Dan Eaton ’89, former president of the Harvard Law School Association and a partner with Seltzer Caplan McMahon Vitek, in San Diego, says that the new shield reflects the “idea of Harvard Law School as a leading expositor of the rule of law.” As a member of the HLS Shield Working Group, which included alumni, faculty, staff, and student representatives, Eaton participated in many focus groups and solicited feedback directly from the alumni community, all of which informed the effort to develop and recommend a new shield that would reflect the school’s character and values. Eaton spoke with Harvard Law Today via Zoom about the wide range of alumni ideas that emerged through the process and his views of the final product.

Harvard Law Today: In the middle of your two-year term as president of the Harvard Law School Association, Dean Manning asked you to serve on the HLS Shield Working Group. What was your reaction?

Dan Eaton: I immediately said yes. I was excited to do it because the shield, of course, represents Harvard Law School, and I love Harvard Law School and have a very deep commitment to the institution and the values for which it stands.

HLT: I understand that more than a dozen focus groups were held on Zoom with HLS stakeholders, faculty, students, staff, and alumni. Can you describe the process of seeking feedback from alumni in particular?

Eaton: Well, early on, fellow members of the working group asked Amreeta Matthai [’12], who also served on the group, and me how best to gather input from alumni and alumnae beyond the general email that went out to the community. What I suggested was that we use the institutional infrastructure that we have at the Harvard Law School Association. Specifically, I suggested that we use the Harvard Law School Association Executive Committee, as well as the Harvard Law School Association Clubs and Shared Interest Groups around the world, to get people who would be willing and able to weigh in on this. I thought that would produce a broad cross section of our alumni community and it did.

HLT: How many alumni ended up participating in the focus groups?

Eaton: I think it was at least 100 alums and may have been more. But we also got numerous comments from our alumni community beyond what was expressed in the focus groups with respect to what they thought ought to be reflected in the shield. Anybody was free to weigh in — and they did. Harvard Law School alums are not known for being shy about expressing their opinions. In some ways, it’s one of the foundations of the profession that we share — to one degree or another, and I mean that literally because of course not everybody does the same thing with a Harvard Law School degree.

HLT: As you participated in the focus groups with other alumni and discussed the school’s character and values, what emerged most strongly for you?

Eaton: There were several themes that stood out and that are reflected in the working group report. But among them is the idea of Harvard Law School’s excellence. That was very, very important, as was the idea of the incredible breadth of Harvard Law School’s impact. And when you talk about the breadth, it’s important to understand that while the vast majority of Harvard Law graduates are Americans and practice or work in the U.S. in whatever profession, there are a lot of people — especially in our wonderful LL.M. community — who come from abroad and continue to represent and reflect the Harvard Law School ethos and values and excellence in every corner of the world. And that was another thing that people wanted to see expressed in the shield. Also, Harvard Law School’s commitment fundamentally to the idea of law and justice was a concept that was very important to convey in the shield because, like I remember saying in my HLS yearbook, the school’s enduring preoccupation is to turn out individuals “committed not just to the finest practice of law but to the greatest measure of justice.” Another thing that was very central in the discussions was the idea of the importance of the rule of law as something that affects every possible area of human endeavor. 

HLT: Was there anything that surprised you that came out of these conversations?

Eaton: I can say honestly that nothing surprised me so much. Not even the themes that were identified. But I guess what did surprise me was the genius of the design team, synthesizing all of this input into a shield. Obviously, I’m not a designer. I’m a lawyer. But I was just blown away by the design that we ultimately did select — how it really captured in pretty identifiable ways each of the major themes that emerged from the focus groups with all the various stakeholders. It was hard for me to imagine how you could capture all those in a single shield. But I think that the school was very, very well served by the design team — guided, of course, by Professor Annette Gordon-Reed, our chair, with the assistance of [Associate Dean for Communications and Public Affairs] Melodie Jackson — in coming up with the design that they did.

HLT: At a time when there seems to be a lot of division in our country, do you feel that there was some agreement amongst stakeholders who might have different viewpoints about what the school represented?

Eaton: I do. There was a clear consensus about the importance of the rule of law even in a divided world — and how that really ought to be reflected in the shield. Yes, there were some people who would place more emphasis on tradition than others and some who wanted to place more emphasis on all the other wonderful concepts that are in this bundle of things that are captured when you think of law and the law school. But there was a clear overarching commitment to the idea of Harvard Law School as a leading expositor of the rule of law and the importance of that, in all of its dimensions, being reflected in the shield that was ultimately selected.

HLT: How do you think the alumni community will view and interact with this new shield design?

Eaton: The short answer to your question is that I think that the alumni and alumnae community is going to react very favorably to the shield that we selected. And one of the reasons I’m confident of that is that, in doing the job that I did on the working group, I put my own views aside and recognized that I was a representative of a very broad, diverse alumni community, which is why I was listening so intently in these focus groups for the range of opinions. I thought it was important that the shield reflect the views of the broad constituency that I was there to represent, and that it be harmonious with the dynamic concept of the law school and the law that is held by our visionary dean, John Manning. I kept that in mind the whole time I was there at any meeting. I was very, very focused on working through the vision of our diverse alumni, to the extent that you could synthesize certain shared values, and of course the thoughts of my successor as head of the HLSA, Chris Mann [‘89] and all of my predecessors, in coming up with a shield that would reflect the very best of the values that people would generally agree Harvard Law School represents. And, at the end of the day, I think that the working group under the leadership of Annette Gordon-Reed succeeded in that mission, which is why I’m so proud to have been part of this process.

And that goes back to a question that you asked before. What’s so astonishing is this process easily could have ended in failure and division. But it didn’t because of a shared commitment. And quite frankly, I have to believe that part of that relates to this unique historic moment in which we find ourselves. Which is to say that this mantra that we’ve been hearing since the start of the pandemic “We’re all in this together” has extended to all manner of activities. And I like to think that the Harvard Law School Shield Working Group was an outgrowth of that spirit and that the ultimate product is going to reflect a broadly acceptable and embraced view of what Harvard Law School represents. Because when you’re talking about, “We’re all in this together,” I like to think that we are all in the vision of law and justice and truth together. And symbolically, in many respects, this shield captures all of that effectively.

HLT: Is there anything else you’d like to tell me?

Eaton: If I could say something about Amreeta Matthai’s participation. She’s a relatively young alum who works for the ACLU. I took the more conventional path; I’m a partner at a law firm. I saw having her perspective as critical and vital to this process, as was having the participation of the students, because it does show the idea of Harvard Law School as an immortal and ever-evolving and ever-refreshing force in this world. And having those views at the table, I think, helped to enlighten the overall process.

And I will also say one thing about Professor Gordon-Reed. Having her background as a historian was absolutely invaluable, because what we were doing was writing history in a visual way in real time and having the perspective that she brought to this process was absolutely indispensable.