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What Is It About Yale Law?
From Pat Robertson and Clarence Thomas to Anita Hill and Bill Clinton, one of the country’s smaller law schools continues to produce public servants of high achievement and wildly differing views. The reasons are no secret.

Early last fall, Linda Rottenberg, ’93JD, was conducting a meeting to recruit students for the staff of the Yale Law and Policy Review. Suddenly, the door burst open and a student announced breathlessly that “Bill” was in the courtyard. “Everybody knew exactly what that meant,” Rottenberg recalls, so “we all jumped up and ran out” to shake hands with Bill Clinton ’73JD, who was then in the process of clinching the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. After the candidate had left and the students were filing back into the building, a wide-eyed first-year student turned to Rottenberg and asked incredulously, “Does this kind of thing happen here all the time?”

While impromptu visits from political superstars are not exactly a daily occurrence at the Yale Law School, the place is radiating a certain celebrity aura these days. President Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham, also a graduate of the class of ’73, are the two most prominent luminaries to emerge from the school in recent years, but for better or worse, most of the nation’s major political dramas lately have involved at least a few Law alumni in the leading roles.

Last year’s presidential primaries played like a veritable Yale Barrister’s Union competition, with the Clintons joining forces against former California Governor Jerry Brown '64LLB, and former Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas ’67LLB. A similar all-Eli battle was waged during the 1988 presidential race in which Colorado Senator Gary Hart '64LLB vied for the Democratic nomination, while the Reverend Pat Robertson '55LLB lost the Republican nod to George Bush, a 1948 graduate of Yale College.

But it’s not just presidential politics that attracts Yale Law School graduates. In the fall of 1992, virtually all of the major contenders in the rancorous fight over the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court were Yale Law graduates. Thomas, ’74, was accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill '80. Thomas’s chief supporter was Missouri senator John Danforth '63, whose cause was aided by the sharp questioning of Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter '56, and the bellicose testimony of Hill’s classmate John Doggett '80.

Other Yale Law graduates who have infiltrated the top echelons of government and elective politics in recent years include: former president Gerald Ford '41; Pennsylvania senator Harris Wofford '54; Arthur Liman '57, chief counsel for the Senate committee investigating the Iran-contra scandal; and the late Judge Gerhard Gesell '35, who presided over Oliver North’s trial. Three of the four members of the class of 1982 who ran for Congress last year won. And with the Clintons now ensconced in the White House, the list of top government posts held by Yale alums is expected to grow even longer.

Already, Robert B. Reich ’73, has been named to serve as secretary of labor; R. James Woolsey '68, is Clinton’s choice for CIA director; and Robert E. Rubin '64, was selected to head the National Economic Council. “We’re looking at the prospect of the Law School becoming a sort of shadow government,” says one observer, only half joking. Another remarked that Clinton could well do for Yale what John F. Kennedy did for Harvard.

As the extent of Yale Law’s influence on government and public policy continues to spread, the question arises: Is it mere coincidence that so many contemporary public leaders once roamed the corridors of this comparatively small law school? (It is about one-third the size of the schools at Harvard and Stanford.) Or is there, as Clinton once speculated, “something in the water” that produces such a thirst for public service?

Whatever the reason, the results are generating reams of press clips. For the past three years Yale has been the top-ranked law school in U.S. News & World Report’s annual survey of graduate and professional education. In 1990, the magazine wrote, “Far more willing to move beyond the conventional limits of jurisprudence than its rivals, Yale has earned a blue-chip reputation for innovation and excellence.” Even Harvard, for years the dominant law school in the public eye, seems to recognize that times have changed. Referring to the U.S. News ranking, a 1991 editorial in the Harvard Law Record conceded, “If you’re talking about nurturing and fostering the many talented people who pass through its doors, Yale is unquestionably the best. You have to give them their propers.”

Yale’s top-flight reputation is also being reflected in the number of students who want to attend. According to Director of Admissions Jean Webb, Yale last year received 5,100 applications for 175 openings. This year, she says, law school applications nationwide are down by more than 12 percent, but she estimates that Yale will see a drop of only 3 to 5 percent. Moreover, last year’s yield rate—the number of applicants who, upon acceptance, say yes—was the highest in twenty years.

