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Harvard Law to refocus the first year

130-year-old method of case study bows to 'real world' approach

The Harvard Law School faculty has voted unanimously to overhaul its first-year curriculum by focusing more on complex problem-solving, international law, and modern law-making by government bodies and administrative agencies, marking a significant departure from more than a century of traditional legal education.

The shift is a marked change from the so-called case method , which was developed at Harvard Law in the 1870s, became the basis of legal education nationwide, and remains the way most law students are taught . It relies on appellate court decisions to teach core legal principles, and does not address the huge body of contemporary law created by statutes and regulations rather than judicial opinions.

``Good God, the first-year curriculum was developed 130 years ago, and it really hasn't changed all that much since," said Harvard Law School Dean Elena Kagan, who spearheaded curriculum reform when she became dean in 2003. ``So what we asked ourselves in these last few years is: Should it have remained quite that stable? And we decided the answer was no."

The faculty vote, held in a closed-door meeting Thursday, culminated three years of study by an eight-person committee that solicited input from practicing lawyers, judges, legislators, and nonprofit institutions, as well as several business, medical, and public policy schools. About 70 percent of the faculty voted, Kagan said.

The new curriculum, which will be phased in beginning with next year's entering class, will devote fewer hours to traditional courses like torts, property, and contracts, and place more emphasis on international and comparative law, since most aspects of modern legal practice have a global dimension. It also will introduce two first-year classes, one designed to teach students about the universe of laws created by entities other than courts, and one that will focus on complex problem-solving.

``We're very good at teaching first-year students how to read and analyze cases, make analogies and distinctions, and argue other sides of an issue," Kagan said. ``But we're less good at teaching people how to be creative, flexible, innovative problem-solvers, and this is an attempt to remedy that weakness."

The school aims to give students a more real-world approach to the study of law, Kagan said, that will benefit them no matter what career path they choose, from private practice to government service or industry.

``Many people's picture of a lawyer is someone in a courtroom, but the fact of the matter is very few lawyers practice inside courtrooms," said professor Martha L. Minow, who chaired the curriculum committee. ``So we are making a strong statement that legal education ought to reflect the problem-solving, prospective, constructive, legislative, comparative, and international work that is central to law today."

The problem-solving course will begin in a newly created January term for first-year students that will usher in a welcome change for many of them: It means they will take their exams before the winter break -- not after it, which is current practice -- freeing them from cramming over Christmas holidays.

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at

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