In the fall of 1986, Harris arrived on campus at Hastings a week before most of her classmates. She was part of the pre-orientation Legal Education Opportunity Program (LEOP), which had been founded in 1969 to help law students from disadvantaged communities navigate the stringent demands of the first-year curriculum. 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 a cut-throat environment.
“There was already a disadvantage that we didn’t know how things like wills and trusts and intestacy would affect real people,” Matsuda, who met Harris through LEOP, says. “It was a big learning curve for a lot of us.”
In a class of about 125 LEOP first-years, Harris quickly made an impression on Richard Sakai, a professor of leadership who was then the program’s director. Even now, he can picture the lawyer-to-be, with her “very polite” and “reserved” demeanor, sitting to the far right of the very last row in the auditorium, listening intently but not saying much.
“She was very intense. … It was almost like still waters,” he told me. “You could tell she was absorbing and taking everything in.”
After LEOP, Harris took the same classes 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 fellow student and tutored Harris and Matsuda in torts. As she got used to the rhythm of law school, she also became more involved in BLSA, where Sakai recalls that she became more vocal about the issues that law students — especially Black students and other minorities — faced on campus.
Unusually early in her law school career, Harris became president of BLSA during her second year — a position that entailed representing and advocating for Black law students on campus. BLSA was founded in 1968 at New York University School of Law to “increase the number of culturally responsible Black and minority attorneys,” according to the organization’s national website, and its chapters have become the go-to affinity spaces for Black students at U.S. law schools. From organizing pre-law conferences designed to attract Black college seniors, to frequently leading the response to acts of racism on campus, BLSA members volunteer what free time they have to push for increased 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 forefront,” Sakai says of Harris. She attended monthly meetings that he hosted with the heads of the other campus affinity groups. As president of BLSA, Harris also had the attention of deans and administrators who wanted to improve the diversity of the student body. In particular, she pushed the admissions office to dedicate more resources to the retention of students from communities underrepresented in the legal community, including ethnic minorities. Sakai and Matsuda said members of affinity groups like BLSA and the Asian Pacific American Law Student Association, of which Matsuda was president, also interviewed some applicants and made recommendations to the law school about whom to admit.
“I never thought of [Harris] as a moderate,” recalls Veronica Eady, another classmate, who is now an executive policy and equity officer at the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. “She often talked about her parents, and she often talked about civil rights. And I took those things to mean that she was progressive.” Still, Eady says, “She was somebody that people wanted to know — it was clear that she was an important person or going to be an important person.”
In those days, Hastings had emerged as a prestigious perch for aspiring litigators as the elite private law schools churned out corporate lawyers, according to Matsuda. (Michelle Obama, for instance, became an associate at Sidley Austin after graduating from Harvard Law School in 1988.) Smack in the middle of San Francisco, Hastings lay within a block of the local trial court, the federal courthouse, the California Supreme Court and City Hall. Public figures frequented the school for speeches, as well. One Senator Biden from Delaware gave a speech on campus during Harris’ last semester, telling students he planned to run for president again in the future, after having dropped out of the 1988 race. Rev. Jesse Jackson was Harris’ commencement speaker.