Things I Wish I Had Known About YLS Before I Got Here

May 17, 2013

M.L., 3L

Having just completed my last law school exam, and with mere days before graduation, I’m already getting pretty nostalgic about YLS. So I thought I’d use this, my final blog post for our stellar Admissions Office, to provide a short reflection on my time at YLS. The theme is Things I Wish I Had Known About YLS Before I Got Here – something that I hope will be particularly useful to prospective students.

One: I wish I had known how challenging law school can be, even at YLS – and by “challenging,” I don’t mean primarily academically. On the subject of academics, though, I think it’s fair to say that law school is going to be difficult no matter where you go. A rose is a rose is a rose, and a law school exam is a law school exam is a law school exam, at YLS or not – that is to say, they are a different animal altogether than anything else a law student will have already faced. What is uniquely challenging about YLS academically, however, is that you’re surrounded by people who are going to be far more knowledgeable and skillful than you in at least one subject or area – and likely far more.

YLS does a lot to mitigate the foreseeable issues in putting a class of 200 Type A’s in the same building: we don’t have traditional grades, there is no set curve mandated for all classes, and, perhaps most importantly, students generally do more than ok at the end of it all, that is, with post-graduation employment. Still, most of my classmates would probably be being disingenuous if they did not acknowledge that, at one time or another, they felt at least a little academically insecure around their peers. This is admittedly somewhat of an ivory tower problem, but that does nothing to negate the fact that, while you’re in the unique environment that is YLS, it can be a little (and sometimes a lot!) difficult to see outside of that narrow perspective – and particularly difficult not to doubt yourself, intellectually or otherwise.

In this way, YLS is an opportunity for not merely academic growth, but also personal growth. And, on that subject, what I wish I had known coming in was not only that I would be facing these challenges, but equally important, that all of my other classmates would too – however brilliant and decorated they were already coming in. Accepting that it was ok to feel that way – and that everyone else was probably feeling the same, even if they did not necessarily want to admit it – would probably have allowed me to keep a better perspective, and not just to get through law school’s challenges, but to thrive on them.

Two: I wish I had known that, for all of the challenges that might come with the law school experience, things generally do have a way of working themselves out in the end at YLS. Of course, it was easy to tell myself that I should recognize the tremendous privilege of being here, and that I’d ultimately come out swimming in opportunities. As I said, though, it can be difficult while you’re in the middle of it all to keep this kind of healthy perspective. And more than feelings of intellectual insecurity, what makes it difficult is the always present question of “What the heck am I going to do after law school?”

With that, what I particularly wish I’d known coming in was the thing that I heard repeatedly over the last three years from YLS alumni of all ages (generally, during Alumni Weekend each fall): that it’s absolutely ok to be unsure about what precisely you want to do after YLS, and that students facing this uncertainty should not stress themselves out trying to cover all of their bases while here. Another “problem” I’m going to concede: there is an excessive number of “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunities to pursue while you’re a student at YLS. This is, of course, wonderful, but for every opportunity there is an opportunity cost, and for every opportunity pursued, another opportunity is necessarily lost. And this is the source of another retrospectively silly source of stress: precisely because people do not know exactly what they want to do after they graduate, there is a tendency to take, not just the road well traveled, but simultaneously several roads well traveled. In other words, students tend to choose the activities that are most prestigious/that seem to pay the most dividends in the future. Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but for at least some people, this only becomes an additional source of stress – and, at the end of it all, they still may not be much closer to knowing what they genuinely want to do after YLS, either immediately or after clerking/fellowship-ping for a year or two.

So I wish I’d known coming in that it was ok to be uncertain about what I ultimately wanted to do, and, equally important, that the best way to deal with that (at least, it has been for me) is to pursue the things that most interest and challenge you intellectually, professionally, and personally. On this note, I realized the other week that I came into law school thinking I already knew what I believed in, and that what I wanted to get out of YLS was figuring out how to translate what I stood for into some sort of identifiable career. I leave law school not necessarily finding out the answer to the latter (though I’ve certainly crossed things out!). However, particularly through a 3L year that I’ve spent writing papers too numerous to enumerate – but the subject of each of which I was deeply invested in – my beliefs have been recolored and reinformed more than I thought possible, even at a deep-thinking place like YLS. In retrospect, I wish I’d spent more of my time at YLS pursuing what I was really interested in at the moment, and reassured by the idea that it really would all work itself out in the end.

Third: here’s where I get pretty sappy – I wish I’d known that, no matter what else happened in the future, the experience of going to YLS was one that I’d be looking back on without regret. Notwithstanding its reputation as a very “academic” law school, YLS students are still fully aware that law school is, at its most basic, a professional school – that is, a place you enter looking to get something specific, whether that be a skill, a network, or a job. And YLS students are aware that law school is a financially costly endeavor anywhere (although here I have to say that both our loan repayment program, called COAP, and the staff of the YLS Financial Aid Office are exceptional). And for some people, law school doesn’t work out exactly as they had envisioned, and YLS is certainly not exempt from this. All that being said, speaking from my own personal experience, I can hardly believe the opportunities I was afforded here – opportunities I wouldn’t have predicted coming in, having heard only in the most general terms how wonderful YLS is.

What exactly did I get to do? Well, I took, I just counted, five classes with professors who literally wrote the casebooks we used. I got to assist two world-class professors, one in writing a book, the other in writing the centerpiece of a hallmark annual publication. I got to sit with Deans and Circuit Court Judges to discuss my brief-writing. I got to work with several professors in preparing my own piece for publication. I got to speak one-on-one to over 30 Vault 100 firms to advocate for work-life balance policies. I got to meet and speak with Senators who were YLS alumni during Alumni Weekend (so what if I messed up what state one of them was from, in front of his face). I got to karaoke not once, but twice with YLS professors and staff who are Class of 2000 alumni. I got to import trees into the Yale Commons for Prom, en route to raising thousands of dollars for public interest grants. I got to see three Supreme Court Justices here, and to ask a direct question to one of them about a controversial canonical decision (he evaded – oh well!). And, in three years, I had countless discussions with professors and fellow students alike about faith and religion, presidential politics, targeted killings and drones, Arizona’s immigration laws, diversity and affirmative action, gay marriage, voting rights, and, of course, healthcare and the individual mandate.

In summary, for any prospective student reading this: YLS is going to be a challenging place. Whether you’re coming straight from college, are armed with several years of experience (e.g., me), or are even taking on a mid-career shift, it’s going to test you in ways with which you are unfamiliar and uncomfortable. And you will make mistakes – whether in class during a professor’s Socratic questioning, on an exam question, or even in mundane interactions with teachers and fellow classmates. But with the right head, and a good heart, you’ll find the experience to be more special than you could have ever envisioned. YLS really is a special place – and I’m going to miss it.