The Harvard Law School Version of International Law Curriculum

by Roger Alford

Last week was the deadline to register for upper-level electives at Harvard Law School. There are plenty of exotic foreign and international law school courses to choose from that appear nominally to relate to law. Here is a sample schedule with some notable gems:

Monday evenings start the week off with the critically important course entitled “Evil: The Seminar.” The theological, philosophical, and psychological perspectives of the problem of evil are analyzed in its modern manifestations, with particular reference to the mass atrocities of the twentieth century and the oeuvre of David Lat’s, Above the Law.

Or if that doesn’t strike your fancy, then you could opt for a seminar on Thomas Mann’s “Magic Mountain,” which is described as an exploration of the “beautifully opaque, disturbingly vital” novel with “(a lot of) ideas,” all of them only tangentially related to law. Among them is whether Naphta’s terrorist totalitarianism is an antidote to Settembrini’s enlightened liberalism. Wine, cheese and large dollops of pretension are provided.

On Tuesdays, it’s a course on “Bargaining with the Devil” which examines whether one should negotiate with evil adversaries such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Fidel Castro, Kim Jong-Il, or Ann Coulter if in so doing you sell (or at least soil) your soul.

On Wednesdays, it’s the cutting-edge topic of “Japanese Law Film,” which explores the place that law plays within Japanese society and the development of post-war Japanese cinema. Students are required to write three film reviews, one of which must be on Godzilla vs. Mothra: The Battle for Earth, or another film in the Heisei series. Buttered popcorn and large boxes of Milk Duds will be served.

Or if your tastes run European, you can choose to spend a semester studying Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, with special attention to his treatment of early 19th-century American law and the legal profession. Tocqueville’s infatuation with America will be compared and contrasted with the French’s contemporary attitude of horror and disgust toward all things American.

Thursday evenings its “Self, Serenity, and Vulnerability: East and West” which bills itself as a meaningful study of the meaninglessness of human life. It promises a comparison of some of the ways in which philosophy, religion, and art in the East and West have dealt with the fear that our lives and the world itself may be meaningless. The analysis of comparative meaninglessness will include guest lectures by transactional partners at New York and Hong Kong law firms.

Of course if one is a dullard and wished to take rudimentary international law course like public international law, international commercial arbitration, or international human rights law, one could do so I suppose. But you’ll have to settle for adjunct, clinical, or visiting professors.

12 Responses

  1. I knew Harvard was pretentious, but this is just too much!

  2. Remember the old adage about law school: “The first year, they scare you to death. The second year, they work you to death. The third year, they bore you to death.” These sound like third year courses.

    On your other point, I’m not sure why one would “settle” for adjunct, clinical, or visiting professors. If one actually wanted to learn something about international law, I’d want an adjunct. If there is a single tenured professor at Harvard Law who has ever actually practiced international law (as opposed to flatulating on the pages of the New York Times or other eminent scholarly publications), I am unaware of it.

  3. And that’s why I’m at UChicago Law… where 1Ls get to take Eric Posner for PIL. Take that, Ivy League.

  4. Roger: You don’t consider international trade law a basic and important course? It’s taught by a quite wonderful tenure track professor, as is International Humanitarian Law. International Finance is taught by a senior and prominent tenured professor. There also are courses on international corruption, IR theory and global governance taught by exceptional core faculty.
    I don’t mind puncturing HLS’s bubble, often a needed task. But by overstating your case, you undermine it. They have a number of exceptional IL faculty at Harvard and are offering students many valuable courses.  Give credit where credit is due.

  5. Japanese Law Film Series and Self, Serenity, and Vulnerability were two of the best classes I took at HLS.

    But if you went to a less prestigious school I could see how you’d think it’s a travesty that you have to take tax with Warren, bankruptcy with Elizabeth Warren, Corporations with Kraakman, etc.  Guess HLS is hard up for professors because they’re busy ruling the world.

  6. Paul,

    Obviously the post was written tongue-in-cheek.  I’m not so naïve–and my friends on the HLS faculty are not so thin-skinned to think that I am seriously arguing that Harvard does not have a great international law program.

