Should HLS Prawf Ron Sullivan Wear Both Hats?

[Ed. Note: As noted in the comments, this post is flawed in that Winthrop House is an undergrad dorm, and as far as the available information shows, this protest is by undergraduate students, not law students.]

Students at Harvard Law School have gained a bad reputation. Too social justice warrior, not enough lawyer. But when one of their prawfs announced he was taking on an outside gig as part of the Harvey Weinstein legal team following Ben Brafman’s falling out, what did he expect to happen?

Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood film producer who has been accused of sexual misconduct by dozens of women, has hired Harvard Law School professor and Winthrop House Faculty Dean Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr. to represent him in his Manhattan sexual abuse case.

Sullivan — who heads the Law School’s Criminal Justice Institute — will serve on Weinstein’s legal team with lawyers Jose Baez and Pamela Mackey.

If the choice of lawyers strikes you as, well, peculiar, you’re not alone, particularly for a case prosecuted in New York County Supreme Court. But defendants get to make choices, for better or worse, and complain about them later when it becomes obvious that they were exceptionally poor. This is America, and a defendant is entitled to counsel of choice, provided he can afford them and they are willing to undertake the defense. And Ron Sullivan decided to take the case.

“I am pleased to confirm that I, along with Jose Baez and Pamela Mackey, have been retained by Harvey Weinstein,” Sullivan wrote.

Sullivan also wrote that he looks forward to defending Weinstein, pointing to the producer’s continued claim of innocence.

“Mr. Weinstein steadfastly maintains his innocence in this matter and we are looking forward to assisting Mr. Weinstein in his defense,” Sullivan wrote in the email.

Everything he says is certainly correct, and just because Weinstein is assumed guilty by so many doesn’t mean he’s any less entitled to a zealous defense. There is nothing whatsoever improper about a lawyer defending an accused, even if he’s hated. Indeed, the most hated are the defendants for whom the right to counsel is most important.

But while Sullivan is a defense lawyer, that’s not his day job.

More than 50 students called for College administrators to remove Winthrop Faculty Dean Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr., from his post at a rally in front of Massachusetts Hall Monday afternoon.

Toting signs that read “Do Your Job” and “Remove Sullivan,” attendees laid out a set of demands for Harvard administrators. They called for Sullivan’s removal, a public apology, and a formal inquiry into faculty deans’ responsibilities to students.

It would be fair to ponder the question of how Harvard Law failed its students by not instilling in them an understanding and appreciation of the presumption of innocence, for having already concluded that Weinstein is a guilty pariah, the conflict arises. But this comes as no surprise, as HLS is long on passionate students and short on wise ones.

Even so, these students may have a disingenuous grasp of the Bill of Rights, but they remain the students admitted to law school. As such, are they wrong to question whether a prawf who has taken an engagement they find reprehensible, so utterly contrary to their social justice sensibilities, to be someone who should be holding the post of Winthrop Faculty Dean?

“Your role is not just in filing paperwork or smiling in our faces. Your role is to deal with the culture that you establish as a Faculty Dean. So Dean Sullivan, please reconcile how you can care about sexual assault and at the same time, have claims against a Harvard affiliate being nothing more than coaching?” she said. “You are a faculty dean, not just an attorney.”

Despite HLS students having minds of mush, they are what they are, and need a faculty dean to whom they can turn for tummy rubs and hugs when their sensibilities are traumatized. Can Ron Sullivan do his dean job and wipe away their tears while defending Harvey Weinstein? At a law school, particularly Harvard, one should view this as a teaching experience, an opportunity to teach the students that how they feel and what lawyers do will give rise to a great many conflicts.

But having already encouraged students to reject constitutional rights in favor of social justice, to obsess over their feelings and sprain no body part by thinking, their complaint is entirely understandable. It’s not that Sullivan is wrong at all, but given the prevailing perspective at HLS, there wasn’t a chance in hell the students would have the capacity to rise above their tears.

There was a time when law students would take pride in a professor defending an accused, without regard to how horrible the crime, knowing that their teacher, their house dean, was doing in real life what he taught them in a classroom. Not only is that no longer the case, but it reflects what sort of lawyers they will become when they flip their tassels.

As for other Harvard Law prawfs, this is a lesson that shouldn’t be ignored. Something about sowing and reaping. There is no compromise on constitutional rights when it fails to align with their feelings that won’t come back to bite you in the butt. If you have any hope of being a lawyer on occasion, or even writing about ideas that defy your students’ expectations of social justice, they may well call for your dismissal as they do for Ron Sullivan’s. And, from their perspective, it makes complete sense.

You can’t have it both ways. Either you’re teaching law or you’re indulging their feelings. If you don’t hand them a dime, they’re going to hand one to you.

32 thoughts on “Should HLS Prawf Ron Sullivan Wear Both Hats?

  1. Steve Brecher

    The “dime” metaphor in the last para. is lost on me. All that comes to mind is “dropping a dime on [someone]” from ancient times.

    1. wilbur

      Professor Kingsfield:
      Mister Hart, here is a dime. Take it, call your mother, and tell her there is serious doubt about you ever becoming a lawyer.

      James Hart:
      [pause, as he is leaving the room] You… are a SON OF A BITCH, Kingsfield.

      Professor Kingsfield:
      Mr. Hart! That is the most intelligent thing you’ve said all day. You may take your seat.

