The program is meant to work like a set of guardrails, she explained; the school wants students to go and explore a job or an area of research they’re passionate about for a few years. “We are sending you out into the world with this pathway back to law school, but we hope you bounce around a little.”
It’s part of changes at the school intended to make it easier for students with a wide range of interests and experiences to apply. This year, Harvard Law School announced that applicants could submit GRE test scores, typically used for graduate schools, instead of LSAT scores.
Jerome Organ, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis who studies some aspects of the decision to attend law school, said the program would appeal to some “gung-ho juniors” who would love to have an admission offer in hand, especially from such an elite school, before getting some work experience. It may prompt some of the other top schools to offer similar options, he said, in part to compete with Harvard to lock in some of the most outstanding students.
Bill Henderson, a professor at the Maurer School of Law at Indiana University at Bloomington who writes about legal education and rankings, observed, “It is great for HLS when it does these things and other schools have to follow to avoid a competitive disadvantage. It reinforces the perception that HLS ultimately sets the market, particularly as it relates to what matters to legal employers seeking to hire from HLS.”
Martha Minow, the school’s dean, said in a written statement, “The Junior Deferral Program is one of many efforts underway here to remove barriers as we seek the most talented candidates for law and leadership. By offering admission to the most promising college juniors, we can encourage them to pursue important and fulfilling experiences without concerns about effects on a later application to law school.
“We are delighted with the success of the pilot effort and see already that students admitted through the program explore a wide range of valuable experiences, and get ready to come to campus for their 1L year with vibrancy and intellectual enthusiasm benefiting the entire the law school community.”
The school began offering it to juniors at Harvard College only in 2014, so the first group of students from that pilot program is about to begin law school in the fall. Every student who was offered admission accepted and, as the school had hoped, it attracted a number of students from technical fields, including aerospace and chemical engineering. Students pursued a range of interests, including voters’ rights, financial management and international fellowships.
Some were eager to do research, while others were ready for a break from academics before plunging into law school.
Soban said the program is relatively flexible; students can defer for longer than two years if they like, applicants can apply for the first time after getting work experience, and candidates not accepted as juniors are reassured that they should reapply as seniors.
Mary Brown, who is about to graduate from Harvard College, said she was happy to have all of senior year to consider various options to round out her experience before law school. She is going to work with children in schools in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston this summer before moving to Washington to work for a consulting firm. “I am truly excited to return to Harvard in the fall of 2019 as a refreshed, capable and mature member of the law school community,” she said.