Professor Glenn Cohen Explains How Harvard Law Course Can Help Prepare New Law Students Across America


Law schools across America will face tough choices this summer, as orientation sessions for incoming students may be truncated, delayed or moved online due to the global pandemic. And all should be prepared for the possibility that new law students, many of whom have experienced significant disruption in recent months, may face new and unexpected challenges as they prepare for their first year in law school.

To help both law schools and their incoming students, Harvard Law School recently announced plans to offer its online pre-registration program, Zero-L, to law schools nationwide for free this summer. . The course was developed and launched in 2018 in conjunction with Harvard University’s Office of the Vice-Provost for Advancement in Learning (VPAL) to ensure that all new Harvard law students, regardless of their background and previous fields of study, begin with a common base of knowledge. (The name Zero-L is a play on traditional terms for first, second, and third year law students – 1Ls, 2Ls, and 3Ls).

Harvard Law Today recently spoke via email with Zero-L School Director Professor I. Glenn Cohen ’03 about the program, the decision to make it available free to interested U.S. law schools. this year and how he expects he can help them. and their students are preparing for the fall semester.

Harvard Law Today: Why did Harvard develop Zero-L in the first place?

I. Glenn Cohen: Zero-L was an initiative championed by HLS Dean John F. Manning [’85]. It aims to ensure that all incoming students, regardless of their background and previous fields of study, begin with the foundational knowledge that will enable them to thrive in law school. Like many law students, I found the first few months of law school intimidating. We built this program to substitute a “smooth ramp” for the “steep climb” that I and many others encountered when entering law school. In terms of legal language and basic concepts, there is so much that law professors take for granted. we’ve been living and breathing this stuff for so long that we forget that most of our students don’t. While they will absorb much of it over time through osmosis, Zero-L aims to put them in a position so they can do their best learning on Day 1.

HLT: How did he behave for the new Harvard law students?

Cohen: We have heard tremendous praise from our students and faculty for the program. I can’t tell you how many students have said to me ‘Thanks for that – you have no idea how intimidated I was about starting law school, but Zero-L got me. given the assurance that not only would I survive, but that I would love it. And that’s an important part of the project.

Beyond the content, the faculty members who appear in the videos also show students what they love about law and why they have dedicated their lives to it. Whether it’s Susan Davies’ spirited vocals from the school rock jam “I’m Just a Bill”, or Noah Feldman’s highlighting of why the Constitution has been at the heart of almost all the great debates in American history, or that of Annette Gordon-Reed [’84] joy in describing diving into the archives for a law and history project, the excitement and energy is palpable in every video.

HLT: How is Zero-L structured?

Cohen: In Zero-L, we model some of the best facets of online learning. We have amazing teachers whose enthusiasm shines through. We have very high quality production values, integrating, among other things, animations and a reiteration of key points through visuals. We “break down” the content into manageable chunks and offer students immediate comprehension checks where they can integrate lessons and put what they have learned to good use. We focus not only on content but also on skills training (how to read a case, how to read a law, etc.). We are building an extended vocabulary tool that students can not only use module by module, but can also come back and search when some of these terms come up in their first year courses.

Finally, by dividing the course into separate modules, we let the students chart their own learning path. For me, this course shows how good an asynchronous online course can be, as well as some ideas on what can be transferred to those who teach synchronously online or in mixed environments.

HLT: I understand that four other law schools — Boston College, Northeastern University, Seton Hall, and the University of Baltimore — also offered Zero-L to their students as part of a pilot program last year. What were the results ?

Cohen: We knew we had created something that HLS students loved and found rewarding. When they started telling their friends (and us teachers started saying our friends from other schools) about Zero-L, it became clear that this was something that could be of use far beyond Harvard Law School. When news of the project first broke, we had a lot of inquiries and picked four great partner schools to work with to try and help us further refine Zero-L and make sure it works. as well in other schools. We have received very positive feedback from these four partner schools, each of which will continue to use Zero-L in the future. They also helped us determine what changes to make in the future to make the course even better.

HLT: Why is Harvard Law School offering Zero-L to other law schools for free next year?

Cohen: My area of ​​expertise is health law and bioethics, and I know firsthand the devastation this pandemic is wreaking on our social structure. I know how many students find their time at college disrupted, and their plans to really “squat” and prepare for law school disrupted by a sick family member or the need to help support their family. family.

On the other hand, many law schools in the United States are also working to develop innovative ways to integrate their students this fall due to these circumstances. Given all of this, and knowing that we had a great course with a demonstrated ability to help students start law school, making it available for free this year seemed like a small thing HLS could do for law students and law schools across the country to try to make Fall 2020 just a little easier.

HLT: What is the plan for the years to come? Will HLS continue to offer it for free? And will the content be updated in subsequent years?

Cohen: Before the global pandemic, Harvard Law School planned to make Zero-L available to interested law schools. With so much uncertainty in the world, we are unable to predict at this point what things will look like a year from now. But we are happy to have been able to offer it for free this year, as so many law schools and students face unprecedented challenges.

We will also be working to publish a portion of the course focused on American Civics on HarvardX, where anyone can access it for free this year and for years to come. These materials will be available to any teacher around the world, if not anyone, who wants an introduction to U.S. government and law from Harvard Law School faculty members.

We have updated Zero-L every year since our launch in 2018. We are learning more with each group of incoming law students following it and using that knowledge to improve the program for the next group of students. I think we will continue to do so in the years to come.


Nancy I. Romero

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