Law School Votes to Alter
Crimson Staff Writer
April 27, 2004
The Harvard Law School faculty last week endorsed a series of changes to an introductory course for first-year students.
Without a single dissenting vote, the faculty moved Thursday to back a report by the First-Year Lawyering (FYL) Committee, chaired this semester by Fairchild Professor of Law Andrew L. Kaufman ’51, which advised that the FYL course narrow its focus to legal research, writing and oral presentation.
The committee also recommended that the school double the number of FYL lecturers from seven to 14, reducing lecturers’ section sizes from 80 students to 40.
In an interview yesterday, Kaufman said the reforms would go into effect “as soon as practicable.”
The school established the FYL program three years ago after receiving complaints from law firms “that our students were not quite so well prepared as students from other institutions,” Kaufman said.
“Students who go to summer jobs after their first year have to know how to write a memorandum and have to know how to do research,” Kaufman said.
“By and large, our students come to law school without knowing how to do legal research, which is not like history research or economics research,” said Kaufman, who was once a history concentrator in Lowell House.
Legal research “isn’t intuitive and it isn’t easy,” he said. But he said “regular faculty members don’t want to teach research and writing,” prompting the school to hire an additional corps of lecturers to help first-years develop these skills.
In filling the new FYL lecturer spots, the school will look for candidates “with ambition to move on in academic life,” Kaufman said. He said the school will expect FYL lecturers to be scholars as well as teachers, and will look to foster closer coordination between FYL lecturers and professors who lead other first-year courses.
“When the school hired initially, there was a greater emphasis on practical experience and there was an expectation that people would stay longer,” Kaufman said. The committee, he said, proposed “a different model,” in which academics will hold lecturer posts for approximately two years. “We’re afraid of burnout,” he said.
Kaufman also said that the increased number of lecturers would likely lead to fewer student teaching assistants in FYL courses.
‘DEVIL IN THE DETAILS’
In its most controversial section, the report suggests that the school rescind a rule that had required FYL teaching assistants to be members of the Board of Student Advisers (BSA), a campus organization.
Under a long-standing reciprocal agreement among the BSA, the Harvard Law Review and the Legal Aid Bureau, students can only join one of the three extracurricular groups.
But the report, which was released earlier this month, recommended that Law Review and Legal Aid Bureau members be permitted to apply for FYL teaching assistant positions.
“This proposition did not have in its genesis an anti-BSA aspect to it,” Kaufman said. “We thought BSA teaching assistants had done a good job and we praised them for it.”
In addition to its work in the FYL program, the BSA administers student course evaluations, runs the Ames moot court exercises, and organizes the Williston contract law simulation.
The report concluded that “the search should be for the best student teachers and that therefore the positions should be open to all students, not just those willing to become BSA members with all the present nonteaching commitments of such membership.”
But second-year law student Ronald M. Varnum, who is president of the BSA, challenged the FYL committee to show that any students have been discouraged from joining the BSA because of the organization’s nonteaching responsibilities.
“The committee offers no evidence that these students actually exist,” Varnum said.
Varnum, who taught mathematics at a Greensboro, N.C., high school for two years, said he saw the BSA as “the logical outlet for that passion [for teaching] once I arrived here at law school.”
Varnum said BSA members devote between eight and 30 hours a week to their teaching assistant responsibilities.
Several hundred students have signed a petition supporting a continued role for the BSA in the first-year course, Varnum said.
“We don’t oppose the reduction [in the number of FYL teaching assistants] per se...but we do think that we are the group that is best capable of fulfilling the role of student teachers in the program,” Varnum said.
Kaufman said that an implementation committee, whose members have yet to be appointed by Dean Elena Kagan, will determine the BSA’s ultimate role in the FYL program.
“The devil is in the implementation. The devil is in the details,” said second-year law student Daniel C. Richenthal, a member of the FYL committee. “But our committee didn’t come to conclusions about details and implementation.”
According to its report, the committee left unresolved the question “whether it would be feasible to restructure the BSA as a two-tiered organization, with teaching and nonteaching segments.”
But Varnum said “there is no guarantee that the BSA will have a position on the implementation committee.”
Kaufman said he is sympathetic to the BSA’s concerns.
“I understand why they were upset,” he said, adding that he has encouraged the organization’s leaders to circulate their views to students and faculty.
But Kaufman added, “the things we have done that have bearing on the BSA are things that we thought had to be done to improve the program.”
Richenthal said the committee’s report took into account not just the three students on the committee but the student body at large.
“It was very strange to us that there became this giant uproar over the BSA,” Richenthal said. “The BSA was a small part of a general report, and we never came to an official position on the role of the BSA.”
RIPPLES ACROSS CAMPUS
The report’s proposal to revise the reciprocal agreement has drawn criticism not only from the BSA, but also from the Legal Aid Bureau.
“Our main concern...is that our students are able to provide the best representation for our clients that is possible,” said Charlotte H. Sanders, who is president of the Legal Aid Bureau in her second year at the school.
Members of the bureau handle cases involving public housing, domestic violence, family law and government benefits, devoting a minimum of 20 hours a week to their work.
With students handling cases that could have devastating implications for clients, Sanders worries that some bureau members would not be able to fulfill teaching assistant duties in FYL courses.
“My client is a woman who is basically being accused of having someone live with her who is not on her lease,” Sanders said. “It’s the police officers’ word against hers. She has kids, and she would be homeless if she were kicked out of her apartment.”
“We think our work is really serious,” Sanders said, “and we wouldn’t want [first-years] to get bad instruction because our members are focused on their clients.”
While the bureau expressed its views in a letter to Kaufman last week, the Law Review—the third organization affected by the reciprocal rule—has yet to weigh in.
Second-year student Thiruvendran Vignarajah, president of the Law Review, said he is “not sure that members of the Law Review have had time to digest all of its implications.”
“My personal sense is that there is some value to keeping different groups charged with different responsibilities to insure that each group’s membership does the best job it can,” he said. “But there may be editors who can handle some teaching responsibilities along with their Law Review work.”
Kagan could not be reached for comment yesterday afternoon. Cromwell Professor of Law David L. Shapiro ’54, who was co-chair of the FYL committee for the fall term, is on leave this semester.