In 1992, Yale Law School was everywhere.
Clarence Thomas LAW ’74 had just been confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court. Harris Wofford’s LAW ’54 Senate victory in Pennsylvania energized the Democratic Party. Pat Robertson LAW ’55 spoke at the Republican Convention. Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent LAW ’63 sparred with team owners. And Bill Clinton LAW ’73 was elected president of the United States.
“Almost every event on which national attention focused this year seems to have had a Yale Law School label,” then-Dean Guido Calabresi ’53 LAW ’58 wrote to alumni.
But recent shake-ups on the Yale Law School’s faculty and the adoption of Yale’s definitive pass/fail grading policy by other schools have left some professors, students and observers wondering whether Yale can continue to distinguish itself from its top-ranked peers and attract the best scholars and students, or whether Yale’s days atop the law school pecking order may be coming to an end.
‘All Yale all the time’
The next president of the United States may well turn out to be a Harvard Law graduate, but Yale Law School Dean Harold Hongju Koh said he is not worried about Yale’s historically unique influence on national politics and policy.
Echoing Yale Law School’s prominent role in the civil rights movement — a role personified by figures such as President Johnson’s attorney general, Nicholas Katzenbach LAW ’47 — the school today is at the cutting edge of gay rights and international human rights, professor Bill Eskridge LAW ’78 said.
Eskridge pointed to recent landmark cases such as Lawrence v. Texas and Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, which were “all Yale all the time,” populated by attorneys and brief-writers who were Yale Law School professors and alumni.
Last semester, three students of Anupam Chander LAW ’92 — then a visiting professor at Yale, who is now visiting at the University of Chicago Law School — all penned opinions that were published in The Washington Post.
“There’s a lot of involvement with the most pressing issues of the day,” Chander said.
Moreover, Yale produces and will continue to produce many of legal academia’s top scholars, Calabresi said in an interview. Roughly as many Yale Law graduates enter academia as do Harvard Law graduates, even though Harvard is three times larger. Eleven of the deans at top-20 law schools are Yale Law alumni.
“That’s staggering if you think about this tiny little law school,” Calabresi said.
‘Big shoes to be filled’
Professors said Yale’s ability to produce a steady stream of top legal scholars is a sign of a vibrant intellectual community. But the most important factor in ensuring a strong intellectual community is faculty recruitment and retention, Eskridge said.
That’s why six recent defections to peer schools have been so alarming to so many students, professors and the community. As many as four more could follow, sources said.
Yaw Anim LAW ’10 said it’s natural for students to worry when well-regarded professors leave, but the administration has assured them fresh talent will replace those professors.
“There’s a lot more pressure on us to make sure we offer the same caliber of legal education that has traditionally been offered here,” he said.
That pressure is being felt by students like Sarah Chang LAW ’09, who worked as a research assistant for constitutional scholar Kenji Yoshino LAW ’96. Yoshino has left Yale for New York University.
Jonah White LAW ’10 said he decided to take a class on taxes this semester because he knew it was his last chance to learn from professor Michael Graetz, a tax scholar who is leaving for Columbia Law School.
Graetz’s departure, announced just months after that of another Yale tax expert, Anne Alstott, moved to Harvard, has left a hole in the faculty, White said.
White knew when he chose Yale that the smaller faculty meant less depth in each department, though he didn’t expect to have no scholar in a core department like tax law. But it wouldn’t have changed his decision, he said, because he expects a new professor — one well-versed in that core — to arrive in the future.
“It’s critical that the administration address that,” he said. “There are large shoes to be filled in the immediate future.”
But it shouldn’t be too hard to convince law professors to come to Yale, Jake Kling LAW ’10 said.
Part of what makes Yale so attractive, Brett Edkins LAW ’11 said, is an intellectual community that encourages academic risks and innovation, not competition.
But a key ingredient, he said, is Yale’s pass/fail grading system — a policy adopted at Stanford Law School last spring and that will be introduced at Harvard Law School next fall.
Students interviewed said they are glad to see Harvard follow Yale’s example, several citing the old saying “Imitation is the highest form of flattery.”
They also said the grading system heavily influenced their decision to attend Yale. Kiel Brennan-Marquez LAW ’11 said he might have considered Harvard more seriously if it hadn’t had letter grades.
But Yale’s “ethos,” Nabiha Syed LAW ’10 said, rests on more than its grading system. She said it’s about a collaborative and laid-back vibe that is intrinsically appealing to the kind of student Yale Law School wants.
“If, because of no grades, the entire atmosphere of Harvard miraculously changes and everyone is suddenly really collegial and it feels like a small school magically, then yes, maybe it’s going to give Yale a run for its money,” she said. “But I don’t see that happening.”
‘What we always do’
The Law School does not have to change its tactics to address the retention and competition challenges, Koh wrote in a e-mail Sunday. “We will simply do what we always do: appoint world-class scholars such as the four exciting professors who arrived this year, and maintain a uniquely vibrant and intimate scholarly and teaching community that will inevitably attract other world-class scholars to join them,” he wrote.
Beyond such assurances, there is not much the dean can reasonably be expected to say to students, Syed said, but she said she trusts he means it.
Students said that, as rival law schools close in and start to replicate the qualities that have distinguished Yale in the past — such as pass/fail grades, small classes and clinics — the Law School needs to sharpen its strengths.
“We need to continue to be innovative and foster the things that make us unique,” White said.
Students interviewed expressed confidence in the Law School administration to deal with the growing challenges of retention and competition. And, Chander said, Koh is closely engaged with the frontiers in 21st-century legal education, such as globalization and inter-professionalism.
“He’s able to understand the cross-currents of the legal terrain, particularly in this global moment that we’re in,” Chander said.
Koh, whose five-year term is up for renewal this year, is expected to be reappointed.
He is also widely considered a likely choice for an appointment in a new Democratic administration in Washington. Asked about that possibility last month, Koh said he already has a job and has not thought about taking a different one.
Still, the pesky rankings are on the minds of many students. While the prestige of their degrees is important to them, students said it’s ultimately not what brought them to Yale.
Students who only care about rankings are not the kind of students who would fit in Yale Law School’s intellectual community, Syed said.
“If you don’t want to come here because we’re No. 2, then, sweetheart, I don’t want you to be my classmate,” she said.