So what’s going on? For years, the conventional wisdom has been that Harvard is the place to go if your goal is to make a pile of money as a tassel-loafered corporate lawyer, while Yale is the place if you are interested in broadening your intellectual horizons—but are not necessarily interested in becoming a lawyer. “Yale was viewed as less of a trade school than other law schools,” recalls New York-based freelance writer and former National Lampoon editor John Weidman ’74. Although he decided halfway through his first contracts class that law wasn’t for him, Weidman has never viewed his three years at Yale as a waste. “The social policy questions and the intellectual discipline were enormously exciting, and the absence of the paper-chase kind of atmosphere made that possible,”he says.

The conventional wisdom evidently still applies. The editor of the Yale Law Journal, Michael F. Bennet ’93, says he chose Yale because it’s “less rigid” and because it “gives you the academic freedom to explore whatever you want to explore.” A former aide to Ohio governor Richard Celeste, Bennet says that he was “totally ambivalent” about getting a law degree, but now has no regrets. “Yale goes out of its way to diminish the external markers of achievement,” he says. “There’s no posting of grades or class rank. The environment is conducive to exploration.”

Beyond a curriculum and an atmosphere that encourages public service, Yale offers another powerful inducement for graduates to eschew corporate jobs in favor of governmental and other not-for-profit positions. In order to help defray the high cost of attending—which this year topped $28,000 for one year of tuition, room, board, and living expenses—the school offers the most generous loan-forgiveness program in the country. Graduates with incomes of less than $32,300 receive grants to pay all educational obligations for every year that their salary falls below that level. Students who earn more than $32,300 must pay a quarter of everything earned above that toward their tuition debt, and the school will pick up the rest. Funding for the program comes from endowed funds and annual gifts, and doesn’t siphon money from the school’s traditional scholarship program, which awards an average of $8,000 to roughly 40 percent of the student body.

Important as such programs may be, much of the credit for the school’s recent vigor should go to Guido Calabresi, a 1953 graduate of the College who took his LLB at the school five years later. According to both current students and alumni, Calabresi, who became dean in 1985, has created a mood that encourages scholarship above competition. “On the first day of classes,” says a third-year student, “Guido (‘he tells us to call him Guido’) delivers his trademark off-the-treadmill speech. That’s when he tells you that you’ve gotten here, so now you can get off the treadmill and learn for the sake of learning. Then he lists a bunch of unique offbeat things graduates have done and tells you not to worry about clerkships and law firms but to take risks and pursue your interests. Personally, I think that speech sets the tone for the whole place.”

Calabresi says that the school’s hallmark is an intimate atmosphere that encourages students to write, argue, and question more than at other law schools. “That’s the essence of it, really,” he says. “They learn to love that which they are doing.”

But while this progressive approach to the teaching of law may have enhanced the school’s current popularity, the source of its lofty reputation may lie as much in its inauspicious past as in its star-studded present. The first LLB degree was conferred at Yale in 1843. Although the University allowed its name to be used, it kept itself at arm’s length from the fledgling institution, whose faculty was responsible for all financial losses. Yet even then, a vision was emerging of what the school’s mission ought to be.

In 1874, former President Theodore Woolsey wrote, “Let the school then be regarded no longer as simply the place for training men to plead causes, to give advice to clients, to defend criminals; but let it be regarded as the place of instruction in all sound learning relating to the foundations of justice, the history of law, the doctrine of government, to all those branches of knowledge which the most finished statesman or legislator ought to know.”

Despite such ambitious goals, by 1890 the school still had no full-time teaching faculty; instruction was provided by legal practitioners living in New Haven. This changed in 1904, when the Yale Corporation finally assumed financial responsibility for the school and began the task of hiring a staff of fulltime professors. A decade later, the school’s long history of political distinction was launched with the addition to the faculty of former president and soon-to-become chief justice, William Howard Taft (see “Old Yale”).

The educational movement that has come to typify the school in more recent times was developed in the 1930s. Known as “legal realism,” it shunned the traditional view of the law as an abstract set of legal procedures. Instead, its adherents—who included former Yale professor and Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas—believed that the law ought to be considered within the larger framework of economics, philosophy, sociology, and the other social sciences. More than anything else, it is this public policy approach to the law— combined with Yale’s small size, low student-to-faculty ratio, and informal atmosphere—that has set it apart from other law schools.

