The Yale LL.M: ORIGINALISM

It may come as a surprise, but Yale Law School – despite its liberal leanings (according to Fisman et al, Science, 18 September 2015, Vol. 349 no. 6254, less than 1 out of 10 students self-identifies as Republican) – is deeply originalist. Though, I must clarify, this originalism is of a different mold than the originalism used by Justices Scalia or Thomas to justify their conservative claims. It is, in fact, quite the opposite of a conservative attitude. Yale Law School’s originalism is its obsession with originality.

You will notice this on the first day of orientation, when you may enjoy the pleasure of having Harold Koh, former dean of YLS and security advisor to Hilary Clinton during her time at the State Department, introduce you to the culture of the law school. Citing Guido Calabresi, Koh urged us to – sooner or later – come up with “our IDEA”. Without any such truly original idea, our distinctive take on the legal world, our lives as scholars would be doomed to fail.

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(This is how you’re supposed to always look like at Yale. But how can you do that? And do you have to wear a tie?)

This prep talk raised several questions that have haunted me (and most likely other LLMs) through most of my Yale experience: Is one idea enough? Will somebody actually be willing to pay me for the remainder of my life for having delivered a single IDEA? What does this mean for my hourly wage while I come up with the IDEA? It must be astronomical. Is IKEA such an IDEA? Seriously: What kind of IDEA can fuel an entire life of scholarship? It must be quite big. If that is the case, isn’t it too much to be asked for? How many big ideas are still out there? Can any of us come up with one? Does the IDEA have any content or is it more like a mindset, a lens through which we look at law’s empire? Is this IDEA what makes my thoughts original?

However vague the idea of the IDEA may be, it has considerable traction on life at YLS. Faculty workshop, where Yale professors discuss their recent scholarship, is one good place to observe IDEAS at work. It is striking, to what degree most professors’ questions and comments are shaped and structured by their respective IDEA. These IDEAS provide originality, precision and an interesting ring to most of the discussion. On the other hand, IDEAS and originality come at a prize: Not all issues are fit for all IDEAS. I may have a hammer, but not all things are nails. Sometimes deference to the IDEA of someone else may be the order of the day.

This kind of modesty is certainly not being encouraged at Yale (nor – from what I’ve heard – at other US law schools). Instead, the BUBBLE infuses us with millions of ideas while classes and teachers push us to develop and – as boldly as prematurely – state our own. The READING MYTH contributes to this tendency by assuring a constant exposure to new IDEAS, while not allowing the time to effectively and conclusively wrestle with any of them. So far, Yale’s ORIGINALISM, its extreme prime on originality, is what has made my experience so rich. This does not mean that it isn’t an obsession.

For more on the LL.M. programs at Yale Law, please see the school’s profile on LLM GUIDE.

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The Yale LLM: The Cabin in the Woods

Before heading to Toronto, where I will spend the next weekend, I should share some thoughts on last weekend’s trip to Vermont (yes, life as an LLM-student is awfully busy). To make things short: The beauty of the Indian Sumer will be one of the highlights of your fall term.

But see for yourselves:

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Be aware though that the traditional Vermont trip during fall break is not part of the official LLM program at Yale. You will therefore have to plan and pay for the trip on your own. This may be one of the (very few?) genuine advantages of choosing Harvard.

But do not jump to easy conclusions. Auto-organizing the trip may be an advantage after all. You will learn a whole lot about the souls, needs, wants and anxieties of your classmates. There will be some who fear few things more than their classmate’s obnoxious snore. There will be others antagonized by sharing a bed with a relative stranger (after all we have known each other for less than two months). There will be dietary requests and restrictions abound, all in need of respectful accommodation (I am beginning to understand the US Supreme Court’s strict stance on requests for religious accommodations; cf. Employment Division v. Smith, 494 US 872). Finally, there will be those who tremble at the meager likelihood of catching legionnaire’s disease in the outdoor hot-tub.

Speaking of hot-tubs: I apologize for the misleading title, I guess what we ended up with wasn’t a “cabin” after all. Even when taking a break from the Yale Bubble we just could not envision life without the luxury of bubbles, in this case of many small bubbles surrounding us while we were fixing our eyes on the star sprinkled sky.

Thus strengthened by starlit bubble billions and some of the best – in fact stellar – barbecue (the South Americans stayed true to their reputation) the next day’s ascent to Killington Peak was but a piece of cake. Even those who thought otherwise were quickly appeased by this marvelous view:

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The peak of the Green Mountains at the peak of the Indian summer was certainly worth all the trouble of getting there. Keep this in mind while continuing on your stony path to The CASTLE.

PS: For those of you who are still unconvinced: Don’t let yourselves be fooled by your guides. There is a lift on the other side of the mountain.

For more on the LL.M. programs at Yale Law, please see the school’s profile on LLM GUIDE.

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The Yale LLM: Getting here or The CASTLE

However much I tried to avoid it, now is the time to address the other sense of ‘getting here’. For I still owe you some thoughts about the admission process at Yale. With the application deadlines slowly but inexorably approaching this might be an adequate moment for this least appealing of topics. Hopefully some of my semi-educated guesses will be of some help.

