Experiential Learning in the International Humanitarian Law classroom

This post was written by Rebecca Sutton, who taught the Somalia in Crisis role play during the Re-Imagining International Humanitarian Law course at University of Western Ontario Law School.  This is the first post in a series; in subsequent posts we will hear from students in the course as they reflect on their experiences with the role play.


In 2011, a series of intense closed-door meetings took place between U.S. aid workers, diplomats, intelligence advisors, the Department of Justice, national security officials, and other federal government representatives. The daunting question that lay before them was how to respond to the famine that the UN had recently declared in Somalia . In the preceding months, hundreds of thousands of Somalis had left their homes to go in search of food, water, and shelter across the desert. Meanwhile, organizations seeking to deliver humanitarian aid to these vulnerable populations had their access impeded by al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda-affiliated group on the U.S. terrorist list. The legal backdrop to these negotiations was the adjudication of U.S. material-support-to-terrorism laws by the U.S. Supreme Court in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project.

For some participants in the 2011 meetings, U.S. national security was the paramount concern shaping decision-making in response to the famine. From this vantage point, the delivery of humanitarian assistance was to be guided primarily by counter-terrorism concerns—the potential financing of terrorism a particular worry. Other U.S. stakeholders countered that the focus must instead be placed squarely on saving lives. In this view, the highest priority was ensuring that Somalia’s famine-stricken populations had access to the humanitarian services needed to survive the crisis.

These competing views came to the fore once again in the winter of 2017, this time in the form of a role-play in a JD classroom in Canada. As part of an intensive law course entitled Re-Imagining International Humanitarian Law (IHL), upper-year JD students at Western Law School took part in a simulation of the U.S. response to the 2011 famine. This multi-day exercise was based on the Harvard Case Study Somalia in Crisis: Famine, Counter-Terrorism and Humanitarian Aid, authored by Naz Modirzadeh, Dustin Lewis, Molly Gray, and Lisa Brem, in connection with Harvard Law School’s Program on International Law and Armed Conflict.

“…at its best, experiential learning has the potential to facilitate deeper thinking of what IHL could be, and may spur students to articulate ideas about prospects for reform.”

As a Visiting Professor at Western Law School, I integrated the Somalia Case Study into my IHL teaching for three reasons: to contextualize IHL as a legal regime, to ground the teaching of law in real-world application, and to spark curiosity about IHL’s future trajectory. First, the case study invites law students to contextualize IHL’s application in two ways: in the context of a particular international crisis, and alongside other legal regimes that apply in armed conflicts and humanitarian emergencies. Second, as a pedagogical tool, this type of role-play also takes the law out of the books. It offers students an experience akin to the international Jean Pictet Competition in IHL, in which a relatively small number of law students participate annually. Third, at its best, experiential learning has the potential to facilitate deeper thinking of what IHL could be, and may spur students to articulate ideas about prospects for reform.

“…role-play exercises such as the Somalia Case Study help to…introduce students to law’s real-world application”

Having provided some background context, the aim of this discussion is to let law students speak for themselves. I have invited the JD students from my Re-Imagining IHL course to share their own reflections on how they experienced this Somalia simulation exercise. In the personal accounts that follow, students elucidate how they navigated issues such as competing stakeholder interests, consensus building, and the possibility of a ‘humanitarian exception’ to U.S. counter-terrorism legislation. I suggested that role-play exercises such as the Somalia Case Study help to contextualize IHL, introduce students to law’s real-world application, and potentially galvanize ideas about legal reform. As the student testimonials in the following posts will highlight, such exercises also bring to light the politics of law and expose students to the manifold ways in which power shapes and influences law’s implementation. For many JD students who participated in the Somalia simulation, IHL’s humanitarian promise was brought into question as it was subsumed by other pressing concerns such as national security. Students experienced first-hand the frustration of having a particularly powerful stakeholder hold fast to an unpopular position, and they also found that negotiation skills could take on more importance than ‘objective facts’ like human suffering. Evidently, this kind of role-play activity may leave law students feeling perplexed or disillusioned—perhaps especially when one’s participation the course has been galvanized by a humanitarian impulse. At the same time, such simulations have the potential to facilitate an escape from the disenchantment that a purely doctrinal or black letter IHL course might generate. I would argue that ultimately, so long as the end result is not apathy, it is essential for students to grapple with this kind of complexity. In my view, this is a first step towards understanding IHL as a practice.

