Property into a veritable beach party one Friday (complete with surf-rock music, sunscreen, towels, an inflatable palm tree, and one shirtless “sunbather”) and changing seats in a course with assigned seats (the switch coincided with a remark the professor made). Ten extra minutes are built into the section faculty leader's course for relatively unstructured conversation about the section and about 1L year. In my section, at least, an enormous amount of time was spent determining the section's name, which has become the section's identity. (Mass e-mails to my section are no longer addressed “Dear Section Six” but “Hey Hammer!”) There is a conspicuous “summer camp” atmosphere to the 1L proceedings: one student has labeled her Facebook photo album of HLS “Camp Harvard,” and one professor has even mentioned the summer-camp-like aura of the first year.
Despite a buffer of several weeks before activities really get underway, 1Ls can find themselves overwhelmed with extracurriculars. This buffer permits students to attend to their studies early on and get to know their classmates, but also misleads students into thinking they can take on more activities than they can actually handle. Students can “cite-check” secondary journals, participate (and become leaders) in Student Practice Organizations, and serve as “1L Section Reps” in a variety of activities, encouraging their sections to become involved in projects and attend events. Coursework tends to unexpectedly increase after a few weeks, right when students are completing their closed memo assignment for Legal Research and Writing. This is right around the time when students start participating in extracurricular activities, which generally require more work than undergraduate activities, especially the journals and Student Practice Organizations. Some 1Ls seemed to start falling a bit behind around the time of the first memo, which might be due in part to the sudden influx of extracurriculars. Nonetheless, as long as students do not do something crazy like sign up for seven journals, the workload is certainly manageable.
New Grading System
Perhaps the most obvious attempt by Harvard to improve student quality of life (and to disown its cutthroat reputation) is the new grading system. When then-current Dean Elena Kagan announced the new grading system, many students and professors from across the nation debated the potential effects of this change. According to an e-mail sent by Dean Kagan and quoted in the blog entry by Brian Leiter noted above, “The faculty believes that this decision will promote pedagogical excellence and innovation and further strengthen the intellectual community in which we all live.” The new system has a recommended, but not mandatory, curve, with about one third of the class receiving the top mark of “Honors,” the bottom tenth receiving a “Low Pass,” and the gigantic middle of the pack receiving a “Pass.” While the effects on job prospects remain to be seen, students report that the lack of grades really has brightened the Harvard experience. User brokendowncar writes that the new grading system has reduced “stress” over grades. User Stupid33 believes that “the new grading system may mean that employers may focus more on extracurriculars and things outside the transcript,” but he or she also believes that the relaxed, friendly atmosphere at HLS derives at least in part from the new grading system. With the new grading system so recently adopted, it may be a long time before the benefits or drawbacks become clear; the deep economic recession may prohibit a reasonable comparison of the current and former grading systems ceteris paribus. 
The Legal Research and Writing teacher (and Climenko fellow) indicated that, if he felt students had earned it, he would not need to give out Low Passes. He was reluctant to make specific predictions, but what he did say certainly offers clues into the flexibility of the new grading system.
Even with the reduced stress with the new system, one second-year student notes that grades still matter, if only a little: “[T]hings are much easier if your grades put you higher in your class rather than lower...but definitely don't sweat it if your grades aren't perfect.” The same student also notes that the new system might add some “pressure” since “[a] lot of Hs are given” and “it's important to avoid the LP, which is given to the bottom couple of people in a class.” He notes that, in reality, Harvard continues to give grades in a manner fundamentally similar to the past.
University of Chicago professor Brian Leiter has recently suggested Harvard's faculty was, for the years 2005 through 2008, the third most influential among the nation's law schools behind Yale and Chicago. Leiter also notes that three of the eleven most cited law professors from 2005-2008 in the nation hail from Harvard: Laurence Tribe, Mark Tushnet, and Lawrence Lessig. The high quality of Harvard's faculty also attests to the tremendous impact former Dean Kagan has had on the institution, for both Lessig and Tushnet were hired under her administration, as were Jack Goldsmith and Adrian Vermeule, also listed by Leiter as among Harvard's ten most influential scholars. Most interesting of all, perhaps, is the fact that there are many other outstanding, well-known scholars at Harvard that did not even make the list: Alan Dershowitz, Randall Kennedy, Elizabeth Warren, and Cass Sunstein.
