The students now are generous, collaborative. They share notes with each other. I regularly ask students what has surprised them about Harvard Law School and almost always the response is how nice everybody is. I think the degree to which the students care about the world is very impressive to me. They are not just concerned about themselves.

– Dean Martha Minow of Harvard Law School, in an interesting and inspirational interview with the Harvard Gazette. Additional highlights from the interview, plus commentary, after the jump.

There’s a lot of wonderful stuff in the interview. Minow talks about her upbringing in an intellectual, civically engaged family. When she showed up as a student at Yale Law School, that background showed:

When I got to law school, my roommate said to me, “You really think you’re entitled to have a view on everything, don’t you?” It was the first time anyone ever pointed out that was unusual.

Dean Martha Minow

After graduating from YLS, Minow clerked for two judicial giants, Judge David Bazelon (D.C. Cir.) and Justice Thurgood Marshall. Here’s how she compares the two:

Working for Justice Thurgood Marshall was a dream. He was a hero during my whole childhood and the work at the court is so unique and so intense. It’s a time I treasure and will always remember. I certainly learned from him to pick your battles. He had a very different approach than Judge Bazelon, who would dissent in any case and make a fight over everything and that’s kind of the way I had been brought up. Justice Marshall instead would say, “No, you have to husband your strength and pick your battles.” And that’s something that’s become a watchword in my life.

Picking one’s battles: wise words for future deans of HLS. It was something that Elena Kagan was also known for, prior to her ascension to the Supreme Court.

Harvard Law School has had two women deans in a row. But it wasn’t always a great place for women, as Minow explains:

My question about coming here was, “Would I be comfortable at Harvard Law School?” I was very lucky. I had invitations to join the faculties at Yale and at Harvard and at Stanford and Michigan, a lot of schools. Harvard was the place that intrigued me the most, but it had a reputation for not being a good place for women. I sat with Walter Dellinger, later the solicitor general of the United States, [and said] “Harvard has had a series of women come teach on the faculty and they’ve all left.” There was one tenured woman on the faculty when I joined. He said, “That’s not a reason not to go if that’s the place you want to go.” Abe Chayes was on the faculty here — he was one of the people who recruited me — and I raised the question with him and he said, “You’re tough as nails.” And I thought, “I’m not tough as nails, but I’d like to be tough as nails.” So it was definitely on my mind that this was not a place that was known to be hospitable to women and I was concerned about that.

In the end, everything turned out fabulously. Some three decades after joining the HLS faculty, Martha Minow is now running the place.

But don’t think that this former Supreme Court clerk and current Harvard Law School dean has never made mistakes. Here’s my favorite part of the whole interview:

My sister Nell [aka "the queen of good corporate governance"] is a big source of inspiration on [failure]. She says, “If you’re not failing some of the time, then you’re not risking enough.” So I’ve written things that have bombed, [received] negative reviews, [been] rejected from peer-reviewed journals. I started a project here at Harvard that got some funding that went nowhere and then people said, “We told you it wasn’t going to go anywhere.” I’ve had things that haven’t succeeded. I don’t beat myself up about any of those.

Let’s close with some words about legal education. In the (perhaps tired) debate over whether one should go to law school, I’ve been struck by how deans of lower-ranked schools have been carrying most of the water, while deans of top-tier schools have remained largely silent — perhaps because they feel no need to justify the value of their product in the marketplace. But Dean Minow apparently couldn’t resist the opportunity to say a few words in defense of legal education:

I think there are reasons to remind talented young people why a life in the law is meaningful and opens up many, many doors. About half of our graduates over the course of their career do things other than practice law. They run for public office; they run nonprofit organizations; they are very involved in business, private equity, venture capital; major CEOs are graduates of our School, mayors, presidents, and so forth. That’s maybe a little bit atypical for all law schools, but for the top law schools, that is not atypical. I would hope that young talented people who have an interest in a meaningful life and career would consider law school.

I can’t say I disagree; I happen to believe that law school is the right decision for many people. But which law school, at what price, and for what post-law-school purpose? These are important questions that prospective law students should carefully consider before putting down their deposits.

For more wisdom from Dean Martha Minow, check out the full interview via the link below.

‘My life was going to have to deal with issues of social injustice’ [Harvard Gazette]


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