  2. Charles

    While it is sad that the best and brightest don’t understand anything about American jurisprudence, this doesn’t appear to be related to HLS. Winthrop is an undergraduate house and the two students quoted in the article are undergraduates, one aspiring to study film. And we all know how much movie directors stay faithful to the law.

    1. SHG Post author

      That’s an interesting point, if this was limited exclusively to the undergrads at Winthrop. Do you think the HLS students, then, support Sullivan? Were they there to tell the undergrads to chill out, that they were wrong and childish?

      1. paleo

        When you were In your early 20s would you have wanted to put yourself in front of an outraged mob of the woke? No thanks. I’ll stay home for some pizza, beer, and Star Trek reruns, thank you very much. Somebody else can sort it out.

        1. SHG Post author

          Does anyone suspect the law students disagreed with the undergrads, even if it remains unclear whether they were standing beside them at the protest?

          1. paleo

            I dunno. I’d suspect it’s like any other group. Some did and some didn’t. Those that agreed with the undergrads, at least some of them anyway, were probably in the crowd and just weren’t specifically identified in the article. Those that weren’t probably stayed as far away as they could manage.

            I’m disappointed that (apparently) nobody pointed out to the mob how many similarities they share with the lynch mobs from a hundred years ago that they say they abhor.

      2. Charles

        There still is hope. In another Crimson op-ed, Harvard (non-law) student Andrews Lang clearly gets it:

        “I am terrified by the prospect that we may be nearing a day when defense attorneys feel the need to think twice before providing legal representation, because they may be subjected to public humiliation simply for doing their job. If this is ever the case, there will be no distinction between a trial by public opinion and a trial in a court of law. The onslaught of negative publicity for a lawyer will be so costly that few good attorneys will want to defend those who — for one reason or another — have been presumed guilty by a public majority. Such individuals will find no advocate in the court of law, and the integrity of our legal system will cease to exist.”

        But then the Crimson editorial board clearly doesn’t, trying to have it both ways and reducing Sullivan’s principles to mere feelings in the process:

        “We recognize the validity of Sullivan’s sense of moral imperative as a defense attorney. His track record as a notable defender of those who have been prematurely condemned by the court of public opinion is a testament to the genuine nature of that feeling. In choosing this representation, however, he overlooks another moral imperative: his duty to foster an open and safe environment for all Winthrop residents.”

        So former merely is a “sense” of moral imperative, while the latter is an actual moral imperative? And here I was thinking that feelz were all that matters.

  3. Guitardave

    “…If you don’t hand them a dime, they’re going to hand one to you.”
    ..and it will be the last one that you don’t have to ask for.

  4. Patrick Maupin

    Winthrop House houses undergrads, not just (or maybe not at all) law students.

    Sullivan may be playing a long game here.

  5. Hunting Guy

    Noam Chomsky.

    “Some may remember, if you have good memories, that there used to be a concept in Anglo-American law called a presumption of innocence, innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Now that’s so deep in history that there’s no point even bringing it up, but it did once exist.”

  6. szr

    Thank you for writing about this issue. This article is practically an omnibus account of everything wrong with Title IX sex policing.

    The article notes that: “Dean of Students Katherine G. O’Dair and Harvard College Title IX coordinator Emily J. Miller watched the protest and spoke with students afterward. The Office for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response also set up a table with hot chocolate and handouts for attendees.”

    I am astonished that the Title IX coordinator would be so brazen. A university administrative office endorsing and assisting a student protest against a member of the faculty and dean?! This egregious action also seems retalitory—the article notes that “Sullivan called Harvard’s investigations into Title IX complaints against Fryer ‘deeply flawed and deeply unfair.'”

    You conclude that “given the prevailing perspective at HLS, there wasn’t a chance in hell the students would have the capacity to rise above their tears.” That is especially true when the Title IX apparatchiks openly and actively work against using this as a teaching experience.

  7. Jake

    It’s fair to ask what a faculty dean actually does around Harvard. That question could be asked of many in the Provost’s office

  8. Matthew Scott Wideman

    “You are a faculty dean, not just an attorney.”. I would hope anyone leaving an ivy league law school would know that he is a zealous advocate for his client’s first, and a Dean second.

    After all, there are no licensing requirements for Deans. It appears all you need is a sweater and an “open door policy”.

  9. Richard Kopf


    The “Welcome” to the Winthrop House web site begins with these words: “If the Harvard College House System is best compared to Hogwarts, then Winthrop is definitely the Gryffindor of the 12 undergraduate Houses of Harvard College. We both share the lion as our mascot and focus of our shield.”

    So, I am somewhat surprised, as a man of erudiation, that you fail to understand that you are endeavoring to parse the thoughts and actions of wizards in training. Even my 9 year old grandaughter understands that the stock in trade of wizards, even wizards in training, is magical thinking.

    All the best.


  10. Harvey A. Silverglate

    The flaw in your argument is that the students in the house where Prof Sullivan is the Faculty Dean are all undergrads, not law students. I would not expect that law students would react as these undergrads reacted to Sullivan’s being lawyer for Weinstein. I am very curious whether students at the Harvard Law School share the undergrads’ disdain for the traditional and ethical work of a criminal defense lawyer. If we begin to hear such prattle from law students, then we are in worse trouble than we thought.

    1. SHG Post author

      My flaw has been pointed out to me. That said, I checked to see what I could find from law students, pro or con, and I see no law students attacking him, but none defending him either. I’m unable to ascertain whether law students have signed the petition condemning Sullivan and demanding his dismissal from Winthrop House. What that means is unclear.

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