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The New 1L, continued

Harvard Law didn't necessarily fare well in that changed environment, ranking 154th out of 165 schools in student satisfaction in a 1994 National Jurist magazine survey. Focus groups and surveys conducted by McKinsey & Co. as part of the school's strategic planning process found similar dissatisfaction. One upperclassman reported feeling so alienated he wouldn't notice if the school burned down.

The faculty too saw the need for change, voting unanimously in the fall of 2000 to carve up the first-year class into seven smaller "law colleges." For years they'd debated what might be the ideal class size. They settled on 78, but no one was sure whether that would be the magic number capable of changing the dynamics inside the classroom.

But most professors say they were surprised to find what a significant difference reducing sections below 80 students made. "It has the effect of reducing the sense of formality," Michelman said. "It feels easier."

Learning everyone's name takes days instead of weeks. More students speak up voluntarily. Students report getting called on more often and finding it more difficult to melt into the crowd.

With classes still conducted in rooms designed for the larger sections, there are more empty seats--yet fewer places to hide. Empty rows separate students from the back bench seats where the unprepared used to seek anonymity.

There has been some loss of intimacy since students no longer have a small section of 45. But many first-year students have found their class size fell even further in their electives. Instead of choosing from a small number of electives, each first-year student was able to enroll in any course this spring.

Jason Cowley, for example, found he was one of only five students in a human rights research seminar taught by Professor Mary Ann Glendon. "In terms of one-to-one interaction, it's great," he said.

In each first-year class, students were guaranteed feedback from each professor on a mandatory written assignment. No more waiting until finals for the first sign of progress. Most professors assigned sample test questions. Students also were given more freedom to select a faculty adviser who shared common interests instead of being assigned one randomly during orientation.

Additional direct feedback from professors came during the revamped First-Year Lawyering course, which replaced the previous incarnation, Legal Reasoning and Argument. First-Year Lawyering instructors provided written comments on memos and often one-on-one conferences.

FYL instructor Megan Dixon said she wound up talking to students about much more than just research memos. She listened to concerns about the pressures of law school and juggling outside lives. "I know each of my students extremely well," said Dixon. "I'm sort of a face the students can come to and feel comfortable with."

Of course, there are still kinks to be worked out in the new first-year experience. No one is quite sure at what point there are simply too many activities crammed into swamped students' schedules.

Eventually, Minow hopes the sections will look more like undergraduate colleges--a place where students and faculty can share common experiences--even if they don't yet have a space to call their own.

It's unlikely each "law college" will soon have its own dorm, but professors hope each will one day get a common area where students can gather and hold events. For now, though, the only physical changes are larger mailboxes decorated with color photos of each section.

While the sections serve their most important function during the first semester, many students say they hope each section can maintain its identity through the remainder of law school. Some envision serving as mentors or guides to each new class as it advances. Minow said she plans to keep in touch with her current section while again serving as a section leader for next year's entering class.

Quantifying the impact of all the changes isn't easy. For one thing, it's difficult to simply compare expectations of students before they entered with what they actually experienced.

After all, every entering class is pleasantly surprised when their first year isn't as bad as they feared. Take Maya Alperowicz, who arrived at Harvard Law straight from college last fall with low expectations after reading Scott Turow's ('78) One L and watching John Jay Osborn Jr.'s ('70) The Paper Chase. "I expected people to be really competitive, not to be friendly, and to be preoccupied with their own work," she said.

Instead, she found her concerns dispelled. "I definitely feel there's a sense of community in our section," said Alperowicz. "It makes the law school a really human place."

Interviews with dozens of other first-year students suggest a similar heightened satisfaction that wasn't evident in the past. Even a year ago, students said they could go through their first year without getting to know a single professor or learning the names of everyone in their section.

Erin Hoffmann '02, who served as president of the Board of Student Advisers, said she noticed the difference in the two sections she taught last fall. "They're generally pretty lucky," she said. "There's more engagement in the academic experience."

Even those who don't like every element of their first-year experience still praise the school for making an effort. Most telling perhaps is a dramatic drop in the number of students seeking help from school health counselors for serious exam-related anxiety. And for the first time in memory, not a single first-year student reported they were unable to finish an exam on time, said Dean of Students Suzanne Richardson.

Minow said creating a greater sense of community among students and faculty proved particularly welcome after September 11. "It added a layer of social support which so often has not been the case at the school and, at a time of trauma, was very important," she said.

As for the quality of education, professors bristle at the notion they've gone soft. In fact, Meltzer said more ease in the classroom actually makes it possible to push students harder.

"The question is did the rigor of Harvard Law School depend on the terror of Harvard Law School, and I don't think it did," Rakoff said.

Seth Stern '01 is a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor in Boston.

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