There’s a joke that says the only way to get in to Yale Law School is to spend a year building huts in Central America.
The joke perhaps epitomizes Yale’s reputation for combining extreme selectivity with a dedication to public service.
“Yale’s commitment to public service is old and deep,” Law School Dean Anthony Kronman said. “Yale Law School stands for two things: a kind and degree of intellectual adventurousness and a commitment to public service that views the law as an instrument of social improvement.”
Despite the school’s reputation, graduates of the Law School have not immediately flocked to public service jobs at a greater rate than students at other top schools. And many students accept jobs in the more financially secure world of corporate law. But a recent career development survey conducted by the Law School indicates that five years after graduation the number of Yale alumni in public service skyrockets.
Breaking down the reputation
Overall, Yale continues to attract students who seek careers in public interest fields, as well as people who want to practice at firms but want to be in an educational community that places a high value on public interest.
Kronman said Yale’s reputation for public interest law goes back to the 1930s, when professors working on New Deal projects commuted from Washington, D.C., to New Haven and involved students in their plans.
Yale also has a reputation for providing its students with a broad and liberal, academic and theoretical education.
“Yale people are thought to become policy-makers and think-tank analysts rather than lawyers,” Robert Huelin ’98, a third-year student at Columbia Law School, said. “‘Nobody who comes out of Yale practices law’ is the common refrain. Instead, Yale lawyers found schools or work for government or international agencies. Or they become academic lawyers.”
New York University Law School, like Yale, is known for its dedication to public interest law, Huelin said. NYU, though, is known for being the place for grass-roots activists — “a place for people who want to practice law for the poor or the [American Civil Liberties Union].”
According to popular perception, he added, a Yale graduate is more likely to take a deputy-level administrative position in the office of the mayor.
“Yale has a reputation for producing high-level public service rather than practicing lawyers,” Huelin said.
Anna Rich LAW ’03 comes from a family of lawyers and every one of them works in public interest law.
“When I think of what a lawyer is, that’s it,” she said. “To me, it’s a helping profession, and that’s what I was choosing — not corporate anything.”
Rich said she was attracted to Yale Law School because she knew it would draw classmates with interests similar to her own.
“[Yale's reputation] made me think I wouldn’t be the only person interested in public service who went there,” she said.
When she graduates this year, Rich will work in a public interest field, and she said this choice was made easier by Yale’s loan repayment program.
The Career Options Assistance Program is intended to cover the shortfall between graduates’ loan payments and what they can afford to pay from the relatively smaller incomes of public interest careers. The program is open to all Law School graduates at any time within 10 years of their graduation.
If graduates’ incomes are less than $40,000, they have no repayment obligation. If they earn over $40,000, they pay 25 percent of any income over $40,000.
As is the case with many Law School students pursuing careers in public interest, Rich said she was never tempted to work for a firm.
“It would be different if I had a family depending on me or was less sure of what I want to do,” she said.
Toward public service — slowly
But is Yale really as public service-oriented as it is widely believed to be?
When looking at the immediate post-graduation employment statistics, it appears that the answer is no.
While only 7 percent of Yale Law School’s Class of 2002 started public interest jobs after graduation, including work in government, 42 percent went to work for law firms.
“The law firm life allows people to feel that they are getting the most value out of their extremely expensive education,” Leon Fresco LAW ’03 said.
Forty-four percent of the Law School Class of 2002 took judicial clerkships, one-year positions of legal research and assisting judges. Two percent chose general corporation work, 2.5 percent accepted employment in academia, and another 2 percent pursued advanced degrees.
Yale’s rate of public service employment directly after graduation is not notably different than the rate at other schools.
Five percent of Harvard Law School’s Class of 2001 entered public interest careers after graduation and 8.33 percent of Stanford Law School’s Class of 2000 did public service work after graduation. Six and a half percent of Boston University Law School’s Class of 2000 took jobs in public interest fields after graduation.
In 2000, the percentage of Yale graduates taking public interest jobs was 5 percent. Some students were still pursuing work when the statistics were tabulated.
Rich said she thinks Yale’s strength is that it leaves students with a wide variety of choices.
“It’s not a great public interest school per se,” she said. “But it’s a good school with lots of options.”
While Yale includes government under the category of public interest, some law schools’ surveys do not. Many of the statistics reported here from other schools combine their separate categories of government and public interest.