“I would argue that ultimately, so long as the end result is not    apathy, it is essential for students to grapple with this kind of complexity. In my view, this is a first step towards understanding    IHL as a practice.”

A special thanks is due to graduate students Anaise Muzima and Kirsten Stefanik, who served as volunteer judges for the Somalia simulation and edited the student contributions. Read Part 2.

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Meet our New Case Writers!

Image of our new case writers, Brittany Deitch, left, and Rachel Gordon, right, in front of large office window

Brittany Deitch (left) and Rachel Gordon (right) have both recently joined the Harvard Law School | Case Studies team. Brittany, a recent JD graduate, was sworn into the bar in September 2017. Her role involves writing cases tailored to the JD curriculum. Brittany was inspired to get involved with pedagogy by her time in higher education, saying:

“Prior to law school, I worked for a nonprofit focused on encouraging and facilitating student access to education in American political thought and history at the university level. That organization achieved this goal by working with professors to develop their courses in a way that would attract student enrollment and foster an interest in civic engagement.”

When asked about her favorite projects so far, Brittany cited working with HLS Professor Howell Jackson and sitting in on his Regulation of Financial Institutions course, where he uses one case study per week. In Brittany’s experience, using case studies in legal education can be ideal:

“While a student in law school…most of my courses were taught using the Socratic Method and Langdellian Case Method… Although those methods help students to ‘think like lawyers,’ they do little to develop practical, professional skills needed to act like lawyers. I find that simulation exercises and skills courses supplement the classroom experience nicely. Case studies are especially great because they can be incorporated into doctrinal courses to teach students to think like lawyers and make decisions like lawyers while also teaching the substantive law.”

Rachel, who focuses on writing cases in the Executive Education sphere, is a veteran case writer that has worked at Harvard Business School Case Writing Group (then called the Global Research Group), and the Global Health Education and Learning Incubator at Harvard University, but says she first got in to writing case studies per a recommendation from a professor she had while getting her MBA at Simmons College. Rachel notes:
“Executive Education uses cases differently than the JD program; the Executive Education program’s cases focus on developing leadership and professional skills.”
Rachel also sees value in case studies in the classroom, and what their ambiguity can teach students:

“Case studies are written to encourage dialogue among participants. Often the instructor isn’t looking for the ‘right’ answer but rather a willingness for participants to reflect and build on each other’s comments Reactions to cases are not intended to be uniform; two individuals may have very different perspectives on how to approach a situation. Ad hoc debates during the class discussion can help broaden our understanding of the issues laid out in the case study. This is a time for participants to take an intellectual risk or push an idea further.”

Rachel has thoroughly enjoyed sitting in on the Harvard Law School Executive Education programming and “having a better understanding of the challenges that lawyers face today in the changing legal environment” saying:

“The 2008 economic crisis was a real watershed moment for the legal industry. It is still grappling with how to respond to new demands for efficiency and transparency while also grappling with the changes caused by technology and globalization. It is exciting to produce materials for today’s lawyers that invite them to confront these issues deliberately and creatively.”

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Police-Community Dialogue: The Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program Releases Innovative Resource on Facilitation

Bordone conversing with community members


The Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program has produced a new video resource on facilitation entitled “Police-Community Dialogue: A Facilitated Conversation Featuring Commentary with Harvard Law School Professor Robert C. Bordone”.

The resource, which can be purchased on HLS Case Studies, features an unedited facilitated dialogue as well as retrospective analysis and commentary with the two facilitators and Professor Bordone. “Police-Community Dialogue” also includes a detailed teaching note with discussion questions that educators can use in courses on facilitation, multi-party negotiation, consensus building and mediation, and workshops or training sessions on facilitating dialogue.

“We hope that this resource will help people not only in the realm of Police-Community relations, but also more broadly in cultivating the skills of facilitation that are so needed in today’s world,” says Professor Bordone.

The “Police-Community Dialogue” video resource provides a window into decisions that facilitators must make during challenging conversations. It is specifically created to support those who teach facilitation, those who serve as facilitators, and those who are interested in implementing group dialogue and public engagement in their communities or organizations.

One of the features that make this resource unique is its user-friendly structure: it can be watched all the way through or by chapter, based on specific topics in facilitation. Chapter Three of the resource, which focuses on establishing shared norms for a conversation, is available as a sample chapter for public viewing. The online platform for viewing the videos also includes an interactive forum where educators and facilitators who register for the resource can exchange ideas.

