Harvard Law School is one of the few things that I have encountered in life that’s as good as it’s cracked up to be.
For more than a century, Harvard Law School has stood at the apex of the legal profession. It is the nation’s oldest, largest, and richest law school. Its ethos is something akin to what Shakespeare wrote of Cleopatra: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.”
For an emigrant from a backwater of Appalachia whose high school graduating class numbered 20, Harvard Law School was an incredibly exotic place. I quickly learned that the HLS Class of ’66 was filled with familiar names. My “peers” included Franklin Roosevelt’s grandson, Teddy Roosevelt’s great-grandson, and David Rockefeller Jr. This was all rather heady stuff for someone whose people made FDR a virtual component of the Trinity, and who believed that the New Deal was one giant step toward the kingdom of heaven.
But the romance of law school turned very quickly to the seemingly unending tedium of being a law student. I soon came to loathe the Law School and everything associated with it. Near the end of the first year, I remember telling a classmate, “Just one time, I would like to hear someone say ‘I agree with you.’ Not ‘Yes, but,’ or ‘But, you’ve overlooked ____.’ Just a plain, quibble-less affirmation of a single statement, any statement.” I never got my wish.
After I finished my last test at the end of the third year, I left Cambridge immediately, not even considering staying around for graduation. I didn’t look back either–until 25 years later.
Shortly before the 25th reunion of my class in 1991, I suddenly felt a strong compulsion to attend. It wasn’t until several weeks after I returned home that I was able to sort through the many emotions involved with the trip. I understood, then, that I had survived a quarter century reluctantly doing something that I had never intended to do. Like many West Virginians of my era, all I wanted was “out.” Admission to HLS gave me a different option for the egress than the one proverbially provided by the “three Rs” of a West Virginia education: readin’, writin’, and the road to Akron.
During my first months at law school, I learned that many of my peers did not have the storied “burning desire” to practice law. Whatever one ended up doing, we reasoned, a law degree could do no harm.
The downside to this way of thinking was that I was in deep denial about who I was for at least half of my professional life. I was in my mid-40s, serving as an assistant pastor in Pittsburgh and finishing up my master of divinity degree, before I would tell casual acquaintances that I was also a lawyer.
As I walked past the front steps of Langdell Hall the night I arrived in the spring of 1991, some words from the Reform Jewish siddur came to mind: “How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it.”
Years ago, I suppose that I may have been somewhat resentful of the big machers from the Class of ’66. They were dealing with the great legal issues with “the whole world watching,” while I was consigned to an Appalachian backwater often arguing Fourth Amendment issues to a magistrate who never went to college, much less law school. I remember an exasperated first-year student at HLS from a “red brick” college in the Midwest telling the professor, “You’re training me to argue before Brandeis and Frankfurter, but when I go back home I am going to be appearing before judges who never heard of Brandeis and Frankfurter.” I joined in the general laughter, but the joke was really on me.
But this is my vineyard and I have picked enough grapes to survive. I returned again in April for my 35th reunion at Harvard Law School–still a bright, shining city set on a hill. Although at times it may seem like a dream, I have been to the mountain. Occasionally, a young lawyer will say, “I heard you went to Harvard.” I respond with my Mickey Mantle, aw shucks grin and say something like, “That was a long time ago.”