Wednesday, August 15, 2012
YLS Admissions Blog: Unapologetically Elitist
My friend Lisa McElroy is a Legal Research and Writing Professor at Drexel. She alerted me to this blog missive from Yale Associate Dean of Admissions Asha Rangappa, providing advice to potential transfer students:
“The other part of your application that is going to carry a significant amount of weight is your law school recommendations (we require two). We use these references to place your grades in context and also to determine what kind of student you are. A common mistake on this front is to make one of your two required recommendations from a legal writing instructor -- most students do this because they've usually had much more one-on-one interaction with their legal writing instructor than with their other professors, and so the instructor usually knows them well. There's nothing wrong with this per se, but the Admissions Committee generally likes to have at least two letters from one of your first year core subject area professors, who can speak to your ability to keep up with the subject material, contribute to class discussion, and think through difficult concepts (a third letter from your legal writing instructor is fine). Letters from professors who went to YLS -- who as you probably know are ubiquitous in the legal academy -- are often especially helpful, since they usually discuss why the applicant would fit into the academic and cultural experience here. But don't go stalking a Yale alum just for this purpose -- just pick professors from classes in which you have performed very well and you'll be on the right track.”
As Lisa writes (I'm closely paraphrasing her post on the LRW listserve) , the subtext of the advice is basically as follows: (1) LRW is not a "core subject area;" (2) LRW profs don't really teach "subject material," or at least none that is hard to keep up with; (3) LRW profs don't lead class discussions, or none that require student contributions; (4) LRW profs don't teach difficult concepts, or ask students to think them through; (5) LRW profs are "instructors," and, as such, could not have attended YLS. [Lisa went to Harvard Law, btw & fwiw!!]
Please also note that those of us who didn't go to YLS couldn't possibly understand the rigors of legal education there, and thus our letters are discounted.
[Addendum: It has been brought to my attention since I originally posted that it is unfair to single out Dean Rangappa as being "gratuitously insulting" simply for being bracingly honest about the elitism in legal academia, and I thought the point a fair one. Dean Rangappa's letter, in fact, is a way of levelling the playing field somewhat for students from non-privileged backgrounds seeking to transfer to YLS; it gives them access to valuable information about how the process really works. The reason her letter has resonated among LRW profs and others is the fact that many, if not most, law schools treat their LRW profs as second-class citizens and LRW as an unimportant subject that can be picked up by osmosis.]
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I'm sympathetic to the thrust of the post, but how would you view a letter/phone call of reference from a LRW prof for a faculty candidate? I'm guessing not well. Legal academia is "unapologetically elitist, gratuitously insulting," but it is so throughout, not just wrt transfer applications or LRW instructor and not just at YLS.
Posted by: anon | Aug 15, 2012 10:47:57 AM
Really? I'm having a hard time seeing what's offensive about the underlined portion. YLS is a weird place, and Asha is saying if one of the profs recommending you went there, s/he can better speak to how you'll handle the weirdness (which is "academically and culturally" unique). Anon makes the comparison to a faculty candidate-- wouldn't a recommender from the school to which the candidate is applying be persuasive because s/he could speak to how that candidate would fit in with that particular faculty and student body?
The LRW bit reflects how little Yale values that class at Yale. At YLS, legal writing is taught by 3Ls to 1Ls, although the person who runs the program is well-respected. I understand Lisa's and your objections, but Asha is articulating YLS values (doctrinal/theoretical over practical skills) to help potential transfers understand what type of application will maximize their chances.
Posted by: juniorminted | Aug 15, 2012 11:04:52 AM
In response to anon: I am a legal writing professor and a member of the tenured faculty at my school. I have also been a member of our hiring committee. We often interview "fellows" who are in programs in which they teach legal writing and write law review articles as they prepare to jump into the hiring process. I do not look favorably on candidates who fail to list the director of the legal writing program as a reference. This is the person who knows the most about the candidate's teaching skills and the person who can tell me what the candidate will be like as a colleague. And I will call the writing director on my own, as a reference check.
Posted by: Rose | Aug 15, 2012 12:48:01 PM
I think it's worth noting that LRW is simply not a class that is taught at Yale at all. There are a handful of sessions with those 3L TAs, but that hardly qualifies as a class. It appears nowhere on your transcript, not even pass/fail. The formal teaching of legal writing at Yale to 1Ls consists of feedback on a memo and a brief (from 3L TAs and your small group professor). It's as much triage as teaching: those who seem less good at this stuff get nudged to get more intensive help from YLS' legal writing folks, who also teach optional advanced courses.
