Harvard Law Alters First-Year Program

Rare curricular change includes focus on international law, statutes and regulations.
October 9, 2006

The faculty of Harvard Law School unanimously approved changes to its first-year curriculum late last week, signaling a rare revision to its markedly consistent program.

Harvard’s first-year curriculum, developed more than 100 years ago and altered little since, has been the basis for much of the country's legal education. The school is credited for initiating the first-year common law curriculum, borrowed from English jurisprudence but no longer thought to be as relevant because so much of current law is codified.

Elena Kagan, the school's dean, called the move "the most significant revisions to [its curriculum] since that time." The updated curriculum is meant to reflect the modern-day legal profession, which legal experts say is increasingly complex and global in scope.

Ed Rubin, dean of the Vanderbilt University Law School, said that given Harvard's status as one of the nation's best law schools, its changes have "blazed a path and set a challenge for all other law schools" to modernize their curriculums. (He said Vanderbilt is considering its own first-year changes.)

The new program, which will be phased in over the next two or three years, focuses on international and comparative law, legislation and regulation, and statutory interpretation.

Students will be asked to solve legal problems by simulation and through mock litigation, rather than by focusing entirely on interpreting legal doctrines and appellate opinions, according to Harvard's description of the new curriculum. The program also intends to take a wholistic look at the field of law and legal studies early on, rather than waiting until the second or third year to look broadly at the field.

“There was a widespread feeling in the legal academic community that the traditional curriculum fails to introduce students to the modern regulatory state and fails in the first year to give them an introduction to reading statutes,” said Mark Tushnet, a professor at the law school and co-editor of the Journal of Legal Education, a quarterly publication of the Association of American Law Schools.  “The practice of law has become very transnational, and lawyers need to be introduced to international law early.”

Three new course requirements have been added to the first-year curriculum, and fewer class hours will be devoted to traditional subjects such as contracts, torts, civil procedure, criminal law and property.

During one term, students will take “Regulation and Legislation, ” a new course that covers themes of statutory interpretation, government structure, separation of powers and administrative agency practice. It will lead into second- and third-year classes on environmental, securities, telecommunications law and constitutional law.

Harvard Law has revised its calendar to include a three-week January term devoted exclusively to a class called "Problems and Theories," in which students look at a range of legal case studies. In the second full term, students will now be required to choose from one of three comparative courses dealing with the global legal system – "Public International Law," "International Economic Law" or "Comparative Law." 

Faculty also adopted a change in upper level curriculum this spring that focuses on areas of study in law as it relates to government, business, science and social change.

Einer Elhauge, a Harvard law professor, said the course changes reflect the fact that "lawyers increasingly do not just litigate and parse texts but negotiate, theorize about the cause of problems and devise solutions to them that may or may not be legal."

He added that the fact that the vote was unanimous reflects an "amazing level" of confidence in the changes, which mark the end of a three-year review spearheaded by Martha L. Minow, a Harvard law professor.


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