The first part of the video resource is the facilitated conversation as it occurred on July 9, 2016 in its unedited form. The second portion of the video is a conversation that Professor Bordone conducted with the two facilitators, Danielle Bart (Associate, Goodwin Procter LLP) and Toby Berkman (Senior Associate, Consensus Building Institute), weeks after the dialogue. In this second part, Professor Bordone interviews Toby and Danielle about the choices they made when preparing for the dialogue and at key moments in the dialogue itself. The purpose of the interview is to get into the minds of these skillful professionals, understand their facilitative choices, and reflect on various ways to handle challenging moments.

HNMCP began this video project in early 2016, months before the actual dialogue took place. The original invitation to dialogue participants asked them to reflect on their reactions to police community relations in the US since the shooting of Michael Brown and the events in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. As it happened, the week before the scheduled Saturday taping in July of 2016, Alton Sterling was killed in Baton Rouge, Philando Castile was killed in Minnesota, and five police officers were killed in Dallas. During the week before the dialogue, these events gripped the nation and heightened the rawness that the eight participants brought to the filmed conversation.

Because the aim was to create a resource that would educate and inspire, Professor Bordone, along with Supervising Producers Sara del Nido Budish and Adriel Borshansky, made an intentional decision not to use actors and scripting. Everyone in the video—both participants and facilitators—is playing themselves in real time.

“We knew that hosting a real dialogue presented risks and would result in a video that would be less-than-perfect,” Professor Bordone says. “But we thought producing a video with flaws would be more useful to viewers than creating a ‘perfect’ video of dialogue. Even if the latter could be created with actors and good writing, we suspected that watching something that could never happen in real life would be, at best, largely academic and, at worst, a bit demoralizing since there is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ dialogue.”

This video resource is one project in a broad initiative that Professor Bordone and the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program are leading to reinvigorate genuine and challenging dialogue in public life. In response to increasing polarization in the American political landscape, the clinic has sought to expand its work related to political dialogue on issues that cut to the core of identity and belief. HNMCP began to develop its political dialogue initiative 2015 with the Real Talk series and the formation of the HLS Now Facilitation Corps in 2016. In the 2016-2017 academic year, the clinic led Harvard Community Dialogue, a series of dialogue sessions on pressing political issues: What is America? A Community Dialogue on National Identity and Immigration, The Press: Sensationalism, Ratings, and Responsibility, and Parties, Politics, and the Future of Healthcare in the United States. Professor Bordone and Assistant Director Rachel Viscomi spoke about creating opportunities for dialogue through difference on a widely-viewed Facebook Live event with the Harvard University Gazette. HNMCP also collaborated with HLS Admissions and the Dean of Students Office to facilitate dialogue on identity and lawyering for admitted students from traditionally underrepresented identities or groups. More broadly, HNMCP’s work has expanded its pedagogical focus on the theory and practice of facilitation. Professor Bordone and Rachel Viscomi offer The Lawyer as Facilitator workshop to students and in fall of 2016 they initiated a new reading group entitled, Political Dialogue in Polarizing Times: Election 2016.

Learn more about HNMCP’s work on political dialogue.

The Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program is the nation’s first legal clinic focusing on dispute systems design and conflict management. HNMCP was founded in 2006 by Professor Robert Bordone to take Harvard Law School students from theory to practice in the fields of negotiation, dispute resolution, and conflict management.

HNMCP trains a new generation of lawyers with the skills—in negotiation, mediation, facilitated dialogue, stakeholder assessment, dispute systems evaluation and design, conflict analysis, and curriculum development—necessary to help their clients manage their negotiations and disputes efficiently and creatively.

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Why and How: Using the Case Study Method in the Law Classroom

person walking by langdell
Photo by: Brooks Kraft

Post by: Jackie Kim and Lisa Brem

Why should legal educators use case studies and other experiential teaching methods, such as role plays and simulations, in their classes?  Hasn’t the Langdell method served legal education well these last 140 years?  Certainly creating and using experiential materials requires a different set of skills from faculty, elicits a different response and level of engagement from students, and poses barriers to implementation. The ABA’s LEAPS Project[i] has a comprehensive list of objections to practical problem solving in the classroom: materials are time consuming and expensive to create and deploy; addition of a case study or simulation to a syllabus inherently displaces other material; and there are few incentives from law school leaders to introduce this type of teaching.

