“Getting Closer”: Remarks for the Bicentennial of Harvard Law School

Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, Mass.

Thank you, Richard, and thank you for all the hard work that has gone into planning this extraordinary day and this extraordinary Bicentennial. What a pleasure it is to mark Harvard Law School’s 200th year. Thank you all for this deeply inspiring and meaningful celebration.

As I look out at this distinguished gathering, it is hard to picture an afternoon two centuries ago when Harvard Law School was that bold new experiment with a grand total of three rooms, two professors, and six students. Or to imagine that ten years later the experiment had yielded one remaining faculty member and a single student. The direction was not encouraging. But, things got better. Sometimes in unforeseeable ways. A few weeks ago, we launched this bicentennial celebration by memorializing some 60 enslaved laborers whose work enabled the founding donation for the first Harvard law professorship. Who among them could have pictured abolitionist Charles Sumner, class of 1834, or Barack Obama, class of 1991? And who, in 1944, could have predicted that the same institution that denied admission to the brilliant Pauli Murray, not because she was black, but because she was female, would in 2017 elect a female and African-American Law Review president, and its first female majority?

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., said it is never easy to be a “stronghold of ideals,” to keep “the faith” that “sets [us] to an [endless] task.” Especially in the law, where, as he put it, we may “wear [our] heart[s] out after the unattainable.”

Yet from its earliest days, Harvard Law School was impelled by a new idea of what the law could be—not simply a craft, but a broadly and deeply-educated profession. When Chief Justice Story arrived in 1829 to rescue the young law school, he told his students that the perfect lawyer must make himself familiar with “every [subject of] study.” He must search the human heart (of course they were all “he”s at this point); explore every emotion, from the sources of sympathy and benevolence to the “cunning arts” of the hypocrite; he must understand history, and literature, and policy, and religion, and naturenothing was irrelevant. Over time, Story told his students, the lawyer would come to know humanity as it is. And while learning to trust men less, a lawyer might also learn to “love man more,” and become, and I quote him again, “more wise, more candid, more forgiving, more disinterested.”

This last quality, especially, animates Harvard Law School. “Disinterested,” to Justice Story, of course, did not mean indifferent or lacking in passion. Quite the opposite. Disinterestedness is the quality that allows us to engage fully; to argue forcefully and listen generously, without taking offense; to come alive through the clash of ideas, and find friendship and even common purpose, over divergent views. The law teaches us how to disagree. As Justice Scalia often commented, if you take it personally, you’re in the wrong line of work. Or, as Chief Justice Roberts quipped in a unanimous Supreme Court decision, FCC v AT&T, “I hope AT&T doesn’t take this personally.” That line—the closing sentence of a 12-page opinion on why corporations as persons nonetheless cannot take things personally— is further evidence that Harvard produces, not only the greatest number of Supreme Court justices, but the most thoroughly entertaining ones.

Now, if the law represents a disinterested intellectual search for solutions to complex problems, it is also a moral quest—to promote equality, expose corruption, advance fairness, preserve liberty, check the arrogance of power, and defend unalienable rights.

Today we celebrate that public spirit, and its legacy. Harvard Law School is unsurpassed in educating leaders in the highest echelons of public life, across the United States and around the world. It has trained heads of state, legislators, business leaders and educators, not to mention its share of generals, novelists, spies, artists, producers, musicians and Olympians. And that in addition to educating six sitting U.S. Supreme Court justices, so many of whom are here with us today.

We celebrate an institution, not only for its preeminence, but as a powerful force for change: the place where Louis Brandeis shaped a constitutional right to privacy; where Charles Hamilton Houston prepared to do battle against racial segregation; and where a whole host of people, beginning in the 1980s, helped to lay the groundwork for what is now a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. 

We celebrate a remarkable faculty that over the course of two centuries has dominated American legal literature and developed whole new forms of legal education. A faculty that takes on society’s most confounding legal and moral challenges, and leads and inspires students in 31 clinical programs, from criminal justice to cyberlaw.

And we celebrate the students, who master their coursework while running influential journals and contributing hundreds of thousands of hours of pro bono work each year. They help low-income clients close to home and across the world, in the nation’s oldest student-run legal aid bureau. They defend human rights, and advocate for tenants and refugees, students and religious minorities, and thousands of returning veterans. They fight for economic justice and humanitarian disarmament—including a nuclear weapons ban with a partner organization that has just won the Nobel Peace Prize.

No school can accomplish all this without great leadership. The former deans here with us today – Deans Clark, and Kagan, and Minow, are a testament to a remarkable succession—and I want especially to thank Martha Minow, whose just last June completed eight years of outstanding service. Martha’s deanship brought the Law School into its 200th year a stronger, more diverse and more public-spirited place.

Which brings me to the dean who is now leading Harvard Law School into its next 200 years, John Manning. As I am sure you know by now, Dean Manning exudes a warmth and kindness that even might soften the veneer of Professor Kingsfield. He often beams, as if on the verge of discovery or delight. An eminent scholar, he is known for not taking himself too seriously. He recently told the entering class of 2020 that when he was a 1L, and a 3L asked a group if they wanted to become litigators, he sat there wondering what a litigator was. Beyond his openness, and his magnetic enthusiasm for the law, he is a great collaborator: as a teacher who is encouraging, eager to be challenged, striding the length and breadth of the classroom to involve everyone; in his ability to connect the diverse voices so vital to advancing the law; in his commitment to innovative teaching and a wide range of perspectives and methods. I cannot imagine, in a fractious and often frightening world, a more timely leader in the law.

But, before I give you Dean Manning, I’d like to make one final observation. When Justice Holmes was in his eighties, and still an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court, he commented in a letter to a friend that age “is relative.” Ninety, he wrote, was old. But at age 87, he avowed that he was only “nearly old.” Now, a law school, we know, perhaps can’t take things personally any more than a corporation. But on this auspicious anniversary, the notion of being “nearly old” would seem a useful perspective. As novelist Rachel Cusk recently put it, I don’t feel I’m getting older; I’m getting closer. Let us celebrate Harvard Law School, not for getting older, but for getting closer: closer to reason and closer to justice, aspirations of the law that are among civilization’s most precious gifts.

Thank you.