Your browser does not support JavaScript

Alert COVID-19 Update

Harvard University and Harvard Law School shifted to remote teaching and learning, as of Monday, March 23. For more information and the latest updates, please visit the HLS coronavirus information page.


Government Structure and Processes

The two courses most foundational to this program of study, beyond the 1L course Legislation and Regulation, are Administrative Law and the basic Constitutional Law course subtitled Separation of Powers, Federalism, and the Fourteenth Amendment. These courses cover the fundamentals of how the federal government works, and explain the relationship among the branches. The upper-level course in Legislation, which focuses on the processes of enacting and interpreting statutory law, is also fundamental to this area. Students also should consider taking some or all of a number of more specialized courses relating to governmental processes: (1) Law and the Political Process, which focuses on elections, districting, and other matters constitutive of American democracy; (2) Federal Courts, which focuses on the role the federal judiciary plays in the American system of government; (3) Local Government Law, which considers how government operates on the state and local (as opposed to national) level; (4) Public International Law and/or Foreign Relations Law, which consider governmental processes and structures stretching out beyond the United States. Students are encouraged to take seminars in their particular areas of interest that pursue the subject at yet a more advanced level – for example, a seminar in Federal Budget Policy following the general course in Legislation or in Advanced Local Government Law following the basic course on this topic. Students should also consider taking a course that will expose them to other governmental systems. This can be done through explicitly comparative offerings such as comparative constitutional law and politics, or through in-depth study of other regimes in courses such as European Union Law.

Regulatory Fields

In addition to taking courses in governmental processes and structure, students interested in this area should take a number of courses in particular regulatory fields, to get a feel for how public law operates in a substantive policy area. We encourage students to pursue at least one of these fields at an advanced level. (Indeed, we know that some students reading through this program of study will be interested more in a particular area of substantive law than in governmental processes generally, and they should strike the balance as between these two parts of the program accordingly.) These regulatory fields run the gamut. They include: Environmental Law, Labor Law, Employment Law, Health Law, Housing Law, Immigration Law, Land Use Law, various kinds of economic regulation (Antitrust, Bankruptcy, Regulation of Financial Institutions, Securities Regulation, and Trade), Tax, and Criminal Law. So, for example, a student who wants to do serious environmental policymaking or law should take not only the basic environmental class but also available advanced classes in Natural Resources, International Environmental Law, Land Use Law, Energy Law, Water Law and/or Climate Change. Similarly, a student who wants to work in the criminal justice system should take some mix of Criminal Procedure, Federal Criminal Law, White Collar Crime, advanced seminars in Prison Law and Policy, Policing or Capital Punishment, and courses in International Criminal Justice. All students should seek some breadth across regulatory fields, as well as some depth within a particular one. Students should also look for linkages to courses that may not automatically come to mind when they think of their preferred regulatory field. For example, a course in tax law or policy may be beneficial for students interested in health law; a course in corporations may be useful for students interested in environmental regulation.


We encourage students interested in government and law to participate in a clinical experience that reflects either an interest in a particular kind of regulation or an interest in a particular unit of government. For example, a student with an interest in environmental law, immigration law, or housing law should take a clinic focusing on that area. A student who wishes to explore what it means to be a public defender or prosecutor similarly should explore clinical work at the Criminal Justice Institute or in a prosecutor’s office. And students interested in the workings of Congress or another unit of federal government may want to explore independent clinical placements in Washington, D.C. during the January term. We similarly encourage students to consider taking a class that focuses on the role of one or another kind of government lawyer, perhaps in conjunction with a clinic. The Government Lawyer class is the most general of these courses. Certain Legal Profession classes may focus on the government lawyer’s role. Students also might wish to explore the course in Leadership in the Public Sector or the reading group in Lawyering for the President. And they should peruse the catalogue of the Kennedy School for additional courses casting students in the role of public policymaker (even if not of lawyer).

Background Knowledge and Skills

Much governmental work involves knowledge of basic economics and accounting principles; decision theory also may be helpful. For those whose background in this area is not strong, we recommend taking the Analytical Methods for Lawyers class. More advanced classes in the analytic basis of public policymaking can be found in the Kennedy School. Some government lawyers (particularly in the criminal sphere) may do significant amounts of trial work; for students aspiring to do this work, a workshop in trial advocacy is recommended. Many government lawyers will find themselves engaged in complicated negotiations, different from but no less fundamental than corporate dealmaking. Students who are attracted to this kind of work are encouraged to take the negotiation workshop. Students interested in Law and Government should also consider the joint JD/MPP and JD/MPA-ID program with Harvard Kennedy School.

Students may wish to cross-register at the Kennedy School or in other campus departments to explore particular aspects of public policymaking. We encourage all students with an interest in this general area to acquaint themselves with the Kennedy School catalogue and course catalogues for other departments to consider how courses outside HLS may complement a law school curriculum in this area. The answers will be different for different students, with different particular spheres of interest. But for almost all students concerned with law and government, immersion in some aspect of public policymaking will be extremely helpful.

Academic Careers

Students who wish to pursue academic careers in this area should think about combining the course work discussed above with opportunities for significant research and writing. Law School faculty offer workshops in Public Law, Government Lawyering and International Law,and Health Law and Policy , among others: all of these permit students to read and reflect on scholarly works in progress. In the Federal Debt Collection Workshop, students work with faculty and U.S. Department of the Treasury attorneys to develop, over a two year period, a legal treatise on federal debt collection law to be used as a publicly-available authoritative resource for government and private attorneys and others who practice in this field. Whether through these classes or through any of a number of seminars or through independent writing credits, students with academic ambitions should work closely with professors to complete and, if suitable, to publish more than one significant paper during their time in law school.

HLS Courses

  • HLS Course Catalog

      • Criminal Law
      • Government Structure and Function
      • Health Law
      • Regulatory Law
      • Taxation

Harvard Kennedy School Courses

Graduate School of Education Courses