Systemic Justice Project

Reflections on Real Talk: An Introduction

Real Talk LogoIn fall 2015 the Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program (HNMCP), in collaboration with the Systemic Justice Project (SJP), launched a joint initiative for Harvard Law School (HLS) students called Real Talk – a series of small group facilitated dialogues and curated events on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The initiative developed from a shared interest of HNMCP and SJP to promote dialogue among HLS students on how legal education can, at times, unwittingly silence student voices and experiences, especially as these experiences relate to identity and personal narrative.

Real Talk is an initial effort to provide a forum for HLS students to learn with and from each other— encouraging genuine conversation around challenging issues, emotions, and narratives that relate to the law, legal systems, and legal education; a forum that promotes an inclusivity and openness that can often become stymied in traditional law school classrooms; and a forum that promotes respect, understanding, curiosity about the other, and a willingness to be “raggedy” even in our deepest moments of difference and dissent. For HNMCP, Real Talk represents the first manifestation of what we hope will be a new, larger dialogue and facilitation initiative.  For SJP, Real Talk is part of a general commitment to encouraging conversations about diversity and inclusion in legal education and, more generally, about systemic problems in society.

The pilot program brought together a small number of HLS student participants, trained student facilitators, and faculty advisors in an innovative experiment of facilitated dialogue and open engagement. We were fortunate to recruit four student facilitators who have extensive facilitation training and experience, each having taken the HLS Lawyer as Facilitator and the HLS Negotiation Workshop. These facilitators led small groups of six participants (composed of first and third year law students) in four dialogue sessions throughout the fall semester. These dialogues were bolstered by several events – Fighting Debtor’s Prison in Ferguson,[1] After Ferguson, Baltimore, New York: Strategies for Systemic Change,[2] and On the Battlefield of Merit: the History of Harvard Law School[3] – that served as the basis for two of the dialogue sessions.

The first round of Real Talk was met with decisive gratitude. Participant feedback indicated that the program provided a much-needed environment to express their experiences and perspectives, listen to the stories and views of others, and to share and receive a sense of empathetic understanding. In talking with students throughout the initiative, we developed an even deeper appreciation for how important spaces for authenticity, reflection, vulnerability, and conflictedness are in higher education and legal training.

We also were reminded that creating those fora is typically fraught and complex. Our preparation and review sessions with facilitators highlighted many challenges to creating open dialogue. What is the role of neutrality in facilitating dialogue on equity and inclusion? What might be the role of power and privilege in dialogue facilitation? What impact does the facilitator’s identity have on discussion and how does a facilitator manage them? How does participant composition across identity, background, and status affect the dialogue experience and what are the implications (if any) for convening such groups? We gathered that there is great value in deeper and more nuanced facilitation training at HLS, as well as a great need for HLS students to receive training on engaging in dialogue as a participant. And, as with most worthy experiences, we were pleased to have left with as many questions as “answers.”

Now, we have invited the facilitators from Real Talk – Ariel Eckblad ‘16, Deanna Parrish ’16, Carson Wheet ‘16, and Lindsey Whyte ‘16 – to share their reflections through a series of blog posts. We will publish one blog post from a different facilitator each week. Their posts touch on the themes mentioned above, as well as others, providing an inside look into their experiences, lessons, and questions from Real Talk. We hope that you enjoy these pieces, and that you will join us as we seek to dig more deeply into this important work.

By Robert C. Bordone, Jon Hanson, Jacob Lipton, and Sam W. Straus

[1] A panel discussion with Thomas Harvey, Executive Director of ArchCity Defenders and Alec Karakatsanis ’08, Co-founder of Equal Justice Under Law.
[2] A panel discussion with Thomas Harvey, Executive Director of ArchCity Defenders, Chiraag Bains ’08: Dept. of Justice Civil Rights Division, Marbre Stahly-Butts: Center for Popular Democracy, and Alec Karakatsanis’08, Co-founder of Equal Justice Under Law.
[3] A lecture and discussion with Dan Coquillette, Charles Warren Visiting Professor of American Legal History, Harvard Law School.


#HLSUntaped @ The Record


From Harvard Law Record, a collection of recent editorials and essays about race and racism:

Dan Coquillette on the History of HLS


The Systemic Justice Project is thrilled to be co-sponsoring Dan Coquillette’s talk tomorrow (Tuesday):

Based on his extensive research (and just-published and forthcoming books) on the history of Harvard Law School, Professor Coquillette will provide a candid discussion of the historic strengths and liabilities of Harvard Law School, focusing particularly on shifting definitions of “merit” and exclusion.

Non-non-pizza lunch provided. Tuesday, October 27, 2015, at 12pm in WCC 2004.

