National Security Lawyering Class Meets With D.C. Policymakers

Students in Professors Harold Hongju Koh and Oona Hathaway’s National Security Lawyering class recently took a four-day trip to Washington, D.C., where they met with officials, policymakers, and lawyers in various executive and legislative bodies to present their findings from a semester’s worth of study into deep questions on pressing national security issues.

Koh and Hathaway – two professors with substantial academic and government experience – designed “National Security Lawyering” to give YLS students an opportunity to learn about national security law from those working on the ground in the field. The course is structured as a “cleminar” (mixed clinic/seminar), which aims to break down the barrier that too often exists between academia and practice by bringing students into direct contact with lawyers and policymakers working on national security law issues.

The handpicked group of students were unusual both for their extensive travel abroad as well as their rare “Beltway savvy,” as nearly all had or would work in the government in legal or policy jobs, including as congressional staffers, foreign service officers, military officers, special assistants to high policy officials.

“Professors Koh and Hathaway introduced the class to some remarkable policymakers with hard questions for eager law students—important and pressing questions that they didn’t have time to explore,” explained Michael Shih ’14, who along with Julia Brower ’14 served as a teaching assistant for the course.

The course began in the winter with confidential conversations between individual American policymakers in various federal agencies or branches of government and the YLS students. During these conversations, policymakers identified issues and questions on which outside legal input and research would be valuable. With this background, students were able to select topics for their individual seminar papers that address issues of real importance to national security lawyers. Each student not only wrote the typical 30- to 40-page academic paper, but also wrote a page-long brief version of their argument that they could share with lawyers and policymakers on the ground. The exercise forced students to condense their key contributions into a single page—a useful challenge for students more accustomed to academic writing.

Once the papers and summaries were completed, it was time to travel to D.C. to make presentations to the policymakers who had prompted the original research and writing projects. The officials gained thoughtful, well-researched input on difficult legal topics from some of the country’s top law students, and the students benefitted from the experience of being in a room with those in the business of national security lawyering.

“The policymakers we met with were wowed by our students’ legal insight and political savvy,” Professor Koh said, “after a few years away, I had almost forgotten how unique our students are in their sheer speed of uptake and their ability to separate the most complex legal questions from the delicate policy calls.”