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April 15, 2009
I have been admitted to Yale and am a little torn about where to go. Yale has a ton of great opportunities, but I keep hearing that you should only go to Yale if you want to become a professor. I don't think this is the path I want to pursue. Would I really be out of place at Yale?
You ask a great question. As I mentioned in one of my previous posts, Yale grads are ubiquitous in legal academia. About 10% of all law faculty are YLS grads, and about 13% of each graduating class has entered academia five years after graduation. But while it may be tempting to conclude from these stats that Yale is only seeking and producing aspiring academics, the reality is a little more complex.
I can tell you, from the surveys we do each year of admitted students before they matriculate, that the majority of students come to Yale intending to practice law. If you check out our five-year post-graduation surveys, most students do in fact follow this path: around 60% of our graduates go to work for a firm as their first non-clerkship job, while another chunk of about 30% go into public interest jobs. About 6% -- probably the students who came in with PhDs or did joint degrees while they were here -- go directly into academia.
So why does this number double for Yale graduates so soon after graduation? It's hard to say, but one reason is, I think, that a lot of people get burned out practicing. Let's face it, if you're given the choice (as in the case of working for a law firm) of keeping track of every hour of your time, for 15-18 hours a day, and working on cases that may be of marginal interest to you or, for about the same salary, being in complete control of your life, writing about ideas that completely excite you, and having your summers off with grants for travel and research...um, which one would you choose?
Frankly, I think a lot of lawyers discover that they might prefer to be academics. The difference is that when Yale graduates make this discovery, they find that they already have a leg up in this very competitive field. For one thing, they have had a chance, through the course of their legal education, to work closely with professors to produce at least two pieces of substantial legal scholarship -- one is the Substantial Paper, and the other is the Supervised Analytical Writing (SAW). Both are papers that you work on with one-on-one supervision from a faculty member, either through a class or independent research (the difference between them is just of length). Many students have even published their papers in a journal by the time they graduate. Since a major component of being able to compete on the legal job market is to have published scholarship, Yale graduates are not starting from scratch: either they've checked off this requirement already or have something they have already spent significant time on, that they can build on.
The second advantage Yale students have is that they are not navigating this field alone. As I mentioned above, all Yale students develop at least one or two close relationships with faculty members, if by nothing else than default. So when it comes time to brush up that paper to turn it into an article, or apply for a fellowship to spend a year working on a new idea, they have a faculty contact and mentor to help guide them through the process. The professors at Yale don't get more excited than when a former student of theirs wants to follow their own chosen profession and, since we have a small school with a smaller alumni pool, they aren't inundated with requests from tons of graduates -- so they're happy to respond, give feedback, and write recommendations. Don't underestimate the value of having professors who will actually remember you personally, 3,5, and 10 years down the road!
Finally, Yale is proud of its record in placing students in academia, and to this end, we make resources available to both current students and graduates. For current students, we have a Law Teaching Series, which is a series of workshops offered each year that cover everything from how to develop a research agenda to what, exactly, a "job talk" consists of. The Series can give students who might not have otherwise considered a career in academia a window into how to pursue this path, either directly out of law school or sometime down the road. For alumni, we have for the past couple of years offered a "Moot Camp," which brings together graduates with scholarly works in progress with current students and faculty to workshop (i.e. grill) the graduate on his or her paper. Finally, for both current students and alumni, our Career Development Office offers counseling and access to resources for students interested in this field.
I've listed some of the reasons Yale graduates are successful in entering legal academia, even if it's not something they considered when they came in or during the time they were in school. In fact, even students who do intend to teach usually practice for a little while...after all, you have to be a professor of something. Going out an practicing in the real world can help give context and depth to the intellectual ideas you've been playing around with, and can make your later scholarly work more nuanced. So pretty much everyone at Yale, even those who are interested in academia, have substantive interests that they pursue through journals, extracurriculars, centers and programs, and summer jobs.
The point is that if you don't plan to be a law professor, don't worry, you'll have plenty of company at Yale. And if you decide later that you do want to become a law professor, well, you'll have plenty of company then, too. Either way, you can't go wrong!