Harvard Law Changes the Pace of Its Paper Chase

By Stern, Seth | The Christian Science Monitor, October 24, 2000 | Go to article overview

Harvard Law Changes the Pace of Its Paper Chase


Stern, Seth, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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