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“Alumni Conversations” is an interview series initiated by Xiaoli Jin and Alice Chen, both of whom were admitted to Harvard Law School through the Junior Deferral Program. Xiaoli is currently working at a strategy and economics consulting firm and Alice is working at a financial sciences company. They are starting this series of blog posts to share advice and insight from HLS alumni.

Marty Linsky ’64 was a politician, journalist, co-founder of Cambridge Leadership Associates, and for 40 years taught at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, among many other roles spanning a wide range of fields. He reflected on his life stories in a Zoom chat with Xiaoli and Alice and was hopeful that the three would eventually catch up in person at the end of the pandemic.

What made you decide to go to Harvard Law after getting a political science degree from Williams College?

It’s a funny story. It all started with my dad. He was born in 1906 and was a first-generation college student. In fact, he was supposed to go to Dartmouth, but his dad died suddenly so the burden to support his mother and sister fell on him. Boston University offered him an opportunity to get a bachelor’s degree and a law degree in five years. He did that and later founded his own law firm. In the good times, there were as many as fifteen lawyers, and in the not-so-good times, there were as few as four. He loved the counseling part of practicing law so his practice was mostly around helping contemporaries to set up and maintain small businesses and working with their families. He hoped that I would end up practicing law with him. I loved him dearly, but I hung around his firm enough to know that I didn’t want to practice law at his firm, that I probably didn’t want to practice law at all. It felt narrow to me. It didn’t feel like what I wanted to do with my life.

Sometime late in my junior year at Williams College, my dad and I finally had the heart-to-heart conversation. He said that law school is a great education even if I did not want to practice law. We made a deal: I would apply to law school and go if I get in. If I didn’t get in, I could do whatever I wanted. I cheated a little bit. I took the LSAT but only applied to one law school, thinking that I wouldn’t get in. At the same time, without telling him, I took the GMAT and applied to the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, thinking I would end up going there. But then I got into Harvard, so I was stuck (laugh).

I think my dad was right. It was indeed a great and demanding and humbling education. For example, I remember resigning from my study group a few weeks into my first semester at Harvard because I simply couldn’t keep up. In that study group there were Steve Breyer, who’s now a Supreme Court Justice, and another guy who ended up being first in our class. Before Harvard, I had met a lot of people much smarter than I was, but I’d never been in a situation where I simply couldn’t “get it” eventually no matter how hard I tried. My head hurt; I didn’t know why. I found the first year in law school enormously challenging but in a wonderfully generative way.

Wow. I guess our heads will hurt very soon then! What’s one of the most valuable things you got out of your Harvard Law experience?

One metaphor has always resonated with me: my 1L year chopped up my brain in little pieces and put it back together in a different way. I didn’t realize it until much later, but Harvard Law really taught me how to think in a disciplined way. One of my epiphanies in law school came in a first-year contracts class with Professor Louis Loss. Right near the end of a class, somebody raised his hand (I know it was a “he” because there were only fourteen women in my class of over five hundred). The student laid out a fact situation and asked what Professor Loss would do in that situation. Without missing a beat, Loss said, “That’s a really interesting question. For the right fee, I’d take either side.” That really clicked with me. It helped me understand what law school was all about—training one to understand the arguments on any side of an issue and make the best argument for any situation in any case.

Most importantly, Harvard Law taught me how to value and be competent at being an inch deep and a mile wide instead of an inch wide and a mile deep. Probably less the case now, but when I was at Law School, we were trained to ask the right questions and spot the right issues. We were not trained to be subject-matter experts. Now there is more demand for lawyers who are subject-matter experts. But that’s certainly not what my experience at law school was about, especially not what the first two years were about. It’s then not surprising that my career has been in politics and journalism, fields in which being an inch deep and a mile wide is very useful. Journalists often ask questions of people who know much more about the subject matter than they do. And politicians are expected to know enough about a huge range of topics to have an intelligent point of view without being an expert on any of them. And even though both in journalism and in the elective office the role of expertise has evolved in the last half century, at its core, it still seems to me that it is a kind of intelligence to be able to be an inch deep and a mile wide.

It’s amazing how the training stayed relevant over the last half century. Through the years, what are some changes at Harvard Law that you’ve been thinking about?