To the extent that the blog post is saying, "we want to hear from your professors of Con Law, Torts, Civ Pro, Contracts, or Property, not LRW," I think that's absolutely true -- and therefore very helpful and important advice. Those classes all have something in common: you struggle to understand a body of legal doctrine, drawn from cases and statutes, and you think through its implications and applications. That's what YLS wants to hear about. Perhaps Asha should have said it differently, but I think the meaning is pretty clear.
As to the implication that LRW is not a "core" subject, I think it's fair to say that it is not a core subject (or even a required class) at Yale. But that doesn't mean writing is unimportant there. I thought the school put a high premium on good research and writing -- it just didn't have required first-year LRW classes.
Posted by: one of those "ubiquitous" yls grads in the legal academy | Aug 15, 2012 12:52:08 PM
I'm surprised to see folks defending the post. The post seems to stem from the incorrect assumption that one's LRW professor cannot offer valuable feedback about a student's ability to grasp difficult legal concepts, among other skills. In fact, at most schools, the LRW professor knows the student's skills like no other -- it is often a year long class, and a true test of a student's legal analysis often comes from asking the student to write it down. LRW professors can also speak to the ability to interact professionally with a professor, the ability to defend a position, and level of dedication to one's studies. That Yale may not care about these things still does not excuse the incorrect assumption that LRW professors cannot accurately gauge a student's ability to understand and process difficult subject matter. Let's get out of the dark ages here!
Posted by: CLV | Aug 15, 2012 1:23:14 PM
@Rose: I think the situation for, say, Climenkos and Bigelows is different; inasmuch as the director of LRW at HLS and Chicago also acts as a director/supervisor of those fellows, that person serves as a useful reference in their capacity as the faculty candidate's employer (and possibly also as one who has observed the candidate teach). But I can't imagine anyone wise to the ways of legal academia listing the LRW instructor they had in law school in applying for a faculty job, and that's what I had in mind. Nor, for that matter, would it be a great choice for clerkship or fellowship applications.
And none of this has anything to do with whether LRW is required at YLS or not. I don't think it's even primarily about LRW as a second-class class, although it is. It's mostly b/c, as Lyrissa notes in her addendum, LRW instructors themselves (only occasionally are they, like you, voting, tenured profs) are almost always second-class citizens in legal academia. Rather than, like, you know, considering people on their intellectual merits, legal academia tends to sort based on status and extremely crude signaling. Not just law review editors (who don't have much choice) but faculty, too, who ought not to be so insecure. And so LRW instructors join adjuncts and, in many ways and depending on the school, fellows/VAPs (even when they teach substantive courses), and even pre-tenure faculty. If you are not tenure-track (and, again, at those places where the thirst for hierarchy isn't satisfied through the tenure track alone, tenured), you are unworthy in all manner of ways and for all sorts of purposes. All of which has always been elitist but is now bordering on hypocritical, given the contraction in TT hiring in the legal academy and the exponentially rising standards for being hired onto the TT, such that a large number of currently tenured faculty, even those who were hired within the past 10 years, likely could not get hired today (at least not at the same "rank" school) with the same dossier that earned them entrance into the privileged class of tenure-track faculty. Talk about pulling the ladder up. (Btw, I went to HYS, so I benefit in many ways from the elitism I decry here.)
Posted by: anon | Aug 15, 2012 1:29:47 PM
I think this is overdetermined and unexceptional. First, it follows from Yale's approach to legal education: It assigns legal writing instruction to 3Ls, which reflects a view as to the significance of writing-focused education and the capabilities it requires, so it evidently disagrees with other schools' decisions to invest the same effort in the quality and status of legal writing instruction -- or it believes that their objective is not easily attainable. Second, it involves "traditional" professors in the admissions process to a greater degree than average, so it is looking for proxies for those reviews in traditional professors elsewhere (ideally, YLS grads).
Whether one agrees with this or not, Yale seems to be acting consistent with its convictions, at what others might think is some cost to them. The most likely effect of reactions like this to disclosures like that will be to make it less likely that future admissions advice will be so candid, which can only hurt aspiring transferees, unless one really thinks that this kind of objection is going to change Yale's core values too.
Posted by: Me | Aug 15, 2012 2:26:33 PM
From a completely different perspective, I think it is in an important way rather progressive, and specifically, anti-elitist, for Asha to have posted this particular item on her blog.
This post conveys extremely useful information that could make a difference between someone submitting a great application that has a chance of admission, and a merely so-so application that gets lost in the pile. This information is probably already known to many people at other elite law schools or people with connections to YLS. If I had been advising a law student interested in transferring to YLS, even if this post had not been written, I would certainly have made sure the student got multiple recommendations from professors who taught them doctrinal subjects (by "doctrinal" I mean "not LRW"), since it is obvious to me that that's what Yale would be looking for. However, there's no reason this would be obvious to every applicant, especially those with little access to inside information about what Yale is about, and in the absence of such knowledge the "go with the recommenders who know you best" default might well seem reasonable. Posting this sort of thing on the web for all the world to see helps level the playing field, giving everyone the advantage of some basic inside knowledge of what Yale is looking for.