Of course, having a powerhouse faculty helps students very little if professors are inaccessible. Fortunately, students report that this is not the case. On TLS, user stupid33 notes that, although virtually all professors at Harvard utilize the “Socratic Method” or some variation thereof, they are truly concerned with ensuring that students learn, not that they are publicly humiliated. This attitude of interest in student learning carries over outside the classroom. User Brokendowncar calls HLS professors “genuinely approachable and happy to help you.” User BlackNumberLaw concurs that professors are accessible and adds that it is easily possible to take classes with some of Harvard's top guns.
Quite a few HLS students have returned to TLS to discuss the accessibility of professors, dispelling the stereotype that one of Harvard's greatest drawbacks is the lack of meaningful interaction with faculty. Incredibly, despite coming from a small liberal arts college, I believe that it is more possible to bond with professors here than it ever was at my undergraduate institution. Certainly, the structure of the first-year program helps, as does the penchant of the faculty (including Dean Minow!) for hiring first-year students as research assistants. As far as the “Socratic Method” is concerned, the aforementioned TLS contributors seem to be right on the money: faculty believe in the potential of their students and use the “Socratic Method” as a way of bringing the students into the debate full-force, where they will grapple with issues directly and learn by doing. As user brokendowncar puts it, the faculty uses the Socratic Method to “coach you toward what they believe the answer to be.” I would also add that students often arrive at the conclusions themselves after such “coach[ing].” Many faculty members at Harvard, notably Dean Martha Minow and the strictly Socratic Professor Bruce Mann, have reminded us time after time that a passive legal education equals an ineffective legal education. Thus, is it any surprise that faculty are so accessible and supportive?
One might also presume that students feel strictly secondary to the professors' own scholarship. However, HLS professors know that their work could potentially impact the ways in which students, once they graduate, understand and practice the law; for this reason, professors eagerly share their work with students in the classroom. Because professors want to train a new generation of lawyers, policymakers, and academics, they care a great deal about the quality of their students' educational experience.
The Socratic Method can be terrifying and uncomfortable even with a very kind professor. One professor continued questioning a student, who seemed a bit underprepared, for a very long time. The student struggled through the questioning, and the professor neither berated her nor was even visibly disappointed, but it was still rather painful to watch the student have to suffer through it. Equally terrifying is the professor who often simply passes to another student without comment when the student seems flustered, gives the wrong answer, or simply does not respond quickly enough.
The content of even the most basic courses can change drastically from professor to professor. On the one hand, this means that students have to be rather diligent when researching and selecting courses. On the other hand, this sort of flexibility allows students to tailor their educations to their needs. Of course, this option does not exist within the first-year core curriculum.
First-Year Curriculum / Sections
With seven first-year sections and approximately 550 students, each first-year section contains a large, but manageable, eighty students. For the six required substantive first-year classes—Civil Procedure, Contracts, Criminal Law, Legislation & Regulation, Property, and Torts—these eighty students will likely become the core of one's first-year social experience at Harvard Law School. For the two semesters of Legal Research and Writing, the group is divided even further: two Climenko Fellows each work with half of the section. Finally, each student is assigned to one of six representatives by the Board of Student Advisors (BSA). The Student Advisor—a 2L or a 3L—is an experienced contact person to help with one's first-year experience. Section “big siblings” and a faculty “section leader” also contribute to section closeness and a friendly first-year experience. As one student puts it, “every 1L section becomes very close and bonds as if they were all members of a small school.”
For the first semester, Harvard's curriculum looks very similar to any law school's first year. Students take four core substantive classes, which vary by section, and Legal Research and Writing (“LRW”). During the second semester, students complete the remaining two core courses and the second semester of LRW. For the remaining two classes, each student breaks out of his or her section and chooses one of a selection of International and Comparative Law courses and one upper-level course.
