The Ultimate Writing Boot Camp

Future people of Yale Law School: Prepare for the moment when, a couple weeks into the second semester, everyone will freak out. With fellowship-, JSD-proposal-, and other deadlines approaching, you and your classmates will start to resemble the poor JD-population in their perpetual driven-ness. In order to escape this unhealthy dynamic and to not let the Yale penguins steal your last drops of sanity, you should make your class representative (which you will have to call “El Presidente”) call into being an Ultimate Writing Boot Camp.

Ultimate Writing Boot Camp aims at breaking the ever-tightening chains of procrastination (it is common knowledge that there is a strong positive correlation between workload and affinity for procrastination) by locking most of the international students into a seminar room and not letting them out before at least some work has been achieved.

This is what El Presidente will do to you:

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Be careful: Don’t let yourselves be tricked by the tons of cake, cookies and coffee, supposed to be waiting for you: They only serve as a bait in order to lure you into a trap of diabolic evilness, where relentless drill instructors will take away both, coffee and food, and devour them in front of your hungry eyes.

(This Tantalean torture is brought to you by one of Yale’s ORIGINALSTS – in both, the conventional and the Yalie, senses – in an effort to make you grasp the meaning of “cruel and unusual punishment”.)

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So much for the theory behind Ultimate Writing Boot Camp. How did it look in practice?

The following is an excerpt from the classe’s WhatsApp thread during Ultimate Writing Boot Camp:

A: Come people, we can’t eat all this cake!

B: Or can we???

A: I was just typing that.

C: Hahaha…I think you guys will manage.

A: OK, we don’t need help with the cake. Come for the love and wonderful company.

Meanwhile in a personal thread…

E: You look very enthusiastic. Shouldn’t be on Whatsapp.

A second later…

G: I’m workiiiing!!

Voilà a performative contradiction…

E: I understand: “This statement is false…” Just saying that you look very enthusiastic about it.

G: How do you mean?

E: You look bored out of your mind.

Meanwhile in the common thread…

D: You still boot camping?

One second later…

A: Yes.

Another second later…

E: Obviously we’re not. All doing WhatsApp.

Another ten seconds…

Graduate Tutor: People doing the boot camp shouldn’t check their phones for messages.

F: Gosh. Don’t judge us. We’re very productive.

G: http://media.giphy.com/media/xT0BKvIDgNYugS3m3C/giphy.gif

B: I wish! Haha.

At this point I chose to do something worthwhile. Guess where I’m writing this blog post…

The Yale LL.M.: Benjamin Button Baby Blizzard

Thank you, Jonas, says the panda.

Which Panda?

This Panda:

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But who is Jonas?

Jonas is a blizzard. In fact, he is a baby blizzard. The baby blizzard that two weekends ago brought the east coast to a halt. It may have been an actual blizzard at Washington or New York.

However, from the perspective of Yale, which, as we have learned over the last semester, is the perspective of the objective truth, it was only a baby blizzard. This is somewhat strange, because the blizzard reached Washington and New York before it hit New Haven. So it regressed from monster storm to blizzard to baby blizzard. I therefore name it BENJAMIN BUTTON BABY BLIZZARD.

Benjamin Button Baby Blizzard finally brought some snow to New Haven and made me very happy. Beautiful thick snowflakes animated by a mild winter wind called for an extended walk through the snowfall.

But guess what?

NOBODY WANTED TO walk WITH ME. All of New Haven hid in their homes. So I proposed to imitate that panda, have a snowball fight and roll around in the snow.

But guess what?

NOBODY WANTED TO PLAY WITH ME.

So I too headed home to hide in my bed and have some delicious canned food that I had shopped in preparation of the giant storm. How could I have known that the storm of the century would turn out to be a BENJAMIN BUTTON BABY BLIZZARD?

Once the storm had passed and the sun came out, all of New Haven looked very beautiful. Beautiful enough to lure people from their heated homes into the winterwonderland.