Yet, the argument promoting experiential materials and techniques is strong. The 2007 Carnegie Report[ii] recommended integrating lawyering skills practice into the curriculum alongside doctrinal courses, and the ABA added simulation courses to the list of practical experiences that can and should be offered by law schools in its 2015 Guidance Memo[iii].

In a 2007 Vanderbilt Law Review article[iv], HLS Dean Martha Minow and Professor Todd D. Rakoff argued that Langdell’s approach to teaching students using appellate cases does not do enough to prepare law students for real-world problems: “The fact is, Langdell’s case method is good for some things, but not good for others. We are not talking about fancy goals here; we are talking about teaching students ‘how to think like a lawyer.’”

But does the case study method result in a higher degree of student learning? While we have not yet seen a study on the efficacy of the case study method vs. the Langdell method in law schools, research[v] from political science professor Matthew Krain suggests that case studies and problem-based activities do enhance certain types of learning over other types of pedagogy.  In his investigation, Krain compared the results of pre-and post-course surveys of students who participated in active learning with those who received a traditional lecture course. The case studies and problems that Krain used in his non-traditional classes included: case studies in the form of popular press articles, formal case studies, films, or problem-based case exercises that required students to produce a work product.

Krain found that:

Student-centered reflection, in which students have the opportunity to discuss their understanding of the case, allows both students and instructors to connect active learning experiences back to a larger theoretical context. Case learning is particularly useful for dramatizing abstract theoretical concepts, making seemingly distant events or issues seem more “authentic” or “real,” demonstrating the connection between theory and practice, and building critical-thinking and problem-solving skills (Inoue & Krain, 2014; Krain, 2010; Kuzma & Haney, 2001; Lamy, 2007; Swimelar, 2013).


This study suggests that case-based approaches have great utility in the classroom, and they should be used more often in instances where students’ understanding of conceptual complexity or knowledge of case details is critical. Moreover, case-based exercises can be derived from a variety of different types of materials and still have great utility. If deployed selectively in the context of a more traditional classroom setting as ways to achieve particular educational objectives, case-based approaches can be useful tools in our pedagogical toolbox.

For those who might be ready to try a case study, role play, or simulation, there are resources that can help.  Harvard Law School produces case studies for use throughout the legal curriculum. The HLS Case Studies program publishes these teaching materials, and makes them available to educators, academic staff, students, and trainers. Outside of Harvard Law School, links to resources for educators implementing the case study method can be found on the Case Studies Program Resources page. Listed are case study affiliates at Harvard, legal teaching and learning tools, tips for case teaching, and free case materials. Examples include the Legal Education, ADR, and Practical Problem Solving (LEAPS) Project[vi] from the American Bar Association, which provides resources for various topics on legal education, and the Teaching Post, an educators’ forum offered by the Harvard Business School where professors can seek or provide advice on case study teaching.

“… [O]ur society is full of new problems demanding new solutions, and less so than in the past are lawyers inventing those solutions. We think we can, and ought to, do better.” – Dean Martha Minow & Professor Todd Rakoff.[vii]

[i] “Overcoming Barriers to Teaching ‘Practical Problem-Solving’.” Legal Education, ADR & Practical Problem-Solving (LEAPS) Project, American Bar Association, Section of Dispute Resolution. Accessed March 16, 2017, http://leaps.uoregon.edu/content/overcom….
[ii] William M. Sullivan, Anne Colby, Judith Welch Wegner, Lloyd Bond, and Lee S. Shulman, “Educating Lawyers,” The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (2007).
[iii] American Bar Association, “Managing Director’s Guidance Memo,” Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar (2015).
[iv] Martha Minow and Todd D. Rakoff, “A Case for Another Case Method,” Vanderbilt Law Review 60(2) (2007): 597-607.
[v] Matthew Krain, “Putting the learning in case learning? The effects of case-based approaches on student knowledge, attitudes, and engagement,” Journal on Excellence in College Teaching 27(2) (2016): 131-153.
[vi] “Overcoming Barriers to Teaching ‘Practical Problem-Solving’.”
[vii] Minow and Rakoff.

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Five Negotiation & Mediation Roleplays that can be Taught in 2-Hours or Less*

Picture of HLS Langdell LibraryFitting meaningful learning into one class period can be challenging. Below, five of our best Negotiation & Mediation Roleplays are represented that can be taught in two-hours or less.