So while you can certainly disagree with Yale's priorities, or call them elitist or whatever if that's what you think, I think it is just backward to call Asha elitist for _stating_ those priorities. She's just trying to help people know what's asked of them -- so that every applicant, not just those with insider knowledge of what Yale is about, can put his or her best foot forward. This is fundamentally anti-elitist.
Posted by: Joey | Aug 15, 2012 7:02:28 PM
I think being honest and straight with people about what is required is extremely important. Students who do not have relatives or friends who are "in the know" about these things are the ones who are hurt when people present a fake portrait of a process in order to make sure that the organization looks good and fair. The transfer process is one that will inevitably leave someone feeling bad, because someone will get rejected. That unpleasantness, however, will be hidden, and we don't have to deal with it. The process should be as fair as it can be by letting people know what they need to do to have a real shot.
Posted by: JMH | Aug 15, 2012 7:31:49 PM
I grant that the original post accurately reflects the culture at Yale and gives students useful information, but if the post said something along the lines that letters of recommendation from women aren't really that useful because men are much better able to assess the student's ability, would the reaction here be the same? Or would there be outrage that "the way it is at Yale" is based on outdated and biased information? Would people still say that there is no real problem because Yale is just being honest about what they value? How is this any different?
Posted by: Outraged | Aug 15, 2012 7:40:25 PM
You think the category "woman" is the same as the category "legal writing instructor"? Is Yale insulting LWRs at other schools by allowing their 3Ls to do the job? Could Yale do away with women at the school as easily as it could get rid of the LWR program?
Posted by: JMH | Aug 15, 2012 8:18:29 PM
You think the category "woman" is the same as the category "legal writing instructor"? Is Yale insulting LWRs at other schools by allowing their 3Ls to do the job? Could Yale do away with women at the school as easily as it could get rid of the LWR program?
Posted by: JMH | Aug 15, 2012 8:18:30 PM
Sorry for the double post. I don't know what I did to make it.
Posted by: JMH | Aug 15, 2012 9:37:02 PM
I have to agree with Joey here. Asha is making a descriptive claim about what a successful application tends to look like, not a normative claim about what Yale ought to look for. And in that regard she is opening the black box in an important way, and this kind of transparency does seem to make the process more fair.
On the other hand, those criticisms that are directed not at Asha's post but at Yale's admission preferences certainly seem more reasonable... and her post actually facilitates that kind of discussion.
Posted by: Ian | Aug 16, 2012 1:38:10 AM
What is the basis of a serious objection to Yale's policy? This happens in other venues as well. At some schools,undergraduates applying for fellowships are told to get recommendations from professors, rather than instructors. A student-mentee of mine who was thinking about law school after a fellowship initially planned to ask an instructor for a recommendation. When she spoke to the people who help students through the process, she was told that it would be best to use professors. Her instinct had been, in terms of what would insure success, exactly wrong. She had picked her instructor because she thought he was well acquainted with her.
If this fact were more widely known, it may encourage students to be more proactive in making connections to professors, and professors would be reminded that mentoring students and writing recommendations for them is a serious part of the job. At least, that would be my hope.
Posted by: JMH | Aug 16, 2012 6:46:42 AM
The personal defenses of Dean Rangappa are bizarre. This post is about Yale's policies, not Rangappa's personal views. What does the label "progressive" even mean in this context? It seems to be used as a kind of cheerleading modifier by somebody who must believe that all things "progressive" are by definition cheer-worthy.
But whether Dean Rangappa's own views are "progressive" or "anti-elitist" is unknowable, uninteresting, and irrelevant. Dean Rangappa is a representative of Yale Law School and is functioning as such here. The point of the post is to question Yale's policies, not inquire into Rangappa's "elitist" or "non-elitist" personal sensibilities.
Posted by: anon | Aug 16, 2012 7:22:14 AM
Could it be that the policy is geared toward getting the best evidence of how the transfer student will likely perform in 2L and 3L classes with professors?
Posted by: JMH | Aug 16, 2012 9:10:00 AM
As to the "bizarre" focus on personal defenses, at the expense of Yale policy . . . First, prior to revision the post did say the blog (the subject of the post) was "gratuitously insulting." And given that the pushback here is animated, we are told, by the personal feelings of LRW faculty who feel like second-class citizens, it is easy to see why comments have mentioned the blogger's purer motives.
