John Manning. (Courtesy photo) John Manning. (Courtesy photo)

How do you read and brief a case? What’s the purpose of the Socratic Method? What should a new law student expect once they arrive on campus?

For the past two years, Harvard Law School has covered those topics and more via Zero-L—a 14 hour-online program for its incoming students that is designed to give them a smoother transition into law school life. (The name is a reference to 1L, the widely used shorthand for the first year of law school.) On Wednesday, the elite law school announced that it is making Zero-L free and available to all law schools this summer in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This has been an incredibly challenging period for so many,” said Harvard Law dean John Manning in an announcement of the program’s expansion. “If Zero-L can help ease the transition and strengthen student success at other law schools as is has done at [Harvard], then we want to offer that support to all law schools by waiving the fee and making the course available for free this year.”

Harvard already was planning to make Zero-L available to other law schools this summer for a fee, but opted to drop the cost amid the coronavirus pandemic. The program could prove especially useful this summer if law schools must shorten, delay or move their orientations online due to the virus, according to the school.

While it was designed for Harvard law students, and the modules are taught by its faculty, the content covered in Zero-L is broad and universal enough that it’s applicable to any law school, said Jessica Soban, Harvard’s associate dean for strategic initiatives. In fact, the school made Zero-L available to four other law schools last summer with positive results.

“We are thrilled with the results,” said University of Baltimore School of Law associate dean Dionne Koller. “Zero-L enables us to connect with our incoming students in a way that both prepares them for law school and eases their nerves.”

Boston College Law School; Northeastern University School of Law; and Seton Hall University School of Law also used Zero-L last summer, and each plan to do so again this year.

Zero-L is self-paced, meaning incoming law students may complete the online modules at their own convenience. In addition to segments covering the nuts and bolts of law school, the program includes modules on basic legal concepts such as federalism, civil procedure and checks and balances and helps students develop a vocabulary of legal terms. There are comprehension checks built into the program to ensure students understand the material. (Zero-L is not mandatory, and there are no tests or grades.)

The purposed of Zero-L is not only to reduce some of the anxiety new law students feel, but also to help level the playing field for first-generation college students and others who lack personal connections to the legal field.

“When I arrived at [Harvard] as a first-year student, I felt very much out of my depth in those crucial first weeks,” said Manning, himself a first-generation college graduate. “I didn’t know the differences between state and federal courts, what the common law was, or even what a ‘litigator’ does for a living. Like a lot of other new law students, I felt that everyone around me ‘got it,’ and I just didn’t.”

Incoming law students won’t be able to access Zero-L on their own. Their law schools must sign up for the program and make it available to their students. But Harvard plans to make portions of the program, namely those dealing with civics, available to the public for free in July on the online learning platform edX.