LRW deserves special attention because it is very much team-taught. Reference librarians conduct “Research Labs” and seminars with small groups (which are different from the groups divided among the members of the BSA). After the first few weeks, LRW becomes much less a structured “class” that students attend regularly each week and more of a series of overlapping assignments, examined by a team. This includes a one-on-one meeting with the Climenko fellow to go over the first memo assignment, which is reviewed by both the Climenko fellow and the student's BSA advisor.
The four aspects of the first-year curriculum that stand out among typical first-year curricula are the Legislation and Regulation course, the International/Comparative Law requirement, the optional 1L reading group, and the Winter Term Problems and Theories Course.
As Professor Mark Tushnet mentioned in a recent class lecture, Legislation and Regulation was actually originally a part of Georgetown's experimental “Curriculum B.” Professor Tushnet taught at Georgetown and was instrumental in developing this course there; Harvard ultimately imported both him and the course. In some sense, Harvard's Legislation and Regulation requirement substitutes for the Constitutional Law requirement at other schools; Professor Tushnet himself is a Constitutional law scholar. Indeed, the course description on the HLS website seems to indicate that the course is seen as a way to prepare students for constitutional law courses, among others.
The purpose of the International/Comparative Law requirement is to develop invaluable skills for work here in the United States: “At Harvard an international perspective is foundational, rather than peripheral, to legal inquiry.” It appears that, at Harvard, “international” law is, first and foremost, a means of achieving excellence with regard to the understanding, development, and practice of domestic law: “The first-year courses in international or comparative law enable students to locate what they are learning about public and private law in the United States within the context of a larger universe.” A current 2L had this to say: "There was not much international focus in any of the other 1L courses, but I thought the international law requirement was great. Commerce is becoming increasingly global, and legal issues directly follow suit. No matter which of the seven classes you are in, you'll explore a wide array of these issues.” So, despite naysayers such as Eric Posner, the International Law requirement at Harvard seems as though it will be around for a while.
According to the admissions binder, “Harvard Law excels at what some might call the 'Law and Blank' movement.” That is, law is not seen as an isolated field of research but as an academic endeavor that augments and is augmented by many other areas of intellectual endeavor. Essentially, these ungraded, fairly casual reading groups (which still have homework!) inject more of a multidisciplinary liberal arts perspective into the 1L curriculum than is typical at most law schools. Law students who majored in the sciences, economics, English, political science, history, etc. will probably find reading groups that resemble their undergraduate pursuits. For instance, I majored in English and I’m currently in a reading group studying Ford Madox Ford's great novel The Good Soldier. These groups are optional, but students rarely decline to participate. Students choose one first choice and five unranked alternates. Because of the very small number of students in each group (generally fewer than twelve, but some groups may impose an even stricter limit), it is quite possible not to get one's first choice. Two additional considerations may win over those unconvinced of the value of these Reading Groups: many of HLS's “superstar” professors lead these reading groups, and the presence of free food and beverages (alcoholic and nonalcoholic) is not unheard of.
The Problems and Theories course adds some practical education into the otherwise theoretical 1L mix (excepting LRW). HLS representatives at last March's Admitted Students Weekend really pushed the idea that Harvard offers its students a more useful, practical education than Yale—although, frankly, this struck me as a bit of an exaggeration and a self-serving attempt to play up a stereotype of Yale. Nonetheless, the relatively new Problems and Theories course does indicate that Harvard takes the practical aspects of lawyering seriously. The course seems to be a bit of a faux clinical: “students practice confronting client problems, in a variety of lawyer settings, the way lawyers do.” The course's timing—during the Winter Term—adds to the seriousness with which Harvard treats this course, for it is an event all to itself; students will not be tempted to neglect it in favor of other courses.
Be warned: four of my five instructors this semester have banned laptops in class, and I have no reason to think this number is unrepresentative. One professor who allowed them in the past noted that class performance has been much better since he has banned them.
