Harvard Law School
MottoVeritas Lex et Iustitia[1]
Parent schoolHarvard University
Established1817; 204 years ago (1817)
School typePrivate
DeanJohn F. Manning
LocationCambridge, Massachusetts, United States
USNWR ranking3rd (2022)[4]
Bar pass rate99% (2019)[5]
Harvard Law School Wordmark.svg

Harvard Law School (HLS) is the law school of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Founded in 1817, it is the oldest continuously operating law school in the United States and one of the most prestigious in the world.[6][7]

Each class in the three-year JD program has approximately 560 students, among the largest of the top 150 ranked law schools in the United States.[8] The first-year class is broken into seven sections of approximately 80 students, who take most first-year classes together. Aside from the JD program, Harvard also awards both LLM and SJD degrees. Harvard's uniquely large class size and prestige have led the law school to graduate a great many distinguished alumni in the judiciary, government, and the business world.

According to Harvard Law's 2020 ABA-required disclosures, 99% of 2019 graduates passed the Bar exam.[9][10][11] The school's graduates accounted for more than one-quarter of all Supreme Court clerks between 2000 and 2010, more than any other law school in the United States.[12]

Harvard Law School's founding is traditionally linked to the funding of Harvard's first professorship in law, paid for from a bequest from the estate of Isaac Royall Jr., a colonial American landowner and slaveholder. Today, HLS is home to the largest academic law library in the world[13][14] as well as 391 faculty members.[3]


Bequest by Isaac Royall, founding, and relationship with slavery

Harvard Law School's founding is traced to the establishment of a "law department" at Harvard in 1817.[15] Dating the founding to the year of the creation of the law department makes Harvard Law the oldest continuously-operating law school in the United States. William & Mary Law School opened first in 1779, but closed due to the American Civil War, reopening in 1920.[16] The University of Maryland School of Law was chartered in 1816, but did not begin classes until 1824, and also closed during the Civil War.[17]

The founding of the law department came two years after the establishment of Harvard's first endowed professorship in law, funded by a bequest from the estate of wealthy slaveowner Isaac Royall, Jr., in 1817.[15] Royall left roughly 1,000 acres of land in Massachusetts to Harvard when he died in exile in Nova Scotia, where he fled to as a Loyalist during the American Revolution, in 1781, "to be appropriated towards the endowing a Professor of Laws ... or a Professor of Physick and Anatomy, whichever the said overseers and Corporation [of the college] shall judge to be best."[18] The value of the land, when fully liquidated in 1809, was $2,938; the Harvard Corporation allocated $400 from the income generated by those funds to create the Royall Professorship of Law in 1815.[18] The Royalls were so involved in the slave trade, that "the labor of slaves underwrote the teaching of law in Cambridge."[19] The dean of the law school traditionally held the Royall chair, deans Elena Kagan and Martha Minow declined the Royall chair due to its origins in the proceeds of slavery.

The Royall family coat-of-arms, which shows three stacked wheat sheaves on a blue background, was adopted as the school crest in 1936, topped with the university motto (Veritas, Latin "truth").[20] Until the school began investigating its connections with slavery in the 2010s, most alumni and faculty at the time were unaware of the origins of the seal.[21] In March 2016, following requests by students, the school decided to remove the emblem because of its association with slavery.[22] In November 2019, Harvard announced that a working group had been tasked to develop a new seal.[23] In August 2021, the new Harvard Law School seal was introduced.[24]

Portrait of Isaac Royall, painted in 1769 by John Singleton Copley

Royall's Medford estate, the Isaac Royall House, is now a museum which features the only remaining slave quarters in the northeast United States. In 2019, the government of Antigua and Barbuda requested reparations from Harvard Law School on the ground that it benefitted from Royall's enslavement of people in the country.[25]

Growth and the Langdell curriculum

By 1827, the school, with one faculty member, was struggling. Nathan Dane, a prominent alumnus of the college, then endowed the Dane Professorship of Law, insisting that it be given to then Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story. For a while, the school was called "Dane Law School."[26] In 1829, John H. Ashmun, son of Eli Porter Ashmun and brother of George Ashmun, accepted a professorship and closed his Northampton Law School, with many of his students following him to Harvard.[27] Story's belief in the need for an elite law school based on merit and dedicated to public service helped build the school's reputation at the time, although the contours of these beliefs have not been consistent throughout its history. Enrollment remained low through the 19th century as university legal education was considered to be of little added benefit to apprenticeships in legal practice. After first trying lowered admissions standards, in 1848 HLS eliminated admissions requirements entirely.[28] In 1869, HLS also eliminated examination requirements.[28]

