Harvard Law Flips Legal Education On Its Head With 'Systemic Justice'

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Any way you look at it, law school is in trouble. Schools nationwide received the lowest number of applicants in four decades this year. Graduates are struggling to find jobs. Debt is skyrocketing.

Meanwhile, law is being subjected to the same relentless global trends that have devastated the manufacturing sector: outsourcing and mechanization.

Why pay for a white shoe lawyer in a Boston skyscraper to write your will when an attorney overseas can draft it for a fraction of the price? Better still, go on

The legal profession is due for a rethink. There's a new idea on how to do that, and it starts with flipping the legal education on its head. Rather than teach students the law and how to apply it to the world, they want students to focus on problems — income inequality, climate change, racism — then see how they can use the law to solve them.

It's called systemic justice and it's a new program at Harvard Law School.


Jon Hanson, professor at Harvard Law School and faculty director of the Systemic Justice Project.

Jacob Lipton, program director of the Systemic Justice Project. He tweets @JacobLipton.



On how systemic justice works:
Jon Hanson:
"Well, it's helpful to have a contrast in mind...Law and legal education often deals with individuals and individual problems within individual silos, but most of our most significant problems — the ones that many people feel are not being addressed for the time being, are far more complex. And systemic justice is sort of devoted to the idea that, if we start looking at the problem and its many causes, we'll be much better prepared to come up with viable solutions. So, in our approach to teaching law, we're trying to start problem first and then we add politics, we add economics, we add history, mind sciences and reach out from there."

On a specific issue students might be asked to tackle:
"The first thing that we try to do is give students topics that they want to tackle. So, we...ask them about problems they care about, and the last several years they've been working on issues such as payday loans, inner-city gun violence, the marketing to compulsive gamblers on the part of casinos, bullying in school...those are examples, but students come in with interest. This semester, for example, in police use of deadly force or for-profit colleges, solitary confinement, those are some of the examples."

On how you bridge policy and the law:
Jacob Lipton:
"I think the distinction between policy and law is sometimes overblown, and that one of the problems in law school is that we think that there is more of a distinction than there is. Most policies that we would think of are laws that a legislature might pass or regulations that an administrative body might pass and those are both examples of law and policy."

On whether there's a contradiction between systemic justice and what legal education has traditionally been:
"I think legal education has been missing this. So, there is a contradiction in that sense...Legal education can do both. Obviously, as part of law school you need to learn some of what the law is, and so that should continue to happen. But, actually, this approach can teach you the law and what the law is and what moves the law better than the traditional method, I think. So, if you start with a problem that you care about and look at, what are all the different doctrinal areas that impact this problem. So, to take an example, if we look at obesity. For a long time, obesity has been considered an issue — everyone acknowledges obesity is a major issue and people think of it as a personal choice problem. But once you start with the problem of obesity, you can look at all different doctrinal areas of law that touch on obesity. So, such as corn subsidies, or our trade policy...and fast food advertising. And so, you'll actually cover all those different doctrinal areas that, in a traditional legal education, you may never really touch on."

This segment aired on March 9, 2015.


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