Yale Law School Fosters a Legacy of Excellence in Teaching

For 200 years, the Law School has remained small by design. And although some core course names may look the same as decades ago, faculty members combine traditional and new elements to reflect changes in the law.
a split image consisting of a black and white photo of students in a classroom and a contemporary class at YLS

“There’s a beautiful old black and white photograph of Robert Cover sitting in the courtyard teaching in the grass. It’s not formal. It’s not hierarchical — Cover and his students are sitting on the same plane,” said Doug Kysar, Joseph M. Field ’55 Professor of Law and Faculty Co-Director of the Law, Ethics and Animals Program at Yale Law School. “They’re sitting together in the grass working collaboratively to solve some of the biggest problems of social justice that they’re seeing in the world.” 

Cover, an expert in legal history, constitutional law, and jurisprudence, joined the faculty of Yale Law School in 1972 and served as Chancellor Kent Professor of Legal History from 1982 until his death in 1986.

Cover’s approach to teaching blackletter law was unique at the time — and still is. But Yale Law School has always allowed room for difference, said Kysar.

“I’ve taught at several other law schools. All the law schools I’ve known are on a continuum. And then there’s Yale Law School,” he said. “I jokingly refer to it as Montessori law school. There’s always been a different model here.”

branding for bicentennial

Yale Law School at 200

Learn more about the history of Yale Law School on our bicentennial website

Robert Cover teaching on Cross Campus at Yale

Professor Robert Cover teaching students on Yale's Cross Campus in 1986.

Throughout its 200 year history, Yale Law School has remained small by design; these days, there’s a 5:1 student-faculty ratio

Yale Law students have traditionally been required to take a few “core” courses — a Yale Law School Bulletin dated 1903-1904 notes that students were required to study Contracts, Criminal Law, Constitutional Law, and Torts, with optional courses including subjects like Roman law and Medical Jurisprudence. 

Today, the curriculum has evolved to mandate a single semester of required courses — in their first semester, students still study Constitutional Law, Contracts, Criminal Law and Administration, and Procedure, and before graduation, students must take Torts and Regulation. Otherwise, they can shape their own curriculum. 

Even in students’ first term, Yale Law School does things differently, centering learning within faculty-led small groups. As a result, the School is highly individualized and student-centered.

Kysar said it’s a very different model than the one he himself experienced at law school, with one exception. “My first year Torts professor at Harvard was wonderfully warm, engaged, and supportive of [his students’] well-being. He took a genuine interest in getting to know us. He really supported me, and I would not be teaching law if it weren’t for him,” he said.

Kysar’s Torts professor was a graduate of Yale Law School.

“He once told me, ‘I’m in law teaching because of my teachers at Yale.’ He wanted, through his own teaching, to ‘bring some of New Haven to Cambridge.’”

Professor Stephen Carter teaching in the YLS Courtyard in a vintage black and white photo
Professor Stephen L. Carter leads a class in the Courtyard in the 1980s.

New Teaching Methods

Course names might look the same as they did at the turn of the 20th century, and John Fabian Witt ’99, Allan H. Duffy Class of 1960 Professor of Law, says that in general law teaching changes slowly. But the content of a few courses, like Torts and Regulation, has evolved to reflect changes in the law.

“We retitled Torts to Torts and Regulation several years ago for the same reason that the midcentury legal realist faculty changed Criminal Law to Criminal Law and Administration — to reflect the way the law works in the world and to expand teaching from appellate court cases to systems and institutions,” said Witt.

Witt’s teacher at Yale Law School was Sterling Professor Emeritus of Law Guido Calabresi ’58, whose model influenced the shift, said Witt. 

“Guido taught us that torts is a mixed system for accomplishing social goals,” he said. “In my Torts and Regulation course we adopt that same approach — and extend the insight to follow torts principles like reasonableness, causation, proof, and vicarious liability into the statutory domains such as the law of civil rights.”

Some tried-and-true methods of teaching law haven’t changed: many professors, including Witt, still use the Socratic method of teaching, or “cold calling,” where students are randomly called on in class.

William K. Townsend Professor of Law Nicholas Parillo ’04 takes this traditional approach to teaching in larger doctrinal courses.

“The main change I’ve made in my classroom approach during my 16 years at YLS is to make it so class participation relies less on volunteers and more on a cold-calling system that is more uniform and widely-distributed in terms of who participates,” Parrillo said. “I did this partly in response to student advocacy for approaches to class discussion that would broaden participation, which I think has improved teaching in terms of getting a wider range of input into the class.”

