Last year, HLS Professor Jon Hanson and Jacob Lipton ’14 launched a new venture, the Systemic Justice Project, intended to provide students with a new way to think about the role that law and lawyers play in society.

According to Hanson and Lipton, the persistence of long-standing policy problems suggests that the legal system and conventional legal education are broken. One contributing factor, they believe, is the way both law and law school tend to insulate their participants from many of those problems. Another is that legal academics, operating within traditional doctrinal and theoretical silos, have yet to develop a thoroughgoing approach to understanding and addressing such policy challenges.

The mission of the Systemic Justice Project is to help remedy those shortfalls. In their new courses, for instance, Hanson and Lipton are attempting to teach law students how to approach systemic injustices and to see themselves in broader terms—not just as lawyers, but also as citizens, policy designers, policy advocates, and social activists.

On April 10, the first annual Systemic Justice Conference was held in Austin Hall and featured six teams of HLS students who demonstrated how public-policy problems might be addressed from this broader perspective. The team participants were the 30 students enrolled in the Justice Lab, a two-credit course in which students—in consultation with scholars, lawyers, and activists—develop policy papers analyzing social problems and coming up with possible solutions.

Presenting the results of their research, one group examined the problem of “financialized courts,” a trend that has drawn increasing attention since the revelations of Ferguson, Mo.’s heavy reliance on court fees and fines to fund its municipal budget. Plotting what has become a typical sequence, team members showed how a simple stop-sign violation can escalate into thousands of dollars in subsequent fees and fines for nonpayment—and even jail and probation, both of which also involve fees.

Team member Alex Self ’16, reported that the practice of charging detainees and defendants is an apparent offshoot of a larger trend.

“Mass incarceration is very expensive,” he said. “The cost of running America’s jails, prisons, and courts increased by more than 10 times since 1980 to roughly $67 billion today. The purpose of these fees initially was punishment—punishing the offenders and reimbursing the victims—but as the cost of mass incarceration has increased, we’ve seen the purpose shift from punishment to a stream of revenue.”

The team recommended a multi-level response to halt or ease the practice, including litigation, public-education campaigns, and legislation.

AUDIO: In March, Hanson and Lipton appeared on Radio Boston to discuss the Systemic Justice Project.

Another team studied the student-debt crisis and outlined the onerous terms—such as the inability of student loan takers to declare bankruptcy—that are attached to the $1.2 trillion of student debt in the U.S. The team examined competing “narratives” about the purpose of higher education that have become conflated and manipulated and that has yielded a system in which students are wrongfully perceived as “consumers.”

“We believe that before we can fix student debt and higher education generally, we really need to decide and understand for ourselves why education matters to us in the first place,” said team member Salomé Viljoen ’16.

Another team’s interest was climate change, focusing on the question of why society has not come up with a plan for combating it. Much of the presentation examined the strategies employed by the fossil-fuel industry to deflect attention from that issue and how that might be addressed.

For instance, the team suggested, the powerful lobbying influence of the Chamber of Commerce on this issue could seemingly be countered by other business interests.

“You could imagine there could be a group of businesses coming together to support sensible climate-change policy, not just as good citizenship but as thoughtful, careful business investment,” said team member Jessica Ranucci ’16.

In addition to the team presentations, the conference included a showcase of exhibits from the 67 students who are taking Hanson and Lipton’s four-credit Systemic Justice course—pamphlets, podcasts, posters, websites, etc., dealing with social problems.

“We’re attempting to redesign legal pedagogy in a way that engages students on problems they select because they care about them” Hanson said following the conference. “Many students come to law school hopeful that a legal education will allow them to make positive change in the world, but, very often, those students leave feeling frustrated, hopeless, or cynical.”

“People both in the course and the lab have been have been telling us it’s the most important experience they’ve had in law school,” Lipton said. “We’ve heard a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for the project and how it’s working.”

Viljoen described the conference as “one of the best days in law school I’ve ever had.”

“There’s a general sense that we’re at a point of crisis in legal education and I think right now is really a nice moment in time to be thinking about why are we training lawyers to begin with and what is the purpose of legal education,” she said. “I think having courses like this helps you to sort of re-orient yourself to the reasons why you came to law school to begin with and why we think lawyers are necessary—to tackle problems that exist.”

Sam Wheeler ’15, a member of the climate-change team, said he thinks that becoming involved in the Systemic Justice Project may prove to have a profound impact on his life.

Wheeler said he came to law school because he wanted to do legal work in the public interest but had become disenchanted and thinking about changing to a non-law career.

“I think that what Systemic Justice has done for me is that it has showed me ways in which I could pursue the kind of career I wanted with the goals that I have for my life as a lawyer. I think that were it not for the systemic justice lab and Professor Hanson’s approach to those issues, I seriously don’t think that I would have pursued a career in law at all.”

ADDITIONAL COVERAGE: “New Harvard Law School program aims for ‘systemic justice’: Inside an initiative to teach future lawyers to tackle society’s big problems”  Courtney Humphries, Boston Globe, 02/06/15