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Not Your Father's Harvard Law School

Poised for profound change, the institution already offers vastly different choices than a generation before

When Julie Zeglis left for Harvard Law School two years ago, her father gave her some simple advice: stick to the basics.

He should know. John Zeglis went on to a career as a telecommunications and antitrust litigator after he graduated from HLS in 1972.

But Julie has many more options to choose from at HLS than her father did three decades ago. In all, today's students can pick from among more than 260 electives, up from under 100 in 1972.

So far, Julie says she loves family law and hopes to take Trial Advocacy Workshop next year. "It's a different kind of class than sitting there with the Socratic method," she said. "I do much better in a class with a lot of discussion."

Come fall, new students will experience some of the most radical changes in Harvard Law's 1L experience in decades as part of the School's Strategic Plan. They'll enter smaller sections, called law colleges, featuring greater contact between faculty and students. Yet more gradual changes have quietly transformed the second- and third-year academic experience for a generation of students. Among them are greater specialization, more international offerings, more hands-on learning, more interdisciplinary studies, and new courses in emerging areas of law ranging from animal rights to environmental law.

Most students still take the same upper-level mix of constitutional law, corporations, tax, administrative law, and evidence. But they now have many more ways to fill out the remainder of their schedules. And even first-year students can join journals tailored to their specific interests or participate in the School's growing number of specialized research centers and programs. In addition to the Harvard Law Review, there are now ten student journals, including the newest, the Harvard Negotiation Law Review.

Dean Robert Clark '72 says the growth and differentiation in the curriculum reflect changes in the legal profession itself. For example, Clark says governments regulate more areas of life, and a global economy requires American attorneys to understand foreign legal systems.

"There's no escaping that we need to explore a wider terrain," Clark said.

A broader curriculum has changed more than just the size of the course catalog. More classes require a bigger faculty and new office space to house them. Witness the construction of Hauser Hall and recent renovations to Areeda Hall. The number of professors and lecturers at Harvard Law now is more than 140, a 55-percent increase since 1972.

But do more choices translate into a better education than graduates received a generation ago?

"It certainly makes for a more interesting education," said Todd Rakoff '75, dean of the J.D. Program. "But whatever you learn in law school, you find in the first few months of practice that there's a whole bunch of stuff you don't know."

And as his daughter finishes her second year at Harvard Law, Zeglis isn't convinced either. "This is the one time in your life you've got to drill down to the bedrock in the essence of law," Zeglis said.

Current students say, however, that a broad curriculum allows them to delve deeply into narrow areas of law or branch out into new ones they hadn't thought about pursuing before. Some new specialized fields simply didn't exist as organized areas for study a generation ago.

Henry Steiner '55, director of the Human Rights Program, says there weren't many ways he could have pursued an interest in human rights when he enrolled at the Law School. But Harvard Law will offer seven human rights courses next year and host about ten visiting human rights fellows. Almost two dozen students spend their summers on Human Rights Program-sponsored internships.

"Human rights has become indelibly a part of our legal, political, and moral landscape," Steiner said.

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