Harvard Law Dean's Goal Is a Revolution

By Marcella Bombardieri, Globe Staff, 9/21/2003

CAMBRIDGE -- They may not seem like major developments in legal training: benches and tables on a new patio, complimentary coffee in the lobby, free tampons in the women's bathrooms. But at a law school so fractious it was once dubbed "Beirut on the Charles," the changes are nearly revolutionary.

"Many of us are just delighted to be going to work at the law school right now," said Professor Martha L. Minow. "It's a very exciting time."

When Elena Kagan took over Harvard Law School two months ago, her resume stood out for two reasons: She was the first woman to lead a school that didn't have a single tenured female professor until 1972. And she has deep political skills at a place where arguing isn't just an occasional activity, it's a deeply held value.

Kagan, a Harvard professor who served as an adviser in the Clinton White House, is also getting attention because she was a key new pick of Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers.

In a recent interview in Cambridge, Kagan laid out an ambitious agenda to shape the school's future and to influence the way law is taught throughout the nation.

"Law school curricula today look astonishingly like what they looked like in 1870, which should make you ask yourself some questions," she said. "We should step back and say, `What is it that lawyers need to know today to do their jobs?' "

She has already appointed a committee to begin examining the curriculum.

But before classes even started, Kagan wanted to renovate shabby Pound Hall, one of the most heavily used classroom buildings, as well as replacing the dispiriting strip of asphalt outside the student center with a new patio.

"A lot of what you do as an administrator -- the results don't show up for a number of years," she said. "These little things that they see right away give a sense of what your values are."

Her predecessor, Robert C. Clark, was considered a successful leader for calming a faculty that spent the 1980s and early '90s at war with itself, as well as for hiring many new professors and raising a great deal of money. A philosopher who specialized in corporate law, the long-serving dean was also criticized as being aloof. Kagan could hardly be more different in that respect, said professors and students on campus recently. One of her first acts was to give students her e-mail address, one that goes straight to her, not to an assistant. Then she went about meeting individually with all 81 faculty members, sessions that averaged two hours but stretched to four and beyond. Last Wednesday, she delivered the first-ever "state of the law school" address.

Kagan, 43, is a 1986 graduate of Harvard Law School who later clerked for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. She spent four years in the Clinton White House, most of that time as deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy. On occasion, she worked with Summers, then the treasury secretary.

Clinton nominated Kagan to be a federal judge, but her appointment stalled in the Senate. She came to the law school in 1999 and became known as one of the most popular teachers.

"She's probably the most-prepared professor I ever had in my entire life," said third-year student Yohannes Tsehai. "She knew the material really well, and she knew everyone's names on the first day."

Kagan also earned kudos for handling the explosive political debate around whether the law school should move to Harvard's undeveloped land in Allston. Law professors adamantly opposed the idea; Kagan was asked to assemble a committee and produce an exhaustive, impartial report on the question. Under the Allston plan Summers is expected to announce this fall, the law school would stay in Cambridge.

This fall, she takes the helm as Harvard Law school launches a $400 million capital campaign, the biggest in the history of law schools, with much of the money intended to go toward physical plant, new endowed professorships, and more financial support for students.

That infusion will help Kagan pursue her goals, like focusing the curriculum more on international law and making it easier for students to choose careers in public service.

She said her experience in government gave her a "close to the bone" appreciation for the importance of public service in legal education. The vast majority of Harvard's graduates go into corporate law, sometimes after clerking for a judge. Only 6 to 10 percent of graduates go straight into government or nonprofit work, according to literature for the school's capital campaign.

Harvard Law already has a nationally known program to forgive the debt of students who chose less lucrative paths. But with corporate recruiters aggressively pursuing students and offering enormous salaries, Harvard needs to remind students of their other options, Kagan said, and to make its debt forgiveness packages more generous.

"Going to a law firm is what's easiest for them to do," she said. "You have to almost hit students on the head with the range of other options. You have to press and press and push and push."

In the long term, Kagan said, she wants to do nothing less than rethink how the law is taught in America.

"Christopher Columbus Langdell created the modern law school curriculum, and he created it at Harvard, but that was 130 years ago," Kagan said. "We're in a new world, and internationalization is an example. There's a recognition that the traditional curriculum does not provide some of what lawyers today need to know."

Kagan's curriculum committee will study teaching practices not only at other law schools, but at medical and business schools that might have innovative ideas to borrow. The new dean continues to teach a class this semester, in which she uses the traditional Socratic method with enthusiasm.

Nothing should go unquestioned, she said. "It's legitimate to ask whether we teach some skills to the exclusion of other skills."

Kagan also wants her students to enjoy Harvard as much as she did when she entered law school "for all the wrong reasons," that is, because she didn't know what else to do.

"I felt a little bit embarrassed to love Harvard as much as I did," Kagan said. "The culture of Harvard is that you're supposed to feel cynical. I want people not just to love the place but to love it unabashedly."