So finally we had our long longed for snowball fight and even went sledding. The latter was due to the initiative of the Yale Law School Sledding Society (YLSSS). Thank you for this brilliant IDEA. Our Brazilian friends, despite being new to this serious business, did wonderfully. I, too, enjoyed the sport the habit of which I had lost long ago. I guess the baby blizzard and the snow-rolling panda brought out our childish side. This is not at all surprising, given the fact that, for the first time in around a decade, we’re part of an actual “class”, mostly hanging out with the same bunch of randomly selected people. So you should know: When at YLS, you will have these moments where you’ll feel like being back in school. This is certainly something Harvard can’t match.

As for the whole blizzard business (which you will have to deal with when spending a winter in New Haven): Don’t let the Americans scare you too much. They’ll hype every baby blizzard into a monster storm. This is surprising: Given the frequency of blizzards and the notoriously cold winters one would expect New Englanders to know how to deal with some snow. My theory is that baby blizzards are intentionally hyped in order to have an excuse for bringing life to a standstill and stay home. An extra day of vacation. Given the few days of paid vacation per year (around 15 on average) this is legitimate self-defense.

FINALS – Or: YALE’S DRIVE(N-NESS)

When evaluating piece-of-cake-ratios, FINALS are – naturally – of extreme relephants. Even for intrinsically motivated people such as a typical LLM-student at Yale, it is often the form and difficulty of final exams or papers as well as certain anticipated grading habits that, to a large extent, determine the stress and anxiousness associated with a course, i.e. its subjective piece-of-cakeness. As a follow-up to the last post I should therefore write about FINALS.

To sum it up, reading period and finals (12/8-12/22) were depressing. Why? Because nobody wanted to play with me. This complaint does not mean that I was one of the ninety-percenters (see ON PIECES OF CAKE). Instead, as in most other things, I would locate myself in the center (i.e. as a fifty-percenter). This centripetal – rather than centrifugal – tendency of mine, however, makes me loath loosing balance. During FINALS this desire for balance translates into the wish to – once in a while – decompress after a long and intense day of work over a nice dinner, or a beer, or some dancing, or some much-needed sleep.

This should be an obvious piece of life-wisdom for anyone wishing to stay healthy and sane. At Yale it is not, and this, for once, is not a joke. From what we were told in our introductory week, almost fifty percent of Yale students make use of the university’s free mental health counseling at some point in their campus career. Please don’t misunderstand me: I do not mean to stigmatize anyone who uses these services. Nonetheless, this number is disconcerting. If almost fifty percent of – compared to the general population – super-privileged (intellectually, economically, culturally) students don’t feel confident enough to handle their lives without professional help, something is off-balance. Yale’s extreme and extremely invigorating drive, that so much fascinates me, borders on driven-ness.

What does this have to do with my FINALS? The Yale spirit is contagious, spreading even to the Law School and to parts of my dear LLM-class. Not only did bars and restaurants stay empty (even emptier than what is usual at New Haven). I was even told that the hallways of the library were sometimes populated until as late as 2 am. These cannot be healthy life choices.

Do you know what completes this absurdity? All the fuzz is being made for papers and exams that are either ungraded or graded according to a scale that, in practice, – from what we heard – knows only two kinds of grades: pass or high pass. All this self-inflicted suffering takes place at a law school that refuses to rank its students in order to avoid or mitigate exaggerated and useless competitiveness among its student body.

I do not mean to advocate laziness. I admire the ambition of my classmates. I probably am quite similar in this regard. All I demand – even during FINALS – is that SOMEBODY PLAY WITH ME.

Academics, or: ON PIECES OF CAKE

Besides some rather general thoughts on Yale Law School’s affinity to meerkats, extensive skim reading, and obsessive originality, my blog has been largely silent on the issue of academics. Winter break gives me the opportunity to change this. So what about classes?

Judging from my first term, YLS easily raises up to its reputation. Whatever courses you will end up choosing, they will be MEERCAT-y, reading-intense, and ORIGINAL. Even if your professor happens not to be a gifted entertainer (some are), you will have enough quick-witted classmates to keep you busy and avoid even the slightest signs of boredom.