Second, the policy that needs examining is (I take it) Yale's admissions policy, with respect to letters of reference, not its legal writing method. As to the former, as I said formerly, Yale is acting consistent with the latter. And as a matter of admissions policy, too, anything that helps ensure a base of comparable references (requiring two "traditional" letters, and permitting an LRW letter in addition) is a good idea. It might be done differently -- Yale could achieve comparability by requiring one LRW letter and one "regular" letter -- but I think most would recognize that there would remain a lot of difference in the kind of faculty (student, young adjunct, etc., as well as full-time faculty) writing that LRW letter.
I have tried hard to check second-class treatment of LRW when I have seen it. But I would also be sympathetic to the reaction by admissions personnel at the temerity of faculty in questioning a reasonably designed admissions practice, as though that could be picked up by amateurs or "by osmosis." Or a practitioner or college professor marveling at the unexamined assumption that only first year law school instructors (LRW or otherwise) could *possibly* suffice for recommendations. Each caste, "traditional" faculty included, is usually content to achieve its own privileges, which unquestionably includes nominating a lesser caste to abuse.
Posted by: Me | Aug 16, 2012 9:24:29 AM
This is beyond the scope of this post, but I wanted to share anyway. At the law school that I work at, LRW faculty seem to often be seen as second-class citizens, consistent with what was discussed above. I just spoke with a colleage at another school that seems to take an interesting approach which mitigates this treatment of LRW. As with many law schools, they teach one of the first year courses as a small group. Instead of having dedicated LRW faculty, they integrate LRW with the first year course (although they might have someone who lectures to the larger group on things like citations and I think the law librarian gives some lectures to the large group). So, for example, if contracts is taught as a small group, the memorandum, the case brief, etc. would all be on a contract case/issue studied in contract law. My colleague said that because a good chunk of the faculty is involved in LRW, it gets the same amount of attention and valued as much (or at least close to as much) as the other courses.
Posted by: anon | Aug 16, 2012 10:43:58 AM
Perhaps at Yale, the LRW course does not require rigorous analytical thinking and writing. In most places, it does.
Is the Yale admissions office really unable to distinguish between a helpful letter from a full-time faculty member teaching LRW who knows the student's work well and a relatively unhelpful letter from an adjunct or from a Climenko or Bigelow fellow whose knowledge about the student's ability is peripheral at best? (This is not even to suggest that adjuncts and fellows don't write excellent letters; they surely do.) Surely, a more nuanced approach is called for in the Yale admissions office, and more nuanced advice to transfer applicants would be appropriate.
It appears that Dean Rangappa is laboring under incorrect assumptions about who teaches LRW and what the course entails. Her post uses the term "instructor" exclusively. In fact, the title "professor" has become quite common for LRW faculty, even at Tier 1 schools.
I, for one, find it hard to defend policies and advice to transfer applicants based on incorrect facts and biases about the relative abilities of LRW faculty.
Posted by: LRW Professor | Aug 16, 2012 11:05:29 AM
I find this exasperating. What are the "incorrect facts"? And are the biases about relative abilities of LRW faculty demonstrated by the use of the term "instructors" (along with, for the record, reference to "their other professors")? I don't see anything wrong with referring to "instructors" when, e.g., postgrad fellows fall within the relevant class. And I find it wryly amusing that the temptation to distinguish b/w letters from full-time faculty teaching LRW and others is embraced and then so quickly disavowed.
I can only speculate about why YLS does as it does -- e.g., because it wants to ensure comparable letters, or because it is acting consistent with its own degree of emphasis on legal writing instruction. I'd just add that the nuanced approach and nuanced advice that is urged will, as it achieves greater nuance, lose the ability to inform applicants and level the playing field.
All this over being relegated from being part of the mandatory two letters to a wholly permissible -- and seemingly capable of adding distinction -- third.
Posted by: Me | Aug 16, 2012 12:15:18 PM
The irony here is that transfer students at YLS are also seen as second-class citizens; the transfers are seen, rightly or wrongly, as people who weren't smart or accomplished enough to get in through the regular admission process. It's YLS's infamous "back door" of admission.
Posted by: Anonymouse Prof | Aug 16, 2012 2:51:12 PM
Thanks for adding the addendum. I appreciate it.
I'll just add that I understand why the original post raised the hackles of LRW people with broader concerns about their status in the legal academy. I get that. But honestly, I think the question here is considerably narrower. It's not about whether LRW courses are "rigorous" or "analytic" or any other adjective, but rather, about this question: what do you need to show Yale, in order to be admitted there as a transfer student? It sounds like the answer is something like: you need to show exceptional, standout performances in doctrinal courses -- performances that show that you are among the best law students in the country at the specific task of grappling with and getting inside of a body of law, the way one does in such courses. If that's the right answer, then it's a good idea for Yale to say so, publicly, on the web. That way everyone can know the target they're supposed to hit.
