History of the BSA

A scene from the BSA Centennial 2010.

The Board of Student Advisers has been substantially involved in the first year education of Harvard Law students for 100 years. Despite its important contributions to the HLS community and its luminary alumni (including Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy), the history of the Board remains a mystery to most students, whose contact with BSA members comes in their First Year Legal Research and Writing (LRW) program and perhaps through their participation in the Ames competitions.

This is in part due to the shifting role of the BSA, which has continuously evolved in light of the equally shifting needs of the HLS community.  In its modern form, designed along with the 2002 implementation of the First Year LRW Program, the Board walks a fine line.  Its members are staff of the law school and serve as both academic and pastoral mentors to the 1L class in and beyond the LRW Program.  Most importantly, however, members of the Board are dedicated to service of their law school, and the betterment of the HLS experience.

A Storied History

For almost 150 years, HLS students organized themselves into “law clubs.” These small groups (such as the Marshall Club, the Kent Club and the Pow-Wow Club) were formed to discuss and argue cases, as well as to provide a social atmosphere for their members. Many clubs established their own moot courts, which ran in parallel to the faculty-run HLS moot court.

By the turn of the twentieth century, enrollment at HLS had dramatically increased, leading to the cancellation of the faculty-run moot court, which became too burdensome to administer. This left the law clubs as the only places where HLS students could receive training in court practice.

Although a number of new clubs were formed during the early part of the century, they still counted among their members only a small minority of students.  In response, a concerned faculty passed a resolution in 1910 that established the Board of Student Advisers “for encouraging among first year students early and intelligent use of the law library and also for rendering the work of the law clubs more efficient.”

The BSA was originally an honorary society, with membership chosen by the faculty.  (Students whose grades were directly below those of the Harvard Law Review editors were invited to join). They focused mainly on the Ames competition: writing the cases to be argued, teaching legal research and organizing independent law clubs so that all first-year students could participate.

Although its student-centered teaching methods were lauded, the Board ran into its share of difficulties, especially as it had trouble finding faculty who were willing to take responsibility for training its teachers. In addition, participation in the Ames competition steadily declined over the years. By 1970, most of the law clubs had disappeared, and the Board was in need of a new role.

The BSA’s first response was to begin offering courses (including Gambling, Bartending and Bicycle-Care), organizing social activities and leading orientation.  That, however, led many to conclude that the Board had drifted away from its dedication to legal research and education, which in turn prompted the faculty to redefine the organization’s role in 1993. The faculty agreed to directly oversee selection of BSA applicants, who then were enlisted to teach the 1L “Introduction to Lawyering” course. This course was later renamed “Legal Reasoning and Argument“ (LRA) and was the precursor to today’s LRW.

The Move to LRW

The LRA program had several flaws. There were not enough full-time professors willing to teach the class, and for those who did, there was no central curriculum, leading to widely diverging experiences between sections. In the fall of 1998, an LRA Committee was formed to explore ways to reform the program. These proposals would eventually lead to the LRW program in place today.

The biggest difference between LRA and LRW is that LRA was staffed entirely by student BSA instructors, without the leadership of a Climenko Fellow.  The LRA Committee made this change because it felt that it was not appropriate for the entirety of legal research and writing to be taught by student instructors with only a year’s worth of experience in the law.  The BSA initially resisted the proposed changes; it was used to a system where they worked without oversight from full-time teachers, and had developed its own culture and approach to legal research and writing.  Many BSAs felt that the faculty had not sufficiently consulted with them before making such sweeping changes, which generated a significant degree of animosity.  It has taken the BSA several years to adjust to its new role and relationship with faculty and students. In the past five years the Board has stopped looking to the past and begun to re-build itself as a central part of the HLS experience.

(This brief history is an edited and adapted version of an article by Jon Lamberson, originally published in the HLS Record, November 21, 2002. Much of the background material for that piece may be found in the third-year paper by Katherine M. Porter, HLS ’01, entitled “Learning by Doing: A History of the Board of Student Advisers 1910-2000,” available in the BSA office.)