Law School


By Sienho Yee


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A.  Law school in general, according to Sienho Yee

B.  Law schools in the USA

C.  Foreigners in US law schools

D.  International law:

E.   Teaching jobs in US law schools: 




A.  Law School in General, according to Sienho Yee




1. Law school is nice in several respects. The best among these is that it can instill in the students a certain attitude towards things and give them a certain methodology in dealing with issues and reality. Once you have mastered these, you can do something you like in society competently, and not necessarily full time in law.

2. Law is about how to manage society, and, in the final analysis, forms part of the unique nature of society. If one has big ambitions, being a legal thinker should be the goal, and you can give the world ideas that might move it into a certain direction, in some respects, big or small, perhaps. For example, if you have an idea about how this or that law should be, and then it is adopted by the law-makers (in whole or in part), you would have moved the development of the law into a certain direction.

Of course, one can also be content with being a normal lawyer, fixing legal problems as they arise, and making a comfortable living.

3. If you like to read a little about what law and law school life are like, please check these out:

Scott Turrow, One L (about first year law school life at Harvard).
Anthony Lewis, Gideon's Trumpet.

Kafka, The Trial.
Charles Dickens, Bleak House.

Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (2004).

Joseph J. Ellis, American Sphinx : The Character of Thomas Jefferson (Vintage) (1997).
Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World (2001).
Mary Anne Glendon, A World Made New (2001).

Telford Taylor, An Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trial (1992).
Jan Jaan Kross, Professor Martens' Departure (Anselm Hollo trans. 1994).
Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (Paperback - April 4, 1995).

4. In addition, I would like to recommend that you read the biographies of other founders of the USA, such as Madison, etc. They are interesting stories about how to set up a nation-State. Of course, you should have your own judgment on the merits of these books, as on all books.

5. Having a proper sense of professional responsibility is most important. This topic is too technical for a non-law person to appreciate but a lay-person’s perspective can be distilled from:

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day (Paperback - Sep 12, 1990).

6. If you like to read anything that I have published (, let me know and I will see whether I can send you copies.


B. US Law Schools


(a). The JD

7. For some general info written by the ABA organization, see:

8. In the United States, the design of normal law school education for a Juris Doctor (JD) degree is based on the idea that a law student should be a mature “thinker” and therefore must have had a sufficiently good basic education as an undergraduate before entering law school. This is in some contrast to the situation in many other parts of the world where law is being studied as a “university” subject, and not just that, but also by an undergraduate starting at age 17 or 18 or earlier. The merits or demerits of the two approaches may be apparent to you if you just imagine a 17 or 18 year-old undergraduate pondering the intricacies of separation of powers, the rule of law, the values of self-determination, questions that philosophers in their prime are struggling with. The issue is not only whether a student may be able to understand and wrestle with such topics, but also whether at such young and malleable age a student may be groomed into certain unhealthy habits such as passive memorization and dogmatic application of black letter rules.

9. The overall outlook of a normal US legal education is one of “general legal education”, but with plenty of room for specialization. Once in law school, a student is required to master the basic core subjects in the first and second years. The focus, or the most important aspect, of the US law school education is, however, in training a student how to think and how to work like a lawyer. With such skills, one has a great chance to succeed in almost every field, and successful persons in politics and management in the USA often are JD degree holders.          

Probably the differences between various types of lawyers mentioned in paragraph 2 above will manifest themselves during or shortly after the first year. Some students are mistakenly led to believe that one has to memorize everything, but the only thing one really needs to memorize is probably the methodology and how to improve things (including that methodology) based on that. If we were to memorize everything, why do we need all the great law libraries?

In the second and third year (now perhaps even in the second semester of the first year), a student is allowed to take “elective” courses, and, therefore, to attempt some specialization. Typically, in the course of three years a student is usually required to write three substantial papers: one to show the use of research methods and skills (a legal memorandum on an issue), one to show skills in appellate litigation (an appellate brief), and one for a seminar on a substantive issue (a seminar paper). Perhaps the first two papers are designed to train a student how to think and work as a lawyer, while the last, as a legal scholar.

If a student is fortunate enough to be involved in a journal (especially theLaw Review”, normally considered to be the voice of a particular law school), the student, more likely than not, will write another long paper and edit it for months for publication in the journal. Publishing in the Law Review was the single most important experience for me in my alma mater Columbia Law School; looking for a topic, doing research on it, designing the paper, writing it up, editing it and finalizing it for publication were a very good learning drill.  But the journal process is not the norm but the exception, unless the law school one attends offers many journals.

This design of US law school education, combined with the high demand for good lawyers in the USA in many fields, is such that many of the best and brightest college graduates are drawn to law school and thus admission is highly competitive, and the standard for graduation is very high. The attraction I felt from the competition when a Fulbright professor visiting China told me about this was such that I took the plunge to quit my first college alma mater and went to America to take up the challenge.

10. The pretty interesting or, weird, thing about law is that prestige and semblance of power are more important in this discipline than probably in other disciplines. Really good ideas may not necessarily win out; the trappings of power and glory may. Because of this, you not only have to be a good lawyer, or a good thinker, you probably also have to have other “credentials” to be successful. Therefore, you might want to have your education at one of the top law schools, regardless of the costs. That fact alone may open the door to you in your future endeavors.

11. Personally I believe ultimately good ideas will win out ( Those who do not listen to good ideas may even suffer, sometimes even dearly. However, the time it takes for good ideas to win out may be more than you can imagine or stomach. That is to say, although almost any significant situation presents an intellectual battle, only a few can be soldiers in it, and most are not able to see the clashes of ideas and therefore cannot appreciate good ideas and good values. So you have to be prepared to endure a lot and, hopefully, acquire some enriching experience along the way, for which there is no substitute.

