Ideas

New Harvard Law School program aims for ‘systemic justice’

Inside an initiative to teach future lawyers to tackle society’s big problems

Sam Washburn For the Boston Globe

CAMBRIDGE—From the first day, it’s clear that law professor Jon Hanson’s new Systemic Justice class at Harvard Law School is going to be different from most classes at the school. Hanson, lanky, bespectacled, and affable, cracks jokes as he paces the room. He refers to the class of 50-odd students as a community; he even asks students to brainstorm a name for the group. But behind the informality is a serious purpose: Hanson is out to change the way law is taught.

“None of us really knows what ‘systemic justice’ is—yet you’re all here,” he points out. The new elective class, which is being taught for the first time in this spring term, will ask students to examine common causes of injustice in history and ways to use law and activism to even the field.

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Traditionally, students come to law school to master existing laws and how to apply them. But surveys given to the students in this class beforehand show that most are worried about big unsolved social problems—income inequality, climate change, racial bias in policing—and believe that law is part of the problem. The goal of Hanson’s class is to introduce a new approach.

The class is part of a new Systemic Justice Project at Harvard, led by Hanson and recent law school graduate Jacob Lipton. They’re also leading a course called the Justice Lab, a kind of think tank that will ask students to analyze systemic problems in society and propose legal solutions. Both classes go beyond legal doctrine to show how history, psychology, and economics explain the causes of injustice. A conference in April will bring students and experts together to discuss their findings.

Harvard’s project is an unusual one, but it arises out of a growing recognition that law students need to be trained to be problem-solvers and policy makers. As Hanson tells his students that first day, “If you’re thinking about systemic justice, you need to be thinking about legal education.” He believes that this education should be less about learning the status quo and more about how the next generation of lawyers can change it.

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There’s widespread acknowledgment that justice is often meted out unfairly; decades of scholarship have shown how social biases based on race, gender, corporate interests, or ideology find their way into written laws. Nevertheless, Hanson says, law school classes don’t always give students the tools to counteract injustices. “My students have expressed increasing amounts of frustration with the fact that many of our biggest problems are not being addressed by the legal system,” he says. Lipton was one of those students. After graduating in 2014, he turned down a fellowship in Washington, D.C., to stay at Harvard and help Hanson see the new project through.

One of their targets is the case method of legal education, which has been the dominant form of teaching law in America since it was introduced at Harvard Law School by Christopher Columbus Langdell after he became its dean in 1870. Rather than lecturing his students, Langdell asked them to examine judicial cases of the past. Then, through a process of Socratic questioning, he would challenge students to explain their knowledge and interpretation of a case, allowing them to glean the deeper principles of the law, much like a scientist would examine evidence.

Though the case method has evolved since the 19th century, the primary text of most classes is still the casebook—a set of legal decisions chosen for their ability to illustrate legal principles. Professors who embrace it say this approach forces students—particularly first-year students with little legal training—to think like lawyers. “Within a few weeks, I have reprogrammed their brains,” says Bruce Mann, a law professor at Harvard who’s known for his rapid-fire questions in class. “That doesn’t mean that it is backward-looking. I’m really teaching them how to think.” Mann, like many professors these days, tries to put cases in a larger historical and social context.

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But Hanson and Lipton believe that the case method, while helpful in the hands of skilled teachers, puts too much emphasis on what the law already is, rather than what it should be. It tends to assume that decisions of the past are fair and appropriate. Instead, says Lipton, “we think that legal education should start with what the problems are in the world.”

They also take issue with the way that law gets divided into categories—tax law, criminal law, property law, torts, contracts—each with different professors and different casebooks. Douglas Kysar, a law professor at Yale Law School and former student of Hanson’s who has embraced his interdisciplinary approach to the law, says that these divisions can hinder tackling issues that existing laws don’t address, and permits problems that run across disciplines to go unaddressed. “In each one of those fields, we often try to present the cases and materials as if they’re an efficient and fair whole,” he says. When something arises to challenge that picture, professors can pass the buck. For instance, in environmental law, one of Kysar’s specialties, it’s not always clear where the responsibility to fix a problem like pollution lies. “Everyone’s pointing their fingers at other systems that are supposed to address a harm,” he says. “There’s no place where you’re looking at the systems in a cross section.”

Justin Saglio for The Boston Globe

Jon Hanson (left) and Jacob Lipton at Harvard’s Wasserstein Hall. The two are leading the new Systemic Justice Project at Harvard.

