On Yale’s Theoretical Nature

April 25, 2007

E.K., 2L

Something that I hear all the time from prospective students is that Yale is too “theoretical,” and that if you want to do something “practical,” you would be better off at another school. This is one of the sillier myths out there (along with fears about New Haven), so let me take a few moments to debunk it.

First, lest you infer bias from my current status as a YLS student, I will fully and freely admit to being a “practical” person myself. I took some business courses in undergrad and almost went into investment banking. So I like the practical. But I do not understand where this aversion to “theory” comes from, or why employers would somehow be reluctant to hire people who have had exposure to theory. Rules change. If you learn only the rules, then you just learn how the world operates at the point in time at which your textbook was published. What YLS and any law school worth its tuition does is teach you how to evaluate the rules—to question why they are there, how they got there, and what could be done to make them better (or whether you should just get rid of them). This is the kind of creative thinking in which any good lawyer engages. The interesting cases are won not by simply citing a rule. Such cases are won by convincing a judge or jury that your interpretation of the rule, or the policy underlying the rule, is correct. Moreover, many YLS graduates enter careers that put them in the position to make policy. The training that YLS provides—the “theory”—is indispensable to such a role. How can you remake a rule or write a new rule without knowing why the current rule is in place and without knowing the theories for and against your proposed rule? So theory is good and very valuable.

Some of the misapprehension that many people place under the label “theory” likely stems from what they see as dearth of “how-to” courses at Yale. It is true that we do not have a formal legal writing program. It is also true that we might have more than our share of “law and” classes. But that does not mean that you do not learn how to practice law. First, legal writing is incorporated into our first-year small groups. But even more importantly, legal writing is incorporated into moot court, clinics, and many other aspects of law school. Having spent my last summer with people from other, more “practical” schools, I can say that I knew just as much about writing memoranda and briefs as they did, and what I did not know, the lawyers were more than happy to teach me. They understood that we had just completed our first year of law school. A form structure that a person might learn in her first-year legal writing course will likely be of little help to them. So everyone, including those who attend the “practical” schools, will need some guidance. Rather than waste valuable time in your course schedule adapting hypotheticals to a form structure, therefore, YLS allows you to take the courses (including, I might note, Advanced Legal Writing) and to participate in those organizations and clinics that interest you, knowing that you will learn the particulars of lawyering along the way.

Additionally, we have more “black letter” classes—those that are based on widely promulgated rules and caselaw rather than a professor’s pet theory—than one might initially think. For instance, my friends who have corporate law interests have not had problems finding desirable classes. The reality is that you can only take so many courses in a semester (a regular course load is between 12 and 16 credit hours). So I have found that in any given semester, there are far more courses that interest me than I am actually able to take. Therefore, even if our course catalog were twice as big as it currently is, I would not view that to be a major benefit, and I would therefore caution prospective students to think about what they would actually be able to take before viewing a large catalog as a major benefit. Moreover, each semester offers new courses and new visiting faculty, so you never know what might strike your fancy. And law school students can also take courses offered in other schools at Yale. The flexibility is unsurpassed.

In summary, theory is not a bad thing, and YLS students are definitely not disadvantaged in any way from the “theoretical” nature of our school (look at our employment statistics as evidence). Only by learning the theory behind the rules can you effectively change the rules. And that is what most people at Yale strive to do—change the rules.