Post Date: September 23, 2004

This semester, many first-year students at HLS are reading more than the typical load of cases and books on legal doctrine. The newly minted 1Ls are signing up for new first-year reading groups that cover everything from cyberlaw to the laws of war.

Designed in part to foster student-faculty interaction in the 1L year, the new program consists of faculty members holding reading groups in their spare time with about a dozen students who sign up for specific subjects.

Although participation is voluntary, the law school has 40-plus professors ready to lead the new groups, either in their homes or in other social settings.

“It’s a pretty ambitious thing,” said Professor Todd Rakoff ’75, vice dean for academic programming, who noted that professors lead reading groups in addition to their normal teaching load. “It gives faculty a chance to teach something they might not ordinarily get to teach.”

Faculty were given broad discretion in choosing subjects, but all are legal in some dimension. Topics range from disability law to bioethics to terrorism. Dean Elena Kagan ’86 is leading a group on presidential lawmaking.

“These new reading groups do two things,” said Kagan. “They promote greater student-faculty interaction, which is particularly important in the first year. And they give students the chance to explore an intellectual interest outside the scope of the basic first-year curriculum.”

The concept for the 1L reading groups came from the success of an upper-level reading group on legal classics that Assistant Professor Heather Gerken held last year. “I was struck by how engaged the students were,” said Gerken. “Here was a pass/fail class, and they worked incredibly hard—doing the readings and preparing presentations on movements in legal scholarship. The kicker for me was that the students were so hungry for more that they insisted on doing independent presentations to each other about all of the stuff we didn’t have time to read.”

After Gerken mentioned the success of this reading group to Kagan, the law school’s vice deans immediately began developing a plan to incorporate reading groups into the 1L year. “Heather came up with the original idea, and then a bunch of us ran with it,” said Rakoff.

Professor Martha Minow is planning to have guest speakers address her reading group on international justice, including prosecutors from international criminal courts and a translator for the Nuremberg trials.

Minow said a similar type of reading group was a valuable part of her own law school education, and believes that first-year students will benefit from exchanging ideas in small settings. “We hope [the program] offers students a chance to talk immediately about the kinds of topics that led them to be interested in law, and also to get to know some professors and hear how we think about issues of personal interest,” she said.

Does the new program, with some groups focusing on unconventional or even light-sounding topics, mean HLS has gone soft? No way, says Rakoff. “This is more work for the students who sign up,” he said, underscoring that the readings are in addition to all of the standard 1L coursework. Rakoff adds that the educational value is particularly important for 1Ls. Many students come to law school with a range of intellectual interests that can get lost in the rigor of the first year, he says. “This allows them to do some really interesting and thoughtful work, in addition to the boot camp stuff.”