Outgoing Harvard Law Dean on Diversity, Fake News and Her Future Plans

On Tuesday, Harvard Law School announced that Martha Minow, its 62-year-old dean, would step down from her role after the end of the academic year.

Minow, over an eight-year tenure, was known for adding clinics in areas such as criminal law, policy, immigration and needs of military veterans, the school said. Over the past year, a group of law students protested the school’s logo, a shield which is modeled on the family crest of an 18th century slaveholder. Minow recommended to retire the shield in 2016 and the school approved the change.

Big Law Business posed a number of questions to Minow, via, email about her career, diversity in the legal profession, her future plans and more. Below are her responses.


Big Law Business: Why are you stepping down as dean now?

Minow: I intended to serve five years; I’m stepping down this summer after serving as dean for eight years. Following the strongest ever year for fundraising, rewarding recruitments of superb faculty and staff, one of our strongest years ever in terms of admissions, and the plans in place for a bicentennial year, it is a great time to turn over the reins. I plan to remain an active member of the faculty, and I also want to devote more time to studying and speaking about issues of inequality, access to justice, and discrimination — issues that have been at the center of my life’s work and are more pressing than ever.


Photo courtesy of Harvard Law School.
Photo courtesy of Harvard Law School.


Big Law Business: What are your future plans?

Minow: Although I have taught and pursued scholarship and community service while Dean, these activities by necessity take a back seat to my work as dean. I look forward to more robust engagement with the issues of the day, to more research, writing and speaking, and to time with students, and with colleagues.

I look forward to making progress on the manuscript of my book on law and forgiveness. It’s an exploration of alternatives to vengeance in resolving conflicts, with consideration of debt forgiveness, treatment of child soldiers, and consideration of what may be unforgivable. And beyond that work, I hope to tackle issues such as “ fake news,” anonymous expressions of hatred, and violent extremism.


Big Law Business: What was your favorite part of the job as dean of Harvard Law? Least favorite?

Minow: I have learned something new each and every day of my deanship. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have that kind of learning experience. Least favorite, frankly, has been dealing with the sadness when a beloved colleague passed away and when members of our community battle illness and other personal challenges.


Big Law Business: Who do you think should succeed you? Any candidates at this point? When/how will this vetting process take place?

Minow: President Faust will undertake a meaningful search in consultation with our faculty and the broader community, and a great new leader will be selected.


Big Law Business: How do you feel about the employment situation facing law graduates today?

Minow: For Harvard Law School graduates, the employment outlook has remained as strong as ever, and even grown as the economy has improved since the financial crisis of 2008-09. But that crisis underscored and accelerated transformations underway in the legal profession nationally and globally, with opportunities offered by digital tools, challenges of shifting regulatory frameworks, and chronic concerns about the cost of legal services, a challenge for all and a barrier for those most disadvantaged. I do believe that collaborations joining the legal profession, law schools and innovators from other fields, offer promising innovation, holding promise of better services and more justice. At HLS, we are keenly focused on supporting entrepreneurship and innovation for students and alumni, as well as for practitioners who attend our Executive Education programs, and for partners in the judiciary, social enterprises, computer scientists, and other professions. I have been hired to help the innovations sponsored by the Legal Services Corporation and the American Bar Association’s Center on Innovations, and look forward to continuing this work.


Graduating Harvard University Law School students stand and wave gavels in celebration at commencement ceremonies June 5, 2008, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Photo by Robert Spencer/Getty Images)
Graduating Harvard University Law School students stand and wave gavels in celebration at commencement ceremonies June 5, 2008, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Photo by Robert Spencer/Getty Images)


Big Law Business: Was your stepping down related to the diversity protest mentioned in the Harvard Crimson or the capital campaign?

Minow: No. I’m stepping down now — three years after I’d intended — because I am so confident of the school’s strong footing and forward momentum. And we hope our students participate actively in national and global issues here and when they graduate. Having passionate students who care deeply about law and justice is a strength for the school; we teach and learn about working through disagreements, renovating institutions and supporting respectful debate. Dissent and disagreement are important elements of legal education and of democracy. As a lifelong scholar devoted to issues of equality and discrimination, and as someone who believes passionately in full participation and inclusion in educational experiences for all, I have welcomed the conversations — not always easy, but valuable — about how we can all work together to make law schools and universities more inclusive. I’m proud of the work of the school last year — students, faculty and staff — to examine the history of the law school shield in a deliberative way, with room for reasoned dissent and lessons learned on all side. Last year’s conversations led to a stronger community. It is great to work at a place engaging talented people with differing views of the new issues facing this country and the world.


Big Law Business: What are the initiatives you led at Harvard Law that you’re most proud of?

Minow: How much time do you have? It has been so rewarding to work with amazing colleagues to expand our clinics to offer legal services to those in need (including veterans, communities dealing with disaster, immigrants and refugees) while enhancing our students’ learning. Other highlights include leveraging the unique resources of the world’s largest private law library to open free digital access to court opinions and other materials, expanding financial aid and loan forgiveness to ensure that the most talented students we can find around the world can pursue the education and careers they seek; broadening and strengthening the faculty by recruiting world-class scholars and teachers; increasing diversity along many dimensions of the faculty, staff; and the student body; transforming the campus with dynamic spaces for instruction, studying, and collaborating; surpassing the Law School’s initial goal in the University’s ongoing capital campaign; getting the school on a sound financial footing after the financial crisis of 2008-09; building vibrant connections with alumni and other leaders to mentor students and engage in robust discussions; generating intellectual debate and discussion about how to reconcile religious freedom and anti-discrimination laws, building vibrant connections with alumni and other leaders to mentor students and engage in robust discussions, generating intellectual debate and discussion about how to reconcile religious freedom and anti-discrimination laws, about tribal sovereignty and other issues; growing empirical and historical studies of law, and nurturing collaborations, negotiation skills, and learning across the entire community.


Photo by Darren McCollester (Getty Images)
Photo by Darren McCollester (Getty Images)


Big Law Business: What are the biggest lessons you have learned on the job?

Minow: I have learned the benefits of resisting the temptation to speak first or often, the opportunities that come if you do not need to take credit, and how much a school like our depends upon the extraordinary talents of so many people.


Big Law Business: What is the role that a Harvard Law dean should have in improving diversity in the legal profession?

Minow: I have taken it as a crucial opportunity and obligation to serve on the American Bar Association Commission on Diversity in the Profession, to partner with leadership counsel on legal diversity, to pursue faculty, staff, and students who enlarge the diversity in our classrooms, scholarship, and community in terms of race, ethnicity, gender and gender identities, religion, abilities and disabilities, nationality, work and military experiences, political viewpoints, disciplinary expertise, economic background, and aspirations for using legal tools. A dean needs to cultivate the resources — financial, cultural, and communicative — to support diverse students, faculty and staff — so each person can thrive and so the community itself models respect and understanding, even amid disagreements and differences.


Big Law Business: How has the legal industry changed most during your eight years as dean of Harvard Law?

Minow: The fundamental business models used by law firms and the traditional operations of courts and agencies face challenges and opportunities due to costs, new technologies, including online platforms for collaboration and data mining and analysis, phone apps, behavioral insights, and globalization. Because costs have prevented sufficient access to justice for individuals, organizations, and small businesses, new kinds of services are emerging with the help of venture capital and law schools, business schools, insurance companies, and governments. Disruptive innovation has come to law. A profession devoted to tradition now must be also devoted to innovation and accountability.


Write to us with news about the legal market at BigLawBusiness@bna.com.

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