David Back
J.D. ’16, Harvard Law School

They say that a good lawyer knows the law, and that a great lawyer knows the judge.  I excelled at HLS primarily because I put great effort into getting to know almost every one of my professors inside and outside the classroom.  These relationships have changed my life and they mean a lot to me.  Part of why I continue to excel is because I put great effort into maintaining contact with my teachers and mentors from each stage of life.  This is my greatest single piece of advice to any current student at HLS (or indeed any student anywhere from Hebrew school to high school to Harvard Law School): get to know your teachers and then stay in touch with them.  The decade-long relationship that I have enjoyed with my mentor and good friend, Professor Bill Alford, is one of the most important examples for me, because it is one of the most rewarding relationships in my life.  I am tremendously honored to write about how Professor Alford helped change my life at HLS and beyond.

I took Professor Alford’s course the spring of my 1L year: Comparative Law: Why Law? Lessons from China.  He made an enormous effort to meet every student; taking a small group of us out to lunch each week.  When my turn came for lunch, I confronted the professor with a practical issue on my mind.  “Listen, Professor Alford, it is too late for me; but I want to give you some advice to help your future students.  I am applying for summer jobs right now; and this course title on my transcript is not helping at all.  You could just call it something serious-sounding, like Comparative Law: Chinese Law“.  Instead of addressing my actual concern, Professor Alford displayed a frustrated yet contemplative look on his face and explained that the original title of his course had been Comparative Law: Why Law? Lessons from China? But when the course catalog came out, the final question mark was missing.  As he explained, the course title without the final question mark improperly implied that there were in fact lessons from China; but that he wanted that to be a topic of conversation throughout the course – not a foregone conclusion.  Apparently, there had been such a plague of riddler-professors that either the law school or the university felt compelled to crack down on the wanton use of question marks in course titles.  I am ashamed to admit that at that moment I started considering Cambridge, MA home; and no place I have lived in the decade since then has matched that feeling of belonging somewhere.

Toward the end of the semester, I met with Professor Alford to get his feedback on my nascent idea to start the first car rental company in India.  At the time, cars could only be rented in India with a chauffeur included; and what Indians called “self-drive” car rental (meaning you drive yourself) was only available in the gray market with cash only and no insurance.  My business model combined elements from Hertz, Zipcar, and many others.  One potential objection that Professor Alford raised was that car ownership is a huge status symbol in India, same as in China; and that people would much rather own a car than rent or share.  I replied “Oh come on Professor!  Zipcar and Hertz are American companies.  And there is no country in the World with more of a car culture than the USA!  Have you ever tried to take a date on the bus?  Because let me tell you, Professor, it does not work!”  Professor Alford, the consummate scholar, considered this for a moment and responded “Well David, you realize you need to isolate your variables, don’t you?  Because it may not have been the bus.”  I was rendered speechless.  This quip has a place at the center of the Venn diagram of wittiest, most cerebral, and most devastating insults I have ever heard.  I feel that it is on par with the best from Winston Churchill, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, my older brother, and all of the all-time greats!

The most important preparation I did for each final exam at HLS was to figure out which professors appreciated being challenged and disagreed with and which did not, as well as to figure out which professors appreciated humor and which did not.  Writing an exam for an open-minded and funny professor like Alford was a pleasure!  Early in the summer following my 1L year, I got a very nice email from Professor Alford congratulating me for earning a Dean’s Scholar Prize in his course.  I replied that I was deeply honored with the prize; and I reminded him that I had written in my exam “There are more people who actually believe in Communism on the faculty of Harvard Law School than there are in the Chinese Politburo.”  Professor Alford responded that comment was hardly the most controversial opinion I had expressed; and that I was right anyway.

Writing my sincere, honest opinion of Profess Alford will make me sound like a brainwashed soldier from The Manchurian Candidate: “Prof Alford is one the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I have ever met in my life.”  But this is how I feel; and how everyone who really knows Prof Alford feels as well.

