Harvard’s $200,000 Question

“Why are law students unhappy?’ Gee, that’s a tough one.

Harvard Law School has undertaken a process of long-term strategic planning “so as to maximize achievement of its core mission,” according to Dean Robert Clark’s semigrammatical but completely businesslike manifesto in the school’s alumni bulletin. As part of this process, HLS has hired the nation’s pre-eminent consulting firm–McKinsey & Co.–to explain why law students are unhappy.

This is not a difficult or mysterious question. It has been explored in books such as Richard D. Kahlenberg’s Broken Contract and John Jay Osborn’s The Paper Chase and One L, a first-year-law-student memoir by future novelist Scott Turow. The complaints don’t change much. Most law students are there for lack of a better idea rather than any special enthusiasm for the subject matter. They are heading for a profession that is widely despised and filled with lawyers who wish they weren’t. These days, top law students can anticipate being regarded as sharks even as other career options–investment banking, Internet startups–pass them by in glamour, prestige, and financial reward.

Meanwhile, they are paying $40,000 a year to sit in large lecture halls and be hazed at random by a distant professor with a seating chart. The curriculum mostly consists of long appellate opinions from which they are supposed to derive legal principles on the needle-in-a-haystack principle. These two pillars of legal education–the so-called “Socratic method” and the “case method”–were both pioneered at Harvard and survive there less changed than anywhere else.

No one forces these students to go to law school or to choose Harvard in particular. Indeed, they compete fiercely to get in. But this just puts them in an even sourer mood when U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings list Harvard Law School not merely No. 2 behind Yale but, for the past two years, tied for that honor with Stanford.

What concerns the HLS administration is not so much that Harvard law students are depressed, it’s that publicized studies show that they’re depressed. A 1994 National Jurist survey assessing “overall student satisfaction” ranked Harvard Law at the bottom of the pack–154th out of 165. HLS came in dead last when Princeton Review asked 11,000 law students at 140 schools to quantify their “quality of life.” Now we have something the modern university administrator can deal with. This is not psychiatry: This is management.

There is nothing to be ashamed of in seeing a psychiatrist, um, management consultant. Nevertheless, HLS did not announce that it was seeking help. In fact, an alumni survey went out on the dean’s own letterhead and included a return envelope addressed to the suspiciously inconspicuous “Research International.” I received one in April. It was 14 pages long and contained 104 questions about my experience at the school, from which I graduated in 1997. Meanwhile, a four-member McKinsey “engagement team” set up shop in a vacant law school office. Team McKinsey surveyed current students and organized student focus groups on demographic themes: married students, gay students, Latino students, Harvard Law Review members, and so on. Not wishing to be left out, the law school faculty voted unanimously to expand the scope of McKinsey’s work to include faculty governance issues. Faculty and staff were interviewed individually, as befits their rank.

Actually, it makes as much sense for Harvard Law School to hire a management consultant as it does for General Motors to do so–though how much sense that is exactly is an open question. Systematic data on students’ concerns might be just what is needed by a law school administration that has ignored mounds of anecdotal evidence. But turning to McKinsey was a bit odd since the company draws heavily on HLS for recruits. Three out of the four McKinseyites on the HLS project are HLS graduates. The godfather of the McKinsey method (yes, another method), former managing partner Marvin Bower, is a Harvard-trained lawyer, whose innovation was to infuse consulting with law-firm professionalism. In light of this connection, McKinsey is giving Harvard a steep discount. The study will only cost HLS a couple of hundred thousand dollars.

The connection should also mean that McKinsey enjoys a head start in understanding the problem at Harvard Law School. But it does raise a logical conundrum: If they had such a lousy education, how good could they be as consultants? Conversely, if they are as good as McKinsey’s mystique implies, how bad could their professional training have been?

But coming up with the right answer to a question like, “Why Are Harvard Law Students Unhappy?” should not tax the analytical skills even of Harvard law graduates. And, furthermore, the study’s conclusions are more or less irrelevant to the study’s actual purposes, both of which are achieved by the study itself. One of these is cuddling the alumni. “NOT a Donation Request–We Need Your Advice,” read the outside of the survey envelope sent to alumni. True enough, there was no solicitation inside. But the survey is nevertheless a marketing device, intended in small part to gather information as part of planning the next big fund-raising campaign and, in large part, to create the feeling of ownership among an alienated alumni group.

The other purpose is cuddling the students. And here the McKinsey study has already paid off. Students seem to feel that the mere involvement of a management consulting firm is an indication that the administration cares more than they previously thought. Though some faculty members feel McKinsey’s involvement shames the academy, most think it’s a healthy development for Harvard. The students and professors of Harvard Law School would recognize this as the placebo effect–if they had gone to medical school as their mothers really wanted.