Changes at Harvard Law, but not quite a reinvention

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Whenever I tell someone I'm a first-year student at Harvard Law School, I'm never quite sure what kind of response I'll get. Most people are somewhat impressed. Some seem to be in awe. Others admit a hint of envy. A few express outright disdain. But people are never indifferent.

People's opinions about my school shape the way they think about me. That might explain why lately, many of my conversations with strangers go something like this:

"So, Brett, what do you do?"

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"I'm at law school."

"Where?"

"Oh, the Boston area."

It's not that I'm being cagey. I just want people to judge me for who I am, not where I go to school.

This struggle with the Harvard name is nothing new. And don't get me wrong. Having that name on your resume can do a whole lot of good. But I arrived at law school a month ago after having lived abroad for almost two years. In the land I'd just come from - Laos, a small, landlocked country in Southeast Asia - my friends had never heard of Boston, let alone Harvard Law School. For them, being a student at any school in the United States sounded like a great experience.

So what comes to mind when people think of Harvard Law? Scott Turow profoundly shaped the image with his 1977 book, "One-L," which documented his harrowing first year at the school. He described a place of insecure and intensely competitive students toiling away under tough professors. Harvard sounded extraordinary - but terribly frightening, too.

What's it really like? My fellow students are certainly driven, but the cutthroat competition of old seems absent. Professors are approachable - as long as you approach them.

Unfortunately, Harvard hasn't changed as much as some would like. For one thing, the school's size - it's the largest in the country - remains a double-edged sword. The resources are unparalleled, but people can feel easily lost. And the quality of life has a ways to go. Harvard placed last in five of the Princeton Review's seven most recent annual surveys of law school quality of life. That's not only a disappointment, it's a serious liability, as Harvard faces stiff competition for the nation's best students.

It's about time for some real reform. The recent changes adopted by a rare unanimous vote of the law school's notoriously contentious faculty are a good start. Beginning next year, the size of the school's first-year classes will be cut almost in half. And the entering class will be divided into distinct "law colleges" in order to facilitate interaction among students and between students and faculty members.

But the law school should go further. Since I arrived in September, I've been struggling with the feeling that, inside the school, I'm cut off from the "real world." At Harvard Law, you have to struggle to break through the wall that divides the school from the outside community. The faculty is considering another proposal to require students to complete 40 hours of pro bono work - from providing legal services to the poor to working at a nonprofit - over their three years. Harvard's public-interest law program was a pioneer, and it remains among the best. Now it's time once again to make bold changes in our approach to legal education.

Forty hours of volunteering over three years is not too much to ask. It would help make the law school relevant in the "real world." It would also go a long way toward improving the school's image in the community. Maybe then I wouldn't think twice about my response when asked where I go to school.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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