Posted by: Joey | Aug 16, 2012 3:02:22 PM
Perhaps I'm missing the reason for this ad hominem attack on Ms. Rangappa. In the excerpt, Rangappa suggests that two of the reference letters should be from professors of core subjects, and one can be from a writing instructor. So there is still room for a writing instructor to serve as a reference. I think the point she is making is that students' references should also show their ability to master core legal subjects.
Rangappa goes on to say that extra weight would be given to reference letters from professors who have been through the Yale program, presumably because they understand the program and the types of students who would best flourish there. This did not surprise me. Whether a law school selection committee or an HR department at a corporation, decision makers will give more credence to assessments made by past alumni.
Why is any of this controversial?!
I am impressed that Rangappa provides transparent and relevant information to applicants, so they can best convey their strengths to the selection committee. I see this as helpful, open, and supportive, not elitist.
Posted by: Deb | Aug 16, 2012 10:48:10 PM
First of all, the vast majority of law schools now have full-time, professional Legal Writing teachers. Most are on long-term renewable contracts, not renewed only for cause...pretty close to tenure .... and about 13 have tenure track faculty teaching the courses.
Second, I know that Yale prides itself in turning out lots of grads who become law professors; I have about six colleagues on my faculty who are Yalies. However, the blog is written for students at about 50 law schools who have a chance to transfer to Yale to complete their J.D.s A very small percentage of Yale grads will wind up being law professors. (L.L.M.s and the new Ph.d.s I assume will be much greater). Some may start as judicial clerks, but the vast majority will wind up as practitioners. So, the blog is written to students, like one of my best a few years ago, who now is working at a major firm after his transfer to Yale.
Thus, the Admission Dean's statement is in my opinion a form of group defamation and deserves the strongest possible response, not just to him/her, but to the Yale administration and faculty.
I began my teaching career fifty two years ago as a Legal Writing teacher and for many years thereafter it was one of my primary subjects ....about twenty in all. My current and for the last twenty years or so subject is Torts, so I know more than most what these classes teach, and their purposes and on what basis my recommendations for students or grads are based.
My Torts classes average 80-85 students per section. During the 14 week semester, I get a handle on the thinking capacity and reasoning skills of perhaps 15% of the class, since I try to involve the whole class in discussions, with no one person monopolizing the conversations and discussion. I get to see the analysis and reasoning of all 80 or so on a final exam of four hours, usually four complex essay questions. Yes, those exams tell me quite a bit about the ability of each student to analyze and reason, especially compared to the rest of the class that day.
But in my many years of teaching 1L Legal Writing, the first year (two semesters, five credit hours) students (class size average =15 students) wrote three legal memoranda on increasingly more complex issues, rewrote two of these, wrote and rewrote two appellate briefs, usually on complex Constitutional Law issues, did at least one moot court argument on one of the briefs, met with me for many mandatory and non-mandatory conferences over the two semesters. All the assignments, from the first closed memo assignment on, were on subjects and issues that the students were not covering in any of their "substantive" classes so that they were researching on new material without the benefit of any input by their other teachers. In Legal Writing classes I surely was able to tell with much more accuracy the abilities and skills of each individual student for legal analysis, legal reasoning, written communication of their analysis and reasoning, oral communication of her/his analysis and reasoning, and strength of his/her legal research and legal writing abilities than I was or am able to tell about those factors in my Torts classes. I also learned much more about them as persons, whether they were serious, diligent, articulate, hard-working, organized, etc. than I could ever know about a student in my Torts class, based mainly on classroom performance and one final exam.
Yet, for a student seeking to transfer to the Yale J.D. program after one year, the Yale Admissions Committee would welcome my analysis based on the Torts experience, but not welcome my analysis based on the Legal Writing experience. That is crazy! That is discriminatory! That is shameful!
Posted by: Ralph Brill | Aug 17, 2012 12:09:57 AM
"Yet, for a student seeking to transfer to the Yale J.D. program after one year, the Yale Admissions Committee would welcome my analysis based on the Torts experience, but not welcome my analysis based on the Legal Writing experience. That is crazy! That is discriminatory! That is shameful!"
I was going to explain (again) that the admissions office did, explicitly, welcome such an LRW analysis, and probably wanted to ensure comparable letters (remotely observed or otherwise) from torts or other traditional classes -- and admit that maybe if LRW is quite uniform everywhere, it could consider making an LRW letter mandatory, to be supplemented by mandatory traditional letters.
But then I realized the way feelings and rhetoric are running, presumably this would be turned into further separation and discrimination against LRW, and the next Plessy v. Ferguson.
