852: RARE – Telford Taylor on Harvard Law School v. Yale Law School

852: RARE – Telford Taylor on Harvard Law School v. Yale Law School

“Do I go to law school at Harvard or at Yale?” If you have this happy dilemma, seek the advice of knowledgeable friends. This was the action taken in 1935 when a young man from Schenectady, New York consulted a hometown friend who had recently graduated from the Harvard Law School. Bill Waldron grew up across the street from Telford Taylor, who had graduated from HLS in 1932 and was an associate counsel for the Senate Interstate Commerce Committee when he penned his letter on 13 May 1935:

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I’m delighted to hear that you’re going to law school, & very flattered that you should consult me on the question of Yale as against Harvard. I would have given you an answer sooner, except that I thought my opinion might be worth a little more if I cross-examined some of my friends down here (a few of whom have been to both Yale & Harvard) to see what they thought about it….

… I think you’ll agree with me that [there] are three things of first importance in picking your school: (a) the facilities it has for instructing you in the regular tools of the lawyers trade—legal technique, in other words, (b) the extent to which it can show you the relation between law & the substantive things that go on in the world—such as government, banking, business & corporate structure, social reform, etc., & (c) the facilities for enjoyable & educating living which the location of the school affords. Both Yale and Harvard have notable deficiencies in one or more of these particulars. On the first score, though, I’m pretty well convinced that the honors lie with Harvard. Most of the well-known men at Yale are men who are themselves bored with the law & have turned experimentalist. They’re brilliant enough, & their writings are worth reading, but they are too interested in explaining to you how the law is a very different thing from what most people think, & how there really isn’t any such thing as law anyhow. Now this is all very well & worth knowing, but you don’t practice law by telling a client or a judge that his traditional concepts are all screwy. Defective as the tools of the law may be, you’ve got to be familiar with them & know how to use them. I think the system & faculty at Harvard does this much better. It’s true that Yale is smaller & more personal. Harvard is a big, indifferent school & I hated it for two years. But that very impersonality & size has developed a very self-reliant & highly competitive student attitude. You have to learn to work out your own salvation, because no one will lift a finger to help you.

Both Yale & Harvard (& all law schools) are deficient in respect to the second important question I mentioned—i.e., showing the relationship of law to life. Both have some inspirational teachers. Both have lost some of their best to Washington. At either place you will get much more illumination on the lawyer’s place in the world if you are lucky enough to make the law review. (I say lucky advisedly, because I don’t know anyone whom I would predict, before his entering law school, would make a review—law school grades are capriciously divergent from college grades & college ability—often they check, often they don’t.)

On the third point—general living conditions—Harvard & Columbia have it over Yale. You, like me, have lived in a small town most of your life. New Haven is bigger, but no less a small town. The law student quarters at Yale are magnificent & at Harvard there really are none—you live in apartment houses or boarding-houses—but both places offer big university athletic & library facilities, & Harvard offers Boston. There’s a lot more to see and hear in Boston than New Haven, & I think that’s really important. People don’t study as hard at law school as you’re lead to believe at college, & you can’t afford to let all other sides of your education go hang just because you’re a law student.

Well, I think this is the longest letter I’ve ever written—don’t show it to my mother or she’ll jump on me for not writing home at comparable length. Both Yale & Harvard are good schools, so don’t lose sleep over the matter. I shall be interested to hear what you decide, & look forward to seeing you at home if I get some vacation this summer….

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Bill divined Telford’s unstated preference as he graduated from HLS in 1941 and served in the Roosevelt administration before becoming a key aide to Massachusetts Governor Endicott Peabody. Mr. Taylor, best known as a prosecutor in the Nuremburg trials, enjoyed a distinguished career as author, human rights lawyer, and professor at the Columbia Law School.

Post contributed by:
Dave Warrington
Special Collections Librarian