Given the vast variety of courses and interests, these are the only overall remarks that I can make. Everything else depends on the courses and professors that you select. So be sure to choose wisely. In this regard I can give you some very un-original, i.e. un-Yale-like advice:

First and foremost: Use your shopping period. It will be even more intense than the rest of the term. Trying out as many classes as possible is, nonetheless, worth the investment. If you follow this recommendation, you will not only end up with interesting classes. You will also acquire the three Yale-virtues (meerkatiness, skim-reading, originality) in a matter of (ten) days. Last but not least, the rest of the term will – somewhat – more resemble a piece of cake.

Don’t get me wrong: This increased piece-of-cakeness of your semester will, by no means, result in a 100% resemblance. How large the final resemblance will be (resemblance base rate + resemblance-bonus of a wisely used shopping week), is uncertain and much contested. Some more centrist-minded LLM-colleagues might be claiming a 50% resemblance of a YLS term and a piece of cake. Others will claim a >90% resemblance. These people will be particularly unpopular with the opposite extremists (those claiming a < 10 % resemblance). This conflict will peak during reading period and FINALS, when some ninety-percenters will keep annoying the ten-percenters by constantly asking whether anyone would like to go out and have a beer with them.

Even if the highly disputed cake-resemblance-ratio of a YLS term could be determined, it would remain unclear what exactly this measure means. What precisely do we know, when we’re told that “the cake-resemblance-ratio of the fall term was 35”? Is the cake-resemblance-ratio an absolute measure or does it change over persons and courses? Could the proposition p (“The cake-resemblance-ratio was 35”) and p’ (“The cake-resemblance-ratio was 85”) both be true at the same time?

These important questions bring me to one of my most interesting and challenging courses: “Law and Cognition” with Professor Kahan. As the above paragraphs demonstrate, I have no particular expertise with numbers, statistics, probabilities, and their meaning. The class aimed at changing this (has it failed?) by confronting us with a vast array of studies from cognitive science, social psychology and behavioral economics all of which reported insights that – to a smaller or larger extent – are relevant for scholars, judges, lawyers and legal thinking in general. Developing an at least tentative sense for the quality and normative significance of empirical research was no piece of cake, but definitely one of the richest (maybe it was a very large piece of a very heavy cake?) experiences that I have made during my first term at Yale.

This brings me to my second piece of advice: Challenge yourself! Take classes that do not precisely fit your prior interests and expertise. Take strange classes whose names seem as out-of-worldly and irrelephant as possible.

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This is what Yale Law School has always been famous for and does best.

(By now it should be clear to the readers of this blog that I mean this as an extreme form of praise.)

If you do take black-letter-courses in your area of interest (I took one), don’t hesitate to take the four-hour courses that give you a solid introduction and actual knowledge of an entire area of US-American law. The US legal system and teaching style are particular, original, and vast enough as not to create any unnecessary overlap with your prior knowledge of the respective legal field. If you want to do comparative work, I would recommend doing it as a research fellow or once you’re back at your place.

This is, of course, only the opinion of somebody who devotes two paragraphs to piece-of-cake-ratios.

The Yale LL.M.: The GAME

Last weekend afforded me the opportunity to take a peak into one of Yale’s great traditions: The Harvard-Yale-GAME.

Which sport am I referring to? Rumor has it that the two teams were trying to play American Football, but there was no means of confirming this claim. If scoring first downs every now and then is a viable criterion for determining whether it’s football that’s being played, it must have been another sport. Both teams kept punting the ball back and forth, apparently trying to trace the sport that they were allegedly playing back to it’s name and etymological origins (foot-ball). It must be Yale’s ORIGINALISM that made our team excel at this discipline even more than Harvard, leaving us with a final score of 19-38.

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(At this point in the game some misguided hope was still left.)

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(This was the band trying to pull off its version of a choreography.)

But enough of pathetic high school-level football! The GAME is not about sports. It’s about reveling in a century-old rivalry of two great universities. It’s about excessive tailgating, all the more direly necessary in order to keep up your spirits when watching two clumsy teams punting the ball. It’s about cheering for Yale while standing not too far away from Secretary of State, John Kerry.

