“Vital Places”: Yale Law School’s Centers Enhance Intellectual Life

With wide-ranging scholarly work, the Law School's centers make a difference in communities across the country and around the world.
Crowd at the Liman Colloquium in 2017
The vibrant programming of the Law School's centers draws hundreds of people a year to hear from prominent speakers.

The vibrant programming and critical scholarly work of the dozens of centers, programs, and workshops at the Law School enrich the School’s intellectual life. As part of their wide-ranging work, centers bring speakers from around the globe to New Haven and make a difference in communities around the world. Centers cover a remarkable range of inquiry, spanning health law and policy through the work of the Solomon Center, international human rights via the Schell Center, as well as new technology, corporate law, racial justice, animals and ethics, U.S.-China relations, private law, and much more.

The Justice Collaboratory, at eight years old, is one of the newer intellectual centers on the scene at Yale Law School — and yet, it has already managed to do what such centers at YLS naturally tend to do: broaden, deepen, and expand their reach, sometimes in unexpected ways. 

When the Collaboratory was founded in 2015 with funding from the Obama administration’s National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, it represented a means of furthering work already being conducted by Tracey Meares, the Walton Hale Hamilton Professor of Law, and Tom Tyler, the Macklin Fleming Emeritus Professor of Law. Both Meares and Tyler have a long-term interest in studying policing and what they call “procedural justice” — that is, fair processes in criminal justice systems and beyond. Together, they’d developed a model of policing that sought to shift the focus from strict compliance and crime control to community trust, or what scholars refer to as “legitimacy” — and have even trained police departments across the U.S. in their trust-building model.

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Justice Collaboratory panelists sit talking with artwork behind them and a brick wall with Justice Collaboratory lettering projected onto the wall
The Justice Collaboratory hosted a panel discussion about the legacy of New Haven artist Winfred Rembert.

But, as it turned out, the Justice Collaboratory didn’t limit itself to policing for long.

“We’ve found that many of the theories that we have developed in the policing context can be ported to places like corrections and even to platforms for online interaction,” said Meares. Indeed, after Meta’s consultations with the center’s leaders, the social media platform created its own “procedural justice” unit, to oversee a fairer experience for Facebook users accused of rule violations.

Today, many of the members of the Collaboratory focus on topics several steps removed from criminal justice — among them political polarization, legal estrangement, and even the philosophy of fascism. Together, the center’s collaborators are expanding the boundaries of what “procedural justice” can and ought to include.

“Tracey and I have a very clear theoretical perspective that we’ve been promoting with a lot of success,” said Tyler. “And, with the Justice Collaboratory, we’ve tried to create a center that basically lets a thousand flowers bloom.”

The Justice Collaboratory and Yale Law School’s other intellectual centers are a testament to the fertile culture of the school in which they are rooted. The centers’ activities, clinics, student-and-alumni networks, and research output demonstrate the breadth and depth of the work that goes on within the School.

“I think the thing all these centers illustrate is how special Yale is,” Tyler said. “In addition to being a place for instruction, it’s an environment of intellectual excellence, of excitement, of impact.”

Seeds of new ideas

Four of the first intellectual centers at the Law School were founded within just a few years of each other in the late ’90s, a time when such entities were a pioneering concept in legal education.

“We were the first school in the U.S. to create a corporate-law-focused center,” said Roberta Romano, Sterling Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Yale Law School Center for the Study of Corporate Law, which was started in 1999. “Since then, most schools have created one.”

attendees at the 2023 Liman Colloquium
The Liman Center's 2023 colloquium brought together a diverse group of researchers, policymakers, and litigators.

The Arthur Liman Public Interest Program (now the Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law) launched in 1997, after a fundraising campaign to commemorate Arthur Liman ’57 (a nationally respected lawyer committed to the public interest) was so successful that it raised enough funds to establish an endowed professorship — and then some.

“I thought the most useful thing we could do with the money was provide funding for a Yale Law graduate to spend a year doing something generative,” said Judith Resnik, the Arthur Liman Professor of Law and founding director of the Liman Center. “It would clearly make a difference for that person and for the people that person helped. With that, we designed this idea of a fellowship.” That first year, the center funded one student; with inclusion of the 2024–2025 Fellows, more than 190 Law School graduates have been Liman Fellows, and the School now supports many other such fellowships.

Potter Stewart Professor of Constitutional Law Paul Gewirtz ’70 had innovation in mind when he helped to establish the China Law Center (now the Paul Tsai China Center) in 1999. Gewirtz had been on leave from Yale to serve as Special Representative for the Presidential Rule of Law Initiative at the U.S. Department of State under President Bill Clinton’s administration. In that post, he had developed and led a U.S.-China government-to-government initiative to promote cooperation around legal reforms in support of both countries’ interests, which President Clinton and China’s President Jiang Zemin had launched at a 1997 Summit. But he wondered if this was the best approach.

“The U.S. government does not have the capacity to undertake the actual interactions that the initiative anticipated, which really involves experts from both countries focusing on things over a sustained period of time,” Gewirtz said. “It was clear to me that if this was really to be implemented, it had to be done outside of government, which is why the China Center was established.”

The Information Society Project (ISP), which began in 1997, also sprang from its founder’s desire to study a new phenomenon rapidly growing in importance: digital technologies.