This event is co-sponsored by the Systemic Justice Project, the Law & Social Change Program of Study, the Velociraptorts, the Office of Public Interest Advising, the Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program, Real Talk, Student For Inclusion, and the American Constitution Society.

Harvard Law Today reports on the Systemic Justice Conference

Dick Dahl for Harvard Law Today reported on the April 10th Systemic Justice Conference with the headline “Systemic Justice: At a Harvard Law School conference, students reimagine the role of lawyers in addressing societal problems”. The full text is here:

Last year, HLS Professor Jon Hanson and Jacob Lipton ’14 launched a new venture,the Systemic Justice Project, intended to provide students with a new way to think about the role that law and lawyers play in society.

Professor Jon Hanson

According to Hanson and Lipton, the persistence of long-standing policy problems suggests that the legal system and conventional legal education are broken. One contributing factor, they believe, is the way both law and law school tend to insulate their participants from many of those problems. Another is that legal academics, operating within traditional doctrinal and theoretical silos, have yet to develop a thoroughgoing approach to understanding and addressing such policy challenges.

The mission of the Systemic Justice Project is to help remedy those shortfalls. In their new courses, for instance, Hanson and Lipton are attempting to teach law students how to approach systemic injustices and to see themselves in broader terms—not just as lawyers, but also as citizens, policy designers, policy advocates, and social activists.

Jacob Lipton (Systemic Justice)

On April 10, the first annual Systemic Justice Conference was held in Austin Hall and featured six teams of HLS students who demonstrated how public-policy problems might be addressed from this broader perspective. The team participants were the 30 students enrolled in the Justice Lab, a two-credit course in which students—in consultation with scholars, lawyers, and activists—develop policy papers analyzing social problems and coming up with possible solutions.

Presenting the results of their research, one group examined the problem of “financialized courts,” a trend that has drawn increasing attention since the revelations of Ferguson, Mo.’s heavy reliance on court fees and fines to fund its municipal budget. Plotting what has become a typical sequence, team members showed how a simple stop-sign violation can escalate into thousands of dollars in subsequent fees and fines for nonpayment—and even jail and probation, both of which also involve fees.

Team member Alex Self ’16, reported that the practice of charging detainees and defendants is an apparent offshoot of a larger trend.

“Mass incarceration is very expensive,” he said. “The cost of running America’s jails, prisons, and courts increased by more than 10 times since 1980 to roughly $67 billion today. The purpose of these fees initially was punishment—punishing the offenders and reimbursing the victims—but as the cost of mass incarceration has increased, we’ve seen the purpose shift from punishment to a stream of revenue.”

The team recommended a multi-level response to halt or ease the practice, including litigation, public-education campaigns, and legislation.

Another team studied the student-debt crisis and outlined the onerous terms—such as the inability of student loan takers to declare bankruptcy—that are attached to the $1.2 trillion of student debt in the U.S. The team examined competing “narratives” about the purpose of higher education that have become conflated and manipulated and that has yielded a system in which students are wrongfully perceived as “consumers.”

“We believe that before we can fix student debt and higher education generally, we really need to decide and understand for ourselves why education matters to us in the first place,” said team member Salomé Viljoen ’16.

Sam Caravello, Adrienne Mendle, Sam Wheeler (Systemic-Justice-Conference)

Another team’s interest was climate change, focusing on the question of why society has not come up with a plan for combating it. Much of the presentation examined the strategies employed by the fossil-fuel industry to deflect attention from that issue and how that might be addressed.

For instance, the team suggested, the powerful lobbying influence of the Chamber of Commerce on this issue could seemingly be countered by other business interests.

“You could imagine there could be a group of businesses coming together to support sensible climate-change policy, not just as good citizenship but as thoughtful, careful business investment,” said team member Jessica Ranucci ’16.

In addition to the team presentations, the conference included a showcase of exhibits from the 67 students who are taking Hanson and Lipton’s four-credit Systemic Justice course—pamphlets, podcasts, posters, websites, etc., dealing with social problems.

Salome Viljoen (Systemic Justice)

“We’re attempting to redesign legal pedagogy in a way that engages students on problems they select because they care about them” Hanson said following the conference. “Many students come to law school hopeful that a legal education will allow them to make positive change in the world, but, very often, those students leave feeling frustrated, hopeless, or cynical.”

“People both in the course and the lab have been have been telling us it’s the most important experience they’ve had in law school,” Lipton said. “We’ve heard a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for the project and how it’s working.”

Viljoen described the conference as “one of the best days in law school I’ve ever had.”