In order not to incur any liability I should start with the usual disclaimer: I don’t actually know a thing about the admissions process and its criteria. All I can share with you are some of my classmates’ and my own impressions as well as some rather vague pieces of information gathered from the office of graduate admissions. None of my evidence would pass scrutiny under the hearsay rule.

It probably makes sense to set out with what you’re up against. I will therefore begin with your odds: From what I was told, my class of 23 LLM-candidates was picked from a pool of around 400 applications. Accounting for applicants who chose not to accept the admission offer I guess Yale Law School admits around 25-27 people per year. This admission quota roughly mirrors the quota for JD admissions (this year 200 out of around 2800).

These somewhat discouraging odds notwithstanding there are certain patterns discernible in the admission decisions: Traditionally there seem to be a couple of preferred spots for students from India, China, Israel, Germany, Brazil and Argentina. The exact composition of the LLM-class, of course, differs each year, but these nationalities seem to enjoy good standing among the (varying) faculty members who make the final determinations. Another factor that might affect your odds seems to be the subject-area of your studies. Roughly speaking, you will fare better with a research interest in public (international) law or legal theory than if you were a hardcore private or corporate law aficionada/o.

Back to the admission process: Decisions seem to be made in a two step procedure: Of the formally admissible applications around 60-80 are preselected by the admissions office (all of whose personnel have a law degree from a top tier law school and considerable experience in legal education). The final determinations are then made by a board of admissions comprised of three faculty members (differing each year). Extrapolating from my hearsay knowledge of the JD admissions, that seem to be governed by a similar procedure, each of the three faculty members will rate each candidate on a scale ranging between 2 and 4 points. The emerging ranking will then (mostly) determine admissions decisions.

So much for formal procedures. But what does this really tell you about how to go about when preparing your applications? Not much, I think. It nevertheless helps to know that the arbitrariness inherent in any kind of admission process is somewhat harnessed by an elaborate procedure involving several steps and some second-guessing by more than one person. Even if procedures turned out to be completely inadequate and random the fact of going through them creates – at least in my opinion – a certain legitimacy of the final decision.

Given the unfavorable odds this legitimacy is very much needed: After all, most of you won’t get lucky and get in. But don’t be afraid, whatever you do, there is no means of controlling the outcome of the admissions machinery. Most of the time you will feel like K in Kafka’s “The Castle”. And this is a good thing, since – not being in control – you can’t do anything wrong.

(You would think that this kafkaesque prospect should help people to chill and make peace with whatever the outcome may be. Unfortunately, Max Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” suggests otherwise. Instead of chilling and having a blast in the light of predestination (Why care if what you do doesn’t matter anyways?) Calvinists would spend their time ascetically and neurotically reassuring themselves of their chosen-ness.)

Taking this insight into account I guess the prospect of being up against The CASTLE isn’t as encouraging after all.

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(This is how Yale might look to you right now. A rather dark blend of ivory tower.)

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(But don’t let yourselves be discouraged: Inside it is very bright and cozy and certainly worth the hassle of getting there.)

So why don’t I give you some minor pieces of advice in order to facilitate your application journey.

  • Get some meaningful letters of recommendation!

Discussing the issue with some of my classmates, most of us shared the impression that meaningful letters of recommendation were a crucial part of any successful application. Most importantly, recommenders should know you and your work really well. Reputation or notability of the recommender seem not to be relevant. Given the (partly language-induced) relative national focus/self-sufficiency of American legal debate, faculty members most likely won’t know your recommenders, however well known they may be in your country. Therefore you will be fine as long as your recommenders hold tenure positions. Tell them to be as specific as possible and to illustrate their praise of you and your achievements with concrete examples. Speaking of praise: If your recommenders are new to the business of writing references to US institutions, it might prove helpful to remind them of the colorful, expressive and slightly exuberant style of a typical American recommendation letter.

  • Create a convincing narrative!

This stylistic point leads me to my next piece of advice: Americans like to tell and to listen to stories. So do try to come up with a convincing story when responding to the essay questions. Even the obligatory research agenda should have at least some narrative coherence. To be clear: Not everybody will believe your story. But it is a virtue of its own to be able to present your life and legal education as if there was such a story. Don’t we lawyers always are in the business of coming up with and selling stories (see also The READING MYTH)? So just interpret the essay questions as a very basic test of your storytelling skills.

  • Start early!

Some of your paperwork will literally take for ever. The online application itself might be easy to finish in time, but whenever you depend on somebody else (TOEFL, university transcript offices, translators) you should plan far in advance. In case this advice reaches you somewhat late: A phone call tends to accelerate things. E-mails often are too easily ignored. For some strange and very annoying reason (I hate talking on the phone) an angry voice on the other end of the line makes a more lasting impression than the most sophisticated e-mail.

  • Don’t go to the Oktoberfest on the day before your TOEFL!

This may seem obvious, but it isn’t. I have been told that some people have had a very unpleasant time when taking the TOEFL after having spent 12 hours in a beer tent the day before. The same holds for other party activities.

  • Calm down!

Since, after all, you’re K and you’re up against The CASTLE.

For more on the LL.M. programs at Yale Law, please see the school’s profile on LLM GUIDE.

 

 

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