I have been admitted to Yale, as well as to a few other schools. I'm very excited about my Yale acceptance, but one of the things I keep hearing is that Yale is very "theoretical" and that I won't be able to get a lot of practical experience there. Is there any truth to this statement?
Ah, yes. The old "Yale is too theoretical" schtick. I remember when I was deciding between schools and found myself in the company of a Yale student and a Harvard student arguing over which was better. The Harvard student said, "Come to Harvard, you'll learn what the law actually is." And the Yale student replied, "But at Yale, you will learn what it ought to be." Then they started exchanging Heidegger jokes, which I found creepy and weird so I left.
My initial reaction is to say that this stereotype is hogwash, in that if you are looking at a handful of schools in the same tier which are all attracting the same general caliber of students, the level of theoretical discussion at those schools will presumably be very similar. That is, I seriously doubt that while the Yalies are contemplating life and the law over lattes, students at its peer schools are busy memorizing the Rule Against Perpetuities (which, by the way, there is no point in learning because you'll get it wrong on the bar anyway).
But let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Yale is a place filled only with theory heads. So you run screaming to some other law school, only to find out that 10% of law faculty in the United States are all Yale Law School graduates and that many of the people teaching you are still theory heads. You then further discover that the current deans -- the ones actually driving the legal academy boat -- at the following law schools are all YLS grads: Boston University, Brooklyn, University of Chicago, UCLA, CUNY- Queens, Drake University, Florida International University, Gonzaga University, Hofstra University, Georgetown University, George Washington University, University of Hawai’i, University of Illinois, Inter American University of Puerto Rico, University of Iowa, Lewis & Clark, University of Miami, University of Minnesota, University of Michigan, UNLV, University of New Mexico, University of Northern Kentucky, Northeastern, Northwestern, NYU, University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers, University of South Carolina, Southern Methodist University, University of Tulsa, University of Utah, University of Virginia, and the University of Vermont.
It's kind of like the TV series V, where people think they are surrounded by ordinary humans, only to discover that most of them are actually giant man-eating lizards from outer space, disguised as humans. In other words, we will hunt you down and teach you anyway no matter where you go, so why not just come here and take advantage of the free booze and buffalo wings on Fridays?
That's not to say there aren't legitimate points of comparison. Is there more discussion in class, overall, at Yale than at some of its peer schools? I think so -- with an average class size of under 20 students, it's natural that the dynamic of many classes will tend more towards a collaborative conversation, rather than an extended Socratic dialogue with one or two students (though you'll find that, too, in the larger classes). Are discussions more focused on policy rather than doctrine? Possibly, depending on the class. In most classes at Yale, you have the option to write a paper, rather than take an exam. A lot of students utilize this option, not only to fulfill their writing requirements, but because it gives them an opportunity to work closely with a professor and explore a subject in depth -- and possibly even publish their work in a journal. So class discussions are a way for students (and professors) to flesh out the ideas that they are working on outside of class. Do Yale students really sit around a campfire and sing about unicorns while braiding flowers in each other's hair? Occasionally. The point is that it's important to look at the real differences underlying the broad-brush stereotypes -- smaller classes, lots of interaction with faculty, celebration of mystical animals -- in making your choice between schools.
As far as the whole "practice" thing, I'm not sure where that comes from, since there are arguably more opportunities to get hands-on experience here than almost anywhere else. We've outlined Yale's numerous clinics in a previous post. The clinics, which range from direct client services to appellate advocacy, are open to students beginning in their first year; about 80% of Yale students do a clinic before they graduate, and about 40% do more than one. Further, under CT law, first-year students can actually appear and present cases in court, under the supervision of a practicing attorney. Put it this way: you know that scene in Legally Blonde where Elle cross-examines a witness and wins her first court case? The only place where that could have actually happened is at Yale. In fact, Legally Blonde was originally set to take place at Yale Law School, until some boob denied the movie filming rights here. (I can only guess that this is the same person who thought it would be a fabulous idea to have Yale featured in the worst Indiana Jones movie ever made...the free booze on Fridays helps you to forget these more minor differences.)
We Yalies are certainly complicit in perpetuating the "Aw-shucks, the law? What's that?" stereotype that seems to surround the institution. And I can't guarantee that there's not a Yale Law grad out there somewhere who believes that a tort is a rich cake with a creamy, delicious frosting. But if you come visit, talk to the students and professors, and see the range of opportunities we have to offer, you can make an informed decision about whether Yale has the right theory/practice balance for you. I just hope you like s'mores!