Curricular Reform at Harvard Law School

Last week, Harvard Law School adopted substantial changes to its first-year curriculum. The office announcement is here.

These changes are important for several reasons. On the simplest level, these changes are the first adjustments to the much-vaunted HLS first-year curriculum in over one hundred years, as the NYTimes’s Jonathan Glater pointed out in his story. The 19th century design of this curriculum has served many of us — students, lawyers, law teachers, maybe even society at large — very well. But the practice of law has changed enormously over that century-plus; well-reasoned change, reflecting those changes in practice, seems much in order as a general matter.

These particular curricular reforms happen also to be terrific choices. A process led by Professor Martha Minow over a few years, including a massive consultative process, led to the proposal that passed the faculty unanimously — a sure sign that the proposal was well-crafted. (If you are unfamiliar with the history of the Harvard Law School’s faculty, the point about unaminity may seem unremarkable. But it is remarkable, truly; a testament to the leadership of both our dean, Elena Kagan, and of Prof. Minow.) The three major changes to the curriculum are that students will take a course in legislation and regulation; one of a few choices in international law; and a course on legal problem solving. These changes mean that there will inevitably be less emphasis in the first year on the traditional slate of courses (torts, contracts, civil procedure, and so forth), but the basic structure that has worked so well over time has been preserved. One big scheduling change for HLS first-years is that they will have an intensive winter-term course, just as the second- and third-year students already do. The winter term idea is a great one, as this is an institution that allows for a different, and differently effective, mode of teaching some courses. Students take only one class during January, which meets every day, and they focus solely on this one subject. Taken together, these changes are geared toward ensuring that law students are better prepared for the profession into which they will enter, whether as practicing lawyers in a firm, public servants of various sorts, or businesspeople in a global economy.

On the occasion of the unanimous faculty vote, Dean Kagan wrote: “This marks a major step forward in our efforts to develop a law school curriculum for the 21st century. Over 100 years ago, Harvard Law School invented the basic law school curriculum, and we are now making the most significant revisions to it since that time. Thanks to yesterday’s unanimous faculty vote, we will add new first-year courses in international and comparative law, legislation and regulation, and complex problem solving — areas of great and ever-growing importance in today’s world. I am extraordinarily grateful to the entire faculty for its vision and support of these far-reaching reforms, which I am confident will give our students the best possible training for the leadership positions they will soon occupy.”

(Volokh Conspiracy, by contrast, has less positive things, or perhaps just more skeptical things, to say.)

As a variant on the same theme, several of us at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School are looking at the question of whether, and how, technology should be factored into the law school curriculum more so than it is today at HLS and many other schools. Over the course of this fall, we’re working with partners at Lexis-Nexis on a survey of lawyers and a white paper on ways that technology might appropriately be used in the teaching of law. The project is being spearheaded by new Berkman fellow Gene Koo. While on a much smaller scale than the curriculum reform just passed at HLS, this research project is intended to be in step with the hard look at whether law teaching today prepares students well for the practice of law.

As a footnote: the Harvard Crimson notes that the unanimous vote of our faculty in favor of this broad first-year curricular reform is good news for those hoping that Dean Kagan (of Harvard Law School) will become President Kagan (of Harvard University). I agree with Professor Elhauge, who says, “I hope we don’t lose her to the university. But I don’t think they could find anyone better to be President.”