For basic information about the dual degree program, check out: http://www.law.harvard.edu/academics/degrees/special-programs/index.html
TLS was able to secure an interview with a student entering her fourth year of the JD/MPP program between HLS and the Kennedy School of Government. This student expressed a lot of enthusiasm for Harvard Law School but warned that the double-degree program “is, in reality, rather disjointed.” She notes that the JD program is, in fact, more demanding than the MPP program. She considers herself a student at Harvard Law School first and foremost and a Kennedy student secondarily, which she says is quite normal, given that one's career aspirations will ultimately become either “policy-inclined” or “law-inclined.” Finally, prospective students who do not need the additional degree for any real career purpose should heed her warning that “most [law firms] will want to hear you explain away the joint degree, which generally indicates that you are more of a public interest person than a firm-for-life.” On the other hand, she notes that students interested in public interest will find that the additional degree sends a message of dedication to employers this line of work. If this all seems like common sense, bear in mind that whoever authored the “Careers” section of the acceptance binder thought it prudent to warn students that “[e]mployers are not always impressed by a joint degree and it will not always make you more marketable.” It is worth remembering that it is possible to apply for many dual programs in the first and second years of law school, giving students the opportunity to make a more informed decision than they would probably make applying for a dual program right at the beginning.
It is also worth knowing that a number of courses at the law school are cross-listed with other schools at Harvard. These courses count fully as law courses but tend to be more interdisciplinary in nature and also provide an opportunity for law students to meet and learn from students at other Harvard schools. An example of such a course is “Religion and its Future,” which, based on its description, seems to have only the most tangential of relevance to law. Another such course is “Crisis, Globalization, and Economics,” much more an economics course than a law course. Even courses offered within the law school occasionally bear little relevance to the law, such as a “Great Book” reading group. This is all in addition to Harvard's notorious “Law and...” courses. The point is that anyone looking for a robust, eclectic, cross-disciplinary legal education can find it at HLS without pursuing a joint-degree.
One student described a summer experience while at HLS:
While one probably cannot say that this student's experience is typical (especially in this economy!), it nonetheless offers a telling glimpse into the possibilities of Harvard Law School. Another student warned that summer jobs for large private firms are pretty rare, a fairly self-evident point that the Office of Public Interest Advising has been quick to share with 1Ls. However, on the other hand, OPIA staff has publicized HLS's guaranteed Summer Public Interest Funding (“SPIF”). According, to HLS students, a solid majority of 1L students received SPIF in a recent year. While students may not get the summer job they hope for, SPIF, at the very least, ensures that students can have some meaningful experience during the summer.
At a recent session where 2Ls and 3Ls talked openly and honestly to 1Ls about the law school experience, one student opined that, in a normal economy, all but the very most selective firms will take HLS grads who are not “in the bottom ten students of the entire class.” Although one student told TLS that, despite the economy, job prospects for 2Ls and 3Ls are still quite good, the situation “on the ground” seems to be one of very tempered optimism. Buzzwords and phrases from students, faculty, and career service staff alike include “cast a wider net,” “manage expectations,” and “current 1Ls are much better off than 2Ls and 3Ls.” Certainly, not all is doom and gloom. One student told us: “This has obviously been a difficult economy to look for jobs in, and there were times during OCI last year where I felt that being an average Harvard student didn't mean anything. But hey, after a rough OCI I ended up at a V10 firm....” Although 3Ls are definitely having a harder time than usual, most remain optimistic. The general feeling is that, if you want a job, you will get something, but options are nonetheless limited.
One concern some students may have is whether or not they will be streamlined into private sector careers. At the March Accepted Student Weekend, a panel of five students was completely comprised of students who had accepted private sector jobs, despite the fact that not all of them had planned to go into the private sector. The panelists all agreed that, due to the on-campus interview (“OCI”) process, it is much easier to obtain private-sector work than public-sector work. Finding a public-sector job requires legwork, initiative, and effort, unlike private-sector work through OCI. However, one student opines: “What makes students become 'streamlined into narrow career paths' is not the school—we have amazing resources for people who want to pursue public interest careers, including what is probably the most generous loan-repayment program in the country and brilliant public-interest advisors. Rather, many people end up abandoning their public interest goals—albeit only temporarily, at times—because of the allure of the law firm salary.” Another student notes that “More people want to do public interest than want to do BigLaw, probably by a wide margin,” but, of course, career placement statistics suggest that many more students go to BigLaw than to public interest firms.