These features undoubtedly played a role in attracting Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham, and others like them more than 20 years ago. Given the backdrop of the civil rights movement, the shootings at Kent State University, the Vietnam War, and the Watergate scandal, the Yale Law School must have seemed like the ideal boot camp for students concerned about the future of American society.

Sterling Professor of Law Abraham Goldstein, who was dean of the school from 1970 to 1975, remembers that period as a “sobering time” marked on the campus by periodic fires in the auditorium and the murder trial of Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, which brought National Guard troops to the streets of New Haven. “What you had was a bubbling up of all manner of controversy of the day, which manifested itself in draft resistance, war protests, calls for grading reform, curriculum reform and demands for more student participation,” recalls Goldstein.

It was in this atmosphere that Hillary Rodham in 1969 launched her career as a law student. And by all accounts, she flourished amid the tumult, emerging as a campus spokesperson while still in her first year. To this day, Rodham acknowledges the profound influence the Yale Law School had on shaping her world view. “Much of what I believe in and much of what I have worked for is directly related to my time at the Law School,” she told a gathering of alumni in New Haven last fall. Goldstein says his most vivid memory of Rodham was her presiding over a student meeting called to discuss how the student body should respond to the escalation of the Vietnam war. “She was obviously a leader,” he says. “She was running the meeting with remarkably good sense and balance. She was not incendiary the way some of the students were.”

A year later, when Bill Clinton arrived, the mood on the Yale campus was comparatively peaceful, according to Goldstein. “It was as if those searing events of the previous year had caused passions to subside. Things seemed to calm down considerably.” Goldstein says he didn’t know Clinton personally, but remembers that he worked for the presidential campaign of George McGovern “and often was not here.”

This recollection squares with what others remember as well. “Squeezing Yale in on the side,” “treating law school liberally,” and “not perfect in class attendance” are some of the phrases used by friends to describe Clinton’s approach to his work. But if his interest in studying the law was desultory, he was already focusing on politics.

Soon after coming to Yale, Clinton organized U.S. Senate candidate Joseph Duffey’s campaign in Connecticut’s third district, and in 1972 he was the Texas coordinator of McGovern’s presidential bid. A fellow McGovern staffer remembers Clinton displaying the same unflagging energy then that he mustered during his own presidential campaign. He once flew to Yale to register for his classes, then got on another plane to be back in Texas the next day.

Goldstein observes that while the social convulsions of the day caused many students to sour on working for change within the political system, they had the opposite effect on Rodham and Clinton. “For people who went through that period, it was like an internship in the complexities of political and social reform,” he says. “In their case, the experience reinforced their conviction that the system can work.” During her speech to alumni, Rodham concurred. “The lessons of the Yale Law School that I carry with me every single day have convinced me that the struggle to continue to define our lives using the law is one of the worthiest we could ever be engaged in.”

Evidence that public-policy reform is still a motivating force for many students at Yale Law is not hard to find. One barometer of student sentiment is the Wall, an area near the central stairway of the Sterling Law Building where students post newspaper articles, literary fragments, or any other type of communication they want to share with their schoolmates. Students are free to write comments or responses in the margins, but they must abide by two rules: Everything posted must be initialed, and only the person who posted an item may take it down.

On a gray day in January, the Wall was filled with references to ZoĆ« Baird, who had just withdrawn her name from consideration for attorney general amid controversy that she had hired illegal aliens and failed to pay the proper taxes. One item showed a picture of Baird (who is married to Paul Gewirtz, a professor of constitutional law at the school) with a thought balloon above her head that read, “Only the little people obey the law.” Below that somebody else had written, “And only the women get caught.”

More substantive examples of the school’s interest in and commitment to public-policy reform can also be found in the many law clinics it runs in New Haven and elsewhere across the country. These programs enable students to gain hands-on experience and offer tangible assistance to a wide range of people who could otherwise not afford legal services, from the homeless of New Haven to Haitian refugees. Professor Harold Koh runs the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Law Project. He, along with about 70 students, has waged a year-long fight against the U.S. government on behalf of Haitian refugees, so far winning six out of six court battles.

