Lunch with Professor Harmon

Kimberly Hopkin '19
Columns Editor

If you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting and learning from Professor Rachel Harmon, then you’re missing an essential perspective. After an extremely diverse academic career at MIT and the London School of Economics, Prof. Harmon changed course and pursued a law degree because she values concrete legal questions and has an innate ability to solve them. After graduating Yale Law School, Prof. Harmon practiced law as a federal prosecutor, helping victims find justice when other authority figures wouldn’t listen to their complaints. It wasn’t a relaxed job; she mostly prosecuted official misconduct of police officers. Sometimes her cases involved excessive force and sexual misconduct. But sitting at lunch with Law Students, she focused the discussion on how she was grateful for the opportunity to empower victims who otherwise felt marginalized. 

Photo courtesy

Photo courtesy

After being a determined and effective prosecutor, it was difficult for us to understand why she would leave that life for academia. To the average student, academia seems less exciting than tackling real-life, gritty cases straight out of “Law & Order” episodes. However, Prof. Harmon described how the transition flowed naturally. Her prosecution job required substantial amounts of travel in order to fully investigate her cases. While she loved the work, it was taxing. When some other employment options reached out to her, she took a step back and decided to consider all her options. Her mind traveled back to an experience she had at trial where she wanted to make an argument in her closing statements comparing two policies. It seemed like an obvious argument for her, but she couldn’t find a law review or journal article that met that idea head on. So, she knew that she had to write about it. 

Prof. Harmon’s transition into academia in 2006 had other benefits as well. She enjoys the ability to influence students she truly believes will take over the world. Prof. Harmon treasures the professor-student relationships here at UVa Law because the law school atmosphere is vastly different from her law school experience. Prof. Harmon and her fellow colleagues vest themselves in the success of bright students who are oriented toward practice. Teaching UVa students energizes her passion for the law. And, considering she practiced Muay Thai and is constantly training for triathlons, you can tell she has a lot of energy.

When asked about her ultimate goal for the students in her classes, she paused and thought deeply. You could tell it was important to her that she communicate her idea precisely and that we fully grasp her response and internalize it. She thinks the ultimate purpose behind our time at law school is developing an ability to look at immense legal issues and then analyze situations and fact patterns deeply. Too many students try to skate by in their classes through skimming cases and pulling quotes that suit their immediate purpose. Prof. Harmon explained that is not what a lawyer should be. For incoming 1Ls, she always encourages them to slow down and avoid panicking during the first part of the year. She has confidence that they will master the basic ability to think like a lawyer by Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, the next two and a half years are so detail oriented that students sometimes forget how deeply they can, and should, analyze a topic. Having a student return to that habit is her ultimate goal. 

For the 3Ls preparing to enter the legal career field, she doesn’t doubt that they will accomplish great things. But, she wants to remind them that, in their legal careers, ethical questions don’t approach you as stark, black-and-white choices. Being truly ethical requires constantly monitoring your interests or choices and aligning those with your responsibilities. Sometimes you won’t be able to realize how important a decision was until hindsight. As the world changes with technological advances and globalization, Prof. Harmon feels that the face of law practice will necessarily change, too. These new challenges may make people feel like their careers are fundamentally different than those that came before; however, the importance of ethical practice is a constant. 

Speaking of changes, when we asked Prof. Harmon about the future of police reform, she responded positively. Although she does have doubts that the same national momentum will continue under the new Administration, she predicts that the momentum will shift to more local initiatives. It might not be centered on constitutional questions, but she does not think the passion we see now will fade away. Prof. Harmon noted that pushes for reform usually occur when crime rates are low, and we need to wait to see whether that number changes in the near future. 

As the lunch came to a close, her last piece of advice was encouraging us to inhabit our own spaces and use our strengths to our advantage. We may not all be intimidating people who can enter a room and pound on a table, but she has learned that those qualities weren’t necessary for her to be successful. Even though other people may insist there’s only one method or route to success, she has seen first-hand that this simply isn’t true.