Law schools across America will be facing difficult choices this summer, as orientation sessions for incoming students may be truncated, delayed, or moved online due to the global pandemic. And all must be prepared for the possibility that new law students, many of whom experienced significant disruption in recent months, may experience novel and unexpected challenges preparing for their first year in law school.

To assist both law schools and their incoming students, Harvard Law School recently announced plans to offer its online pre-matriculation program, Zero-L, to law schools around the country for free this summer. The course was developed and launched in 2018 in collaboration with the Harvard University Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning (VPAL) to ensure that all incoming Harvard Law students, whatever their backgrounds and previous areas of study, start with a shared base of knowledge. (The name Zero-L is a play on the traditional terms for first-, second-, and third-year law students—1Ls, 2Ls, and 3Ls).

Harvard Law Today recently spoke by email with Zero-L’s faculty director, Professor I. Glenn Cohen ’03, about the program, the decision to make it available for free to interested American law schools this year, and how he expects it can help them and their students prepare for the fall semester.

Harvard Law Today: Why did Harvard develop Zero-L in the first place?

I. Glenn Cohen: Zero-L was an initiative championed by HLS Dean John F. Manning [’85]. It is meant to ensure that all incoming students, whatever their backgrounds and previous areas of study, start with the foundational knowledge that will enable them to thrive at law school. Like many law students I found the first few months of law school daunting. We built this program to substitute a “smooth on-ramp” for the “steep climb” I and many others encountered upon starting law school. In terms of legal language and fundamental concepts, there is so much law professors take for granted we have lived and breathed this stuff for so long we forget that most of our students do not. While they will absorb much of it over time by osmosis, Zero-L aims to put them in a position so they can do their best learning on Day 1.

HLT: How has it performed for incoming Harvard Law students?

Cohen: We have heard huge amounts of praise from both our students and our faculty for the program. I cannot tell you how many students have told me “Thank you for this – you have no idea how intimidated I was about starting law school, but Zero-L made me feel confident that I would not only survive but love it.” And that is an important part of the project.

Beyond the content, the faculty members who appear in the videos also show the students what they love about the law and why they have devoted their life to it. Whether it is Susan Davies’ spirited singing of the schoolhouse rock jam “I’m Just a Bill,” or Noah Feldman’s highlighting of why the Constitution has been central to almost every major debate in American history, or Annette Gordon-Reed’s [’84] joy in describing diving into the archives for a law and history project, the excitement and energy are palpable in every video.

HLT: How is Zero-L structured?

Cohen: In Zero-L, we model some of the best facets of online learning. We have incredible teachers whose enthusiasm shines through. We have extremely high-quality production values, incorporating, among other things, animations and reiteration of key points through visuals. We “chunk” the content into manageable bites and offer students immediate comprehension checks where they can embed the lessons and put what they learned to good use. We focus not just on content but also on skills-based training (how to read a case, how to read a statute, etc.). We build an extensive vocabulary tool that students can not only use module-by-module, but can return to and search when some of those terms come up again in their first-year classes.

Finally, by breaking the course into distinct modules, we let students chart their own learning path. To me, this course shows just how good an asynchronous online course can be, and also some ideas for what can be ported over to those who are teaching synchronously online or in blended environments.

HLT: I understand four other law schools—Boston College, Northeastern University, Seton Hall and the University of Baltimore—also offered Zero-L to their students as part of a pilot program last year. What were the results?

Cohen: We knew we had created something that HLS students loved and found rewarding. As they started telling their friends (and we on the faculty started telling our friends on other faculties) about Zero-L, it became clear that this was something that could be useful far beyond Harvard Law School. When news first broke about the project, we had a lot of inquiries and we picked four great partner schools to work with to try out and help us further refine Zero-L and to make sure it worked as well at other schools. We got very positive feedback from these four partner schools, each of which is continuing to use Zero-L going forward. They also helped us determine what changes to make going forward to make an even better course.

HLT: Why is Harvard Law School offering Zero-L to other law schools for free next year?

Cohen: My area of expertise is health law and bioethics, and I know first-hand the devastation this pandemic is causing to our social structure. I know how many students are finding their time in college disrupted, and their plans to really “hunker down” and get ready for law school disrupted by a sick family member or the need to help support their families.

On the flip side, many law schools across the U.S. are also working to develop innovative ways of onboarding their students this fall due to these circumstances. Given all this, and knowing we had an excellent course with a demonstrated ability to help students start law school, making it freely available this year seemed like a small thing HLS could do for law students and law schools across the country to try to make the Fall 2020 just a little bit easier.

HLT: What is the plan for future years? Will HLS continue to offer it for free? And will the content be updated in subsequent years?

Cohen: Before the global pandemic, Harvard Law School had been planning to make Zero-L available at a cost to interested law schools. With so much uncertainty in the world, we’re not in a position to predict at this point what things will look like a year from now. But we’re pleased that we were in a position to offer it for free this year, when so many law schools and students are facing such unprecedented challenges.

We will also be working to post a portion of the course focused on American civics on HarvardX, where anyone will be able to access it for free this year and for years to come. Those materials will be available for any teacher around the world, indeed any person, who wants an introduction to U.S. government and law from Harvard Law School faculty members.

We have updated Zero-L each year since we launched it in 2018. We learn more with each group of incoming law students who take it and use that knowledge to improve the program for the next set of students. I expect we’ll continue to do so in future years.