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As Harvard Law School admissions officers finalize next year’s class, they do so with an eye toward a group of fields that deviate from the traditional path to legal studies: STEM.
Law School chief admissions officer Jessica L. Soban said the percentage of admitted students with backgrounds in STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—will remain in the double digits for the second year in a row, reflecting a deliberate effort by Law School admissions officers in recent years to increase the number of students with such backgrounds.
The school began actively recruiting STEM applicants during the 2012-2013 admissions cycle, Soban said. At the time, students with STEM backgrounds comprised around eight percent of the first-year class.
Admissions officers altered recruiting presentations and messages to attract these students and adjusted how they consider GPAs of STEM applicants to ensure that the class composition would change. In the past, Soban said, evaluating GPAs equally across undergraduate majors put STEM students at a disadvantage and may have deterred some from applying in the first place.
“We’re helping applicants to understand that we understand that a GPA in a STEM major often looks different than one for a humanities major. There tend to be different curves for those classes, and therefore an overall GPA may look different,” Soban said. “We’re leveling the playing field.”
The school also launched the Junior Deferral Program in 2013 to appeal to STEM students. The program, which is in a pilot stage, admits a number of Harvard College juniors each year on the condition that they will spend at least two years in the workforce before returning to the Law School. Soban said admissions officers thought the program would be well-suited to STEM-focused students, but so far, it has not attracted a significantly higher proportion of STEM applicants.
Data from the last two admissions cycles, however, suggests that other measures are working. The percentage of STEM-focused students admitted to the Law School increased to around 12 percent in the 2014-2015 cycle, according to Soban, who projects that this cycle’s proportion will hover around the same percentage.
The shift toward STEM is not confined to Harvard Law School but is part of a larger nationwide trend in recent years resulting from dramatic growth in the technology industry, according to U.S. News. New technology and scientific innovations require a new crop of lawyers to deal with legal questions “that didn’t exist 10 years ago,” Soban said.
Law School clinical professor Christopher T. Bavitz said he thinks students with STEM backgrounds possess skills well-suited to the law.
“There are a lot of reasons why people with tech backgrounds can do well in the law,” he said. “A lot of law practice is explaining complicated concepts to people...and people with science and tech backgrounds do that well. I think they’re great analytical thinkers in ways that kind of map on to the thinking lawyers do.”
The Law School has pioneered programs bridging science and the law. The school’s Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics—which was established a decade ago—was the first of its kind among law schools, according Faculty Director and Law professor I. Glenn Cohen, putting Harvard ahead of peer institutions.
Harvard’s Innovation Lab and The Berkman Center for Internet and Society are also major hubs for Law students interested in technology. Bavitz, who is the Managing Director of the center’s cyberlaw clinic, said the influx of STEM-focused students at the Law School has prompted the center to expand considerably since he arrived eight years ago.
“We are significantly bigger now than we were in 2008, and I think that’s a testament to the fact that many students are really excited and interested in this stuff,” he said. “We have a lot of students who come into the program who don’t know what they want to do, but they recognize that there is a tech component to a lot of fields in law these days.”
The Law School aims to continue to increase the proportion of students with STEM backgrounds at the school, Soban said.
“This is the direction that the world is headed. Some of the most interesting questions in law right now are driven by science moving faster than the law does,” she said. “The profession needs—and Harvard Law School kind of driving that needs—people who are able to engage on these topics and are interested in these topics.”
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