When the global financial crisis hit in 2008, over 2.6 million people in the U.S. lost their jobs. No industries were spared — not even the legal profession, which had historically been among the most secure.
Wide-eyed college graduates used to flock to law school because it was the golden ticket to a stable and financially secure career. But the legal environment has changed drastically since that crucial year. As the demand for law-related jobs has shrunk, law school graduates have begun competing more fiercely than ever before, according to law school deans across the country.
“Before 2008, we saw a lot of people go to law school because it was the best option,” said Robert Rasmussen, dean at the University of Southern California Law School. “Now the students that I’m seeing are making a conscious decision that they really want to be lawyers.”
In the interest of making their graduates more competitive candidates for jobs, law schools have amped up their number of practically-oriented programs, instituting more business-related courses, law clinics and career center initiatives. But a debate has emerged among scholars and legal professionals: Should law schools focus on theoretical teaching, or do they have a duty to prepare students for their future careers?
Yale Law School tends to skirt the question altogether. Over 25 faculty, students and administrators claimed that Yale Law School does not have to make any compromises between the two paths. Not only is it an institution that has topped law school rankings for years — it is also “just different.”
Faculty and administrators interviewed said Yale Law School has a stable identity, making it relatively exempt from the current debate on liberal versus practical law education. The school consistently gets a sizable slice of the job market pie — but it also remains faithful to the same ideals and principles it held at the time of its 1843 founding.
“We have not felt that pinch because we are still in the top of the top tier, and we have never been a law school that has ever relied exclusively on the private sector,” said Yale Law School Dean of Admissions Asha Rangappa.
Deputy Dean for Experiential Education Michael Wishnie said the school is more committed to theory and experiential education, in the form of clinics, than any other law school in the country.
But just because the school enters the discussion on legal education from a more privileged standpoint does not make it immune altogether.
What exactly is Yale Law School’s secret recipe for success?
The recession has widened the gap between top and middle-tier law schools, because top policy or high-end corporate employers began recruiting primarily from more elite schools, said Cornell Law School Dean Stewart Schwab. Schools that are not in the top tier expose graduates to a greater risk of debt.
Even among the top tier, Schwab said,Yale Law School is envied and admired for attracting the most talented students. He said Cornell strives to do the same, but doesn’t have the same funding as Yale Law.
Some speculate that Yale Law School students are all naturally driven toward competition and prestige.
But Raphael Graybill LAW ’15 said he believes students come in with certain career ambitions but are open to changing their minds. Michael Solender LAW ’89, a general counsel for Ernst & Young LLP, said he wanted to be a constitutional or international lawyer when he came to Yale Law School — despite not knowing what either of those professions truly involved. Though it is good to have a balance of practical and theoretical courses for future careers, Solender said, he supports Yale Law School’s method of providing students with almost total freedom of choice.
A dozen Yale Law School faculty members said students’ career interests have also remained characteristically varied.
The law school’s focus on academia alongside more conventional legal paths is one of its most famous characteristics. Yale Law School launches more academic careers than any other school, said Wishnie, adding that an “outstanding portion” of law school deans come from Yale Law School.
The school’s theoretical focus sometimes appears to conflict with real-world legal practice. Georgetown Law School Dean William Treanor LAW ’86 said that while most schools try to strike a balance, Yale Law School has a “fundamentally different orientation.” Practicality was never one of the school’s main goals, he said.
“Yale Law has always thought of itself as preparing people with an understanding of the law but not of the legal practice,” he said.
Graham White LAW ’16 admitted that Yale Law School has a stereotype for theory — people often say that attending Harvard will teach one how the law works, and attending Yale will teach one how the law should be, he said.
Still, White does not perceive an imbalance in his daily life at the school. And while remaining faithful to tradition, Yale Law School has changed and diversified over time, he said. For example, the school has an increasing number of graduates going into the public interest field.
Deborah François LAW ’14 said she believes Yale Law School’s reputation for being theoretical is only partly true. While some students feel it is “frustrating at times” to have so much of an academic emphasis, she said they also know that the school encourages real-world work in nonprofit and government fields as well as the private sector.
Though Yale Law School may have a heavy hand in academics, Yale Law School professor Oona Hathaway said it is also widely regarded as the leading law school for preparing students for legal practice.
Ryan Thoreson LAW ’14, an aspiring legal scholar, said he still envisions practice as an essential part of his education, and most faculty interviewed said they do not believe there is a separation of theory and practice.
“Yale Law School is a uniquely vital and intense community, which rejects any rigid distinction between theory and practice because it believes that each must inform the other,” said Yale Law School Dean Robert Post.