“There’s a general sense that we’re at a point of crisis in legal education and I think right now is really a nice moment in time to be thinking about why are we training lawyers to begin with and what is the purpose of legal education,” she said. “I think having courses like this helps you to sort of re-orient yourself to the reasons why you came to law school to begin with and why we think lawyers are necessary—to tackle problems that exist.”

Sam Wheeler ’15, a member of the climate-change team, said he thinks that becoming involved in the Systemic Justice Project may prove to have a profound impact on his life.

Wheeler said he came to law school because he wanted to do legal work in the public interest but had become disenchanted and thinking about changing to a non-law career.

“I think that what Systemic Justice has done for me is that it has showed me ways in which I could pursue the kind of career I wanted with the goals that I have for my life as a lawyer. I think that were it not for the systemic justice lab and Professor Hanson’s approach to those issues, I seriously don’t think that I would have pursued a career in law at all.”

Systemic Justice on Radio Boston

Radio Boston Logo

Yesterday afternoon Radio Boston’s Meghna Chakrabarti interviewed Jon Hanson and Jacob Lipton, the Co-Directors of the Systemic Justice Project, in a story they titled “Harvard Law Flips Legal Education on its Head with ‘Systemic Justice.'”

Listen to the interview here.

Here is the show’s preview:

Any way you look at it, law school is in trouble. Schools nationwide received the lowest number of applicants in four decades this year. Graduates are struggling to find jobs. Debt is skyrocketing.

Meanwhile, law is being subjected to the same relentless global trends that have devastated the manufacturing sector: outsourcing and mechanization.

Why pay for a white shoe lawyer in a Boston skyscraper to write your will when an attorney overseas can draft it for a fraction of the price? Better still, go on

The legal profession is due for a rethink. There’s a new idea on how to do that, and it starts with flipping the legal education on its head. Rather than teach students the law and how to apply it to the world, they want students to focus on problems — income inequality, climate change, racism — then see how they can use the law to solve them.

It’s called systemic justice and it’s a new program at Harvard Law School.


Jon Hanson, professor at Harvard Law School and faculty director of the Systemic Justice Project.

Jacob Lipton, program director of the Systemic Justice Project. He tweets @JacobLipton.

Systemic Justice Project in The Globe

Jon Hanson Jacob Lipton Systemic Justice Project

Below are excerpts from Courtney Humphries’s superb Boston Globe article about the Systemic Justice Project at Harvard Law School (cartoon by Sam Washburn and photo by Justin Saglio, both for the Globe):

From the first day, it’s clear that law professor Jon Hanson’s new Systemic Justice class at Harvard Law School is going to be different from most classes at the school. Hanson, lanky, bespectacled, and affable, cracks jokes as he paces the room. He refers to the class of 50-odd students as a community; he even asks students to brainstorm a name for the group. But behind the informality is a serious purpose: Hanson is out to change the way law is taught.

“None of us really knows what ‘systemic justice’ is—yet you’re all here,” he points out. The new elective class, which is being taught for the first time in this spring term, will ask students to examine common causes of injustice in history and ways to use law and activism to even the field.

Traditionally, students come to law school to master existing laws and how to apply them. But surveys given to the students in this class beforehand show that most are worried about big unsolved social problems—income inequality, climate change, racial bias in policing—and believe that law is part of the problem. The goal of Hanson’s class is to introduce a new approach.

The class is part of a new Systemic Justice Project at Harvard, led by Hanson and recent law school graduate Jacob Lipton. They’re also leading a course called the Justice Lab, a kind of think tank that will ask students to analyze systemic problems in society and propose legal solutions. Both classes go beyond legal doctrine to show how history, psychology, and economics explain the causes of injustice. A conference in April will bring students and experts together to discuss their findings.

Harvard’s project is an unusual one, but it arises out of a growing recognition that law students need to be trained to be problem-solvers and policy makers. As Hanson tells his students that first day, “If you’re thinking about systemic justice, you need to be thinking about legal education.” He believes that this education should be less about learning the status quo and more about how the next generation of lawyers can change it.

There’s widespread acknowledgment that justice is often meted out unfairly; decades of scholarship have shown how social biases based on race, gender, corporate interests, or ideology find their way into written laws. Nevertheless, Hanson says, law school classes don’t always give students the tools to counteract injustices. “My students have expressed increasing amounts of frustration with the fact that many of our biggest problems are not being addressed by the legal system,” he says. Lipton was one of those students. After graduating in 2014, he turned down a fellowship in Washington, D.C., to stay at Harvard and help Hanson see the new project through.

