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On the Real Differences Between Law Schools

In a few weeks, we’ll start hearing from prospective law students — i.e., 0Ls — who are already reading Above the Law (smart kids!), and who consult us for advice when choosing between law schools (not such smart kids). Last year, for example, we advised students choosing between such fine law schools as Illinois, Vanderbilt, Michigan, Northwestern, Columbia, Chicago, NYU, and Minnesota (with help from you, our readers; we hosted several reader polls pitting the schools against one another).

When I was a college senior choosing between law schools, I did not employ a very sophisticated approach. I simply picked the law school I got into that was highest in the U.S. News law school rankings.

Even though I have no regrets about my law school pick, my decisionmaking process wasn’t very sound. There are real differences between law schools, in terms of their educational programming, their cost to the student, their location (hai Stanford!), and a whole host of other factors.

Today’s story provides an illustration of the phenomenon. Right now, students at one top law school are in a “near riot” — our tipster’s words, not ours — because they feel they’re being denied the education they’re paying so dearly for….

The institution in question: Yale Law School. As for what’s upsetting the students there, we’ll turn the floor over to a source:

[Rioting] over what, you ask? Over Admin Law. 3L students are being denied seats in Admin this semester, while 2Ls are being allowed in. Only at YLS could students get this bent out of shape about not being let into a black letter law class (the fact that there are few other black letter law classes being offered this semester does not make matters any better).

Not getting the chance to study administrative law? File this under law school problems. Or maybe YLS whine (alongside “Oh no, we are being visited by a Supreme Court justice!”).

Sorry, YLSers — I kid because I love. Setting snark aside, there are some serious issues here. More of the background, from our tipster:

Enrollment was capped at 65. There is now a waitlist [of approximately 100 students]. The professor asked students on the waiting list to fill out note cards with our name/waitlist number/etc, on which we all wrote out our pleas to be let into the class.

The course is being taught by Dan Ho, who is visiting this semester. The class size limit was included in the course description, but many 3Ls failed to read this, because the class was listed as an “open enrollment” course instead of a “limited enrollment” course. Many students are confused about why the registrar bothers to divide course into open and limited enrollment for registration process, and 3Ls thought that they would have no trouble getting in since (1) they didn’t realize there was a cap, (2) they thought all 3Ls would be given preference, since the registrar’s office previously said preference would be given to students in their final semester, and (3) there is also an Admin section being offered for 1Ls only, so there are only 2Ls and 3Ls taking the class.

The registrar’s office has not been very receptive to student pleas so far. Professor Ho did act in class [this week] like he wanted to let more students in, but he also wants to keep the class size small.

Daniel Ho

A few observations. First, it’s no surprise that a visiting professor is teaching Admin; professors at Yale love to dump the black-letter teaching duties on visitors, so the YLS tenured professors can teach “Law and Literary Theory” or “Law and Robots” or “Law and __” (yes, blank in the original; this meta-course was all about the interdisciplinary study of law).

(But at least Professor Ho, the visitor who’s teaching Admin, seems to be a great professor. He hails from another great law school, Stanford, which has honored him for excellence in teaching.)

Second, it seems to me that the 3Ls here have every right to be upset, based on historical practice of the registrar’s office. When I was at Yale, if a course was designated “open enrollment” and you were a graduating 3L, you were pretty much guaranteed admission. Because the second semester of the third year of law school marks the end of your legal education (at least for most people), third-year students traditionally get priority when a course if oversubscribed. And for some 3Ls — e.g., future law clerks on the D.C. Circuit — taking a class like Admin would be extremely important, strengthening the case for prioritizing them.

Third, according to a YLS source, Administrative Law was not offered at Yale in the fall semester. This is worth noting, since it weakens the argument that these 3Ls should have simply planned their classes out better and taken Admin earlier (that is, if they could have looked into the future to learn that they’d have a hard time getting into Admin as graduating 3Ls).

UPDATE (1:30 PM): A commenter disputes this and claims that Admin Law was offered in the fall semester. The course does appear in the list of Fall 2011 course offerings.

UPDATE (2:45 PM): Another Yale source points out that the Fall 2011 Admin Law class (1) was taught by a tenured YLS professor, Jerry Mashaw, and (2) had numerous openings (about 30 enrolled students, even though maximum enrollment was 120). If more 3Ls had taken Admin in the fall, the current unfortunate situation could have been avoided.

As one YLS student lucky enough to get into Professor Ho’s Admin class puts it:

Though I am in the class, I feel that it was very unfair that many of my fellow 3Ls were not given priority over the 2Ls for the class. This is not a matter of “they should have taken it earlier.” I have been carefully budgeting my black letters each semester and administration is just the last black letter I have left to take. Many other are probably in the same boat. None of us had reason to think that administration would be difficult to get into, I have never heard of it being difficult in the past. 3Ls should have been given priority, and expanding the class size would be a nice way to help those who did not get in.

This point takes me back to my original observation: there are real differences between law schools. And if you know you want to get a primarily black-letter legal education, then you might want to think twice about going to Yale. Given the size and theoretical orientation of its faculty, it simply doesn’t offer the breadth of black-letter offerings as, say, Harvard or NYU or Georgetown. I haven’t checked course catalogs to verify, but I suspect that these three schools offer Administrative Law every semester, in multiple sections.

In fairness to Yale, you can take lots of black-letter courses there if you make the effort. I never took Administrative Law (my understanding is that it’s not the most exhilarating class), but I generally eschewed “Law and Bunny Rabbits” in favor of black-letter and statutory classes. Very few of the courses I took — I’m looking at you, ERISA — suffered from an oversubscription problem. Yale professors aren’t the only folks at 127 Wall Street who gravitate towards the theoretical; many of the students do as well.

In the grand scheme of things — global poverty, domestic unemployment, the war in Afghanistan, climate change (presumably you believe in it) — the inability of third-year students at Yale Law School to take Administrative Law is not a huge problem. But it is an interesting illustration of the very real differences between law schools. At how many other law schools would students take to the streets — Occupy 127 Wall Street, if you will — over being denied the right to wallow in the nuances of Chevron deference?

P.S. If you’d like to see some postings to The Wall (the YLS list-serv) and a Change.org petition about the controversy, just flip ahead to the next page.

UPDATE (5:30 PM): This story has a happy ending: YLS just announced that it’s adding a new section of Administrative Law for the spring semester. We will have more on this tomorrow, in a full post. If you have information or opinions you’d like to share with us for (anonymous) inclusion in tomorrow’s story, please email us (subject line: “Admin Law at YLS”). Thanks!

UPDATE (1/26/12): As promised, here’s the full story on the new section of Admin Law.

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