In the fall of 1986, Harris arrived on the Hastings campus a week before most of her classmates. She was part of the Legal Education Opportunity Program (LEOP) pre-orientation program, which was founded in 1969 to help law students from underprivileged communities navigate the strict requirements of the first-year program. Harris had come to a predominantly white institution after four years at a historically black university. Beyond introducing students to Socratic pedagogy, case briefing and exam taking, the pre-orientation also gave students of color a sense of community and a hamlet of solidarity in an environment relentless.
“There was already a downside that we didn’t know how things like wills, trusts and intestate inheritance would affect real people,” said Matsuda, who met Harris via LEOP. “It was a big learning curve for a lot of us.”
In a class of about 125 first LEOP years, Harris quickly made an impression on Richard Sakai, a leadership teacher who was then the program director. Even now, he can imagine the future lawyer, with her “very polite” and “reserved” demeanor, sitting on the far right of the very last row of the auditorium, listening intently but not saying much.
“She was very intense. … It was almost like calm waters, ”he told me. “You could tell she was absorbing and taking it all.”
After LEOP, Harris took the same courses that still dominate the first-year legal curriculum today: Civil Procedure, Contracts, and Property, among others. The late Jeff Adachi, a career public defender who worked opposite Harris when she was a prosecutor, was a classmate and taught Harris and Matsuda about misdemeanors. As she got used to the pace of law school, she also became more involved in the BLSA, where Sakai recalls speaking out more about the issues facing law students – especially black students and other minorities – were faced on campus.
Unusually early in her law school career, Harris became president of the BLSA in her sophomore year – a position that involved representing and advocating for black law students on campus. The BLSA was founded in 1968 at New York University Law School to “increase the number of culturally responsible black and minority lawyers,” according to the organization’s national website, and its chapters have become the essential affinity spaces for black American law students. schools. Whether it’s hosting law-prep conferences designed to attract black students in their final year of college, or frequently leading the response to acts of racism to Campus, BLSA members volunteer their free time to raise awareness of the challenges black people face in the legal profession, as well as the law’s disparate impact on black communities.
“It was in the second year that all of a sudden she was more in the foreground,” Sakai says of Harris. She attended the monthly meetings that he facilitated with the leaders of the other affinity groups on campus. As president of BLSA, Harris also caught the attention of deans and administrators who wanted to improve the diversity of the student body. In particular, she pushed the admissions office to devote more resources to the retention of students from under-represented communities in the legal community, including ethnic minorities. Sakai and Matsuda said that members of affinity groups such as the BLSA and the Association of American Asian and Pacific Law Students, of which Matsuda was president, also interviewed some candidates and made recommendations to the faculty. of right on the persons to be admitted.
“I never thought of [Harris] as a moderate, ”recalls Veronica Eady, another classmate, who is now responsible for executive policy and fairness at the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. “She often spoke of her parents and she often spoke of civil rights. And I understood that these things meant that she was progressive. Still, Eady says, “She was someone people wanted to know – it was clear that she was an important person or was going to be an important person.”
By this time, Hastings had become a prestigious perch for aspiring litigants as elite private law schools produced corporate lawyers, according to Matsuda. (Michelle Obama, for example, became a partner at Sidley Austin after graduating from Harvard Law School in 1988.) Right in the middle of San Francisco, Hastings was a block from the local trial court , Federal Courthouse, California Supreme Court. and the town hall. Public figures also attended the school for speeches. A Delaware Senator Biden gave a speech on campus during Harris’ final semester, telling students he was planning to run for president again in the future, after dropping out of the 1988 race. Reverend Jesse Jackson was Harris’ opening speaker.