It’s getting easier for law students to take part in Harvard University’s intellectual feast

With the help of Harvard Law School’s new curriculum reforms and other university-wide changes, it’s getting easier for students to pursue more than one passion—and to become better lawyers.

Promoting interdisciplinary study is a major goal of the recent changes to the curriculum, says Professor Martha Minow, the chair of HLS’s curricular reform committee. “The practice of law increasingly intersects with expertise in other subjects,” she said. “Legal education should reflect that. Students interested in particular areas should come out of law school as well prepared for those areas as possible.”

More Cross Registration

In 2006, the faculty adopted changes to the curriculum for 2Ls and 3Ls, creating distinctive “programs of study” in which students are able to pursue subjects in concentrated fashion—including courses offered elsewhere in the university. “The programs of study are each designed to facilitate connections with other schools and departments at Harvard,” Minow said.

Said HLS Dean Elena Kagan ’86: “One of the really terrific things about the new programs of study is that they include recommendations and options for further course work available in other parts of the university. Students focusing on law and business, for example, are given options to take relevant courses at Harvard Business School. And so forth. This is a work in progress, but we are working hard with other schools at Harvard to achieve this goal.”

Minow added: “For the Law and Government program, we’ve been working with faculty in the government department and at the Kennedy School to identify relevant courses, facilitate cross-registration and work toward coordination in faculty appointments to strengthen offerings over time.”

University-wide study is being facilitated still further by some new administrative changes, especially the university’s upcoming implementation of calendar reform in 2009, which will put Harvard’s schools onto a more unified academic schedule. “A unified calendar will greatly increase opportunities for students to take classes at other Harvard schools,” said HLS Professor Guhan Subramanian J.D./M.B.A. ’98. When schools have different registration deadlines and conflicting exam schedules, cross-registration is often impossible, he says. While students have been able to audit courses at other schools, they have not always been able to take those courses for credit. With a unified calendar, Subramanian says, most of those impediments will no longer hinder students who want to venture beyond the law school campus.

Last year, Adam Shoemaker ’08 enrolled in an Icelandic sagas course in the folklore department. He was able to incorporate what he’d studied into a comparative essay for his English Legal History course at HLS, but he says he studied medieval Iceland mainly because it caught his interest. Now, he plans to revisit ancient Icelandic law for his 3L paper. “I could probably count on one hand the number of places in the world where, had I developed this sudden interest, I could take a course with an expert in the field the very next semester, and then translate it back to my law studies,” he said.

Shoemaker predicts that more of his classmates will look into cross-registration opportunities as calendar reform comes into place. “There’s such a great breadth of offerings for those who are looking to augment their law studies at the other schools,” he said. “More people are thinking about it this year. I’ve heard people talking about the classes they want to take at the divinity school or at FAS.”

More Joint Degrees

Calendar reform is also expected to facilitate the pursuit of joint degrees, says Subramanian, the faculty chair of the J.D./M.B.A. program. There are presently 32 students in the joint degree program with Harvard Business School—“the most we’ve had in recent years,” he said. The program saw a decline in the number of participants a few years ago, but its numbers are climbing again, he notes.

Another 35 students are splitting their time between HLS and the Kennedy School of Government, pursuing master’s degrees in public policy or administration of international development. Five J.D. candidates are earning master’s degrees at the School of Public Health, and another is enrolled in the urban planning master’s program at the Graduate School of Design.

In addition, 17 students are pursuing both a J.D. and a Ph.D. at Harvard. In 2005, HLS and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences approved, for the first time, a formal joint-degree program (as opposed to a concurrent-degree program) for such students. This year, HLS announced a loan forgiveness program, which it will fund jointly with the university, for eligible J.D./Ph.D. candidates who pursue academic careers.

“The joint-degree programs show the students that we believe a person who can handle multiple dimensions of a problem is invaluable,” said Professor Philip Heymann ’60, the faculty chair of programs in law and government. “We’re trying to get students out in the world who can simultaneously think about a problem in the contexts of law and economics and management and politics and ethics.”

Said Nicolas Cornell ’09, a J.D./Ph.D. candidate in philosophy: “The joint-degree program is getting clearer even while I’ve been involved. More students seem to be interested in it, and the requirements are becoming more structured.”

The university’s extensive resources are invaluable to joint-degree candidates and cross-enrollees, said Cornell: “One of the advantages of being here is availing myself of all the different resources at the same time.” As a 1L, he was able to audit graduate seminars in the philosophy department; this year, while he works on his dissertation prospectus, he will continue meeting with faculty at the law school.

Said Uche Nwamara ’08, a candidate for both a J.D. and a Ph.D. in Roman history who is writing a dissertation on fourth-century Roman marriage laws: “The resources are bottomless. What attracted me to do my joint degree here was the freedom I was given to chart my own course.” He plans to take advantage of Harvard’s libraries when he is studying Roman law codes and ancient patristic texts to investigate Emperor Constantine’s stance on legislating Christianity.

Although calendar reform is expected to ease the burden of pursuing two demanding degrees, Laurence Tai, a J.D./Ph.D. candidate in public policy, sees a long road ahead. Tai, who will begin at HLS in ’08 and expects to graduate in 2011, likens the experience to the loneliness of the long-distance runner. He even trained for a half-marathon last semester. “Since I’m the only J.D./Ph.D. in public policy, I basically represent a constituency of one,” he said. “It’s a challenge worth taking—you create your own track.”