Dean Limelight: Harvard Law’s Martha Minow


Martha Minow. Photo by Ken Richardson.

Martha Minow can’t say “no” when it comes to working for people on society’s margins – typically members of racial and religious minorities, women, children, people with disabilities. Even when she insists that she knows nothing about the specific subject – refugees, for example, or Kosovo – the Morgan and Helen Chu Dean and Professor of Law of Harvard Law School ends up as the co-chair or co-creator of some targeted, outcomes-based human rights initiative.

Minow’s work outside Harvard Law comes from a profound belief in the need for societies to be inclusive and for all people to know that they have access to justice and aren’t outside the protection of the law. The entire U.S. justice system, she reminds listeners, “depends on its ability to address the claims and defenses of ordinary people.”

She describes her work at Harvard Law, where she has taught since 1981, becoming dean in 2009, as a cross between managing a multi-stage theater with plays, operas and rock concerts produced simultaneously, and running a city-state with its own domestic and foreign policy.

Minow, a University of Michigan graduate with a master’s degree in education from Harvard Graduate School of Education and a J.D. from Yale, came well prepared for both roles. She has been recognized as much for promoting discourse and intellectualism on a world stage as she has for helping to provide civil legal assistance to low-income Americans as a board member of the Legal Services Corp. Her books have garnered kudos, as have her classroom skills and her efforts as co-chair of the law school’s 2003-2006 curricular reform committee.

Perhaps one of the most famous accomplishments of this Lawdragon 500 member involves the only summer associate job recommendation she has ever made – a young first-year from Chicago who, she said, was the best student she had ever had. She told her father, Newton Minow, a managing partner at Sidley Austin, that the firm should hire the young Barack Obama.

Turns out the law firm already had.

LAWDRAGON: What led you into legal academia and then to Harvard Law?

MARTHA MINOW: I grew up in a tumultuous time, during the Vietnam War and protests against it, the Civil Rights Movement, the women’s movement, the early fights over environmental protection. The 50th anniversary of JFK’s death last year reminded me how much a part of my childhood was shaped by the assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy and Medgar Evers.

I knew my life was going to have to deal with issues of social injustice. After college, I applied to graduate school in philosophy, public policy and education. I was admitted to all three, and I thought I would pursue all of them. I started with the Graduate School of Education at Harvard. It was the second year of court-ordered busing in Boston. I became the project director for an assessment of that second year of Boston busing; I worked for the master for the Delaware desegregation case; I worked on school finance and on improving educational television.

I saw lawyers at the center of these efforts and it became clear that I needed to have a law degree to help find solutions to the issues that mattered to me. At law school, I helped to found a law clinic representing children and published a study of the role of lawyers for children in custody matters.

After law school, I clerked for Judge David Bazelon of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and then for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. I was offered a job in the Justice Department. But after the Ronald Reagan election, I wasn’t sure that was where I wanted to be. So I thought I would try teaching for a few years and then go back to Washington. But once I started teaching and writing, I never left Harvard Law School.

LD: What was the most memorable thing you learned working for Thurgood Marshall?

MM: It was an extraordinary honor to work as a law clerk for Justice Marshall, whose deep experiences as a practicing lawyer as well as pioneering work advancing civil rights informed our day-to-day conversations. My teaching and writing on civil procedure – including my co-edited case book – reflect the importance he conveyed about following the rules and ensuring their reliability and workability in practice over time.

I also remember, vividly, working harder than I ever had. 

LD: What sets Harvard Law School apart from other law schools?

MM: Historically, innovation. We introduced the Socratic case method and negotiation training; we pioneered loan forgiveness and a venture fund for students pursuing public service careers. Our Legal Aid Bureau, now more than 100 years old, introduced opportunities for students to learn while providing urgent legal services for low-income individuals.

Like every law school, we grapple with current challenges of financing higher education and anticipating constant change in law practice, legal doctrine and issues such as who governs the Internet, who can own a cell-line and how can law support business while advancing fairness for employees and consumers. It is a privilege, truly, to work everyday with our extraordinarily talented and imaginative faculty, our superb staff and our astonishingly gifted students.

Being part of the world-class Harvard University community allows our students and colleagues to participate across the university in collaborations and conversations that traverse a wide range of perspectives and methodologies. New technologies are transforming how we teach and giving us the ability to better share and leverage the Harvard Law Library, the largest private law library in the world.

Our courses in problem-solving engage teams of students in identifying business and communication strategies while addressing legal, financial and emotional challenges. Most courses – and most faculty – involve international and comparative dimensions, and students increasingly pursue transnational legal planning and analysis on campus and around the world. Our advanced programs of study highlight pathways through school and summer opportunities and legal careers in science and technology, government, business, social change, criminal justice and comparative and international policy work.

With interdisciplinary and cross-university work, including the university-wide Innovation Lab, students and faculty pursue their own dreams and tackle what justice should mean and how rules, institutions and practices can improve human welfare. Our faculty, staff and students come from and go to positions of leadership in politics, business, teaching and advocacy all over the world.

LD: How did your perspective on legal education and on Harvard Law change when you became dean?

MM: As a dean, my perspective on legal education has broadened from what I knew and saw as a professor. The job change for me was like moving from involvement in the single drama of my own students and scholarship to managing a whole theater with simultaneous plays, operas and rock concerts under production.

It’s also, though, a bit like running a city-state, with its own green policy, health policy, trade policy and relationships with other institutions and nations. I’m honored to now serve as chair of a new steering committee of law school deans for the American Association of Law Schools, where we hope to help tackle current challenges and opportunities.

