New England And Boston - Law Schools Harvard Law School: Progress On Many Fronts

Saturday, May 1, 2004 - 01:00

The Editor interviews Elena Kagan, Dean of Harvard Law School.

Editor: Dean Kagan, would you give our readers something of your background and experience?

Kagan:. I grew up in New York City and went to Princeton, where I was a history major. I had an opportunity to go to Oxford, and I read political science there. I then went to law school, at Harvard, where I discovered that I loved thinking about legal issues.

Editor:Will you tell us about choosing a career in academic law?

Kagan: When I graduated from law school I clerked for two years: first on the United States Court of Appeals level and then at the United States Supreme Court. Then I worked on Michael Dukakis' presidential campaign for five or six months. When he lost, I decided to go into private practice, and I worked in a law firm for about two and a half years. That was the point at which I began to think about a career in academic law. I think the desire to be an academic lawyer had always been there. While I enjoyed the practice of law, I realized how much I missed academic life.

Editor: In the latter half of the '90s you served at the White House.Would you tell us about that experience?

Kagan: It was a wonderful experience. I served in two roles, first in the Office of Counsel to the President, where I was the lawyer serving the President's policy staff. After a time I was asked to move into the policy area myself, and I became what was called the Deputy of the Domestic Policy Council. In both positions I learned a great deal about how political institutions operate, how public policy is made and how the issues are presented to a variety of constituencies, from Congress to the general public. Working at the White House is a very exciting experience. There is also a great sense of responsibility that comes with the job because you are working on things that will change people's lives.

Editor: In 1999 President Clinton nominated you to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. The Senate Judiciary Committee then declined to bring your nomination forward, and it expired when Congress adjourned. This must have been a frustrating experience for you.

Kagan: It was frustrating, but it could have been worse.The resistance to my nomination didn't really have to do with me; it just reflected the political circumstances at the time. There was pretty much a stalemate between Congress and the President at that time, and no one who had been nominated by him was going to be confirmed to the particular court to which I had been nominated. And I knew from the beginning that my confirmation was going to be something of a long shot. Now, of course, I am grateful that I was not confirmed.

Editor: Is there a better way of placing appellate judges? Must it be part of a political process?

Kagan: I think confirmation proceedings inevitably have a political aspect. Our courts are called upon to decide important matters Ñ matters that often have great public impact. The attitudes and views that a person brings to the bench make a difference in how they reach those decisions. So the Senate is right to take an interest in who these people are and what they believe.The Senate in fact has an important role to play in the confirmation of judges, although there are more and less responsible ways to carry out that function.

Editor: Would you tell us something about the 50-year journey of women at Harvard Law School?

Kagan: The first class at Harvard Law School that included women was the class of 1953, and last year we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of their graduation. It was a celebration of that original group of eleven women, as well as all the women who have graduated in the fifty years since. In the early years especially, Harvard Law School was not a hospitable place for women; the faculty really didn't treat them at all well.As the years went by, though, the number of women in each class grew, and they encountered a more positive environment.Last year's anniversary celebration really was an acknowledgement of how far women have come.

Editor: What are the challenges you have found in your first year as dean?

Kagan: The job of a law school dean has its difficulties, but it is enormously exciting. That's especially true of the Harvard deanship, because this school has such a prominent role in all of legal education.

One of the challenges this past year was to participate in a general university debate about whether to move the law school from Cambridge to Alston, the Boston neighborhood where Harvard Business School is located. Our association with Cambridge is a long one, and our Cambridge campus, with its historic buildings, reflects many of our traditions. So I have to admit I was relieved when the decision was made to keep Harvard Law School at its present site.

Editor: I gather there has also been discussion about class size and the student-faculty ratio?

Kagan: Harvard Law School is a big place - the great metropolis, if you will, of legal education. We believe that the size of the place is an asset.It is responsible for the excitement and vitality of the school. There is a great diversity of people and perspectives and opinions here, and a great variety of events and activities.This is what makes Harvard the most dynamic and vibrant law school in the nation.But size has some downsides. We have to work harder than smaller schools to create a rich sense of community.We have addressed this by reducing dramatically the size of our first-year classes.This allows us to get the best of both worlds: the dynamism, diversity and wealth of ideas of a large institution, and something of the intimacy that is generally associated with small institutions. This is an undertaking that is very expensive for the school. We believe, however, that it is of great benefit to our students.

Editor: Please tell us about how you go about recruiting, and then retaining, one of the great faculties of the world?

Kagan: This is one of the great challenges of my position. The law school job market is quite competitive. But we have certain advantages in competing for great faculty.A faculty that is already acknowledged as outstanding tends to attract outstanding scholars and teachers to its ranks. Still, recruiting and then retaining this faculty is something I think about every day.

Editor: What about the curriculum?Are there any changes in sight?

Kagan: We are thinking about all kinds of things. We have a number of groups looking at specific areas of our curriculum, including clinical education and our research and writing program. We are also attempting to step back and assess the entirety of the curriculum.This is something that should be done periodically, and it has been quite some time since we or any other major law school did so. I do not know, at this point, what specific recommendations are going to come from these efforts, but I am certain that we will have a stronger curriculum as a result.
Editor: Would you tell us something about the pro bono activities HLS supports in Cambridge and Boston?

Kagan: We are involved in a great many pro bono activities. We have a wonderful set of clinics. The largest is the Hale and Dorr Harvard Legal Services Center, which is the second largest provider of legal services to needy people in the Boston area. In addition, there are many specialized clinics. One of the most popular is focussed on a variety of Internet and Intellectual Property issues. Next year we will start a clinic dealing with human rights abroad. We have, in addition, a pro bono requirement for students. All students have to spend a certain number of hours doing pro bono work before they graduate, which can be done through clinical work or outside activities.This requirement was instituted just last year, and the students have been very enthusiastic. We are hopeful that they will take from this work a commitment to the pro bono activity that will continue throughout their careers.

Editor: The cost of law school - particularly those private institutions that compete for the very finest students - is very high. Students from minority communities are most affected. What is the answer here?

Kagan: Tuition at major law schools is high, and at the moment the average student graduates with about $70,000 of debt. We are trying hard to ensure that the career choices these students make are not influenced by the debt they have upon leaving law school. We have put an excellent loan forgiveness program into place that permits people to take jobs in public service, with government agencies, non-profit organizations and so on. Because these jobs do not pay very well, we assume a large portion of their debt. I take great pride in Harvard's having the finest loan forgiveness program in the country, but I also think we must continue to increase the resources devoted to it.

Editor: Please tell us about your vision for Harvard Law School.Where would you like the institution to be in, say, ten years?

Kagan: I want Harvard Law School to continue to be a place that makes a real difference in the world. It has been such a place historically; the most important task before us is to continue and expand on this tradition. That means Harvard must be an institution whose scholarship and teaching influences the way people think about legal problems. Most generally, Harvard Law School's mission is to advance justice and to promote human welfare through the quality of education it provides and the quality of research it supports.That's a large goal, but we're confident we can meet it.