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It’s about half of Harvard’s student body being bused to New Haven, finding refuge at some of their friends’ places or in one of the twelve undergraduate dorms. It’s about New Haven’s streets bustling with groups of merrily drunk students in bright daylight, fusing with nostalgic alumni as well as uncles, aunts, parents and grandparents visiting their Yalie offspring or relatives. So far, I have not seen New Haven in quite as swinging and lively a mood. Even the angriest angry bird could not have helped having a smile on his or her face.

For those of you who have been struggling to gather the necessary motivation to carry yourself through the application process: The two days of rivalry-revelry should by no means be missed. Having the GAME at home is certainly a premium. Therefore, if you haven’t applied this year, or if you don’t get in: Apply for 2017, when Yale will again be hosting the GAME!

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

The Yale LL.M.: WALL WARS

With the long longed-for revival of “Star Wars” approaching (“Where in the world is Luke Skywalker?”) I should let you know that, in spite of the BUBBLE, prospective Yale law students should be prepared for a special kind of conflict: WALL WARS.

The WALL is an ancient institution at YLS, serving as its central communication platform. What once was an actual wall, where students would virtually pin their thoughts, invitations, questions and sorrows in paper form, the WALL has gone digital and turned into an email-run forum. Students now virtually virtually post their thoughts. Besides this change in form, the WALL’s substance remains.

This WALL then must be imagined as the forum that breeds Yale Law School as a community. Community building being a difficult, highly political enterprise, this does not go by without friction and tensions. The underlying tension regularly turns into heated “discussion”, sometimes erupting into WALL WARS.

The content of WALL WARS is manifold: It may be the issue of Palestine. It may be the use of drones. It may be birthright citizenship and its partly racially motivated criticism. It may be colorblind emails about inconsiderate Halloween costumes and their implications for free expression and safe spaces.

(As it turns out, my failure at finding a Halloween costume might have been a good thing after all. Maybe my failing instincts and complete paralysis in the face of the costume-decision were a subtle hint towards Halloween being, at its heart, a very silly, unnecessary, potentially harmful exercise. Reflection confirms this hunch: Looking at its Roman predecessor, the Saturnalia, when slaves were allowed and encouraged to dress up as their masters for a couple of days, points us towards all kinds of Carnival being, at their very core, means of entrenching social norms and existing power structures. Limiting disorder to a couple of days and allowing its periodic ventilation essentially amounts to affirming the order for the rest of the time. By practicing disorder as disorder, order is affirmed. The supposed need to “get certain things out of the system”, often claimed by Carnival-apologetics to be a central function of these festivities, should make us skeptical: Why are these things in the system in the first place? And shouldn’t the system be different? – As you can see, I still haven’t come to terms with having failed at Halloween. This is my exercise in rationalization.)

Despite its manifold content, the shape of WALL WARS is one and the same: Inclusion through exclusion by declaration.

WALL WARS cannot be understood as reasoned argument. When the topic turns e.g. on Israel, people don’t actually argue about Israel’s politics. Instead, somebody will passive-aggressively declare, through the WALL, her or his support to the Palestinian cause, more or less openly implying some kind of Israeli imperialism or racism towards its Arab population. This ill-concealed suggestion will, of course, be detected and picked up by some other member of the Yale Law community who will, in turn, declare his or her allegiance to the Israeli cause, usually retorting with some other mildly passive-aggressive comment. This exchange then goes back and forth for a couple of times, allowing both sides to strengthen their respective group identity. In all of this, no argument is being made. Nobody tries to convince anybody of the falsity of her or his beliefs. It is an exercise in identity building with the vague hope that one’s own identity group will, in the long run, prevail. The code of the discussion is “in or out”, friend or foe.