Yale Law School professor Amy Kapczynski said that even experiential learning at the law school, traditionally associated with a more practical philosophy, is deeply integrated with theory and academic rigor. People have come to realize that there is a broader set of things that lawyers can and want to do, which naturally diversifies a model that is already successful, she said.
Several faculty members pointed to a significant change in the last 30 years that moves Yale Law School toward a practical philosophy — the deep integration of academics with the school’s law clinics.
“We not only offer the most serious, hands-on clinical program in the country, but the sometimes maligned ‘Yale method’ of focusing on understanding the underlying principles at stake is actually the best way to train great practicing lawyers,” Hathaway argued.
Yale Law School professor Heather Gerken said all kinds of students — from members of the law journal to would-be academics — participate in clinics, which engage students in real-world pro-bono cases. “It’s just part of the warp and woof of the place,” she said.
A CLINICAL EVOLUTION
Less than a year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to revive Proposition Eight, California’s ban on same-sex marriage. The case, Hollingsworth v. Perry, is widely known as the trial of the century and invalidated a significant legal barrier against same-sex marriage in the state.
Helping San Francisco litigate the case at the trial level, the Ninth Circuit and all the way up to the Supreme Court were Yale Law School students. Involvement in the case is one of the recent accomplishments of the San Francisco Affirmative Litigation Project, a partnership between Yale Law School and the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office.
SFALP is only one among many of Yale Law School’s clinics — programs that allow students to represent real clients with real legal problems and offer academic course credit. These clinics, or experiential learning programs, are described by many as the epitome of practical training.
About 80 percent of Yale Law School students participate in at least one clinic before they graduate, according to Wishnie. And while clinics started out as a small program in the 1970s, they are now “mainstream” and “deeply ingrained in the fabric and the soul of Yale Law School.” Yale Law School rivals other top tier schools like the Georgetown University Law Center and Northwestern University Law School as having the largest clinical program in the country.
Clinics mean different things to different people. Graybill, who is enrolled in SFALP, said his clinic is as much about learning the mechanics of government and social change as it is about professional development.
Gerken, who teaches at SFALP, said clinics give students a chance to try a career on for size, while also having the chance to do some good in some corner of the world. While clinics can be useful for preprofessional training, students sometimes just want to get a sense of what direct services or structural reform litigation looks like. But some students are also very dedicated to the subject matter of a particular clinic.
A major purpose of the clinics is that they provide a very direct and effective avenue to provide service to the community, Wishnie said.
“Whether it’s a child caught up in a family court proceeding, an immigrant facing deportation or a tenant facing homelessness or eviction, students want to use their skills in aid of people in need who are generally without representation,” he said.
Many Yale Law School graduates also report that their clinical courses are more helpful than any others. Gillian Quandt LAW ’14 believes a practical legal education is important for all, as clinics or trial practice classes can offer invaluable experience. Even scholars need practice, she said — an immigration law professor must surely learn what it is like to actually represent an immigrant directly.
Yale Law School professor James Silk said the three main goals of clinical education at Yale are to instill a commitment to human rights and justice, to challenge students to think critically about the issues to which to they are passionately committed, and to challenge them to inform theory with practice and practice with theory.
Stephanie Kim LAW ’14 said she probably took more clinical courses than the average student because of her interest in human rights, and her belief that these are the most useful and educational.
Not all clinics are alike. Yale Law School professor Linda Greenhouse, who leads the Supreme Court Advocacy Clinic, said her program is nontraditional. Although it involves a client-attorney relationship like the others, it also includes a larger academic component in which students study the Supreme Court.
Wishnie said not all clinics involve litigation practice and may be based on regulatory or advocacy work instead, though there is always a form of client representation involved.
François said Yale Law School’s clinical offerings — which attracted her to the school in the first place — are the equivalent of a residency after medical school.
Still, Graybill said that the career preparation involved in clinical education depends on what students want.
“Not all clinical work resembles typical law practice,” he said. “Law students have a tremendous opportunity through clinical work to try a wide range of different kinds of law. That is a luxury practicing attorneys typically don’t have.”
Columbia Law School Dean David Schizer LAW ’93 said that although law clinics in general are a “wonderful way for students to get a certain kind of experience,” each student has his or her own priorities and interests. Hence, the exact preparation they require will vary.
At Columbia, Schizer said, courses and programs focused on national security or investment banking help students narrow down their training and experience for targeted fields. Like Yale, Columbia was not dramatically affected by the 2008 job market crash — so though the school has focused its curriculum on recent practical trends, it has not done so out of necessity.
Northwestern Law School Dean Daniel Rodriguez said his students also feel confident about their job prospects. What the students are concerned about is making the most of their time at law school to develop the skill base that will make them good lawyers throughout their career, he said. For this reason, students take practical courses to gain genuine experience, he added.