    Having said that, even the most cursory review of the 2009-2010 course offerings reveals a fairly obvious problem.  With one or two exceptions, the tenured IL professors are all teaching exotic courses (Cyberwarfare, Greek and Roman Constitutionalism, Tocqueville, Global Governance, Bargaining with the Devil, etc.).   The overwhelming majority of what the average lawyer would recognize as core international law courses are all taught by adjunct, visiting, clinical, or non-tenured faculty–essentially anyone other than tenured international law faculty.

    Roger Alford

  7. Better Than You,

    I love your comment.  It reads as though it could come straight out of a Tom Wolfe novel.  HLS Masters of the Universe! 

    I’m sure that “Japanese Law Film” and “Self, Serenity, and Vulnerability” are simply fascinating courses.  They just don’t belong in a law school curriculum.  I chose to take exotic courses like that when I was an undergraduate and graduate liberal arts student. 

    However, when I began my law studies–at a law school you no doubt would regard as inferior despite the fact that it regularly cherry picks HLS faculty–we had the freedom to register for courses outside the law school curriculum if we desired to engage in such flights of fancy.  Some of my friends did so, but I chose to take courses that were actually relevant to a legal education.

    I would think there is a direct correlation between the pretensions of a law school and its willingness to offer absurd courses.

    As for ruling the world, that would be a former Chicago law faculty member, not the current Harvard Law School faculty.

    Roger Alford 

  8. Two of the courses you listed Roger sound absolutely exceptional.  I would have jumped at the chance of taking Greek and Roman Constitutionalism (where do you think our law is based both domestic and international? for instance, how can you speak about original intent of the founders without reading some of their seminal sources?). They should let us practitioners audit!  The course on Evil seems intriguing as well.  

    Some of those are fluff, but I really defy you to point to any upper level curriculum in most of the top law schools and not find similar examples.

    I take the point regarding tenured faculty teaching PIL or other “useful” international law courses (though Roger as you probably know there would be many who would say that international courses in general are pretty fluffy.  How many of your students need to know the mechanics of the ICJ in their practice?).

    Law school electives should be a balance of the clinical, those useful for your intended practice, and those courses which after you leave law school you might never be able to see or take again.

    Because really once you get out into practice the learning curve becomes completely different.   It’s almost impossible to anticipate that in law school. 

  9. Roger,

    I find this to be less an issue of pretentiousness and more an issue of the ever-expanding universe of what is counted as “legal scholarship” or legal study.  Perhaps this is because we are seeing many more law professors with both a J.D. & Ph.D. Perhaps it is because of an unwritten hierarchy of whose work is worth reading when it comes to “core” legal topics.  I honestly don’t know.

    From my humble perspective, many law review articles these days appear to be weak on the law and heavy on social science.  John Yoo’s work is heavily (and self-admittedly) infected with political science theory rather than thorough legal analysis.  While I agree that the study law, like life, is interdisciplinary, I have trouble with the all-too-frequent lack of attention paid to detailed analysis of the law itself.

    Then again, perhaps my bias on this comes from having been a physics major as an undergrad – where everything had to be traced to (or derived from) first principles.  I never developed an appreciation for discursive discussions of the relative merits of Mothra as a film character.

    Best to all,


  10. Surely the most obvious point is one about tenure?

  11. What this post does not mention is that first year students are required to take an international law course.  Among choices this year were two sections of International Law & the Economy, two sections of International Public Law, International Law & the Constitution. 

    So yes, upper level students do not take rudimentary courses because they have already completed them their first year.

  12. These “flights of fancy” are electives.  By definition, nobody is required to take them.  Self, Serenity is a joint class with Harvard College and HLS students are free to cross register with HBS, KSG, etc.  I don’t know what law school you went to, but I fail to see how it differs from HLS.  There are plenty of courses on Collateralized Securitized Acquisition Loan Syndicosubrogation if that’s your thing.

    It’s ok.  You’re the type of Very Serious Person who thinks one’s education is wasted unless it’s limited exclusively to Very Serious Classes.  Law is full of your type.  You undoubtedly think of Yale as a similarly Not Rigorous and Not Serious place devoid of serious legal education.

    I can’t fathom why Obama didn’t choose UoC for his law degree.   I guess it’s a great school at which to sit around and collect paychecks while you write a book and prepare to enter politics. 

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