Hanson and Lipton also argue that the law focuses too much on the actions and disputes of individuals—and not even on an accurate vision of how individuals behave. “In many cases, the focus on the individual obscures what the actual problem is or what the solutions are,” Lipton says. Hanson, meanwhile, has long argued that the vision of the individual that exists in law isn’t well backed up by research. He directs the Project on Law and Mind Sciences at Harvard, which brings findings from social psychology and social cognition to bear on the law. The law generally treats people as rational actors making decisions based on their own knowledge and beliefs. In fact, Hanson says, research has shown that people are easily swayed by their circumstances. Through their academic writing and on a blog called The Situationist, Hanson and a growing group of like-minded scholars have argued that solving systemic problems means focusing more on forces that act on us, rather than assigning blame and punishment to individual actors.

A systemic approach to racial bias in policing, for instance, might look at psychological research on unconscious racial bias, police training techniques, and law enforcement policies in order to create a more just system, rather than on the actions of a specific officer. For the problem of rising student debt, another complex issue that students in the Justice Lab think tank are likely to tackle, it might look at federal loan systems that allow for-profit colleges to put students in debt without providing enough value in return. Another example is obesity and the food system; a systemic approach would look at ways that advertising, agricultural subsidies, supermarket zoning, and food service practices create an unhealthy system for consumers. “We want to examine the role that large commercial interests play in shaping laws,” Hanson says. Solutions might involve class actions, new regulations, or institutional changes.

While systemic solutions aren’t always politically popular—think of when Michael Bloomberg tried to ban the sale of giant sodas in New York City to improve public health—Hanson thinks that the idea of systemic justice resonates now in a way that it hasn’t always in the past. “I think that is a reflection of the change in the mood in the country and in this generation of law students,” he says.

Harvard’s systemic justice initiative arises at a time when legal education is in an admitted state of crisis. Since 2010, law school enrollment in the United States has dropped to its lowest levels since 1987, according to the American Bar Association; fewer legal firms are hiring; and some law schools are in danger of closing altogether.

That’s prompting many schools to find new ways of teaching. “Law schools are entering this era of trial and error,” says William Henderson, a law professor at Indiana University who writes about legal education. Many are eschewing academic theory in favor of giving students practical skills and opportunities for hands-on learning. “Everyone in legal education sees that change is happening,” Henderson says. Still, teaching via casebooks is a time-honored, widespread tradition, and there’s a lot of inertia to overcome.

The Systemic Justice Project, though unique in some ways, is part of a larger effort introduce a policy focus into law school—Stanford Law School, for instance, recently launched a Law and Policy Lab that asks students to find policy solutions to real-world problems. “Traditionally, law school education has been doctrinal,” says Sergio Campos, a law professor at the University of Miami and visiting professor at Harvard. “You teach students what the law is and how to apply it.” To be fair, that’s exactly what many law students will be called on to do after graduation, working at law firms serving clients with specific cases and problems. They may contribute to significant case law in their field, but they won’t be reshaping systems. But others will become judges, politicians, policy makers, organizational leaders, and presidents. Without a broader systems or policy perspective, those lawyers could be in trouble: “When you get to a position where you can change the law, you don’t have a background on policy and what it should be,” Campos says.

The debate about how much lawyers should think about the wider social implications of their work stretches back to a classic 1897 essay in the Harvard Law Review called “The Path of the Law.” In it, the great Boston jurist and eventual Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., decried the “blackletter man” who learned the law as a closed system of knowledge based on past precedents, without reconsidering whether laws are working for the public good.

In that essay, says Harvard law professor David Rosenberg, Holmes was calling on lawyers and judges to engage with other areas of knowledge and to act as policy makers and social engineers. “Law is a bunch of social problems,” he says. But while many agree with that idea in principle, he believes law schools often leave students unprepared to think broadly. “Over and over again in my many decades at Harvard, students have told me that my advice contradicts their instruction in other courses that making social policy arguments is a confession of weakness in your legal position, and should be done, if ever, only as a last resort,” he says. “We’re de-training them.”

Rena Karefa-Johnson, a second-year student who’s signed up for both the Systemic Justice class and the Justice Lab, admits that some students simply want to learn existing law and don’t appreciate Hanson’s approach. But it’s been popular with students like her who are already active in fighting for social causes. “The law is inherently political,” she says. “He does not allow his students to learn the law outside of its context.”

Courtney Humphries is a freelance writer in Boston.

Related:

The bias fighters

The custom justice of ‘problem-solving courts’

Q&A: Danielle Allen resets goals for Harvard ethics center

2013: Can juries tame prosecutors gone wild?

2012: Where American criminal justice went wrong

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