A group of five panelists seated at the front of a classroom talking
The Information Society Project hosted a weekend of events for its 25th anniversary in 2022, including a panel discussion on global governance.

“The internet had just moved from primarily a technology for research to widespread commercialization,” said Jack Balkin, Knight Professor of Constitutional Law and the First Amendment. “In my view, it was very important that we study it. I didn’t call the ISP a center on the internet because I believed we had to have an extremely broad focus. The entire world was changing rapidly because of information technology.”

“My basic philosophy for the center has been to say ‘yes,’” Balkin said. “When the students want to do something, when they want to start a new project, or go into a different field of study, generally speaking, my view is, ‘Let’s try that. Let’s be experimental. Let’s see what happens.’ And many of the features of the center have grown in exactly this way.”

Like Liman, ISP began with a focus on developing a community: resident fellows, visiting fellows, student fellows, and Yale faculty. There are more than 250 ISP fellows around the world today. Balkin said he envisioned ISP as a network of young scholars exploring cutting-edge issues at the intersection of law, technology, and society. And that’s still core to its basic structure today — but around that core, many projects have grown.

“We’ve also added a significant clinical component for people who wanted to become litigators in different areas of the information society,” Balkin said. The ISP’s Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic has fought for press freedoms and litigated cutting-edge issues of media and technology law.

Enriching student experiences

In this way, centers can act as a bridge for students between the classroom and clinical work — one of many ways in which the centers strive to enrich the educational experience for Yale Law School students.

The Corporate Law Center, for example, seeks to offer an ever-expanding array of opportunities for law students to deepen their expertise about corporate law, learn about its many potential career paths, and stay up-to-date on the often-shifting discipline.

“In our field, you must be attuned to the key issues of the day,” said Romano. “It’s dynamic; things change over time. The law is developing, you have new forms of transactions, you need new doctrines.”

A classroom scene showing a speaker at the front of the room with rows of students at tables listening to him.
The Center for the Study of Corporate Law offers students opportunities to hear from prominent leaders such as Professor Jason Furman of Harvard University, who served as a top economic advisor to President Barack Obama.

Thanks to the Corporate Law Center, students interested in the field can attend lunch talks and panels featuring practitioners, regulators, judges, and members of the business and investment community (many of whom are alumni), such as the Chirelstein Colloquium on Contemporary Issues in Law and Business. Center programs introduce students to key business-law related issues of the day as well as assist in career-planning, with an annual talk presenting data gathered from surveys of working lawyers on the topic of what skills students need to develop. The center also supports students interested in teaching in the business law area through its sponsorship of a J.D.-Ph.D. in finance with the Yale School of Management.

Gewirtz of the Paul Tsai China Center has also worked to facilitate opportunities for students outside of the classroom. Recently, the center organized a dialogue between Yale Law School students and students of Tsinghua University in Beijing. Across three Zoom sessions, the students discussed various issues within U.S.-China relations.

“It was extraordinary,” Gewirtz said, adding: “China is so big, and its modernization so substantial, that it is central to the future of the world that our students are inheriting. Even if they don’t want to have a specific focus professionally on China, it’s important and interesting for them to get some knowledge about the country, because China is going to affect almost everything.”

A broader impact

A group of smiling students at a Tsai China Center event
The Paul Tsai China Center hosted an open house in January for students to learn about the center's ongoing projects and opportunities to work with the center. 

Like many of the centers, just as important to the Paul Tsai China Center’s impact on students is its impact beyond Yale Law School’s walls. In its work to help advance China’s legal reforms — in collaboration with a broad range of top experts in the Chinese government — the center is working on a range of issues, including sex discrimination issues, LGBTQ+ rights, administrative law, privacy law, and data governance and AI regulation. In addition, the Paul Tsai China Center’s work has substantially expanded to address U.S.-China relations more generally.

“I think people would be surprised to learn that — even in the context of today’s U.S.-China relations — we have access to important channels in China and are working on many key issues,” Gewirtz said.

Tyler, of the Justice Collaboratory, thinks of the centers as places for percolation, where ideas can strengthen, refine themselves against research and discussion, and be ready for practical use as they’re needed.

“To me, the point of the centers is to be places where you can create alternative ideas,” Tyler said. “When there’s a crisis, leaders look around for what’s on the shelf that can be used to address a problem.”

In their case, various studies have found that Meares’ and Tyler’s model is successful in cultivating community trust in police, and their effort has expanded into a new project with the American Prosecutors’ Association — to redesign prosecutors’ offices around the principles of procedural justice.

At the Liman Center, faculty and students have found new ways to communicate research findings; compiling and analyzing a decade of data on solitary confinement in a new website called Seeing Solitary. The site uses infographics to show the use of isolation, the number of people confined, the duration of their confinement, and demographic information in prison systems around the country. Other recent Liman projects include research on the impact of Connecticut’s law imposing a lien on assets of individuals who have left prison, efforts to increase access to voting for people in prisons and jails, and the impact of detention on women.

Said Gewirtz: “Within these centers, we feel we’re on the cutting edge of some very difficult, but hugely important issues. We can do and write what we want, and what we think is most important. They’re vital places.”