For example, 12 percent of Georgetown Law School’s Class of 2000 accepted government positions, and 4 percent went to work for public interest organizations. Under Yale’s classification, this would mean that 16 percent of Georgetown’s Class of 2000 went to work in public interest law, while only 6.4 percent of the Yale graduates from the same year took jobs in public interest law.
But one possible explanation is that a large percentage of Yale Law School graduates take judicial clerkship positions right after graduation.
“[Clerkships] are useful because they add knowledge about the practical side of the law, and many students use them as springboards toward positions in academia,” Fresco said.
According to employment reports on recent graduates from law schools like Georgetown, Boston University, Cornell and the University of Michigan, about 10 to 20 percent of the class usually take clerkship positions, compared to 44 percent of the Yale Class of 2002.
Another possible explanation is that what graduates do right after school does not necessarily translate to what career they will choose a few years later.
“Things are different 10 years after they graduate than they are one year after,” said Kelly Voight, the director of the private sector at Yale Law School’s Career Development Office.
Last year, the Yale Law School conducted its first Fifth Year Career Development Survey. While many law schools record their graduates’ post-graduation plans, most do not follow up with their students years after graduation, when the alumni hold more permanent positions.
In general, the findings of the Fifth Year Survey of the Class of 1996 support the idea that Yale sends many of its graduates into public service careers — eventually.
While 41 percent of the responding members of the Class of 1996 now work for law firms, 35 percent of the respondents work in public service.
The high percentage employed in public service is not immediately evident from the students’ employment plans in June 1996: at that time, about 35 percent of the class took positions at law firms and only 7.4 percent were going to work in public interest law.
Yale conducted a second survey this summer, but the Career Development Office has not yet summarized the results.
The Columbia Law School conducts a similar fifth-year survey of its students.
About 59 percent of Columbia’s Class of 1997 reported working in law firms, while only about 4 percent reported working in public interest fields.
In contrast to Yale’s Class of 1996′s rising employment rate in public service jobs during the years after graduation, a slightly higher percentage of Columbia’s Class of 1997 was employed in public service just after graduation than five years later. Of Columbia’s Class of 1997, 67.3 percent were going to work in law firms after graduation, while 5.5 percent were going to work in public interest jobs.
Yale’s survey received a 55 percent response rate, while the Columbia report listed the employment of about 76 percent of its 1997 graduates.
In addition to the statistical uncertainly caused by the incomplete responses, it can be difficult to discuss professional choices in absolute terms.
“It’s very hazardous to talk about it in any global or statistical terms,” said Toni Hahn Davis, the associate dean of the Law School. “A lot of graduates work for firms but do pro bono work, so it’s not so easily defined.”
The money issue
There are, however, drawbacks to a career in public service, especially for someone with educational loans. Many Yale Law School graduates, though they appreciate the public interest atmosphere of the school, opt to work for large firms that will provide them with high salaries.
“Ultimately, my feeling is that it is very easy to talk about wanting to work in the public interest sector, but it is an extremely difficult commitment to work as hard or harder than one’s classmates and still not be able to take care of yourself and your family,” Fresco said.
Fresco, however, will pursue a career in public interest law after working as a judicial clerk.
He said, though, that some of his classmates choose academia over corporate law or public service law.
“Academia provides a more comfortable life and salary while being able to theoretically argue that one is helping the public through their research,” Fresco said.
There are plenty of Yale Law School students who plan to work in large law firms once they are out of school. As the most selective law school in the country, Yale continues to turn out graduates who large firms want to hire.
“Yale students are in great demand,” said Bonnie Hurry, the director of recruiting at Davis, Polk and Wardwell. “They are a terrific group with lots of opportunities, both legal and non-legal careers, available to them.”
After graduating from college, Tim Doherty LAW ’03 worked in a New York City public middle school. Older than many of his Yale classmates, Doherty came to Yale because he saw drawbacks to teaching as a career path and desired the career mobility and options that a law degree would afford him. He has accepted a job offer at Skadden Arps, where he worked this summer.
Because he is getting married soon and his fiancee is returning to school, financial concerns have helped motivate his decision to accept the offer.
“Now I have someone else to consider as well, and my fiancee has been very supportive of me during my time in law school,” he said. “We’ll need money, and a private practice is very attractive. Yale is good with loans, but there are other expenses, and the salaries for young people are extremely high.”
Although he is going to work for a large firm in New York, Doherty resists absolute categorization in terms of career choice.
“People tend to think in terms of absolutes — like, this is it, I’ll always be a public interest lawyer, or I’m going to work for a big law firm and that’s it,” he said. “But as the reality of the situation approaches, there are a lot of gray areas.”