Research, scholarship, and activism at Harvard Law School illustrate a commitment to promoting justice through academic leadership, student-led demonstrations, and preserving and making available trial material of international significance.
Not all the research and scholarship produced at Harvard Law School (HLS) over the past 200 years has stood the test of time as models for social justice. Even so, that work reminds us that present understanding is always imperfect, and ideas of scholarship, society, and justice continue to evolve.
Traditional legal theory and practice have sometimes been criticized for sustaining systemic injustice under the pretense of neutrality. As one of the world’s most recognizable institutions of legal education, Harvard Law School has not been exempt from criticisms of its complicity in this system. Throughout its history, however, members of the HLS community have labored to subvert accepted legal theory, with the goal of bettering society for all.
Throughout the Law School’s existence, members of its faculty have continuously worked to redefine legal education and theory. In the early twentieth century, HLS faculty such as Roscoe Pound, John Chipman Gray (LL.B. 1861), and Benjamin Cardozo criticized “legal formalism,” the tradition that assumes law is neutral. In the 1920s-1930s, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (LL.B. 1866) popularized these challenges to tradition with the development of the theory of “legal realism”; however, its popularity waned in the 1950s. A new wave of progressivism—steeped in postmodernism and interdisciplinarity—emerged in the 1970s, led in the HLS community by Professors Duncan Kennedy, Roberto Mangabeira Unger (LL.M. 1970, S.J.D. 1976), Clare Dalton (LL.M. 1973), Morton J. Horwitz (LL.B. 1967), and many others, including students. These new progressives took greater risks and had less institutional support than their predecessors, but they deserve credit for a number of reforms provoked during this period.
Student Activism on Campus, in the Courts, and on the Streets
Harvard Law School students have long worked for social justice through student organizations, demonstrations, and the practice of law.
Alumni and Faculty Scholarship and Activism
As scholars, activists, and practicing lawyers, Harvard Law School faculty and alumni have worked for justice for those around them.