Lessons Learned at Harvard Law School

Benjamin B. Ferencz

The Dean welcomed the first year class at the Harvard Law School with the following declaration, “Look to the right of you then look to the left. At the end of this semester, one of you three will not be here.” The bottom third of the class would automatically be dropped. With considerable trepidation, I surreptitiously glanced to the right and then to the left. We were all frozen stiff.

The first thing I learned at Harvard was the meaning of fear. One of the professors in particular gloried in the terror he could strike in the hearts of legal neophytes. Professor Edward Warren, who taught Property Law, was always ready to pounce on any errant student. He seemed to have drawn inspiration from the Inquisition and its terrifying “Trials by Ordeal.” At the Law School, final grades were determined solely by the results of the written exam. Nevertheless, “Bull Warren,” as he was generally called, would shout out a grade for every answer received in class from a trembling student. His greatest joy seemed to be to heap scorn and humiliation on his helpless victims. I witnessed when he called one poor classmate forward, handed him a dime, and directed him to phone home and advise his parents that they were wasting their money since he would never become a lawyer. The other classmates howled with laughter and some apprehension. I don’t think Warren intended to be cruel, but I never saw that student in class again. I felt sorry for him and for his parents.

Visitors came to sit in on Warren’s classes to share the merriment of his tortures. There are always some who seem to enjoy the pain of others. Historically, many a victim has been burned at the stake to the cheers of the crowd. I was never one to revel in the misery of others. Even though some of my answers were greeted with a joyous shout, “Atta boy! Atta boy! A for you!” I was saddened to see the pain he inflicted when he responded to some hapless student by moaning, “Am I to breathe the breath of life into this lump of clay?” My disdain was intensified when I too felt the lash of Warren’s whip.

One early morning, I showed up just in time for the Property class, only to discover that the session had been moved to another building. I raced to the new location. I opened the door cautiously. Prof. Warren had started his lecture. Upon spotting me, he stopped in his tracks. Pointing a trembling finger at my startled eyes, he shouted, “You! Get Out! Get Out! Get Out!” Of course, I ran as though being chased by the Devil. At the end of the term, Warren read aloud the “grades” of those he wished to humiliate. Lo, Ben Ferencz’s name led all the rest. I approached him cautiously after class and said there must have been a mistake. I noted that he had often cried out that I had received an “A” and now he announced only “D’s.” “Ah,” he said “you are the one who came in late. I erased all of your “A’s” to teach you a lesson.” I never forgot that lesson. If you ever attend a class run by Professor Ed Warren, remember, “Better never than late.”

I learned something else from my class in Property Law. When I met the Prof in the hall after the final exam, he congratulated me and said he would have given me an “A” but for the fact that I didn’t know the difference between “personalty” and “realty.” He was absolutely right. Since I had never owned any property and had never heard the term “personalty,” I apparently goofed on one of the exam questions. I looked it up immediately, and ever since then I have known that “personalty is any property that is not realty, and realty is any property that is not personalty.” Being permanently endowed with such vital information, I guess one might credit Bull Warren as having taught me something after all. I don’t recall ever having made use of such profound wisdom.

The course in Contracts was taught by a very learned and respected scholar. Professor Lon Fuller was able to dissect every legal problem and split decision to reach the core thoughts that led reasonable men to reach diverse conclusions. To be able to understand the other fellow’s point of view, no matter how much you might disagree, is an invaluable skill that sometimes helps make life bearable. Lon Fuller honed and sharpened my legal mind. The same could be said of Professor Zachariah Chafee, who taught Ethics. He espoused human rights long before Human Rights was taught. From him I learned about tolerance and the need to treat all human beings justly. The most learned scholar of all my teachers was Roscoe Pound, who started his career as a Botanist, of all things, in Nebraska. His ability to categorize all knowledge into legal systems and his prodigious memory was truly phenomenal. He taught Jurisprudence, which probed the historical origins of different legal schools of thought. He was an old man when I had him as a teacher and he could hardly see. Reading his old notes, he was a bore. As a legal savant he was incomparable and inspiring. Fuller, Chafee, and Pound all marked me as an “A” student and I was grateful to them as great teachers. They also gave me confidence to believe that, if I put my mind to it, I could match the best of the best.