Posted by: Me | Aug 17, 2012 9:04:04 AM
Me: The Yale blog is pretty clear that they value two letters from doctrinal professors over one letter from a doctrinal and one letter from a LRW professor. How does that not imply anything about the value YLS places on the judgment of LRW professors compared to doctrinal ones?
One thing I want to raise is what this policy means about the type of candidate YLS is looking for. Undoubtedly many students are savvy enough to cultivate relationships with doctrinal professors no matter the class size, and many doctrinal professors are good about reaching out to their best students and mentoring them. But I think there are plenty of brilliant first-year law students who just aren't very outgoing or in-the-know or simply have bad luck in their doctrinal professor assignments, but whose talents shine in a writing class. I agree that the blog post is doing these students a service by telling them what they need to do. I also think connections matter, and that a certain degree of self-promotion is an asset in the legal profession (including legal academia). But it is absolutely fair to question whether this is a trait that a law school that prides itself on a rich intellectual tradition should look for in its transfer students.
Lastly, while YLS may not place strong emphasis on teaching legal writing, it doesn't follow that YLS doesn't value strong writing skills. In fact, based on the YLS professors and graduates I know, the contrary is true. My impression is that the school seeks to admit students who are already outstanding writers, and that it expects its doctrinal professors to spend quite a bit of time working one-on-one with students on scholarship, amicus briefs, position papers, etc. If true, it is perplexing that YLS downplays the judgment of LRW professors at OTHER schools who, for all the reasons identified by Ralph Brill, are in the best position to identify the most talented and hard-working writers among their students.
(FWIW, I taught legal writing for two years and am now a doctrinal professor.)
Posted by: NYCG | Aug 17, 2012 12:18:03 PM
"Me: The Yale blog is pretty clear that they value two letters from doctrinal professors over one letter from a doctrinal and one letter from a LRW professor. How does that not imply anything about the value YLS places on the judgment of LRW professors compared to doctrinal ones?"
I will stop haunting this thread, but to answer this question . . . My speculation (and it is only that) has been that there's an independent worth in ensuring comparable kinds of recommendations among candidates, which does require a choice among comparability conditions, and probably has an implicit value statement -- if, at least, LRW programs are reasonably uniform. My other speculation was that Yale was being true to its own view of how LRW should be conducted, rightly or wrongly. True, Yale might reasonably want to make sure that transferees came with the same writing skills Yale thinks its original admits possess, but bear in mind that Yale also apparently thinks it can figure that out without any data other than an admissions essay.
I can't say I would necessarily do it as Yale has, to be honest, and I find the points the OP and even the Yale blogger made originally about relative exposure to the students and insight into their capabilities reasonably persuasive. I parted company over attempts to blame the blogger ("gratuitously insulting," elitist, etc.) -- these are comments plainly motivated *not* by questions about what makes a sound admissions policy, but rather by a felt need to defend the status of those working in the LRW field.
Beyond that, I am impressed that so many not in the admissions field, and instead claiming experience in LRW or "traditional" instruction, believe that they understand the admissions practice so well as to assert that Yale is relying on "incorrect facts," or "biases" about LRW faculty abilities, or -- most recently -- that it is behaving in a "crazy" and "discriminatory" and "shameful" way. I am not impressed, though, by the absence of dispassionate analysis, or the tendency toward hyperbole, particularly from those in the writing field. One would think that Yale prohibited LRW letters, when to all appearances, it allows students who did well in those classes to distinguish their file with a third letter. But I am probably misunderstanding something, and helping no one by endlessly restating my own views.
Posted by: Me | Aug 17, 2012 1:51:33 PM
First, Legal Writing programs are not reasonably uniform, any more than Torts classes are reasonably uniform at the many law schools. Many Torts teachers emphasize economic analysis theory, while others emphasize corrective justice theory, while others don't get much into theory but do emphasize how to practice the law of Torts. (substitute any other subject). Some Legal Writing classes are very rigorous, like the one I described at my law school, and some are not. Second, I doubt that any admissions officer has any accurate idea of what the actual program is like at a law school from which a student is trying to transfer, whether the substantive courses or what is covered in Legal Writing. The officer at Yale is likely more influenced by the reputation of the writer, if she knows it --- or the reputation of the school. They hardly ever will take a student from a second tier law school, and never from a third or lower, no matter how well the student has done or how glowing the doctrinal teachers' recommendations are. Third, I have done admissions at my school, attended LSAC meetings, been a dean and associate dean, and have colleagues who are Yale grads. The implicit statement made by the Yale dean is that LW professors can't do the things they are looking for in a recommendation letter because they don't teach a subject, don't witness the students' class participation, don't engage the student. At most schools, this is just wrong! The Legal Writing designation is just a misleading designation law schools give a course which is made up almost entirely of legal analysis, legal reasoning, advocacy, and communication in words and orally. A very small part is subject/verb agreement and use or misuse of passive voice. The Yale letter pretty much tells the applicant for transfer that that great Legal Writing class you took at your school is of no interest to us, and will make no difference to our decision whether to accept you or not. Sure, you wrote a portion of a brief on the constitutionality of the Affordable Healthcare Act, but your course wasn't a subject. But that Torts class....wow. We want you for Acing that class, even if your teacher never got around to covering the intentional torts. So, yes, there is an automatic discrimination, without knowing the real facts. (not afraid to use his full name).
