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, will face new and unexpected challenges in preparation for their first year of law school.
To help law schools and their incoming students, Harvard Law School recently announced plans to offer its online pre-registration program, Zero-L, free of charge to law schools nationwide this summer. The course was developed and launched in 2018 in conjunction with the Harvard University Vice Provost’s Office for Advancement in Learning (VPAL) to ensure that all new Harvard law students, regardless of background and their previous fields of study, begin with a shared knowledge base. (The name Zero-L is a play on traditional terms for first-, second-, and third-year law students — 1L, 2L, and 3L).
Harvard Law Today recently spoke via email with Zero-L Faculty Director Professor I. Glenn Cohen ’03 about the program, the decision to make it freely available to US law schools. interested this year and how he hopes 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 allow them to thrive in law school. Like many law students, I found the first few months of law school daunting. We built this program to substitute a “gentle on-ramp” for the “steep ascent” that I and many others encountered early in law school. In terms of legal language and fundamental concepts, there is so much that law professors take for granted. — we have lived and breathed 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 to do their best learning on Day 1.
HLT: How did it go for 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 said “Thank you for that – you have no idea how intimidated I was about starting law school, but Zero-L told me gave confidence that I would not only 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’ fiery singing of the school’s rock jam “I’m Just a Bill,” or Noah Feldman’s focus on why the Constitution has been at the center of nearly every major debate of American history, or the speech of Annette Gordon-Reed [’84] joy of describing the dive 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, incorporating, among other things, animations and the reiteration of key points through visuals. We “cut” content into manageable chunks and provide students with immediate comprehension checks where they can integrate lessons and put what they’ve learned to good use. We focus not only on content, but also on skills-based training (how to read a case, how to read a law, etc.). We are building a comprehensive vocabulary tool that students can not only use module by module, but can also consult and search when some of these terms come up in their first year courses.
Finally, by dividing the course into separate modules, we let students chart their own learning path. For me, this course shows how good an asynchronous online course can be, and also some ideas of what can be transferred to those teaching synchronously online or in blended 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 HLS students loved and found rewarding. When they started telling their friends (and we in college started saying our friends from other faculties) about Zero-L, it became clear that it was something that could be useful far beyond Harvard Law School. When news of the project first broke, we received many inquiries and chose four excellent partner schools to work with to try and help us fine-tune Zero-L and make sure it worked. also in other schools. We have received very positive feedback from these four partner schools, with each of them continuing 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 giving free Zero-L to other law schools 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 have their time in college disrupted, and their plans to really “fold in” and prepare for law school disrupted by a sick family member or the need to help support their families.
On the other hand, many law schools across the United States are also working to develop innovative ways to onboard their students this fall due to these circumstances. Considering 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 a little easier.
HLT: What is the project for the coming years? Will HLS continue to offer it for free? And will the content be updated in subsequent years?
Cohen: Prior to the global pandemic, Harvard Law School had planned to make Zero-L available at a cost 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’re glad we were able to offer it for free this year, when so many law schools and students face unprecedented challenges.
We will also endeavor to publish a portion of the course focused on American civics on HarvardX, where everyone can access it for free this year and for years to come. These materials will be available to any teacher around the world, in fact anyone, who wants an introduction to United States government and law from Harvard Law School faculty members.
We have updated Zero-L every year since its launch in 2018. We learn more with each group of incoming law students who take it and use this knowledge to improve the program for the next group of students. I expect that we will continue to do so in the years to come.