Read More

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U.S. Defense Taskforce: Simulating the Apocalypse

Image of many people participating in a conference call

Photo used under Creative Commons Licensing  

U.S. Defense Taskforce, a newly released negotiation simulation from the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program (HNMCP), explores group decision-making processes in a multi-party negotiation. Lisa Dicker ’17 and Kathleen Kelly ’17 of Harvard Law School Negotiators wrote this fast-paced simulation under the supervision of Sara del Nido Budish ‘13, Clinical Instructor and Lecturer on Law at HNMCP.

The case opens when the zombie apocalypse has begun. Participants are part of a small committee in the U.S. Department of State entrusted to select the four people who will lead the effort in preparing for, surviving, and defeating the zombies. The Director of the Department of State is scheduled to hold a press conference to tell the American public who their leaders will be, and the participants’ committee has only 20 minutes to come to a unanimous decision and give the Director the four names.

U.S. Defense Taskforce emphasizes two crucial elements of multi-party negotiations: criteria and group process. First, the element of criteria is placed at the forefront of the case pedagogy. Participants have a list of seven candidates’ biographies, detailing each candidate’s age, life accomplishments, and unique qualities. Their committee’s deliberation process, as well as the debrief afterwards, challenges the participants to think through their reasons for choosing one candidate over another and what their criteria was (or wasn’t) for determining who should lead the United States.

Second, the simulation challenges participants to reflect on group process more broadly. They plunge into a high-stakes conversation without being provided any structure, agenda, or distinct roles on the committee. Their decisions about whether or not to divide roles amongst their group, who is given speaking time over others, and what they would do if time expires before they reach a decision are all representative of the kinds of questions that arise in all sorts of group decision-making processes.

This simulation can be completed in 1 hour, including setup and a debrief based off of a set of questions provided in the teaching note. Participants can be divided into groups of 6 to 8, but it is possible to run the simulation with groups of a different size. Many groups can participate in the simulation at the same time, provided that the groups come together for the debrief after their 20 minutes of negotiating.

For the full description, please visit the HLS Case Studies Blog.

To purchase the U.S. Defense Taskforce, please visit the HLS Case Studies website.

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New Product: Mortgage Crisis Call

Newspapers with headlines referencing the financial crisis

Image used under Creative Commons Licensing 

The financial crisis of the late 2000’s has just hit and more than 10 million homes have been foreclosed upon in the matter of a few years.

The American public is outraged and demanding that politicians take action. Much of the blame for the crisis has fallen on banks, especially the five banks with the highest percentage of U.S. residential mortgages: Ally (formerly known as GMAC), Bank of America, Citi, JPMorgan Chase, and Wells Fargo (collectively known as “The Five”). In an effort to hold The Five accountable, a multi-state working group comprised of all fifty state attorneys general, state Banking Commissioners, and the Department of Justice have decided to pursue action against them.

Participants in Mortgage Crisis Call play the roles of prominent attorneys general from around the country, including U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who are leading the charge to hold The Five accountable. This special committee is scheduled to hold a group phone call, the purpose of which is to agree on a strategy for addressing the banks. They will need to decide whether they want to pursue unified litigation, and if so, what form this will take.

The call is an exercise in balancing competing interests and complex power dynamics in a multi-party negotiation. Each of the participants has a distinct set of interests, often enmeshed in their political calculations and their histories of working on this issue, and these interests come together in their attitudes about how to settle with The Five.

Importantly, the exact role of each participant on the call is left up to the group. For a variety of reasons, several members of the special committee believe that it is their role to facilitate the call. Participants have an opportunity to explore the ways in which a facilitator or facilitators can shape a multi-party negotiation, particularly in a situation where there is no designated official facilitator. Moreover, it comes as a surprise to them to find out that there are in fact others who plan to facilitate. This element of surprise exacerbates power dynamics and heightens the need for clarity about roles and responsibilities on the call.

Mortgage Crisis Call is designed to be conducted as a conference call, giving students a chance to practice facilitating through that medium. The simulation can also be done as an in-person multi-party negotiation. The ideal group size is six participants to fill all six of the roles. It is also possible, though not ideal, to eliminate one or two of the non-Facilitator roles and run the simulation in groups of fewer than six participants. For a robust debrief, it is preferable to have at least two different groups negotiating the case. It is suggested that instructors allot 90 minutes for the negotiation and 60 minutes for debriefing. The Teaching Notes also help those new to the case design debriefs to ensure a rich learning experience.

