Challenging Legal Education Through Student Activism at HLS

This post continues our series featuring efforts to organize LPE student groups at several law schools. You can read the rest of the posts here.

Ava Liu —   

Screen Shot 2019-10-28 at 2.34.10 PMAt Harvard, institutional spaces for students to think about topics of law and justice remain limited, especially during the first year of law school when we are pummeled with work. While Harvard Law School has a rich history of student organizing, especially around teaching and academic appointments, we have had limited success in curriculum reform the last few years. From 2015 to 2016, student activists in the Reclaim Harvard Law School movement demanded academic reform as part of their broader demands for racial justice, but there still remain no dedicated critical race theorists appointed to the Harvard Law School faculty. On campus, official student organizations sometimes seem out of touch with the broader conversations happening on the left. Furthermore, these groups have been aligned with an old Democratic Party consensus in ways that felt intellectually staid in the post-2016 climate. Before fall 2019, progressive efforts active on other campuses such as NLG have had little presence.

Within these limited spaces, the alienation I experienced as a 1L led me to pursue work organizing what is now Harvard’s LPE. I came into law school interested in understanding the law and its relationship to power, but found the first year curriculum to be largely inattentive to questions of power and distribution. In particular, I thought the primacy of law and economics was strange. Having studied political philosophy in undergrad, I found the normative focus on grounding efficiency as the supreme goal of the law in Torts and Property to be rather arbitrary. In most classes, and especially in courses around private law, we rarely discussed the simple question of whether an outcome was “fair.” Concerns of distributive justice never entered the fray even when law was the chief mechanism by which distribution was conducted. I suspect this was an experience shared by many other students.

When other students and I found the LPE movement and this blog, it felt like discovering room to breathe. Starting in the fall semester of 2018, students at Harvard Law School began organizing around themes of law and political economy, grounded broadly in economic justice and its intersections with race and gender. Our efforts include reading groups, academic conferences, speaker events, and an alternative curriculum effort to support critical legal scholarship.

We all came about it in various ways, but a few student organizing efforts around LPE themes materialized at Harvard over the 2018-2019 school year. I led a committee of students to organize the Global Inequality Symposium in April 2019, which focused on law and international political economy. Our goal was to launch and foreground the academic work of law and political economy at Harvard by hosting public events and creating intellectual connections with scholars who had already been engaged in this space. Another group of students with similar concerns had already begun meeting in a Corporate Power reading group. They self-organized and met regularly throughout the year, taking inspiration as well from the LPE Blog. Members involved with the two groups also collaborated to bring David Grewal to HLS as part of the last day of the Global Inequality Symposium. The Global Inequality Symposium had around 250 conference attendees over a week of programming, drawing its audience from Boston-area schools and the greater community. In May, the first HLS organizing session brought together all the various LPE-affiliated groups and had around thirty attendees. By the end of our school year, the energy and enthusiasm for LPE was very high at Harvard.

Over the summer and into the next fall, we worked together on various efforts to build our membership and create the Harvard Law and Political Economy group. This September, we launched our own website, Alternative Legal Education, an online resource and syllabus structured around the first year curriculum, pulling from Critical Legal Studies, Critical Race Theory, and Law and Political Economy movements. The alternative curriculum syllabus was written by a team of doctoral, master’s and J.D. candidates at Harvard Law School. It is intended to serve as a resource for students and teachers and also as a launching point for reading groups and self-study. We have been surprised at its success; within a month, more than two hundred students across various law schools in North America and Europe have signed up to engage further with the effort and our cross-campus LPE network.

Our group is currently in the midst of becoming an official student organization at Harvard, through which we hope to lobby the law school for institutional and curriculum reform. At HLS, our presence will include running a speaker series with academics and activists working on issues of law and political economy; lunch talks aimed at reaching a broader audience for the Boston and Cambridge community; and facilitating connections between students and practitioners whose work is aimed at promoting economic and racial justice. Our goals this year include growing the coalition of progressive organizing at Harvard Law School and supporting the work of activists in the Boston and Harvard community. We also want to continue foregrounding the group’s academic work, whether it’s through hosting critically grounded reading groups at HLS or supporting LPE-related scholarship from HLS faculty and students.

In particular, we are excited to push our alternative curriculum effort further and host more discussions with students and academics around what legal education should be. We are planning a conference around legal education this year, through which we hope to workshop our syllabus with a view to attempting a first draft for a ‘critical legal education’ canon. The goal of this conference is to develop an even larger public resource to share with students and teachers. We also have the second edition of an international law and political economy symposium in the works, and are excited to build on the intellectual connections we started last year. These events will be offered to the broader LPE network as well as the Boston community, and all those interested can stay engaged by signing up on the website.

What has been very energizing has been the large turn-out and support from people from not only the law school but also the broader community. Members of the general Boston community have come after work to our events and reading groups. At times, we have been surprised by the high level of engagement from students, faculty, and even alumni. Economic justice is an issue that strikes a chord with many citizens, especially with the increasing space it occupies in electoral politics and public policy. Student interest is high because legal education is hierarchical and complacent. Many of us want energizing discussions around law and policy to directly occur in the classrooms that we spend so much time in. The desire for the kinds of critical questions that LPE asks is very high, and this is a very exciting space to work in.

Ava Liu is a J.D. Candidate at Harvard Law School and LLM Candidate at the University of Cambridge