There were also other Professors who helped to shape my thinking. The course on Business Law taught me that corporate directors were employees hired to run businesses with consideration for the legitimate needs of the public, the employees, and the shareholders who owned the company. Any Chief Executive Officer who failed to be guided by those principles might find himself facing criminal charges for “nonfeasance,” not doing his job, “malfeasance,” doing it badly, or “misfeasance,” which was called “corruption.” We learned that contingent fees paid only upon the success of a case were both immoral and illegal. Encouraging clients to sue could be punishable as the common law crime known as “champerty.” If a lawyer advertised, he would be disbarred. I still cherish these teachings that I absorbed at the Harvard Law School. Unfortunately, they have become eroded or forgotten with the passage of time; the legal profession and the public are the worse for it.

For me, life at Harvard was a grind as well as an opportunity. I knew it was my big chance to make something of myself. Other Jewish boys from City College felt the same way. Some of the non-Jewish students had names that began with an initial and ended with a Roman numeral. They wore argyle socks and brown loafers and belonged to fraternities where they drank cocktails. On Sundays they could be seen punting their little boats on the Charles River. Many of those who came from military or private schools could be identified by the fact that they always said “Sir” to begin and end every sentence. It seemed very odd to me, but I learned that being polite doesn’t hurt, and might even make a good impression. I could see from my attic window that some of my classmates drove fancy red convertibles. If I wanted to go home for a holiday, I had to hitchhike. I was never envious. I considered myself very fortunate. The key to happiness was to be aware of my alternatives. It is a lesson I never forgot.

One of the habits I acquired as an infant was to try to eat regularly—if possible. On Sundays, the Commander Hotel, opposite the Law School, featured a special buffet brunch. For fifty cents, there was no limit to what one could devour. That sumptuous brunch could fill my stomach for a few days. To keep from starving for the remainder of the week, I found work as a busboy in the cafeteria of the nearby Divinity School. Just for clearing the tables after meals, I could eat my choice of leftovers. I was so grateful that, years later, I sent them some money to pay for the repasts I had consumed as an impoverished law student. I’m sure that gained me some blessings from various denominations. They put me on their mailing list for Divinity School Bulletins. After many years of reading their interesting ecumenical articles, I felt I could qualify as a Doctor of Divinity. Food for the mind may be even more important than food for the belly. I still read the Harvard Divinity Bulletins for mental nourishment.

My dream of paradise was to find myself lost in the stacks of the Harvard law library. I found such wonderful books to study and so much wisdom in the decisions of towering Judges like Benjamin Nathan Cardozo, Learned Hand, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, that a new world began to open before my eyes. Years later, in my first law office, I hung portraits of those three inspiring legal giants on the wall above my desk. When a visiting judge remarked that the legal greats looked down on me, I replied, “No, I look up to them.” The rough edges of my earlier education began to wear off as I found inspiration in some of the great jurists I most admired.

One of the things I learned from those studies was that man does not live by bread alone. I had to find some way to raise some real bread, otherwise known as cash. I had been elected to the Board of Student Advisers which paid a stipend for coaching students in brief-writing. I found a Federal program that offered small grants to needy students employed as legal assistants to professors. I promptly offered my services to Roscoe Pound. I had often seen him in the library, wearing his green visor while peering closely into some ancient text. I suggested that I might find and read books for him or do anything else to be helpful. He was kindly in his refusal. He explained that knowledge cannot be transmitted second hand through someone else’s head. I then offered my services to Professor Sheldon Glueck, who taught criminology. He and his wife had gained a reputation for their studies of juvenile delinquency. That was my chosen field and I could also point to the fact that I had won a scholarship based on my criminal law exam. I stressed that since the Federal program would pay me for being his assistant, there would be no cost to him. In short, I could be good for nothing. I got the job. Since Glueck was considering writing a book on German aggression and atrocities, my first assignment was to summarize every book in the Harvard library that related to war crimes. That course probably changed the course of my life.