One of their targets is the case method of legal education, which has been the dominant form of teaching law in America since it was introduced at Harvard Law School by Christopher Columbus Langdell after he became its dean in 1870. Rather than lecturing his students, Langdell asked them to examine judicial cases of the past. Then, through a process of Socratic questioning, he would challenge students to explain their knowledge and interpretation of a case, allowing them to glean the deeper principles of the law, much like a scientist would examine evidence.

Though the case method has evolved since the 19th century, the primary text of most classes is still the casebook—a set of legal decisions chosen for their ability to illustrate legal principles. Professors who embrace it say this approach forces students—particularly first-year students with little legal training—to think like lawyers. “Within a few weeks, I have reprogrammed their brains,” says Bruce Mann, a law professor at Harvard who’s known for his rapid-fire questions in class. “That doesn’t mean that it is backward-looking. I’m really teaching them how to think.” Mann, like many professors these days, tries to put cases in a larger historical and social context.

Jon Hanson Jacob Lipton

But Hanson and Lipton believe that the case method, while helpful in the hands of skilled teachers, puts too much emphasis on what the law already is, rather than what it should be. It tends to assume that decisions of the past are fair and appropriate. Instead, says Lipton, “we think that legal education should start with what the problems are in the world.”

They also take issue with the way that law gets divided into categories—tax law, criminal law, property law, torts, contracts—each with different professors and different casebooks. Douglas Kysar, a law professor at Yale Law School and former student of Hanson’s who has embraced his interdisciplinary approach to the law, says that these divisions can hinder tackling issues that existing laws don’t address, and permits problems that run across disciplines to go unaddressed. “In each one of those fields, we often try to present the cases and materials as if they’re an efficient and fair whole,” he says. When something arises to challenge that picture, professors can pass the buck. For instance, in environmental law, one of Kysar’s specialties, it’s not always clear where the responsibility to fix a problem like pollution lies. “Everyone’s pointing their fingers at other systems that are supposed to address a harm,” he says. “There’s no place where you’re looking at the systems in a cross section.”

Hanson and Lipton also argue that the law focuses too much on the actions and disputes of individuals—and not even on an accurate vision of how individuals behave. “In many cases, the focus on the individual obscures what the actual problem is or what the solutions are,” Lipton says. Hanson, meanwhile, has long argued that the vision of the individual that exists in law isn’t well backed up by research. He directs the Project on Law and Mind Sciences at Harvard, which brings findings from social psychology and social cognition to bear on the law. The law generally treats people as rational actors making decisions based on their own knowledge and beliefs. In fact, Hanson says, research has shown that people are easily swayed by their circumstances. Through their academic writing and on a blog called The Situationist, Hanson and a growing group of like-minded scholars have argued that solving systemic problems means focusing more on forces that act on us, rather than assigning blame and punishment to individual actors.

A systemic approach to racial bias in policing, for instance, might look at psychological research on unconscious racial bias, police training techniques, and law enforcement policies in order to create a more just system, rather than on the actions of a specific officer. For the problem of rising student debt, another complex issue that students in the Justice Lab think tank are likely to tackle, it might look at federal loan systems that allow for-profit colleges to put students in debt without providing enough value in return. Another example is obesity and the food system; a systemic approach would look at ways that advertising, agricultural subsidies, supermarket zoning, and food service practices create an unhealthy system for consumers. “We want to examine the role that large commercial interests play in shaping laws,” Hanson says. Solutions might involve class actions, new regulations, or institutional changes.

. . . .Hanson thinks that the idea of systemic justice resonates now in a way that it hasn’t always in the past. “I think that is a reflection of the change in the mood in the country and in this generation of law students,” he says.

* * *

The Systemic Justice Project, though unique in some ways, is part of a larger effort introduce a policy focus into law school—Stanford Law School, for instance, recently launched a Law and Policy Lab that asks students to find policy solutions to real-world problems. “Traditionally, law school education has been doctrinal,” says Sergio Campos, a law professor at the University of Miami and visiting professor at Harvard. “You teach students what the law is and how to apply it.” . . . . “When you get to a position where you can change the law, you don’t have a background on policy and what it should be,” Campos says.

* * *

. . . Harvard law professor David Rosenberg . . . . believes law schools often leave students unprepared to think broadly. “Over and over again in my many decades at Harvard, students have told me that my advice contradicts their instruction in other courses that making social policy arguments is a confession of weakness in your legal position, and should be done, if ever, only as a last resort,” he says. “We’re de-training them.”

Rena Karefa-Johnson, a second-year student who’s signed up for both the Systemic Justice class and the Justice Lab, admits that some students simply want to learn existing law and don’t appreciate Hanson’s approach. But it’s been popular with students like her who are already active in fighting for social causes. “The law is inherently political,” she says. “He does not allow his students to learn the law outside of its context.”

Read entire article here.