Obviously, the most dramatic change has been in the makeup of the student body. As I said, out of the five hundred students in my 1L class, there were fourteen women and very few people of color. And, of course, the faculty were all “old white guys”—there were some younger white guys in training to be old white guys, but they were all white (laugh). They were a range of personalities and characters but they shared that demographic.

Another positive evolution is that back then, I was really the odd person: I didn’t aspire to get to big law firms on Wall Street or in Boston or DC. In fact, just to see what I was missing, I applied for and was offered a summer internship with a big NYC/DC firm. I turned it down. I knew it was a diversion. It seemed like everybody else in my class took it for granted that they would wind up practicing law. It was the air we breathed. Fortunately, fewer law students share that assumption nowadays.

What is one thing you’d done differently if you could attend Harvard Law again?

I went right from undergraduate to law school and treated it as school, in which the goal is to learn, achieve, get good grades and move on to the next step. Looking back, I would want to approach it more like a job, like my classmates who had been out of college for several years did. I think I missed some opportunities because I thought of law school as more school, not professional training. Although I did take a wonderful seminar in state politics in the College during my third year, doing it over again I would have tried to nurture a deeper understanding of the role the law plays in culture, public policy, and society.

It is impressive that you have straddled so many fields in your career, including law, politics, public administration, writing, consulting, teaching, and journalism.

Let me share another 70-year-old moment of personal epiphany with you. When I was 10 years old or so, a new kid moved into my school. His family lived very close to us and I became good friends with him. One day I went to his place and his father was sitting in a big soft chair. I asked him what he did for a living, and he said that he changed his career every five years. As I walked up the hill back up to my apartment building, I remember thinking that I had never heard anything like that before. I did not know one could change careers. Everyone adult I knew “was” something. They were doctors, lawyers, businesspeople. Their identities were wrapped up in a single professional role. Listening to my friend’s father’s words was a powerful moment. It stuck with me. Even as a little kid, I somehow internalized that brand new idea, namely that I did not have to commit to one career for the rest of my life. It was liberating. I have always felt fortunate to have enjoyed multiple professional roles.

For students who did not have a chance to take your class at the Kennedy School, could you give a brief overview of your class? What are the important lessons you wanted students to take away?

I don’t know where to begin to answer that (laugh). Walking into the classroom has always felt like beginning a roller coaster ride where the destination was unclear. When I was teaching in the HKS degree programs, I especially loved having students from different graduate schools in my classes: law students, business students, divinity school students, you name it. When I was doing mostly HKS (and some HBS) executive programs, both on campus and all over the world, the diverse perspectives came from different backgrounds, life experiences, nationalities, and stages of career.

That diversity created the opportunity to just concentrate on the most salient questions to pose, start the session that way, and let the students drive the discussion from there. Another metaphor: once I got the conversation going, apart from mini-lecturettes inserted here and there, I usually felt like I was riding a bucking bronco just hoping to stay aboard. The classes were always more about asking questions than having answers. The students were smart people, passionate about what they were doing. They had all the potential to change the world in the direction they wanted. My aspiration was to challenge their assumptions, all of them, and to offer them some tools and resources to help them to achieve their goals.

The COVID-19 pandemic poses an unprecedented challenge that calls for an adaptive mindset. Could you offer some suggestions for students in the current situation?

We are all learning in real time. We are all operating under circumstances of radical uncertainty. I don’t think anybody knows the future, so trying to predict it is foolish. What the current situation does present is the chance to think harder about creating the future you yearn for, not just for yourself, but for your community, however you define that. For sure, COVID-19, the economic fallout, and the push for racial justice are daunting challenges that are impacting people differently and surfacing fissures in our society that have been less palpable, but these multiple interrelated pandemics present a great generative opportunity. The world is changing. We are co-creating the future by our action or inaction. Everyone has to adapt.

If I could offer one suggestion for today’s students, including law students, it would be to put yourself in a situation in which you have never been before. Come face-to-face with the other, whether for you the “other” are ideas, people, places, or cultures. See this as a moment to try something new: read some books that you have always wanted to read, do something that you have always hoped to do, immerse yourself in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable surrounding.