Faculty and students at Yale Law School similarly said that though it is good to show employers evidence of practical experience, this is far from a necessity.
But practice still occupies an important place in the life of Yale Law School. It is more integrated than ever in the school’s legendary pantheon of theory, with clinics becoming more and more abundant over the years.
LEADER OF THE PACK
Ralph Nader, political activist and five-time candidate for the U.S. presidency, stood in the middle of the quiet Yale Law School courtyard on a chilly spring afternoon and looked around at the historic Gothic buildings.
Reflecting on the debate over academia versus practicality in law schools, Nader voiced concern that faculty and administrators are not fostering the right kind of practicality.
“They don’t have courses on the realities of how the law is being used for suppression and repression,” he lamented. “In that sense they are not being very practical — they are not teaching the law that is being used against people.”
Standing a few feet away from Nader in the courtyard was Edgar Cahn, founder of the Antioch School of Law — a law school built entirely on the concept of clinical education. The experimental school, which now operates as the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law, requires students to live with their clients to create truly society-serving lawyers.
The task for socially engaged lawyers is even more pressing today, Cahn said.
“We now need to build lawyers who can architect social change,” Cahn said. “Because our social system needs to change.”
Nader and Cahn are not the only ones who believe current legal educations to be lacking. Some Yale Law School students expounded similar views.
Quandt said she thinks there is no reason a law education should last three full years, as many of the skills needed to be a lawyer can be learned through day-to-day legal practice.
Graybill said law schools in the U.S. should be more practical, but a three-year legal education will not achieve that purpose. It could be a good idea for law schools to require work or civil service in the last one or two years, he said. But Graybill stipulated that this idea should not apply to Yale Law School — only schools that need to keep up their application and post-graduation employment rates.
Yale Law School professor Peter Schuck said the law school has no reason to become more practical, even in a small way. Schools that are “desperate to rise up in the rankings,” make a huge effort to concert vocational opportunities for their students, he said, but this is not vital for Yale.
Yale Law School students, faculty and administrators agree that students are less worried about seeking vocational opportunities to find employment than those at other schools.
Yale Law School Assistant Dean and Head of the Career Development Office Kelly Voight said the biggest difference between what her office does and what another career office would do at another law school is that Yale does not have to sell its students.
“Many schools spend a significant amount of time explaining to potential employers the value their graduates would bring to the table,” Voight said. “The typical phone call I get is from an employer asking, ‘How do I get in front of your students more?’”
Voight said employers are generally familiar with Yale Law School’s academically-oriented curriculum. She also believes students should not be focusing solely on their careers during law school. For private sector jobs especially, she said, there is a lot of on-site training during the first year.
But Schwab said that at private firms, clients are increasingly reluctant to pay for young associates’ training. For this reason, law schools might need to provide a little more practical training at least for these sectors. Cornell has made a series of changes to its curriculum that heavily emphasize business law, Schwab said.
Schuck said when he has taught at schools other than Yale Law School, his approach has been much more vocational. Yale Law School students tend to have first choice on certain government and nonprofit jobs already, he said, whereas students at other schools are more aware of the tightening job market and are much more concerned about finding internships and jobs.
Still, Yale Law School students interviewed do not think everything is that simple.
Thoreson said that the job search process for students is extremely individualized, because students at the school have so many different backgrounds and field interests. Everyone is differently equipped for going into the job market, he said.
Most students agree that the search for clerkships — research assistant positions with state and federal judges — also remains a very stressful process. Although around 40 percent of Yale Law School graduates go on to clerk, students said the application process creates a lot of confusion and competition.
There is also a lot of competition to get into clinics in the first place, students agreed. Although the situation is better than at other schools, there still are not enough clinical spots for everyone and some clinics are more difficult to get into than others.
Silk also said that he has observed an increase in the level of students anxiety, especially in those students who want to pursue careers in public service, more than those who want to enter the private law sector. Public interest jobs tend to be more affected than others when economic crises hit, he said.
“There is real anxiety among our students who come here because this is a place that fosters careers in public service, but then find that there are [still] few opportunities in public interest law when they graduate,” he said.
All students interviewed said they seek practical opportunities at Yale Law School. Due to their near guarantee of employment, law school students said they are aware that they are more fortunate than most law school students — but still, none described themselves as complacent.
While some students called for small changes such as more clinics, all students agreed that Yale Law School is different from other law schools in both its goals and practices.
“When people say we need more practical education in law school, I think, sure, if you are at number 20 [in the rankings] it matters,” said one second-year student.
So where does Yale Law School stand in the entire debate?
In answering, the student expressed a sentiment largely echoed by the rest of the Yale Law School student population.
He shrugged and said, “Yale Law School will do what it wants.”