I was an RA in the dorms my 2L and 3L years, and one of the first things I learned from one of my residents the week before my 2L year began warmed my heart.  I was in the dorms for new student move-in; and I spoke with one of my hall residents, an LLM from Pakistan.  I commented that I hadn’t seen her at a lot of orientation events; and I wanted to check-in to make sure everything was ok.  She told me that everything was just fine – but far more complicated than I perceived on the surface.  It was Ramadan; and many of the Muslim students didn’t feel entirely comfortable at the many orientation events that centered on food while they were fasting.  But, she assured me, it was OK.  Professor Alford was leading an after-sundown dinner for new Muslim HLS students every single night during orientation that year, so that nobody felt excluded.  Year after year, I try to keep that example in my mind as a simple yet magnificent gesture of empathy.  And year after year, I try to keep in mind the many other examples of deep connection on a personal level that transcended all possible cultural boundaries that I saw Professor Alford perform.  When I brought this story up to him recently, Professor Alford said how proud he was of those dinners – and how much fun they were!  He said that at one of the dinners one year, students from 15 different countries attend, showing the diversity not only of HLS but of Islam as well.

All 3 years I spent at HLS, I saw Professor Alford make special outreach to dozens of individual students who felt marginalized at one time or another, and to hundreds of students who may have felt marginalized as a group.  During my 2L and 3L years, I attended many orientation events for LLMs and international students.  I don’t believe that I ever failed to spot Prof Alford there as well.  Here I want to give my second, more HLS-specific piece of advice to current students: All 3 years at Harvard Law, I made a huge effort to be friends with each LLM class.  All of that time was well spent!  I now have an amazing network of interesting lawyer friends from Panama to Singapore (and far beyond – East, West, North, and South).  I find lack of mingling between the JD and LLM classes to be one of the greatest wasted opportunities at HLS.

I could write forever about how many times over the past 10 years Professor Alford has given me advice about deeply difficult questions of how to cope with serious career setbacks and how to deal with serious family loss.  I could write forever with examples of HLS students whose lives he changed.  I could write forever about his charitable work with the Special Olympics and the Harvard Disability Project.  I literally have tears in my eyes while I write this, remember all of the ways he improved my life and the lives of many students around me, and think about his retirement as Vice-Dean for the Graduate Program and International Legal Studies at Harvard Law School.

I am just happy that Prof Alford is continuing to teach at HLS.  And I am thrilled that Vice-Dean Alford is being replaced by Vice-Dean Mark Wu.  Professor Wu joined the faculty of HLS my 3L year.  Professor Alford arranged a meeting between us and explained to me that he expected Professor Wu to take his place at HLS eventually, and that he expected Prof Wu to much sooner surpass him in wisdom.  I cannot imagine a better successor to Vice-Dean Alford; and I do not think Vice-Dean Alford can imagine a better successor either.

When the news came that Dean Martha Minnow was retiring, several of my classmates emailed me urging me to lead a campaign to make Professor Alford the next Dean of HLS.  I emailed him with their encouragement and mine.  But Professor Alford demurred, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family.  I tried to threaten him, saying that if he didn’t accept the endorsement of my ‘Draft Bill Alford” campaign, I was going to throw the entire weight of my HLS alumni political machine behind “Draft Charlie Nesson.” Professor Alford called my bluff, sending an official letter to the search committee stating explicitly that no matter how many alumni petitioned them, he was not at all interested in the job – something along the lines of “If nominated I will not run.  If elected I will not serve.”  Unfortunately, while I do think my political machine could have pushed Bill Alford over the edge; we fell just short on Charlie Nesson.  I want everybody reading this to understand that I think John F Manning is doing a PHENOMENAL job as Dean; and I also want them to know that he was my 3rd choice.

I will close with 5 more pieces of advice for HLS students that I know will make Professor Alford proud. Firstly, try to be Harvard University students and not just HLS students: take classes at other Harvard schools, make friends at other Harvard schools, study in the libraries of different Harvard schools, be a teaching fellow for a undergrad class, or find the thousands of other ways to get involved in the broader university.  Get to know the multi-disciplinary hubs around Harvard’s campus (the absolute best deal on coffee & tea in all of Cambridge is the Gato Rojo in the basement of GSAS hub Dudley House and the best deal on beer & wine in all of Cambridge is the Queenshead Pub in the basement of Memorial Hall).  Secondly, when you are feeling really down during final exams, take a walk into Harvard Yard to see tourists from around the World braving the New England weather to look at the most famous center of learning in the World in the last 100+ years.   Just remember that you actually get to learn there!  Thirdly, when you graduate, get involved with your local alumni communities.  Fourthly, come back for your 5 and 10 year reunions (and beyond).  Finally, don’t let either Harvard or yourselves ever rest on your laurels!  It actually isn’t ok (and it never was) that there are more people who actually believe in Communism on the faculty of Harvard Law School than there are in the Chinese Politburo.  I am sure that each of you has opinions about other things that are not ok that you should speak up about too!