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How Yale is turning out literary lawyers

How Yale is turning out literary lawyers — The school is alma mater to a new herd of acclaimed writers, including Stephen L. Carter, Jedediah Purdy, and others

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Illustration by Thomas Fuchs

It is a truth universally acknowledged that most attorneys can’t write anything except legal mumbo jumbo. Which is why it’s so peculiar that Connecticut’s Yale Law School is producing so many big-name authors, most recently 2000 grad Matthew Pearl, 27, whose debut, the historical thriller ”The Dante Club,” hits No. 10 on this week’s best-seller chart.

Pearl joins an elite-of-the-elite list of recent Yale Law-affiliated popular writers: classmate Jedediah Purdy (”Being America”), Adrian Nicole LeBlanc (”Random Family”), Yale Law professor and best-selling novelist Stephen L. Carter (”The Emperor of Ocean Park”), National Book Award nominees Mark Costello (”Big If”) and Adam Haslett (”You Are Not a Stranger Here”), and — let’s not forget — ”Star Search” judge Ben Stein (”How to Ruin Your Life”).

Why is the school churning out literati as well as lawyers? Several Yale Law authors cited the interdisciplinary, ”humanistic” curriculum, while Haslett credits the ”idiosyncratic bunch” drawn to the program: ”It’s still a professional school, but there’s a greater variety of aspiration than you might find elsewhere.” Law librarian Fred Shapiro agrees. ”You get novelists and poets, period, not necessarily legal novelists,” says Shapiro, who’s working on a book of his own, ”The Yale Dictionary of Quotations.”

Call us crazy, but we can’t help but compare Yale’s output to the shelf-loads from the world’s most famous prose laboratory and ask: Is Yale Law School the new Iowa Writers’ Workshop? ”Oh, come on, man!” exclaims Frank Conroy, head of the Iowa program, where, he boasts, eight of the 25 prose-writing 2001 grads had book deals by 2002. ”Holy mackerel! Yale is, I would say, a law school that does not encourage their students to write badly,” he says. ”You got me? Every other law school in America does.”