To download Mortgage Crisis Call, visit HLS Case Studies. Educators and staff of non-profit institutions are eligible to receive review copies free of charge.


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YNMCP and Labor Conditions at A&M Apparel: A New Dispute Systems Design Role Play

New Product: YNMCP


Alonzo Emery at Renmin University of China Law School (Photo via Harvard Law Bulletin)

In a new negotiation role play from the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program (HNMCP), the world’s leading clothing company is a client in need of dispute systems design.

A&M Apparel, headquartered in the prosperous United Commonwealth, relies on supply chain factories across the globe. Recently, an international non-governmental organization launched a campaign to shame A&M and other multinational fashion companies, alleging egregious workers’ rights violations in their supply chains. The new CEO of A&M has asked the Yarvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program (YNMCP) to recommend a design for a new grievance system at the Wolfcom Factory – an overseas factory particularly plagued by assembly line worker unrest.

YNMCP is a clinic at Yarvard Law School that serves the dispute systems design and conflict management needs of clients working in a wide range of industries. Two to three students are assigned to the A&M project. They must: 1) identify as many key stakeholders or stakeholder groups as possible, 2) understand the client’s needs and manage the client’s expectations, 3) develop an interview protocol for interviewing stakeholders, 4) facilitate focus groups, and 5) consider any ethical challenges the project might raise.

The exercises in this case offer students the opportunity to practice skills that they will use as dispute systems designers. Identifying stakeholders, conducting interviews, facilitating focus groups, managing client expectations and dealing with potential ethical challenges are all directly applicable to working with clients and on a variety of dispute systems design projects. The exercises were tailored specifically to the needs of students enrolled in the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program (HNMCP) who, in addition to their clinical projects for real-world clients, take the 1-credit Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Seminar as a co-requisite course. This structure allows students to practice skills with the YNMCP case before actively using those skills in their real-world projects.

There are five core learning units in YNMCP, each corresponding to critical skills for effective dispute systems design. Although designed to be used together in sequence, each of these learning units can be purchased individually and used as a stand-alone exercise. The recommended sequencing of exercises assumes deployment over four weeks in an introductory Dispute Systems Design course. The exercises can be used in classes of varying size, but a class of eight or more students is ideal.  The YNMCP Teaching Notes provide thorough guidance on how to run each exercise as well as listing the materials, people, and time required for each exercise.  The Teaching Notes also help those new to the case design debriefs that will ensure a rich learning experience.

To download YNMCP, visit HLS Case Studies. Educators and staff of non-profit institutions are eligible to receive review copies free of charge.

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New Product: Allen & Overy: Surviving the Banking Crisis (A) and (B)


Photo used under Creative Commons Licensing, Allen & Overy London Headquarters

Leadership in Law Firms: Hidden Hierarchies

Harvard Law School | The Case Studies is happy to announce a brand new case study based on the exciting research conducted by Professor Laura Empson on leadership in professional service firms.  Read more about the case study below, and check out the Allen & Overy (A) and (B) case study product pages.

Post by Professor Laura Empson of Cass Business School and Senior Research Fellow in the Center on the Legal Profession, Harvard Law School

What inspired the case?

I won a major grant from the UK government in 2009 to study leadership dynamics in professional service firms. In professional service firms, concepts such as ‘leaders’ and ‘followers’ don’t necessarily make much sense. Traditional hierarchical power dynamics are replaced by more ambiguous and negotiated relationships amongst professional peers. As a result, leading professionals is phenomenally difficult, yet there is very little rigorous academic research into this phenomenon. So I won funding to study leadership dynamics across a range of professional firms and I am now writing a book based on this research.
David Morley, Senior Partner, heard me present my ideas at an event I was organizing at the Centre for Professional Service Firms at Cass Business School in London. He came up to me immediately afterwards and said: “We want you to study us”.

What challenges and opportunities did the research process present?

The leadership of Allen & Overy gave me fantastic access to interview their partners and consult their records. Partners trusted me sufficiently to talk really freely. Yet I found the research process tremendously difficult. I have been studying professional service firms for over 20 years but I really struggled to make sense of what I was hearing – things seemed to be so confused and unclear. Then I realized that this lack of clarity, this ambiguity, was my key research finding. The leadership dynamics didn’t make much sense to an outsider because they were so ill-defined and informal, but they made absolute sense to the people who were embedded within them.

