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For the first time in decades, HLS has changed the basic structure of its first-year experience, and students and
faculty are singing the praises of

The New 1L


When members of the Class of 2004 look back on their first year at Harvard Law School, maybe they'll recall their first case or last final exam.

Or perhaps some will remember joining Professor David Westfall '50 in singing "California Girls" to their visiting professor from UCLA at a karaoke night. And then there was the baby shower students organized for Assistant Professor Heather Gerken, complete with stuffed animals and a baby-shaped cake.

Welcome to the new 1L, where the seven smaller sections look like a cross between an intellectual salon, a social club, and a summer camp.

Equally important, though, is what's going on inside the classroom. Class sizes slashed nearly in half. Written feedback guaranteed well before finals. More freedom to choose faculty advisers and spring electives.

"The real thrust of the 1L restructuring is to improve the students' educational experience," said Dean Robert Clark '72. "It is a pedagogical shift that will help build up their analytical skills, which are really important to the practice of law."

Taken together, the most striking changes in decades have transformed the gateway into Harvard Law. Student satisfaction has never been higher, but The Paper Chase's Professor Kingsfield would probably roll over in his grave.

It's certainly not the same law school where deans once reminded entering students that one-third of them wouldn't be around in a year. Now, a professor is more likely to serve them brownies in his or her living room.

So can Harvard Law still be as rigorous a school if it no longer terrifies students while educating them? And what happens when the high wall of formality separating professors from their prey finally tumbles for good?

That's what I wondered as I watched my former criminal law professor, Daniel Meltzer '75, schmooze with his section while sipping a bourbon on the rocks in a basement bar.

Meltzer long ago earned a reputation for caring, advising what courses to take, and providing written feedback before it was required. Yet he still didn't smile much before Christmas, and most contact generally ended at the edge of campus.

This year, Meltzer's students visited his house twice--and that was even before he started teaching their class in February. It was just one piece of a schedule of activities designed to ease students into their first semester.

He calmed students' first-day jitters with a mock class and organized a mixer where each of their professors introduced themselves. Midway through the semester, they talked about career aspirations with career counselors and what courses to pick in the spring.

They ate fajitas and played charades at a Christmas party in the Hark (Meltzer had the word spank). And when grades were mailed, he gathered students at a breakfast where he tried explaining why grades didn't matter as much as they feared. "If you take 100 people who won the Nobel Prize in physics and rank them on a bell curve, someone would be ranked 100," Meltzer told them. Few, though, seemed convinced.

When they entered the classroom for the first time, both Meltzer and his students felt more at ease together, they say. "After you get to know your professor is a person rather than just somebody who tells you information, it makes the interaction easier," said 1L Alex Venegas.

Two months into the spring semester, they gathered on a school night at the Lizard Lounge, a basement bar next to the law school dimly lit red like a submarine.

At Lizard Lounge In the morning, Meltzer will gently drill his students about search and seizure warrants. Tonight, they tell him about summer jobs and spring break plans. One recommends the margaritas. Another asks if his federal courts class really is the hardest course at the school. "People feel like they're getting their four credits' worth," Meltzer said.

Many students say such interactions were downright awkward at first. "When we first got here, we had no idea what to talk about," said Dave Dorfman. And students say they realize there's a limit to the chumminess. "There's still a distance," said Anna Lumelsky. "They're professors and we're students--we speak to them as people who will be grading us."

Others found it less difficult to mellow in the presence of their professors during karaoke nights and other social events. At a Boston piano bar one night, most of one section swayed to "We Are the World," seeming not to notice that Professor Randall Kennedy sat chatting with a few students at the front table.

Professor Martha Minow said becoming buddies was never her goal. "What I can offer that's distinctive is a window into the intellectual life of the profession," she said.

Each section was scheduled a block of time every week when students had no other commitments. Minow invited a South African Supreme Court justice to talk about serving on the Rwandan war crime tribunal and had Professor Richard Fallon Jr. debate the merits of military tribunals with Professor Alan Dershowitz.

Four decades ago, when Professor Frank Michelman '60 entered Harvard Law, even approaching a professor outside of class was simply unimaginable. "During my first year of law school, I did not set foot in a professor's office--it would not have occurred to me to do so unless summoned," he said.

In March, Michelman sat at the Boston piano bar with his students, raising a glass to John Mellencamp's "Jack and Diane." Much has changed in the intervening decades. Younger generations of students and their professors have brought different expectation┐ about how to relate. "The mores surrounding education have changed," said Dean of the J.D. Program Todd Rakoff '75. "Students are motivated by friendliness and less motivated by formality."

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