The same dynamics – in their purest form – emerged in reaction to a lunch lecture hosted by Yale Law School’s enfant terrible, the right-wing Federalist Society, putting into question birthright citizenship on patently racist grounds. Shortly after the event, instead of denouncing and refuting the untenable argument, a WALL thread developed with the express goal of “condemning” the presentation and ostentatiously reaffirming the commitment to birthright citizenship and the fellow students with recent immigrant pasts.

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(This is the sad fate awaiting the WALL if it continues its friend-foe discursive culture.)

The ensuing candystorm (GOOGLE tells me this is how one calls shitstorm’s benign sibling) of solidarity continued for several days and – taken together with other WALL WARS – left me in an even more confused state than what would seem appropriate for a meerkat in a meerkat’s haven. Before coming to Yale, I would never have expected any law school’s discursive culture to be so hostile to actual discussion and so keen on building close-knit communities in which everyone constantly affirms each other’s beliefs. This mindset, for me, is in strange discord with the intensively curious and intellectually challenging posture taken in most of Yale Law School’s classes. It is as if the student body, after being challenged in class, turns to the WALL in order to heal its wounds and create an even safer space. Students do so by declaring allegiance to the RIGHT and condemning the WRONG. The code is solidarity or exclusion. From an outsider’s perspective this is not agonism or adversary culture, it is the very antagonism that has been mutilating American politics since the advent of the Tea Party. These aren’t contests, these are WALL WARS.

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

The Yale LL.M.: HALLOWEEN

The last post revolving around IDEAS, this one is about their lack. It is a tale of a meerkat at heart in its desperate and ultimately unsuccessful search of a HALLOWEEN costume. The injustice of this situation was manifold:

“Meerkat” would have been a pretty good costume. Unfortunately though, being a meerkat disqualified me from impersonating one. After all, the law of HALLOWEEN demands us to dress up as someone or something else.

Which leads me to my second point: The Law of HALLOWEEN. Why is there such a thing and why should we LLMs have to yield to its demands? By virtue of what authority? As foreigners we certainly did not incur this obligation by way of self-authorship. We did not partake in the making of this custom of making up costumes. Should we nevertheless have to assimilate? Should we abandon our own, diverse cultures to a bunch of pumpkins? Should we not demand some room for cultural accommodation? You could say that we forfeited this claim when deliberately leaving the customs area at the airport, thus renouncing our natural liberty in exchange for whatever costumes-custom our host country might come up with. But shouldn’t there at least be an exception to laws so clearly and utterly horrific as the Law of HALLOWEEN?

In the face of such injustice, of course, we yielded. Not only did our LLM-class yield, we even organized our own HALLOWEEN party. This left some of us, including me, in the even worse position of being stripped of the network of mutual support against the American yoke that our LLM class generally provides. While wars are being fought about whether the LLMs should be properly referred to as “foreign exchange students” (some of us minded the somewhat condescending ring of the term) by our American counterparts, nobody joined me in taking up arms against HALLOWEEN’S dictate.

Being neither a fool (meerkats seem too alert to be fools) nor a martyr (not being fools, meerkats have little inclination towards martyrdom) I was still faced with the urgent need to come up with some costume. In my desperation, I aimlessly erred around the law school in search of an IDEA. This being the usual modus vivendi at Yale Law School (see Originalism, How to be a Meerkat and the Reading Myth) my agony went completely unnoticed. Since nobody knew, nobody offered me any help or hugs.

So in the end, what outfit did I choose? Why should you care.

But why am I writing this?

To let you know that HALLOWEEN is HORROR. That you should start thinking about your costume as soon as you arrive here next summer. That you will have to figure out for yourself how much to yield to American legal and general culture. That no matter how you position yourself towards this question, you will definitely be hearing and talking a lot about political legitimacy, the groundings of authority and the moral duty to obey the law. That you may sometimes be called a “foreign exchange student”. That the LLM-class, although busy, has not dropped out of the partying business yet and usually offers a great support network. Also I intend to give you a vivid impression of how all these ideas and papers and workshops and conferences and lunch lectures that will be pouring down on you will deeply confuse you. I think this post demonstrates that – in an entertaining and benign fashion – day by day Yale Law School steals my sanity.

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

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.

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.

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.