Harvard Law School’s graduating class might feel they need permission to go out and follow their dreams, Professor Alexandra Natapoff suggested during her Last Lecture. So, she produced a pink pad of permission slips, and offered to write one out for any student who wanted it.
“I will write a note to that little voice in your head that’s telling you to buckle down and do what you’re supposed to do. Maybe that’s the next fancy job, or the next conventional step in the path you’ve chosen,” she said, emphasizing that there are sometimes better options. “Whenever you feel like you might need a little bit of help, then doing the next thing that could be right and moral and true for you. Because I am here to tell you: You have enough marbles, you have the skills, you do know enough. And if you don’t, you can figure it out.”
Nationally recognized as an author and expert on criminal justice, Natapoff said that the law is often about choices. And she urged the graduating students to think hard about the choices they make. “You can do justice with law; you can also do injustice. There is nothing inherently moral or good about law, or about being a lawyer. Some laws are good, some are terrible. Some lawyers lift up and save people, and some lawyers crush them. The point is that it’s up to you, and it is your choice.”
Natapoff shared some of her own personal history in the last of this year’s faculty Last Lectures, an annual tradition through which representatives of the graduating class select teachers to impart insight, advice, and final words of wisdom as they prepare to depart law school.
She noted that she had joined the Harvard Law faculty at the same time the graduating class entered — during the “crazy, frightening” fall of 2020 when the COVID pandemic was new. She grew up as a “child of Harvard Square,” raised just ten blocks away from the campus. Her mother taught art at Harvard; her father was a research scientist at MIT. “So I’m not just a second generation academic, but a second generation Cambridge, Harvard Square academic. And with all those advantages, even I sometimes find this place challenging. So, I can only imagine what it felt like when you first arrived.”
Natapoff made one of her own big choices early in her legal career, after she’d trained as a civil rights lawyer and taken a Soros Foundation fellowship working in underprivileged communities in Baltimore. She then found herself with two job offers: One was a job in the federal public defender’s office. The other was her dream job in a boutique civil rights law firm.
“I had prepared for that law firm job for years,” she said. “I was ready to do that work and I knew just what it looked like. By contrast, I was completely unprepared for the work in the public defender’s office, and I didn’t know what it would look like at all.”
Natapoff took the public defender’s job, which had become closer to her personal goals after the fellowship. “And I was petrified the whole time — I mean Tums-for-breakfast petrified. I knew I was under-trained for the position, but I knew I could figure it out. That’s the great gift that a rigorous, challenging education gives us: It teaches us how to learn the next thing.”
The graduating students, she said, might feel daunted by the number of choices that lie ahead — but they should also take this ability to learn the next thing as a superpower. “Your wealth now lies in this great plethora of good choices that you are about to face and navigate. That’s the payoff to all that hard work: We get to choose meaningful work that might make us proud.”
Natapoff urged the audience to see the law as “a form of wealth that you personally can redistribute.” And she advised them to work on the grassroots level, as she did in Baltimore.
“Don’t look up, at least not so often,” she said. “Elite institutions, powerful people are always telling us to look up — to the Supreme Court, Congress, the halls of wealth and power and access. But sometimes the real action is down, especially in criminal law. The action is with the millions of people and their experiences going through the system. It’s in these poorly lit, obscure, enormous low status spaces to which we pay insufficient attention. … You may not be able to budge the law one inch in Washington D.C. But at the state and local level, you can make an enormous difference.”
She wasn’t necessarily telling the students to turn down their own dream job, Natapoff said — only to allow themselves the space to figure out what they really wanted to do. “I am not saying that following your heart is magic, I’m not saying it’s going to be easy or that it won’t be expensive. I’m saying it will be difficult and expensive no matter what you choose. As they say in my family, ‘It’s 20 bucks either way’.”
And if sacrifices come with the territory, she urged the class to make them worthwhile. “You are going to work too hard at whatever you choose to do. You’re going to lose sleep. You’re going to make sacrifices and ask people who love you to make sacrifices on your behalf. And I say all this because you didn’t get here in the first place by avoiding hard work and sacrifice. So, you’re not about to start now.”
Want to stay up to date with Harvard Law Today? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.