Corey Linehan is a two-time Dispute Systems Design Clinic alumnus who graduated from Harvard Law School in 2018.
Nowadays, Corey is a legislative assistant in the office of U.S. Senator Christopher A. Coons, where his work focuses on health and education policy, as well as an adjunct professor in the Master of Leadership & Negotiation Program at Bay Path University. We recently caught up with Corey to hear how he has taken his law school learnings into his current career in the U.S. government.
HNMCP: You spent two semesters working with HNMCP on a project with the DC Office of the Ombudman for Public Education, an independent, neutral office that works to ensure equal access to education for the approximately 88,000 students attending District of Columbia Public Schools and Public Charter Schools. You, and your project partners Kelsey Curtis and Sara Leiman, were engaged to assess the effectiveness of its current ombudsman program and make recommendations for improvement, and then from those recommendations, to help the Office further develop tools and processes for bridging the communication gap between schools, families, and other key stakeholders. What kinds of challenges did you face in this work? What surprised you? What sweet spots did this project hit for you?
Corey Linehan: Working with the Ombudsman for Public Education was a dream project, as the challenge we tackled was right at the intersection of my interests in education and in dispute resolution and systems design. The very existence of the ombuds office was both surprising and intriguing. As a former high school teacher who had never seen a resource quite like it, the potential value of a third-party neutral to families and educators immediately struck me as enormous.
In the first phase of our work, we realized that disputes about special education services were common, implicated serious equity questions, and posed distinct challenges. The law around services for students with special needs is incredibly complex, and it also creates its own dispute resolution system that each state implements somewhat differently. It was a particular challenge to design recommendations that complied with this substantive law, protected students’ rights, satisfied the interests of a diverse range of stakeholders, and helped the office offer a unique value proposition in the system.
HNMCP: What did you learn about yourself and your career interests over the course of the project?
CL: The project helped me appreciate how much I am energized by work that connects conversations with people about their frustrations and aspirations with systems-level thinking about what to do with those experiences and interests. This takeaway is one of the factors that led me to the Hill after graduation.
Our project also crystalized how important both the human and the legal elements of conflict are. Our efforts to navigate both during the project reinforced my desire to pursue work that exploits the principles and skills of dispute resolution and allows me to develop and draw on a specific body of substantive knowledge, rather than pursuing more generalist roles.
HNMCP: Can you trace any particular influences that led you to study negotiation? Given the range of clinic options available at HLS, why did you choose the Dispute Systems Design Clinic?
CL: I found extremely jolting the contrast between passing my days with my fair share of teenage drama as a high school teacher and with the distant, Socratic questions of the 1L curriculum. When you talk to the two kids arguing in the hallway, you’re not breaking down the disagreement into abstract elements. In the HLS classroom, we would discuss and debate cases in ways that refined my thinking and, with some frequency, felt far removed from the experiences and needs of the actual people from whose lives the facts were drawn. The Negotiation Workshop provided language and frameworks that allowed for similar rigor in thinking through conflict holistically. Especially given how few disputes ever make it to court, never mind present the kind of questions for appellate review that 1L classes tend to explore, that was incredibly exciting. Enrolling in the clinic seemed a natural way to begin applying some of those lessons to my own work.
HNMCP: What on-the-ground skills learned in the DSD Clinic and other dispute resolution spaces at Harvard Law are you using in your day-to-day work now with the Senate?
CL: Two mindsets that run throughout the dispute resolution courses at HLS show up in my work every day. The first is the mantra that exploring underlying interests, rather than trading positions, can allow you to unlock and create value. My work focuses on health and education policy, areas in which people often bring a deeply personal lens, and that’s true whether you are an advocate, a staff member, or an elected official. Understanding what matters to people underneath their talking points is key to finding paths forward.
The second is the idea that we all have core concerns (thank you, Beyond Reason) that may interact with or operate independently of our substantive interests. It’s not unusual to find myself in conversations about profound differences in strategy, policy perspectives, or first-order principles. Checking in on whether I’m minding those concerns helps keep those conversations productive.
HNMCP: What does a typical workday look like for you?
The unpredictability of events these days makes routine hard to come by, but three related themes show up most days. I spend a lot of time meeting with constituents and advocates and learning about their experiences, passions, and goals. Those conversations then form a lot of the background for the analyses and recommendations I ultimately prepare for my boss and become important touchpoints when negotiating different policy options with staff in other offices.
HNMCP: What advice might you give to student who want to center dispute resolution skills in their career?
CL: Be creative and reflective. There’s no single path for careers that center dispute resolution skills, which means there are many doors you can open even as it can make them harder to find. Take time to think about the chapters from your dispute resolution classes and work at HLS that most captivated you. When did you find yourself obsessing over your clinical project? A negotiation roleplay? A facilitation? What was it about those moments that so motivated you? The answers to those questions point to interests that can help you identify opportunities that will allow you to practice dispute resolution in the ways that matter most to you.