What is the case really about?

The case has two themes embedded within it: constructing ambiguity and navigating ambiguity. It shows how an extended leadership group of about 30 people can work together through a process of “intuitive mutual adjustment”, which enables them to function very effectively within a profoundly ambiguous authority structure. When they are confronted with the global banking crisis of 2008, the leadership realise they will have to substantially reduce the size of the partnership. The firm has never done anything like this before and the leadership has no authority to do this. The case maps the process the leaders follow over a five month period, to identify colleagues to be “culled” and to persuade the partnership to accept their decision.

What are the major takeaways in the case?

First, the case encourages students to question some of their fundamental assumptions about leadership, power, and governance in partnerships. Management text books and business schools emphasise the importance of creating clarity around roles, responsibilities, and reporting lines. The case explains how, under certain conditions, clarity may not be necessary. It emphasises how individuals with the interpersonal skills to understand and navigate an ambiguous authority structure can exercise considerable informal power.
Second, the case explains how it is possible for leaders of partnerships to take action when they lack the authority to do so. In Allen & Overy the partnership restructuring is made possible because the leaders are able to mobilise the hidden hierarchy within the firm. Students are encouraged to consider the hidden hierarchy within their firms. Are they part of it? If so, how do they mobilise it? If not, how do they join it?

How did the students react to the case?

The first time it was taught at the Leadership for Lawyers course at Harvard Law School a couple of Allen & Overy partners happened to be attending the course. They loved the case, which is great because a law firm’s rank-and-file partners will always be a case study’s toughest critics.

Professor Laura Empson is Director of the Centre for Professional Service Firms at Cass Business School and Senior Research Fellow in the Center on the Legal Profession, Harvard Law School.

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Product Highlight: Margaret Hamburg and the FDA

photo by U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services

post by Nour Soubani, HLS Case Studies Assistant

Almost every day, the Food and Drug Administration makes it into mainstream media news in one way or another. Whether it is about birth control, a cure for muscular dystrophy, or a recalled food product, the FDA is a key part of public health debates.

The case Margaret Hamburg and the FDA features the 2012 disagreement between the Commissioner of the FDA and the Secretary of Health and Human Services that ultimately resulted in the decision to distribute Plan B contraceptives, otherwise known as the morning after pill, over the counter. The case highlights the tension between the FDA and the Secretary of Health and Human Services and allows participants to experience the complexities of the decision making process from the point of view of FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg. In a telling interview in March 2013 with the Yale Undergraduate Journal of Politics, The Politic, Hamburg said:

“I am very committed to running an agency where science and data drive our decision-making. But we are, of course, operating in world where there are many issues and concerns swirling around us, and where the decisions we make have very significant ramifications. We work closely with many stakeholders, including Congress. It is always a challenge to make sure that the best possible science is the one guiding our work—but that is a challenge we must meet.”

This past January, Hamburg visited Harvard Law School. During her talk, she reflected on her time as FDA Commissioner, and the successes and challenges she faced in that role. One article in Harvard Law Today covering the event reads, “Hamburg discussed how she learned to negotiate with the Washington establishment as commissioner. Early on, she said, she learned about the need for more transparency, predictability, and partnership.”

The questions raised by this case are similar ones about the protection of public welfare in the midst of a complicated relationship between the government and independent regulatory bodies. By reading not only about the case of Plan B contraceptives, but about the history of the FDA in general, students will be able to explore the nature of this relationship from all sides and think about effective ways to divide power between the entities involved.

In Part A of the case, students will discuss important thematic questions like:

  • What is the role of the regulator? The administration?
  • What are the qualities of an effective regulator?
  • What happens if and when their objectives conflict?
  • How are tensions in power reconciled? How might they be?
  • How are decisions made?
  • When, if ever, should science trump policy? When should policy trump science?
  • What gets in the way of science or policy prevailing as they should?

In Part B, students will be able to read about the press releases that came out of the case as well as discuss the future of the FDA and its relationship with the government.

The case of Margaret Hamburg and the FDA will allow students to put themselves in the shoes of both scientists and policymakers attempting to answer difficult questions about the integrity of protecting public welfare. It is a complex and intriguing case that covers many relevant issues in science and politics today.

The case and supplementary materials can be found on the Harvard Law School | The Case Studies website. Educators registered on our website will have free access to the teaching manual for this case.

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