Posted by: Ralph Brill | Aug 17, 2012 5:51:22 PM
Why are people up in arms about elitism at YLS? In case you haven't noticed, YLS is actually an elite school, and to a large extent, have their pick of the litter when it comes to incoming students (both incoming 1st years and transfers). Criticizing YLS for being elitist, then, is silly.
Moreover, I can quickly see the rationale for this policy. If you're a student looking to transfer, and you haven't excelled enough to gain the very positive recommendation of two of your doctrinal professors, then you're really not YLS material. It's a pretty quick way to eliminate a broad swath of candidates who mostly will not get in anyways.
Honestly, who cares if LRW instructors (or faculty) know the transfer applicant best? All of you up in arms about this are missing the point: YLS isn't looking to recognize the inner beauty in every transfer application, it's looking to quickly identify the very few candidates who might be suitable for enrollment at YLS.
Posted by: Bob Loblaw | Aug 17, 2012 7:23:54 PM
I have had students who got pretty close to straight A's but whose personality sucked, or whose ethical values raised red flags. I might want to recommend that student just to get rid of him/her at my school. But if I were serious, I would want to warn Yale not to waste a valuable spot on that student. If Yale only looked at grades in doctrinal courses and got colleagues to say the student's exam was superlative they might take the student and regret it later. Wouldn't you want opinions from the people who were in the best position to know such things?
Posted by: Ralph Brill | Aug 18, 2012 1:18:05 AM
@ Ralph Brill-- On the subject of "ethical values and red flags"; you would write a recommendation of a student to Yale "just to get rid" of that student? How could that strategy possibly work if you did not lie to Yale in your letter? Ethics?
Posted by: JMH | Aug 18, 2012 8:50:44 AM
Aside from ethical concerns, two counterarguments: 1) presumably YLS does more in its due diligence than simply relying on the recommendation of one professor. 2) your strategy would only work once or twice, at which point you would lose all credibility as a recommender. That would hurt students you did want to recommend, not just to YLS but I suspect more broadly.
Posted by: Bob Loblaw | Aug 18, 2012 9:24:17 AM
@ Ralph Brill-- still on ethics. Would you agree to write a recommendation for a student, but then warn Yale not to take him/her? If you were honest with the student about your feelings, he/she would not have you as a recommender. What you propose would require you to lie to, or mislead, someone at some point along the process. As my mother would say, "Why would you want to even be involved in something like that?"
Are you saying that you would warn Yale outside of the application process upon hearing that a student wanted to transfer?
Posted by: JMH | Aug 18, 2012 11:54:57 AM
@Bob and JMH
I can see this crowd is not big on sarcasm. I doubt that a student who had done anything unethical would ask me to give a recommendation. As for others who ask me for recommendations, I tell them that if I can't say anything nice I won't say anything at all. If they push me to, I will tell them I will just write my standard innocuous letter pointing out the grade the student received in my class and any other positive facts I believe ---"he volunteered to help at admissions fairs" etc.
Posted by: Ralph Brill | Aug 18, 2012 12:44:51 PM
No, I get sarcasm, which I see you are still employing in your second sentence. But even if you would not do what you sarcastically say you would do, there is still the irony of suggesting-- even in a joking manner-- combatting one person's unethical behavior with another form of unethical behavior. Okay, it's ironic and kind of funny, then.
Posted by: JMH | Aug 18, 2012 1:15:43 PM
"The irony here is that transfer students at YLS are also seen as second-class citizens; the transfers are seen, rightly or wrongly, as people who weren't smart or accomplished enough to get in through the regular admission process."
I call shenanigans, as they say. This'll give away my own position, and thus probably my bias, but this past year, fully half of the Articles Committee of the Yale Law Journal was made up of transfers (as were the EICs of two of the eight secondary journals, who were elected by their peers). Several clinic student directors were transfers. Transfers got recommendations from big name professors and ended up with great clerkships and jobs at top firms and public interest organizations. They were chosen for several of 20-odd 3L writing instructor positions. (See how I brought that full circle?) This all despite the fact that they make up less than 10 percent of the class. So the idea that they're seen as second-class citizens is just ridiculous.