In the 1870s, under Dean Christopher Columbus Langdell, HLS introduced what has become the standard first-year curriculum for American law schools – including classes in contracts, property, torts, criminal law, and civil procedure. At Harvard, Langdell also developed the case method of teaching law, now the dominant pedagogical model at U.S. law schools. Langdell's notion that law could be studied as a "science" gave university legal education a reason for being distinct from vocational preparation. Critics at first defended the old lecture method because it was faster and cheaper and made fewer demands on faculty and students. Advocates said the case method had a sounder theoretical basis in scientific research and the inductive method. Langdell's graduates became leading professors at other law schools where they introduced the case method. The method was facilitated by casebooks. From its founding in 1900, the Association of American Law Schools promoted the case method in law schools that sought accreditation.[29][30]

20th century: institutional criticism

During the 20th century Harvard Law School was known for its competitiveness. For example, Bob Berring called it "a samurai ring where you can test your swordsmanship against the swordsmanship of the strongest intellectual warriors from around the nation."[31] When Langdell developed the original law school curriculum, Harvard President Charles Eliot told him to make it "hard and long."[32][33] An urban legend holds that incoming students are told to "Look to your left, look to your right, because one of you won't be here by the end of the year."[34] Scott Turow's memoir One L and John Jay Osborn's novel The Paper Chase describe such an environment.

In addition, Eleanor Kerlow's book Poisoned Ivy: How Egos, Ideology, and Power Politics Almost Ruined Harvard Law School criticized the school for a 1980s political dispute between newer and older faculty members over accusations of insensitivity to minority and feminist issues. Divisiveness over such issues as political correctness lent the school the title "Beirut on the Charles."[35]

In Broken Contract: A Memoir of Harvard Law School, Richard Kahlenberg criticized the school for driving students away from public interest and toward work in high-paying law firms. Kahlenberg's criticisms are supported by Granfield and Koenig's study, which found that "students [are directed] toward service in the most prestigious law firms, both because they learn that such positions are their destiny and because the recruitment network that results from collective eminence makes these jobs extremely easy to obtain."[36] The school has also been criticized for its large first year class sizes (at one point there were 140 students per classroom; in 2001 there were 80), a cold and aloof administration,[37] and an inaccessible faculty. The latter stereotype is a central plot element of The Paper Chase and appears in Legally Blonde.

In response to the above criticisms, HLS eventually implemented the once-criticized[33] but now dominant approach pioneered by Dean Robert Hutchins at Yale Law School, of shifting the competitiveness to the admissions process while making law school itself a more cooperative experience. Robert Granfield and Thomas Koenig's 1992 study of Harvard Law students that appeared in The Sociological Quarterly found that students "learn to cooperate with rather than compete against classmates," and that contrary to "less eminent" law schools, students "learn that professional success is available for all who attend, and that therefore, only neurotic 'gunners' try to outdo peers."[36]

21st century

Martha Minow, dean, 2009-2017

Under Kagan, the second half of the 2000s saw significant academic changes since the implementation of the Langdell curriculum. In 2006, the faculty voted unanimously to approve a new first-year curriculum, placing greater emphasis on problem-solving, administrative law, and international law. The new curriculum was implemented in stages over the next several years,[38][39] with the last new course, a first year practice-oriented problem solving workshop, being instituted in January 2010. In late 2008, the faculty decided that the school should move to an Honors/Pass/Low Pass/Fail (H/P/LP/F) grading system, much like those in place at Yale and Stanford Law Schools. The system applied to half the courses taken by students in the Class of 2010 and fully started with the Class of 2011.[40]

In 2009, Kagan was appointed solicitor general of the United States by President Barack Obama and resigned the deanship. On June 11, 2009, Harvard University president, Drew Gilpin Faust named Martha Minow as the new dean. She assumed the position on July 1, 2009. On January 3, 2017, Minow announced that she would conclude her tenure as dean at the end of the academic year.[41] In June 2017, John F. Manning was named as the new dean, effective as of July 1, 2017.[42]

In September 2017, the school unveiled a plaque acknowledging the indirect role played by slavery in its history:

In honor of the enslaved whose labor created wealth that made possible the founding of Harvard Law School May we pursue the highest ideals of law and justice in their memory[43]


The acceptance rate for the JD Class of 2024 was 7%.[44] HLS is ranked as the third best law school in the United States by U.S. News & World Report, the most widely referenced rankings publisher in the American legal community.[45][46] HLS is ranked first, with a perfect overall assessment score of 100.0, by QS World University Rankings.[47] It is also ranked first by the Academic Ranking of World Universities.[48]


More than 120 from the last five graduating classes have obtained tenure-track law teaching positions.[49] Adjusted for student body size, this puts Harvard in second place among U.S. law schools, about 2 percentage points ahead of Stanford and Chicago (which tied for third place) but behind Yale.

