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Black Letter Law at Yale
October 1, 2012
Peruse the YLS course catalog and you will find classes like “The Book of Job and Injustice” and “Capitalism Film Society.” These classes might sound interesting, but they are certainly not part of the standard law school curriculum. In fact, YLS might appear to push students away from the standard curriculum. Everyone takes the same four first-semester courses: Torts, Constitutional Law, Contracts, and Civil Procedure. Everyone has to take Criminal Law at some point. Beyond that, course selection is pretty much up to the students. This is great for students with theoretical interests and no desire to practice law. But what if you have the opposite goal? What if you want to take doctrinal black letter classes?
I think the answer is largely, although not uniformly, positive.
First, the good news. It’s possible to get a real legal education at YLS by taking doctrinal classes. Every semester there are at least a dozen black letter classes, which is enough to fill your schedule several times over. The big core classes—Business Organizations, Property, Tax, and Administrative Law—are offered nearly every semester.
Moreover, taking a few theoretical “law and ____” classes doesn’t seem to hurt YLS graduates in the job market. Graduates go onto highly competitive clerkships and jobs at top law firms. A class on a black letter subject can be useful, but you will probably have to learn the same material, again, and in greater detail, when you actually encounter it in legal practice. Taking black letter classes is still important; it shows that you are grounded and willing to practice, rather than just philosophize about, law. But you won’t be hurt by also pursuing your own interests.
Now, the bad news. For many subjects, YLS offers only the introduction. You can take basic IP, Trusts and Estates, and Antitrust. But if you want a more advanced and black letter course you may be out of luck. (This is partly a function of YLS simply being smaller than some of its peer schools. You would encounter some of the same difficulties at many small schools.) Other black letter courses might be offered only once during your three years or not at all. For example, Admiralty Law has been offered only once during my time at YLS, while I will never have an opportunity to take ERISA or Partnership Tax. Finally, some professors choose to teach what could be doctrinal black letter classes in a theoretical fashion. As a consequence, you might end up trying to teach yourself the actual law at the end of the semester.
On the whole, I think the good outweighs the bad. If you are interested in a subject without an advanced class, you can write one of your two required research papers about that subject. The same course is often taught by several different professors, so you can choose the more doctrinal professor if that’s what you prefer. And the 16-credit cap each semester almost guarantees not only you can fill your semester with interesting black letter classes but also that you will graduate without taking some classes that intrigue you. This is true at any law school.
YLS students like to pitch the school by talking about the wonderful friendships, clinics, theoretical seminars, journals, and other activities. I agree with those points. But it turns out there’s more to Yale. As one of my first-semester professors put it: “You can get a pretty good legal education here if you try.”