Shake ‘Em Up at Harvard Law School Day

Those of us who worked with an energetic corps of Harvard Law students thought October 24, 2013 would be a galvanizing, historic day at that training ground for corporate law firms.

The students left no stone unturned in promoting a full day of presentations by leading, experienced justice fighters sharing the urgency to act in their respective fields. The goal was to encourage a new generation of law graduates to do likewise. Every type of media was used to advance the event–e-mails, posters, telephone calls, word-of-mouth, the revived Harvard Law School Record newspaper on every first year student’s desk, handouts, mentions in some classrooms and even a salsa band to provide sound with the light.

The venerable Ames courtroom was the venue for the speakers who delivered summaries of a lifetime of breakthroughs for justice in twenty minute presentations, followed by ten minutes of discussion. In a nod to Pavlov, free pizza was offered at lunchtime.

It seemed reasonable that of the 2,000 students and faculty, the 300 seats in the Ames Courtroom would be filled–with students going in and out to attend classes. Edgar Cahn, the first presenter alone should have drawn such an audience with “Legal Education: Unasked Questions, Unwelcome Answers. Where Next?” Right out of Yale Law School in the Sixties, Edgar and his late wife Jean drafted and got Congress to pass a law creating the Legal Services Corporation which provides low-income people with 4,000 attorneys around the country.

The Cahns started Antioch Law School based on the philosophy that law should mean justice and that students should experience their clients’ plights firsthand in marginalized neighborhoods.

Professor/advocate Cahn also devised the Time Dollar currency–spreading in numerous countries–whereby people use their hours of time as a currency to exchange for services.

Then came Professor Michael Rustad on the topic “Tort Law Under Siege,” warning how the law of wrongful injury was being weakened and further cannibalized by fine-print standard form contracts, those consumer servitudes we all sign regularly, that take away our right to go to court against wrongdoers.

Worker pension reformer, attorney and alumnae Karen Ferguson, director of the Pension Rights Center, delved into the subject “Combating Retirement Insecurity,” and enticed students to consider practicing in this vast area of jeopardized pensions.

By this time, however, many of the 100 or so law students who showed up, having consumed their pizza, had already left the courtroom, to the dismay of a couple dozen attendees from the Cambridge community.

Too bad, because they and their absent friends, missed the nation’s leading investigator of corporate tax avoidance/evasion–“Teaching Tax: Morality and Consequences”–Pulitzer Prize winner, David Cay Johnston. Followed by the rousing challenger of lawless foreign, military and prosecutorial policies by the Presidency–Bruce Fein, a Harvard Law grad, who spoke on “One-Branch Tyranny: Lawyers, Law Professors and Law Students Fiddle While the Constitution is Vandalized.”

About this time, a lone Law School Professor was sighted–Lani Guinier who has broken some smug paradigms in her day, as has the next speaker–former Attorney General (under President Johnson), Ramsey Clark. He urged the application of laws to stop wars or to hold war criminals accountable to their victims.

Arguably the nation’s leading critic of science and ethics, Prof. Sheldon Krimsky of Tufts University, threw down a gauntlet of specifics with his topic, “Facing Up to It: Science Without Law is Immoral and Law Without Science is Blindsighted.”

My Harvard Law School class of 1958 started the Appleseed Foundation which has launched sixteen Centers for Law and Justice in as many states over the last 25 years. Quite a model for older law school alumni classes at the nation’s 203 law schools. Lawyer and Appleseed executive director, Betsy Cavendish, spoke of “A Theory of Change”– that brings the law closer to serve the people.

The necessity of that objective was poignantly described by Harvard sociologist, Bruce Western, who narrated in “Reform, Redemption and Mass Incarceration” personal stories how the poverty economy and mass imprisonment of the impoverished and marginalized relate to recidivism.

By this time, most afternoon classes were over and I expected a stream of students and, perchance, some faculty, to arrive. After all, there were clear areas of actionable injustice being described by superstars of the legal profession. Other than Prof. Jon Hanson, no such luck.

Arthur Miller, known to many for his television programs and commentary while teaching at Harvard, came from NYU Law School and delivered a masterpiece, “Are They Closing the Courthouse Doors?” on how expanding procedural hurdles block access to justice. He is the nation’s leading scholar on procedural rules as well as an appellate attorney.

Want to know about whistleblowing protections and notorious persecutions by people who bring their conscience to work? No one is more experienced than Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project (GAP). He proved it with his topic “Whistleblowing and the Power of Truth.”

Completing this unprecedented day was Jeffrey Clements, author of the clear-eyed book Corporations are Not People, speaking on “The Corporate Capture of the Constitution and the Courts.” He is leading a nationwide effort to constitutionally overturn the Supreme Court decision–Citizens United–which allows corporations and unions to give unlimited money in independent expenditures against or for candidates for public office (See

Although much of the day’s content is not taught at the Law School, or only tangentially touched on, the student attendance had dwindled to fewer than fifty–notwithstanding another Pavlovian entreaty of a tasty buffet.

Harvard Law School is full of the best and brightest professors and law students. If you doubt this, just ask them. Of course a few are quite active. But, moving the rest from satisfaction to significance–at least, in Bruce Fein’s words, so that more become the Paul Reveres sounding the alarms when the law is subjugated by raw power, is a formidable task.

At Harvard Law, with a massive endowment of $1.7 billion and the most diverse offerings in courses and clinics of any law school, the excuses are few for the overall training of students as rigorous legal technicians slated to sustain and enlarge the rule of power–especially that of the corporate supremacists–over the rule of law.

Were Harvard Law to arouse, it might prod similar levitations at other law schools who, admit or not, see Harvard as groundbreaking. Maybe Harvard is too entrenched in its storied traditions and abstract pretensions. Maybe the grip of corporatist environments is so internalized as not to be seen as ravaging the school’s potential.

The kinds of law school graduates–their sense of horizons and self-significance–affects many millions of people for whom the law is unusable, repressive and devoid of adequate lawyer representation.

Stay tuned. Visit There is more to come in shaking up law schools by small numbers of law students, teachers and alumni.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!