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Forget “Legally Blonde.” If you want to know what people used to think about Harvard Law School, rent “The Paper Chase.” In that 1973 drama, the professors are tyrants, the classes are intellectual war zones, and the students are so busy stabbing each other in the back that they hardly have time to study. That might have been an acceptable public image when law school was supposed to be grueling. But education is changing — even at Harvard. Today’s students are more demanding, and while law school is always a place to work hard, quality of life is improving. “In the ’80s, the buildings looked different, there were no lounge areas, there really weren’t student groups, and there weren’t offices like ours,” says Shannon Salinas, dean of students at Columbia Law School. Then, students struggled to be comfortable. Today, students expect to be comfortable. Law schools everywhere are paying more attention to student satisfaction. “When it comes to programming, discretionary funding for student activities, academic support initiatives, housing issues, we all have increased resources,” says Salinas. In today’s world of new and improved law schools, school reputation and selectivity are weighed against factors like student-faculty ratio. The first sign of trouble came in 1999, when Harvard got the results from a study that showed that students felt the school was elite, impersonal, and isolating, with bloated classes allowing insufficient interaction with professors. Then last year, Harvard Law slipped to the No. 3 spot in the U.S. News and World Report rankings, after sharing the No. 2 spot with Stanford Law for the past few years. (Yale is No. 1.) With applications declining in law schools generally and competition among top schools for top students increasing, Harvard had to transform itself into a kinder, gentler school. The school has picked up the gauntlet with vigor. Starting this fall, Harvard Law has begun implementing a strategic plan aimed at improving the quality of student life. The school cut the size of this year’s entering class by nearly half. It plans to add 15 faculty members, increase student-faculty interaction, strengthen emphasis on public service law, and reduce class size. It will require students to donate legal work to the community — which Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania Law School already require — and forgive loans for lower-income graduates who are not necessarily involved in public-interest law — which Yale and Stanford Law already do. The trend is clear: Even the best schools now have to work on keeping students happy. “What Harvard is trying to do is something that Duke, and smaller schools generally, have had the advantage of for a long time,” says Duke Law School’s dean, Katharine Bartlett. Among schools known for taking pride in their emphasis on quality of life, different schools have different approaches to making learning the law fun for students. Duke Law School points to activities that integrate law students into the larger Durham, N.C., community, like clearing trails at a state park or painting a domestic-violence shelter, and to activities that bring students together, such as sponsoring a law student art show or a student-initiated patent law conference. Columbia Law focuses on responding to student needs: When a group of law students pointed out the shortage of classes dealing with Native American issues and the law, for instance, the school sponsored a speaker series of interest to the Native American population. Then there are the activities that are just about letting go of learning and service for a while. Case Western Reserve Law School has “Bar Review” every Thursday (a night of bar hopping), tortious twister (a party game), and race judicata (a one-mile race). Northeastern University hosts a talent show in which law school professors spoof the students and the students spoof the faculty. And, of course, there are always ways to give classes a more playful tone. Professor Stephen Easton at University of Missouri-Columbia Law School, for instance, livens up the law with daily trivia contests, get-out-of-jail-free cards that allow you to pass when called on, games of “Jeopardy,” and movie clips. Administrators at top schools that pride themselves on the seriousness of their curricula recoil at the use of the term “fun” in connection with law school. “NYU is a warm institution — for institutions of its kind,” clarifies Yvette Bravo-Weber, assistant dean of student affairs. “I think that in general, law schools are notorious for being miserable places to begin with,” says Dean Salinas at Columbia Law School. But if Harvard Law students are miserable, and NYU Law students are happy, they must be doing something differently. Part of it is the impersonal feeling that comes from large class size. “We are a very large law school, far and away the largest of the top schools,” says Daniel Meltzer, a professor of law at Harvard who chaired the steering committee on the strategic planning effort. “It’s harder in a larger institution to create communities.” A small school has advantages even beyond the feeling of coziness and increased interaction with the faculty. At Duke, for instance, a group of students approached the administration to propose a class on law and genetics. The administration mobilized quickly and a class was offered the following year. “A small school has more interaction with the faculty, more accessibility, and the agility to move on things quickly,” says Duke’s Dean Bartlett. The level of competition is another difference. Harvard has long had a reputation for being cutthroat. “One L,” Scott Turow’s nonfiction account of his first year there, described that in excruciating detail. But times have changed in the 20-odd years since he went there. Now, say students, the competition is mostly self-imposed — students have an inner drive to work hard. In fact, to further reduce competitiveness, the student Law School Council suggested a three-tiered grading system to replace the current A to F system as one of the planks of a Student Bill of Expectations it created when the plan was being developed. It was the one plank that was not approved by the faculty. Meanwhile, the NYU administration takes pride in the fact that it actively avoids a competitive environment. “This is not a pressure cooker,” says Kenneth J. Kleinrock, NYU Law’s assistant dean for admissions. “It sounds like a clich�, but there is enough success here for everyone. Everybody here graduates with about the same grade point average.” Part of the problem may be self-perpetuating. If Harvard has a reputation for being a school full of fiercely competitive people, then students who value cooperation highly might go elsewhere. Conversely, competitive students might avoid NYU. “There are people who feel that intense competition sharpens their wits, and they might not feel as comfortable here as they would possibly elsewhere,” admits NYU’s Dean Kleinrock. Duke’s Dean Bartlett is more blunt. “Students who would choose to come to a school like Duke have heard that students are happier than they are at a school like Harvard, and they have more to give to a community,” she says. Recent media articles have played up the competition between the schools over quality of life issues. But administrators downplay the conflict. While schools like NYU and Columbia certainly compete for students, they actually cooperate to throw parties, host speakers, and coordinate events. In fact, the top schools have also been working together to improve student life. Deans of students at law schools keep in constant e-mail contact through a listserv, asking each other questions and offering advice about issues to do with student life, as well as about programs, course evaluations, orientations, and graduation programs. And once a year, the law schools hold a meeting to trade ideas about how to further improve student life. Last year’s meeting was at the University of California, Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, while the previous year’s was at Cornell Law School. All in all, things are looking up for law students. Law school will never be a stroll in the park, but students today can at least feel happy knowing their schools care about their happiness and are doing everything they can to make their experience as pleasant as possible. Says Columbia’s Dean Salinas, “Law school is hard work and it’s very difficult, but we do make it more livable.” If only law firms would start making the same kinds of changes.

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