Posted by: anon | Aug 18, 2012 5:06:05 PM
I agree with anon at 5:06--I had the same reaction to that comment. Students at least were well aware that transfers were likely smarter and more impressive than any of us.
Posted by: juniorminted | Aug 19, 2012 3:05:29 AM
Since this discussion took place last week 450 law professors (most of whom teach Legal Writing) presented a letter to Yale Dean Post, the Yale Admissions Dean, and the Yale Admissions Committee. The letter expressed concern that the blog post in question sent "a message that legal research and writing ("LRW") courses are not rigorous, underestimates the ability of LRW faculty to comment on students' cognitive skills, harms students by discounting the valuable and thoughtful insight we have to offer about students seeking to transfer to Yale, and devalues LRW professors as a whole." The letter further explained that "accurate, in‐depth legal analysis and reasoning are at the core of an LRW course" and argued that LRW was, in fact, a core subject area in modern legal education. Finally, the letter urged YLS to reconsider its practice of discounting recommendations from LRW faculty, and requested that YLS amend the blog post accordingly.
Admissions Dean Rangappa responded to the letter and stated that she "did not intend for my post to cast doubt on the important role and valuable contributions of legal writing professors in legal education."
Rangappa noted that the concerns raised by in the letter from the LRW community highlighted "significant issues that are quite beyond the scope of my post. In trying to address these issues, I have been unable to find a way to accurately revise or supplement my original blog post without making it too complex to be of any practical use for a potential applicant. In the interest of staying true to both the practical purpose of my advice and the unique nature of our admissions process - which I believe is fair and respectful to applicants and all those who speak on their behalf - I have chosen, after much deliberation, simply to remove the post from the blog."
The letter's writers viewed the response as a moral victory, but obviously noted that faculty members on the Yale Admissions Committee would continue to disregard the opinions of those who teach Legal Writing as valueless.
Mr. William C. Burton, the chairman of the Burton Foundation, has asked me post his analysis of the Yale response. For those of you who do not know of him, the Foundation annually, in conjunction with the Library of Congress, makes numerous awards to judges, lawyers, students, and legal educators for their contributions to great legal writing, reasoning and research. (see www.BurtonAwards.com). Past recipients have included Supreme Court Justices Breyer, Scalia and Stevens, Federal Judges Kosinski and Posner, and hundreds of lawyers who have written outstanding books and articles. Mr. Burton says:
THE STORM HAS NOT PASSED
The groundswell of opposition to Yale Law School's policy of discounting or discarding letters of recommendation written by legal writing professors for aspiring transfer students has not abated.
While Associate Dean Asha Rangappa removed the controversial blog, the policy apparently remains in place. Specifically, the original posting stated: "A common mistake on this front is to make one of your two required recommendations from a legal writing instructor."
In more recent letter, the dean announced the blog had been removed but sidestepped the issue of the existing policy which obviously continues unimpeded. She stated: "I have been unable to find a way to accurately revise or supplement my original blog post without making it too complex to be of any practical use for a potential applicant."
While it is gratifying that the dean acknowledges the need to simplify complex issues and achieve clarity, it is equally as disappointing and disconcerting to learn that new policy has not yet been set.
A solution might be as follows: "One of the two letters of recommendation required to be written for applicants seeking to transfer can be submitted by a legal writing professor. In that case, the legal writing professor shall assess an applicant's comprehension of complex issues, conscientiousness, ability to reason, and aptitude to convey thoughts clearly and convincingly. The second letter must then be written by a core subject area professor who assesses the applicant's depth of knowledge in a particular field of law."
Perhaps an even simpler approach is to allow a third letter of recommendation to be written by a legal writing professor and submitted for an applicant seeking to transfer into Yale Law School.
Whatever new course of action is taken, meaningful reform is necessary. A change in policy is essential to acknowledge and appreciate that Legal Writing professors are often the best judges to assess the chances of a student's ultimate success in law.
William C. Burton, Esq.
Posted by: Ralph Brill | Sep 5, 2012 6:07:05 PM
"Perhaps an even simpler approach is to allow a third letter of recommendation to be written by a legal writing professor and submitted for an applicant seeking to transfer into Yale Law School."
Yes, in fact, this was the very approach suggested in the original blog post, now removed after the LRW prof's "moral victory" and of no use to future transfer applicants.
Posted by: anon | Sep 5, 2012 6:42:35 PM
Thank you for taking the time to discuss this, I feel strongly about it and love learning more on this topic.
Posted by: Sample Admissions Essay For Graduate School | Dec 4, 2012 1:06:07 AM
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