Other courses combine traditional and new elements, depending on how professors approach the subject. Kysar said there’s been a marked increase in professors’ interest in learning new teaching skills and methods. Faculty attend workshops at the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning or bring Poorvu experts to the Law School.

“Even in the last 10 years alone, I think we’ve seen very significant changes in the teaching culture of this building. I can speak first-hand to this,” said Kysar. “I’ve been here almost 15 years, and the faculty are taking teaching extremely seriously. There’s a culture of embracing our role as teachers and not just scholars,” he says. 

Kysar has adopted pedagogical techniques that help students hone ideas before sharing with the class: he uses reflection journals, and he also likes “turn and talks,” where students are asked to turn to their neighbor to talk about a case before rejoining general discussion. “[When you] give students that priming opportunity, a safe space to articulate their views, you get a way different discussion,” he said.

Professor Susan-Rose Ackerman teaching in a black and white photo

Professor Susan Rose-Ackerman teaching a class in this undated photo.

Changing the Face of Law

When Sol Goldman Clinical Professor Emeritus of Law Jean Koh Peters was a student at Harvard Law School in the 1980s, she was “a totally unhappy, disaffected law student,” she said. “It was about 98% lectures. There weren’t very many women, there were very few Asians. I can’t think of another woman of color in the class.”

In addition to the composition of the student body, the makeup of faculty at law schools has changed in the last 50 years, impacting the student experience. “Anything that creates a more diverse faculty will have an effect, regardless of the techniques being used,” Peters said.

Until her retirement in 2019, Peters led clinics on Advocacy for Children and Youth and Immigration Legal Services, and her students were “100% three-dimensional human beings to me,” she said. 

In her classes, Peters prioritized “performing the message” about her subject matter to her students. If you’re talking about how to listen to your client, it’s important to listen to your students in the classroom. “You can make a disproportionate impact by mirroring the message of the class, especially in a clinical setting,” she said. Every new case required students to listen and tell the client’s story in their voice. “That’s the work. You can hardly do that and say, you’re a generic law student. You are indistinguishable to me.”

Peters is the co-author, with CUNY Professor of Law Susan Bryant, of an educational program called “Five Habits of Cross-Cultural Lawyering,” which aims to build cross-cultural competence in lawyers. Peters’ hope is that all students, particularly students of color, feel their voices are heard in the classroom in all discussions — not just those centered on race and difference. 

“That person has to feel that you have valued [them] from day one on every topic and [they] feel investment in this community,” she said.

Programs like the Access to Law School Program, a law school pipeline program geared at underrepresented populations in New Haven, and the Hurst Horizon Scholarship, which provides full-tuition scholarships for students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, are widening the doors to the practice of law.

The goal is to supportively integrate these students with standardized, transparent programming, while “maintaining the distinctive culture and playfulness, the delightful anarchy of Yale Law School,” as Kysar put it.

According to Michael Wishnie ’93, William O. Douglas Clinical Professor of Law, Yale has always been “a small law school in a small town, and I think that has a lot of consequences for its classroom culture. Not only do faculty and students get to know each other, we also run into each other around town. That allows for a different dynamic in the classroom.”

Wishnie, who directs the Veterans Legal Services Clinic and co-directs the Worker & Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic, said students work closely with faculty on their writing and their legal reasoning. Outside the classroom, faculty, including Dean Heather K. Gerken, often collaborate with students to advance scholarship.

And in clinics, students work closely with each other, as a community. 

“Students tend to like the experience of working in teams with other students, and they draw enormous support when the teams are working well. That collaborative, creative problem solving — for many students, that’s the heart of learning and lawyering,” he said. “Very few Yale Law graduates go into solo practice. They’re going to be working with lots of other people. That’s how students learn in clinics, and that’s much closer to what they’ll experience in the world of practice.”

At the Law School, they necessarily learn a great deal of theoretical and technical material. Classes — and clinics — are rigorous, Wishnie said.

“But students say they leave Law School with a sense of possibility, creativity, and joy in law practice. A lot of my students find joy because they’re invited to be their authentic selves, not to become a caricature of a lawyer. They tend to exit with a surprising sense of possibility and openness,” he said. “and they draw a lot of strength from working with others.”

Professor Gerald Torres teaching students in a classroom in 2023
Professor Gerald Torres and students in his spring 2023 Federal Indian Law class.