It’s been fascinating to participate with deans from other schools here at Harvard as we navigate the possibilities offered by new technologies, an increasingly global student body and constant recognition that no one discipline or profession is sufficient in addressing the pressing problems of our world. 

LD: The cost of law school can be prohibitive for some students. What is Harvard doing to address this obstacle?

MM: We are committed to making a legal education accessible to every student through need-based aid, and to preserving the broadest range of career options for graduates through our Low-Income Protection Plan. It is crucial to me that we continue Harvard Law School’s long tradition of enabling talented students to enroll regardless of their economic situation when admitted and to pursue meaningful directions for their careers regardless of their financial situation when they graduate.

LD: You serve as vice chair of the Legal Services Corporation, which is charged with providing civil legal assistance to low-income Americans. What challenges do you face in accomplishing that mission?

MM: I was so honored to be appointed to this work by my former student, President Barack Obama, and in so doing continue the tradition launched by President Richard Nixon. As lawyers, these two presidents knew the significance of access to justice for all Americans; our justice system depends on its ability to address the claims and defenses of ordinary people.

I worked during college and law school in legal services, and know how the availability of legal help for low-income people can spell the difference between homelessness and having a roof over your head; violent abuse at the hands of a family member and physical safety; frustration in the face of government bureaucracies and successful navigation to obtain healthcare.

The model of our school’s 27 clinical programs (none of which receive federal legal services funds) shows how legal assistance can help someone stay in her home despite her building’s foreclosure; enable a low-income mother to start a day-care center or enter the recording industry; guide an entire school to become responsive to children traumatized by violence; help a returning veteran obtain appropriate and needed services; obtain asylum for an individual who risks violent oppression back home – and make new law to assist others in the future.

The national Legal Services Corp. supports local efforts that are essential now more than ever, because the repercussions of the financial crisis have jeopardized housing and job opportunities, increased the frustrations that produce family violence, and toppled sources of funding for legal and social services for the most vulnerable individuals. Our bi-partisan board works constantly to advance these efforts, while improving governance and leveraging our resources through technology and partnerships resources.

With our 40th anniversary this year, the Legal Services Corp. is pioneering an innovation fund and, we hope, reminding the nation of what it takes to “establish Justice,” in the words of our Constitution’s preamble.

LD: It’s not uncommon for teachers to look at the brightest kids in the class and think, “Someday, their autographs or early written work will be worth something.” What’s it like having a student go on to become president?

MM: The privilege of teaching talented and inspiring students has included the great chance to watch them soar after graduation. Watching President Obama, my former student, appoint as a Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, my former student, was a moment I will always cherish.

Actually, I have had other moments of joy when less famous former students have won cases, become law firm partners, run for office, launched nonprofit organizations and reminded me of a bit of advice, some knowledge or a joke I conveyed.

LD: Your work regarding societies that have survived civil war and genocide – what does it entail?

MM: Many years ago, when I was writing a book about subordination in the law (“Making All the Difference: Inclusion, Exclusion and American Law”), I became involved in issues of trying to teach human rights and teach prevention of genocide and mass violence with a remarkable nonprofit group based here in the Boston area. Called Facing History and Ourselves, it’s a global nonprofit that prepares teachers to help students think about human rights and prevent group conflict.

My next book, “Between Vengeance and Forgiveness,” grew directly out of my collaborations with that organization. With its founder, Margot Strom, I organized a conference on societal responses to mass violence, and many involved in the conference said, “Somebody should write a book about this.” So I wrote that book. The treatment of a group of people as objects of hatred at the core of genocide is the terrible, ultimate extension of the subordination issues that had preoccupied me previously.

Two notable phone calls after I published the book then propelled the next stages of my work. One was from Madame Sadako Ogata, who was then the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. She said, “I’m reading your book. I think you can help me.” I said, “I know nothing about refugees.” She repeated, “I’m reading your book. I think you can help me!” And how could I not? So I spent the next five years of my life working with her and developing a project called “Imagine Coexistence” and trying to address post-conflict situations through refugee assistance and protection.

The other call was from Justice Richard Goldstone of the South African constitutional court. I’d never met him, although he had kindly written the preface to my book, “Between Vengeance and Forgiveness.” He said, “Your book suggests to me that you should join me in the international commission on Kosovo that Sweden is creating.” And I said, “I know nothing about Kosovo.” He said, “No, I think you should do this.” I said, “And I’m teaching … ” He said, “I’m on the court and I’m taking a leave of absence from the court to do this!” I said, “OK.”

That launched a new chapter in my life. It continues. For example, I’m co-editing with Cora True-Frost, at Syracuse Law School, and Alex Whiting, here at Harvard Law, a book about the first global prosecutor — the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court charged with enforcing globally the kinds of norms we examined in the work in Kosovo.

LD: What do you see yourself doing when you’re no longer dean?

MM: It is such a privilege to teach, and I hope to continue to do that. The way to continue to learn your whole life is to teach.

I recently taught constitutional law; it was a small group studying high court opinions from around the world. I also led a reading group on law and forgiveness, which is the subject of my current research. I will be drawing on the discussions that we had there for years to come, it was so rich and meaningful.

In my new work, I am asking whether legal institutions encourage people to forgive wrongdoers, whether in criminal, financial or other contexts — domestically, internationally? When is this productive for human relationships? When does it jeopardize deterrence and fairness? When might legal involvement even jeopardize the gifts of apology, voluntarily given, and forgiveness, willingly chosen? It’s surprising to me that I’m writing about these topics.

I can trace the roots in my prior work, but if you had asked me 20 years ago, ‘Are you going to be working on law and forgiveness,’ I would not have known that. So I hope I’m going to be working on things I can’t quite foresee.

Contact Margot Slade at (646) 722-2623 or