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"Noble Exertions": Law and Public Service

10.24.08

As celebrants gathered in a huge tent on Holmes Field on October 23 to toast Harvard Law School's (HLS) record-setting capital campaign (precisely $476,475,707 raised, apparently, compared to a $400-million goal; 23,000 participating donors; 118 gifts of $1 million or more, including eight of $10 million or more), President Drew Faust used the occasion to address the public-service aspects of legal practice and education (audio here and text here). These remarks complemented her address at the Harvard Business School centennial celebration on October 14 and elements of her remarks at the University sustainability event on October 22, and thus spelled out a broader view of professional education and public service within the context of the contemporary research university and the very serious financial and economic problems buffeting the nation and the world.

Invoking Harvard's fifteenth president, Josiah Quincy, on the occasion of his dedication of Dane Hall as HLS's new home, in 1832, Faust said he had "hailed the members of the legal profession for what he called their 'noble exertions and personal sacrifices…in the interests of the age and of society." That spirit, she said, continued to animate the school as it produced attorneys general, solicitors general, members of Congress, governors, Supreme Court justices, and so on. (Continuing in the realm of government public service, Faust made a joke that combined her skills as historian with the law-school setting: "[I]t's quite possible that 12 days from now, Rutherford B. Hayes may no longer be the only right answer to the trivia question, 'What graduate of Harvard Law School was elected president of the United States?'" Barack Obama is J.D. ’91. She did not go on to say that if Obama is elected, Dean Elena Kagan might be considered for a return to service in Washington—along with more than a few members of her recently augmented faculty, whose ranks have grown rapidly during the past five years as campaign proceeds have been put to work.)

Beyond formal government service, Faust said, graduates have been involved in the whole realm of public-interest law, representing the indigent, leading nonprofit organizations, and encouraging pro bono practice within commercial law firms. Similarly, faculty members "include leaders in shaping our understanding not only of American constitutional law, but of constitutional principles in societies as diverse as South Africa and Iraq." She cited professors' work on economic and racial justice, on corporate governance, on human rights, and on reconciling civil liberties with security, among other fields. And she noted students' engagement with 29 legal clinics that pursue problems in child advocacy, war crimes, human rights, and tenants' rights.

In support of such work, Faust said, the law school has dual responsibilities: "It's critical that [students] leave here with habits of mind and an understanding of legal concepts and methods essential to productive careers in the law. It's no less critical that they leave here with a vivid sense of the law not just as an occupation but as a calling." The school, she said, owes students "not only an education in parsing precedent and interpreting doctrine and mastering techniques of advocacy—but an education that helps them see how, in Quincy's words, 'noble exertions' can advance 'the interests of the age and of society."

In closing, Faust invoked Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., speaking in 1886 (20 years after his graduation from HLS, 250 years after the University's founding); he described law as the "branch of human knowledge…more immediately connected with all the highest interests of man than any other which deals with practical affairs." She particularly emphasized that juxtaposition of "highest interests" with "practical affairs" in the school's mission of education for professional practice. In the current economic turmoil, Faust said, the HLS faculty had particular responsibilities, along with their colleagues in other schools, to offer advice at the beginning of a long process of re-examining accountability, regulation, and fairness in the financial system and institutions that will emerge in the future. That work, she said, blends "practical affairs" with "conscious concern for what [Holmes] called 'the highest interests of man'—not mere self-interest, not just the pursuit of professional status or personal gain, but rather the larger ideals that inspire this school and the profession it serves: ideals of justice, of equality, of freedom, of respect for the rule of law, of dedication to advancing the common good."

In that regard, Dean Kagan made an especially pertinent observation when she introduced Faust as the principal speaker. The intellectual highlight in the law school's fall term, Kagan said, had been the community's focus on the financial crisis: a vigorous faculty panel discussion about causes, effects, and remedies; half-a-dozen papers on proposals for action and reform; widespread student conversation about these issues. In the middle of all these developments (and as similar panels on the financial crisis were organized at the business school and for the University as a whole), Kagan said she had received a call from Faust asking about the school's work. Notably, Kagan continued, business school dean Jay Light and David Ellwood, dean of the Harvard Kennedy School, also received calls from Faust, who convened them and suggested that "all of you ought to be thinking about these problems together," joining the perspectives of management, public policy, and the law.

Doing so, Kagan said, made great good sense—and it was the first time in her six years as dean, under three Harvard presidents, that she recalled being asked to collaborate in this way. This surprising development, she said, suggested good things about the potential for bringing Harvard's multidisciplinary strengths together to pursue larger, better solutions to pressing public problems.