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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Professors at Harvard Law

The Harvard Law School wars have erupted again — this time over what was a repulsive parody by Harvard Law Review editors of a deceased feminist scholars last article. But the parody was just the latest fire to light a dry tinderbox of resentment between differing schools of legal thought and time periods. One school of Law professors are called the conservatives. They believe in themselves defining legal merit and then allocating professorships according to traditional conventions of scholarship. The other group — smaller in number -¬≠are called the radicals composed of professors who want more diversity among the 59 tenured professors and additional assistant professors. The radicals also hew to a philosophy of the law-as-pawn in the hands of powerholders and manage to upset the conservatives with their prolific output of law review articles with many footnotes.

Historically, the conservatives were able to dismiss agitators because the latter did not know how to write dense articles that defy prompt understanding.

Before Harvard University President Derek Bok left his position last year, he appointed as the new Harvard Law Dean, Robert Clark, a slightly aggressive, corporate law professor. This was the same Bok who waxed eloquent earlier on the need for Harvard Law graduates to go into government or public interest law. Less than 5 percent of the graduates practiced anything but corporate law when he made that statement.

Readers may wonder why any of the above matters except to a few thousand alumni (including myself), students and teachers. It matters plenty. Harvard Law has long set the pace for the kind of legal education that the nation’s lawyers receive. Though not as influential as it was for the first six decades of this century, Harvard Law matters to people who want their lawyers to be public‑spirited, justice-minded and representing people of all classes and races, not just corporations. Alas, Harvard Law has disappointed these people. For Harvard Law produces corporate lawyers mostly.

In his new, engrossing book, Broken Contract, a young Harvard Law graduate, Richard Kahlenberg, compiles his memoirs of the Cambridge institution in none too flattering terms. What impressed me about his diary was the enormous time that law students spend applying and being interviewed for summer law internships, post graduate judicial clerkships and corporate law positions.

Writing applications, being interviewed on campus by recruiters, flying out to cities around the country to be wined and dined, and poring over detailed advisories by the School’s placement office must take months in total. The worry and anxiety must take a further, diversionary toll.

The ambiance at the Law School is shaped this way. If you are admitted, you are assured of a good job. If you do well in your first year, you are almost assured of the best jobs. Then you coast in the third year, if you wish.

So instead of the law school building a momentum from year one through year three that generates a deep thirst for lawyers to serve “justice for all” in our society, it creates just the opposite — an anti-climax of hard-boiled acceptance to serve the rich and powerful because they pay well and they pay off the law student’s debt.

Many observers of the law school, including the long-time Dean Erwin Griswold, have bewailed this drift from first year idealism to third year cynicism. But they have rarely suggested remedies.

One remedy is for Professors to grow up and become mentors of wisdom and judgment instead of only laser-like quizzers in classrooms. These Professors possess the broader perspective to transcend their wordgames and their distinctions without a difference. But too many have trapped themselves in cul-de-sacs of lucrative moonlighting with companies and corporate law firms and expend their woes about students in declaiming their students caution. Professors are full time teachers. Vet Harvard law students complain that many of them are not accessible and do not spend enough time with them.

Many are too busy making money out of town or doing research to make money. Some run commercial law practices right out of their academic offices. They can’t be bothered getting the students interested in the nation’s corporate crime wave, in the legal challenges brought about by corporate welfare systems and the tight nexus between business and government

Many professors are indifferent to their potential in raising the horizons of students, away from sheer commercialism, to become pioneers, to build the legal institutions here and with other nations that are needed to grapple with the serious problems of the future. And with few exceptions, they are averse to stimulating in their courses the concept of public service, not just for poor people who can’t get lawyers, but for the citizenry who are up against multiple concentrations of power that make a mockery of the rule of law.

So if readers wonder how lawyers become that way. The onus is not all on Harvard Law. But when it comes time to hand out responsibility, my Law School will be near the front of the line.