By: Elaine McArdle
Imagine that you’ve come to law school knowing that you want to be a great public interest lawyer or an inventive entrepreneur or a savvy trial lawyer. Or you want to focus consciously on what it takes to be an effective public- or private-sector leader. Or perhaps you don’t yet know exactly what you want to do but you’re curious about the options the world holds for you. Through a sweeping array of new, innovative, hands-on courses, Harvard Law School’s new January Experiential Term gives 1L students a chance, early in their time on campus, to learn by doing, to work in teams, and to explore—or discover—what inspires their passion in the law.
For Armani J. Madison ’21, the new JET offerings did just that. Madison arrived at Harvard Law School with the goal of working for the public interest, possibly with a civil rights law firm that represents lower-income clients. For his J-term course, Madison chose “Lawyering for Justice in the United States,” one of eight courses developed for the new JET curriculum designed to give students time to develop practical lawyering skills, to reflect on their studies and careers, and to connect with each other.
Lawyering for Social Justice explores how lawyers can contribute to broader movements for social change through such means as impact litigation, legislative and policy advocacy, transactional work, and community lawyering. Team-taught by four clinical professors—Esme Caramello ’99, faculty director of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau; Tyler Giannini, co-director of the International Human Rights Clinic; Michael Gregory ’04, clinical professor, Education Law Clinic; and Dehlia Umunna, faculty deputy director of the Criminal Justice Institute—Lawyering for Justice focused on a different social justice problem each day. Covering areas as diverse as criminal justice, education, human rights, immigration, predatory lending, and more, this unique course enabled students to practice core competencies required for effective systemic advocacy including diagnosing problems, identifying stakeholders, and designing remedies. Working in teams, students also engaged in exercises such as participating in a mock bail argument on behalf of a client they’d just met, and counseling clients on whether to take a settlement. The course culminated with a day-long “hackathon,” in which student teams developed a plan of action to address a specific social justice lawyering challenge.
Madison, who calls the course “amazing,” says he valued the opportunity to see what actual lawyering is like; the mock bail hearings, for example, had a significant impact on his understanding of the criminal justice system. “We not only had the opportunity to argue our points and rebut the other side, but we were in front of someone playing a judge with all the characteristics [a real judge] might have,” he says.
. . .
The new courses are part of a series of initiatives that stem from an effort to rigorously examine and question assumptions about the Law School’s curriculum—all with an eye toward better preparing students for legal practice in the 21st century. One of the first steps Dean John F. Manning ’85 took after beginning his deanship in July 2017 was to constitute a curricular innovations committee, chaired by deputy deans John Goldberg and Kristen Stilt. The committee’s work during its first year included outreach to students, alumni, and other members of the practicing bar through surveys, focus groups, and multiple individual conversations. The aim was to get a firm understanding of what students and practitioners valued and hoped for in the 1L curriculum and how individual courses influenced career paths and professional success. In addition, Manning and the curriculum committee, which includes the deputy deans and Catherine Claypoole, associate dean and dean for academic and faculty affairs, began to hold “curriculum committee open office hours” to create an another venue in which students could share their thoughts about the School’s curriculum, including what was working, what wasn’t, and what courses students would like to see added. Feedback throughout was overwhelmingly in support of rethinking the academic experience for 1Ls students during the January term.