12. My personal experience tells me that the publication of my long paper in the Columbia Law Review ( is the single most important factor when I first started my job hunting; everywhere they asked me about that paper. In fact, the paper started to show its magic powers as soon as it was “picked up” by the Law Review, quite some time before its ultimate publication, helping me secure a clerkship with Judge Cowen on the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

13. As far as getting ready for law school is concerned, it does not matter what you are studying now. Of course, being a good thinker is the most important; otherwise getting into law school would not help. So something that can help to inspire your imagination and improve your reasoning processes would help. So literature might be a good subject: it may help with promoting imagination and does not groom you into bad and rigid thinking habits of other disciplines. Beyond that, the most important is to get the best grades you can. Second, try your best to do well in the LSAT. Take the test only when you are ready for the best score; otherwise they keep the bad scores for an average in the future. The combination of good grades and a high LSAT score will get you into nice law schools. The law school admission process is very much "number-driven", unfortunately.

(b). JD and PhD

14. Often there is a controversy as to whether a JD. is really one just good for practice and not for theoretical work. This controversy often pits the JD against the PhD. It is true that a JD who has avoided all the theoretical courses in law school may have some trouble dealing with theoretical work. Of course, one may wonder how much better a PhD is, if he or she has been conditioned by an entire intellectual life studying law into the unhealthy habits of thinking about or just applying the law rigidly. In any event, the JD program in a good US law school affords much room for theoretical inquiry. For example, at Columbia I myself personally took courses in perspectives on legal thought, federal courts, advanced constitutional law; any one of these has a theoretical component more difficult to deal with than a philosopher can, to his or her satisfaction, to be sure. In some contrast sometimes, people working on a PhD in law in some other countries simply bury themselves in some technical aspects of the legalistic doctrine for a few years and produce a thesis that is very much “doctrinal” with little theoretical inquiry in it and yet the title of their degree has “Ph” in it.

So the better thing to do is simply to go to the substance of the person, not his or her degree, the number of words of the degree thesis, or other “marks” of his or her success. Put another way, it is better to count ideas and analyses from someone, rather than his or her certificates or the number of words of the degree thesis. The problem is that only true pros can see substance; all others are destined to see only surface.

15. This controversy apparently had some force at the beginning of the JD program, especially in teaching appointments. Now in the USA the battle is over. The JD has won. It is believed that the overwhelming majority of US law professors are JD holders without other law doctorates or law PhDs. Still, those who are still struggling with this issue, however, may draw inspiration from the following official position from the most important national agency for the accreditation of law schools in the USA:

The American Bar Association Council Statement ( [last visited downloaded 2008,  ])

JD Degree - PhD Degree Equivalency

WHEREAS, the acquisition of a Doctor of Jurisprudence degree requires from 84 to 90 semester hours of post baccalaureate study and the Doctor of Philosophy degree usually requires 60 semester hours of post baccalaureate study along with the writing of a dissertation, the two degrees shall be considered as equivalent degrees for educational employment purposes;

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that all appropriate persons be requested to eliminate any policy, or practice, existing within their jurisdiction which disparages legal education or promotes discriminatory employment practices against JD degree-holders who hold academic appointment in education institutions.

(c). JD and LLM and JSD in the USA

16. As noted above, the JD is the most important degree in the US law schools. As generally believed, LLM and JSD are really designed for foreigners. There is a school of thought that says: if one competes, one may just as well compete with the locals on local terms (the so-called “main stream competition”); if not, the feelings of victory will not taste as sweet. Degrees other than JD are not given much weight in the USA. That of course does not prevent the foreigners who have received degrees designed for foreigners from going home and excelling in their home territory on the terms of their home territory. Only enlightened people in the foreign land can see the value of the JD degree, as human nature is such that one often measures others by one’s own criteria, at least until engaged in battle where the weak will see the superiority of the strong more clearly. Maybe not.

17. Interestingly, these days one can see that some foreigners who have received the degrees designed for them, such as LLM or JSD, or degrees designed for everyone but in another field such as PhD in anthropology, philosophy, have decided that what they have received is not good enough. They have decided to study for a JD degree also, as their FINAL, terminal degree. Perhaps they did not get enough exhilaration from competing with others in their earlier experiences and have decided to take the final plunge into the JD? Or other possibilities? One can only speculate.

Of course, one also sees some JD holders hold PhDs in another field such as international relations and literature. These persons normally branch out in different fields and they become either very good in each or not so good in all the fields they dabble in. One should make such a choice to branch out with the full knowledge of one’s own wherewithals.

(P.S. (2022): Recent performance of some high profile US liberal arts graduates and JD holders shows there is a need to reflect on the design and merits of the liberal arts education and the JD programs.)



C. Foreigners in US Law Schools


(a). Scholarships and stuff

18. Different law schools have their scholarship/fellowship programs. An applicant has just to go to their websites to find info and try them all. There is no simple way of finding out info.

19. Generally speaking, however, the better a law school is, the stronger its scholarship program is.

20. A good law school normally takes pride in having a policy that almost guarantees education if an applicant is accepted, regardless of his or her financial situation.

21. However, this policy may not apply to a foreign applicant.

22. The general idea is that it is very difficult for a foreigner to get a full scholarship from a US law school. Only a few fortunate ones at the best schools may provide the special scholarships for foreigners.


D. International law:

E. Teaching jobs in US law schools:







(Original version: 20050730)