Law School Faculty Debates Major Reform

Its image has long been one of intransigence and aversion to change. But now Harvard Law School (HLS) is making a concerted effort to change its ways.

Since receiving the results of a study conducted last fall by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co, HLS professors have been discussing and defending their ideas for reform.

The faculty committees spearheading the reform made a proposal in the form of the 2000 Strategic Plan aimed at across-the-board changes from smaller classes and more debt relief to a more flexible grading curve.

The faculty has been voting on different aspects of the plan over the past month and hopes to have a final plan of action by the new year.

"I think there are a lot of significant changes here. Along with a certain amount of exhaustion, there's a collective sense of enthusiasm for the plan," says Daniel J. Meltzer '72, Story professor of law and chair of the steering committee of the strategic planning process.

Even in an era when HLS is no longer viewed as the cold, conservative institution depicted in films such as "The Paper Chase," the plan came as a significant change--and one that was a long time coming.

"I think the administration has known and cared in some sense about the quality of life at HLS for awhile, they just haven't know what to do about it," says Clint Hermes, a third year student at HLS.

Strategy of the Strategic Plan

The changes currently being debated at HLS are the products of three years of faculty-wide discussion.

Now the end is near.

"I actually hope the faculty will have approved it before Christmas. It then requires corporation approval," Meltzer says. "A great deal of what we want to do is dependent on fundraising."

Professors agree that the changes will have a significant impact on the school.

"I think the changes for the first years have the potential for substantially changing the character of the school," says Todd D. Rakoff '67, Dean of the JD program and chair of the academic development subcommittee.

Meltzer says that some changes, like grade distribution, will be implemented as early as this spring. The faculty has also agreed to examine a more flexible grading policy, which would attempt to eliminate grading discrepancies between sections of the same class.

Other proposals, however, such as the one to have smaller sections in first year classes, will take more resources and will not be implemented before next fall.

Last Friday, another aspect of the plan was approved--the faculty reached a strong consensus to increase their ranks by adding approximately 15 new members over the course of 10 years. This will reduce the size of first-year courses and allow the school to divide first-year students into smaller social groups called colleges.

"There is a widespread sentiment for trying to reduce our student-faculty ratio," Meltzer says, but adds, "Some colleagues feel it should be done by reducing the number of students [not increasing the number of faculty]."

The changes for first-year students will not happen until next fall at the earliest.

"If we can start making incremental gains in our hiring we'll start doing it," Meltzer says. "A lot of this depends on what people give money for."

Rakoff cites other important changes instigated by other committees including "a real effort to raise money for foreign students" and "having a pro bono service requirement for graduation."

As of next year, students will be required to complete 40 hours of pro bono work in order to graduate.

The strategic plan will also address student financial aid.

"For a number of years we've had a program of loan-forgiveness for students who take low-paying jobs. It's a way of permitting us to rely as heavily as we do on loan-financing...without having debt burdens dictate students' career choices," Meltzer says.

He adds that through the strategic plan, "we are seeking to strengthen the program still further...we're proposing a 50 percent increase in the program."

Beyond the tangible changes the HLS faculty has proposed, the faculty believes the process itself represents an improvement in student-faculty relations.

"The biggest change to come out of this planning process has been to acknowledge the importance of student experience at HLS. Simply focusing on that has made for a different feeling," says Elizabeth Warren, Gottlieb professor of law.

Meltzer says the faculty has been enthusiastic and heavily involved with the process.

The Devil Is in the Details

Despite the faculty's concrete plans for the future, some students wonder if the proposed changes will materialize.

"The majority of the administration's proposed changes are up in the air. The devil is in the details," says Andrew Michaelson, a second year law student and president of the student group Catalyst.

"The changes are very good and unexpected, but I would not believe too much until I see the changes actually implemented," says Edna M. Rienzi, a second year student.

With regard to hiring more professors, money has been set aside, but the faculty is usually very hesitant to hire, Michaelson says.

"There is still no environmental law professor, despite a decade's worth of calls for one," he says.

Although many students appreciate the faculty's efforts to address their concerns, some students feel the benefits of the decisions already approved are questionable.

"Because only some of the measures were instituted, it seems that the decision-making process was driven more by the fact that HLS felt it necessary to keep with the times, instead of taking an active role to become a trend setter," says Daniel N. Kassabian, a third-year law student.

The faculty's pledge to institute a more flexible grading curve has been a particularly controversial point. The faculty turned down a proposal, supported by a majority of the students, to replace letter grades with a three-tiered passing grade scale.

Some students are frustrated by what they perceive as the faculty's inaction. "I think HLS falls short in all of the categories identified in the McKinsey study, but I was particularly amazed at the faculty's rejection of grading reform. Why did they do that study, again?" Hermes says.

"The level of secrecy concerning grades here is ridiculous. Reducing the tiers would not only help eliminate the sense of arbitrariness in grade assignment that students feel, but would also help eliminate the stigma associated with discussing grades," Kassabian says.

While many students have strong opinions about how the law school should be run, others believe that the details are not so important and more sweeping changes are in order.

"Class sizes are, in my view, not the most important issue facing Harvard students, and things like the mandatory public service requirement are preposterous," says Aman Verjee, a third-year student. " I am of the view that law school should be cut down from 3 years to something like 1.5, and made into an apprenticeship program."

Students Practice Litigation

Aside from commenting on the faculty discussions, students have been instrumental in influencing faculty decisions.

During the faculty's development of the strategic plan this year, students presented a Bill of Expectations, which focused on five main themes: reducing class size, strengthening advising, increasing academic feedback, making registration easier and reforming the grading system.

"They've addressed four of those five concerns pretty accurately," says Jay M. Munir, president of the student government and a third-year law student.

Munir says the students have indeed been influential. Last Friday, he spoke out against the faculty proposal to decrease the number of students at the law school, and the proposal was subsequently defeated.

"Students have played a direct role with faculty members on committees," Munir says. "I think that we are [being listened to]."

Munir says students face not only the challenge of gaining the ear of professors, but also of establishing a majority student opinion.

"It's always difficult to come to a consensus when you have such a large student body, and to convince the faculty that there is a strong student opinion on one issue or another," he says.

"There was a feeling for a lot of us who entered this school--people in my class--that since we were entering a new century for the law school, there was an opportunity to re-shape it," Munir says.

He says he and his classmates wanted to "influence the law school's attempt to affect those changes." And, he adds, "the place is definitely improving. There's a strong feeling that we have affected change."

Why Now?

Student opinion and the McKinsey study are just two of the agents inspiring HLS faculty to pursue change.

"It wasn't a situation in which the students were banging down the doors of the unresponsive faculty, who finally came around to doing something for them," Meltzer says, "but rather one in which faculty, staff, and students worked jointly on ways to improve the student experience."

HLS has designed strategic plans similar to the one currently under consideration in the past.

For instance, Meltzer says, the last long-term plan, completed in 1989, included a goal of increasing the faculty from 64 to 74 total members. This goal was actually exceeded; the faculty grew from 64 to 79 in the 1990s.

"This one is more elaborate in trying to make some programmatic recommendations for the school," Meltzer says of this year's strategic plan.

"The previous plan was at a higher level of generality, and more heavily focused on physical space planning...and on fundraising," he says.

Professors express hope that this plan represents an overall movement towards more broad reforms and greater flexibility.

"I think it is definitely true that there is more change going on now than has happened in the last 15 or 20 years," Rakoff says.