Quality of Life
In terms of dining, there are myriad options available for Harvard Law students. If one wants to dine on campus, the Harkness Commons is the place to go. The Commons includes both a fully functional cafeteria (nicknamed “The Hark”) and a smaller café/pub (with a Starbucks inside!). Every week, menu updates are posted online, so it is easy to find out what your options are for the coming days. On most days, the cafeteria is open from 7:30 A.M. to 10 P.M.
If you’re looking for something off campus, there are plenty of options available within walking distance. In addition, Boston is packed full of enticing restaurants; if you’re willing to drive or take the available public transportation, the choices are endless. Harvard has many great suggestions on their website, so check out the footnote below if you’re interested.
Accessibility and Opportunities
Getting around Harvard Law tends to be pretty simple – tunnels connect all the academic buildings, with plenty of directional signs to make sure that you don’t get lost. Tunnels do not go to the dormitories; this is possibly for security reasons, as you need a key to get into the dorms. In terms of health services, there is a Health Services Clinic at the law school. However, when this clinic isn’t open, one has to go to the Holyoke Center, the main Health Services location, which can be a bit of a hike.
Using money at Harvard is made easier by Crimson Cash, a debit system that is accessed through one’s Harvard ID card. Value can be added online with a credit card, and Crimson Cash can be used in the cafeteria and café (you save on tax!), vending machines, laundry machines, and even at various local businesses.
In general, there hasn’t been a lot of time to go to Boston; scheduling often happens on very short notice, especially with journals. A lot of these events need RSVPs, so those who attended activities on the fly in college may need to adjust a bit. That being said, it seems hard to irreversibly miss opportunities; professors are constantly looking for students to help them, and you can freely join secondary journals after your first year (with the exception of Law Review, which does not have an open membership). Although we are constantly encouraged to take advantage of the university at large, e-mail notifications generally only talk about events at the law school, not events at Harvard in general. Research work can come from posted jobs, but also from just talking to professors outside of class. One can always find lots of great opportunities on the “Administrative Updates” section of the Harvard Law website.
The sixteen law journals at HLS cover an amazing breadth of subject matter, from the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, founded in 1966 during the thick of the Civil Rights Movement, to the brand-new Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law and National Security Journal. The centerpiece is, of course, the Harvard Law Review, now in its 122nd volume. As stated before, all journals, except for the Harvard Law Review, have open memberships, and are even available to 1Ls. Opportunities for promotion and increased responsibilities are available, with some journals having rather intricate board structures.
Pro Bono Requirement / Student Practice Organizations (SPOs)
In order to graduate, each JD candidate must complete forty hours of pro bono legal work. One fun and extremely educational way to meet this requirement is through participation in Student Practice Organizations. Although some SPOs have competitive admissions processes, such as Harvard Defenders, other SPOs accept anyone willing to participate, such as the Recording Artist's Project and the Prison Legal Aid Project. Unlike clinicals and the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, SPOs are open to 1Ls; students must wait until their second year to participate in clinicals, which also usually count for pro bono credit. Finally, one must complete a competitive application process if interested in the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, which seems analogous to the Harvard Law Review in terms of pro bono projects and prestige.
Clubs and Organizations
As mentioned earlier, there are plenty of organizations for 1Ls to get involved with at Harvard Law. Clubs span a cornucopia of different ideologies and interests; the Jewish Law Students Association, Tennis Club, and the Environmental Law Society are just a handful of the many options available for students. A full listing of organizations can be found on Harvard’s website, located at the footnote below.
I hope that this profile has shed some light on what Harvard Law is truly like, behind the name and the reputation. While many of its students share an interest in corporate law, public interest is never far behind; Harvard is working hard to ensure that its image as a cold conglomerate is replaced with one of a warm and welcoming community. The ability to participate in hundreds of different activities and spend time learning from world renowned professors make Harvard Law a wonderful place to spend three years. As stated previously: you never hear a student complain about not getting into Yale.
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