According to the Employment Summary for 2014 Graduates, 90% were employed in bar passage required jobs and another 4.4% were employed in J.D. advantage jobs.[50]

ABA Employment Summary for 2013 Graduates[51]
Employment Status Percentage
Employed – Bar Passage Required
Employed – J.D. Advantage
Employed – Professional Position
Employed – Non-Professional Position
Employed – Undeterminable
Pursuing Graduate Degree Full Time
Unemployed – Start Date Deferred
Unemployed – Not Seeking
Unemployed – Seeking
Employment Status Unknown
Total of 578 Graduates


The total cost of attendance (indicating the cost of tuition, fees, and living expenses) at Harvard Law for the 2017–2018 academic year is $92,200.[52]

The shield of Harvard Law School until 2016, with three garbs or sheaves depicted as a symbol of slavery.

Shield retirement

In 2016, the governing body of the university, the Harvard Corporation, voted to retire the law school's 80 year old arms. The arms, depicting three garbs (the heraldic term for wheat sheaves), was based in part upon the coat of arms of Isaac Royall Jr., a university benefactor who had endowed the first professorship in the law school. The shield had become a source of contention among a group of law school students, who objected to the Royall family's history as slave-owners.[53][54]

The president of the university and dean of the law school, acting upon the recommendation of a committee formed to study the issue, ultimately agreed with its majority decision,[55] that the shield was inconsistent with the values of both the University and the law school. Their recommendation was ultimately adopted by the Harvard Corporation and on March 15, 2016, the shield was ordered retired.[56][57][58]

On August 23, 2021, it was announced that a new Shield was approved by the Harvard Corporation. The new design features Harvard’s traditional motto, veritas (Latin for “truth”), resting above the Latin phrase Lex et Iustitia, meaning “law and justice.” According to the HLS Shield Working Group’s final report, the expanding or diverging lines, some with no obvious beginning or end, are meant to convey a sense of broad scope or great distance — the limitlessness of the school’s work and mission. The radial lines also allude to the latitudinal and longitudinal lines that define the arc of the earth, conveying the global reach of the Law School’s community and impact. The multifaceted, radiating form — a form inspired by architectural details found in both Austin Hall and Hauser Hall — seeks to convey dynamism, complexity, inclusiveness, connectivity, and strength. [59]

Student organizations and journals

Law School participates in the Harvard Graduate Council (HGC), a University-wide student government

Harvard Law School has more than 90 student organizations that are active on campus.[60] These organizations include the student-edited journals, Harvard Law Record, and the HLS Drama Society, which organizes the annual Harvard Law School Parody, the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau as well as other political, social, service, and athletic groups.

HLS Student Government is the primary governing, advocacy, and representative body for Law School students. In addition, students are represented at the university level by the Harvard Graduate Council.

Harvard Law Review

Students of the Juris Doctor (JD) program are involved in preparing and publishing the Harvard Law Review, one of the most highly cited university law reviews, as well as a number of other law journals and an independent student newspaper. The Harvard Law Review was first published in 1887 and has been staffed and edited by some of the school's most notable alumni.[61]

In addition to the journal, the Harvard Law Review Association, in conjunction with the Columbia Law Review, University of Pennsylvania Law Review, and Yale Law Review also publishes The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation, the most widely followed authority for legal citation formats in the United States.

The student newspaper, the Harvard Law Record, has been published continuously since the 1940s, making it one of the oldest law school newspapers in the country, and has included the exploits of fictional law student Fenno for decades.[62][63] The Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation, formerly known as the Harvard Law School Corporate Governance Blog, is one of the most widely read law websites in the country.

The Harvard Law Bulletin is the magazine of record for Harvard Law School.[64] The Harvard Law Bulletin was first published in April 1948. The magazine is currently published twice a year, but in previous years has been published four or six times a year. The magazine was first published online in fall 1997.[65]

Harvard Law School student journals