Koh, who got his law degree from Harvard, says that the collaborative nature of the clinic is just one of the features that set Yale apart from other law schools. “It’s a communal place, with lots of interaction,” he says.

But while its efforts to groom students for public service jobs has attracted much press lately, the fact is that the majority of Yale Law’s grads still go into corporate law. Indeed, according to Career Development Director Judith A. Lhamon, 40.2 percent of the class of ’92 took jobs with law firms. Only 9.7 percent took government, public interest, or legal services jobs. “It sounds low, but it’s much higher than the nationwide average,” Lhamon says.

Rottenberg, who is contemplating working in Argentina after graduation, says the mass migration of graduates to corporate law jobs is one of the things that make the school “less than perfect.” While the talk may be of public service, when job time rolls around, the reality is quite different, she says. “Basically, the message here is that there are two tracks: a clerkship or a big firm. We’re told that there are all these opportunities to avail ourselves of, but I don’t see employers from a diverse range of jobs recruiting here.”

One of the few other criticisms leveled at the school is that there are few women and minorities on the faculty. Students point out, for example, that feminist law is taught by a man, Professor of Public Law Owen Fiss. Another charge is that the mostly white, male professors tend to avoid some of the more cutting-edge legal theories, such as critical legal studies, a movement which seeks to show that the law’s supposedly neutral principles are in fact driven by the exclusionary politics of the affluent.

According to Associate Dean Stephen Yandle, the full-time teaching faculty of nearly 50 has five minorities, all of whom are tenured. Seven more are women, four of whom are tenured. “I think every member of the faculty thinks it would be wonderful to have a more diverse faculty,” he says, “but the appointment process is driven by individual assessments by tenured faculty. It’s not simply a matter of the dean making an appointment.” As for the complaints about feminist theory and critical legal studies, Yandle says those topics are incorporated into a wide range of courses offered at the school and are also addressed by visiting professors.

The final gripe–about the cramped law library–is finally being addressed through a major underground expansion project, using space beneath High Street. The new wing should be completed in about five years.

Calabresi has heard all these criticisms before, but he believes it is the kudos, not the knocks, that pose the greatest threat to the school’s future. “I’m a worrier,” he says. “I worry about everything. Only when you worry do you keep it from happening.” In a letter to alumni last November announcing the launch of the school’s $130-million capital fund drive, he elaborated on what has him so concerned: “Complacency can lead faculty and students to believe that they are clean, and hence need not bathe. Great faculties have frequently been destroyed by coming to feel that they are so good that no one is possibly worthy of being hired. Students can come to rely on the school’s fame and lose the burning desire to learn, to make the world better.”

His concern may not be unfounded. Already, students say, the success of so many Yale graduates, coupled with the publicity they have attracted, has had an effect on life at the school. Students are reportedly toning down their Wall messages for fear that something they post might come back to haunt them 20 years from now when they’re seeking public office. Yet another fear is that there will be a mass exodus of faculty members to Washington as President Clinton makes more appointments to his administration. (Clinton’s debt to the school is clear. During the election, more than 200 university presidents, deans, and other college officials, including Calabresi, took the unusual step of endorsing Clinton in “an open letter to the American public” published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In addition, Yale Law School Graduates for Clinton raised about $1.4 million for their former schoolmate.)

The Clinton-Rodham team is affecting the school’s life in other ways as well. With the story of their first meeting in the law library rapidly becoming the stuff of legend, current students reportedly have more of an interest in their social lives. “People are going around wondering when they’ll meet their Hillary or when they’ll meet their Bill,” says one student. And on an institutional level, some worry that all the media attention might give the school—which has never been particularly self-deprecating—an even larger ego, and that its relations with the rest of the University might suffer.

Not to worry, says Yandle. “Certainly we’re quite pleased with ourselves. We feel very good about the school, but that doesn’t come at the expense of anyone else. As we do well, the University does well. As the University does well, we do well. That’s the spirit in which we approach it.”

He might well have added that, as go the alumni—from Bill and Hillary on down—so goes the school.  the end


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