CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — For Boston attorney Stephen Perlman, completing Army basic training wasn't nearly as harrowing as surviving his entry into Harvard Law School.
"I found it particularly unpleasant," says Mr. Perlman of his first year at Harvard in 1967. "It was a combination of the large classes, the aloofness of the faculty, the inability to get tailored feedback."
Last month, the faculty unanimously voted to overhaul the first, or "One-L," year endured by generations of the nation's top lawyers. It's depicted as a dramatic hazing ground in John Jay Osborn Jr.'s novel "The Paper Chase" and Scott Turow's memoir "One-L" (see story below and related column on page 15). Next fall, the school's first-year sections will shrink from 140 to 78 students and evolve into more-intimate "law colleges."
New students can expect written feedback from professors, more flexibility in choosing electives, and more interaction with faculty and classmates.
It's all part of a trend to treat law students more like customers - and to offer an enticing environment to top students.
Harvard was the first law school in the United States to adopt the twin pillars of modern legal education - the case method and a Socratic style of questioning - in the 19th century.
The school has moved less quickly, however, to introduce new classroom innovations in recent years. But greater competition from peer institutions and Harvard's low student-satisfaction ratings prompted rethinking at the nation's oldest law school.
Harvard Law Dean Robert Clark called the rare unanimous vote a "grand moment." Many students, however, say the changes are long overdue.
"It's very easy to go through the first year without a single professor knowing your name," says Lauren Matthews, a second-year student from Columbus, Ga.
Harvard Law ranked 154th out of 165 schools for student satisfaction in a 1994 National Jurist magazine survey, and placed dead last in five of the seven past Princeton Review surveys of law school quality of life.
To better gauge student opinion, the school enlisted consulting firm McKinsey & Co. last year. Surveys and focus groups revealed widespread dissatisfaction with class sizes and arbitrary grades. Students also reported feeling alienated. "I have no connection with Harvard Law School," one wrote. "If it burned to the ground, I wouldn't know for a week or two."
Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren says the McKinsey survey helped build momentum for change. "It told us that we weren't knocking the students' socks off every day, and at a place like this, that's a true shortfall," says Professor Warren, who chairs a committee charged with examining student life.
Harvard Law has addressed other student complaints by increasing financial aid and is now examining possible reforms of its grading scheme.
Trent Anderson, vice president and publisher of Kaplan Inc., says top law school candidates enjoy greater choices today, since employers now look at law schools like Columbia and New York University as equals to Harvard, Stanford, and Yale.
"The competition is on for schools to be responsive to students," Mr. Anderson says.
Class size is a key issue. Last year, Harvard tied for the second-worst student-professor ratio among U.S. News & World Report's top 50 law schools.
"Harvard over the years has been a leader in legal education in many areas, but class size has not been one of them," says Robert Walsh, dean of Wake Forest University's School of Law in Winston-Salem, N.C.
But professors point out that Harvard's large student body and faculty allow it to offer more than 200 upper-level electives.
Its first-year class of 550 students is nearly three times larger than entering classes at Yale or the University of Chicago, and twice as large as the University of Pennsylvania's. "We're not a small, intimate law school. We're a big, noisy, vigorous, energetic place," Warren says. "That's our competitive advantage."
Faculty sponsors say the law colleges will address weaknesses in the first-year experience.
They envision the colleges as the center of students' intellectual and social life, hosting everything from mock-trial competitions and informal seminars to softball games and parties.
Transforming four sections into seven law colleges will require shifting some faculty from upper-level to introductory classes and will cost approximately $1 million per year, says Todd Rakoff, dean of Harvard Law's JD Program.
Some alumni lament the school's turn from tradition.
"Part of the whole mystique of the place was you were on your own and you were not going to get much help and it was tough," says Duke University School of Law Prof. Paul Carrington, who graduated from Harvard Law in 1955. "Unfortunately, the characteristics that make the Harvard Law School what it is don't sell well anymore."
But some traditions, graduates say, are better abandoned.
Colorado Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary J. Mullarkey, a 1968 Harvard Law graduate, remembers when certain professors would only recognize women students on ladies' day and students whispered about secret societies where a select few connected with faculty.
Harvard Law officials promise the changes won't make the experience any less challenging. Nor is the school likely to become more laid back, alumni predict.
"What has endured," says Mr. Turow, who graduated in 1978, "is the hothouse atmosphere of the law school, with so many talented and ambitious young people, so innately competitive, in one place, shepherded by a faculty that displays all of those qualities, only more so."
Seth Stern is a third-year Harvard Law student.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society