Magazine article The Washington Monthly

Loot Court: How Harvard Law Devours Its Young

Magazine article The Washington Monthly

Loot Court: How Harvard Law Devours Its Young

Article excerpt

In Dickens' Great Expectations, there is a law clerk named Wemmick. Wemmick is a mere functionary by day, brusque and legalistic. But when he crosses the drawbridge to his home at night he becomes a different man--his own man: an avid gardener who cares lovingly for his aged father.

Wemmick's bridge is a central theme in a course taught by psychiatrist and author Robert Coles at Harvard Law School. It represents what Coles sees as a deep split in the psyches of many of his students: the values they will embody as high-priced cogs at corporate law firms and the social causes they tell themselves they still support. In Washington terms, it is the gulf between Lloyd Cutler's water-carrying for corporations and his efforts on behalf of worthy causes.

Why, Coles asks his students, do you think you have to trudge off into divided lives? Aren't there other paths--like those followed by Atticus Finch, the lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird, or in real life, Ralph Nader? Most in the class listen but don't hear, says Richard Kahlenberg, a 1989 Harvard Law graduate who recounts how he narrowly escaped the lemming-like march out of Harvard into the world of corporate law.(*1) "I entered committed to public interest law," he recalls, "but after three years I came within one day of joining the vast majority of my classmates in practicing law at a large corporate firm, a career which I, along with most of them, would find lucrative, prestigious, challenging, and ultimately unsatisfying."

Broken Contract is the story of how Harvard Law School fosters lives divided by Wemmick's bridge. It starts with Kahlenberg's buoyant if wary idealism and concludes with a twist on the ending of The Graduate: Offer in hand from Covington and Burling, Kahlenberg has until April 15th of his third year to come up with a job on Capitol Hill that will save him from a fate he both wants and doesn't. In between, it's a kind of Pilgrim's Regress, in which the son of an idealistic minister, whose heroes are Ralph Nader and Robert Kennedy and who spent a year in Africa before enrolling in law school, gets spiritually derailed by an institution that supposedly represents the zenith of the American legal tradition. Kahlenberg's public service aspirations have an elitist bent; he wants a prestigious position in Washington, only with the good guys. Even so, Harvard Law, and the culture of law generally, do much to evoke the worst in him and little to evoke the worthy.

Though debunking Harvard Law is not exactly new territory, Kahlenberg deals quickly with the tyrannies of the Socratic Method and addresses the larger social point. How does this place manage to take hundreds of the nation's brightest young people, most of whom enter with Leftish politics, and turn them into apologists for the very interests they intellectually oppose?

This issue has been lost in the recent commotions at Harvard Law, including the current one over a callous parody of a feminist article in the Harvard Law Review. These disputes have essentially been intramural: about who teaches at Harvard, what they teach, and whether people there are sensitive to one another. These are all important. But Kahlenberg probes the question that should matter to the rest of us: What do Harvard lawyers contribute to their society after they get out?

The point is not that private practice is always evil, but that so many who enter Harvard get turned away from their original goals. Seventy percent enter saying that they want to do public interest work; 95 percent leave to work in law firms, banks, and the like. This is quite a feat, especially at a time when, to hear conservatives tell it, academia is teeming with Marxists bent on tearing the system down. Harvard Law has its share of Marxoids, known there as proponents of Critical Legal Studies. But Kahlenberg shows--and this is probably his most important insight--how the Crits help create the corporate hired guns they deplore. …

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