BYU Law School

Since we have been having a discussion about BYU, I thought I would post a little bit about BYU and my particular discipline: law. Although I went to BYU as an undergrad, I didn’t go there for law school. Still, I have friends that did, I know some of the faculty, and I have always been interested in the school. Here are some of my impressions:

My impression is that the students are quite a bit better than the faculty. What I mean by this is that normally a student body of the quality of BYU Law School would be matched with a faculty of greater quality than that of the BYU Law School.

I think that what has happened is that the quality of the student body has been steadily increasing. However, the entire student body of a law school turns over in three years. Almost thirty years after its founding, BYU’s entire faculty has not yet turned over. The result is that the student body increases in quality much faster than does the faculty. This is, I think, reinforced by the fact that professors seem to go to BYU and stay there, even though in the rest of academia a solid, middle ranked school like BYU would be a stepping stone in the climb of many professors. I think that the religious nature of the school is mainly responsible for this come and stay phenomena.

Without disparaging the older faculty, many of whom are extremely smart and well qualified, my sense is that on average the new professors being hired at BYU are of higher quality than in the past. It is also my sense that a large portion of the BYU faculty will turn over in the next ten years. When this happens, I think that you will see another jump for BYU in the rankings as the younger faculty increases in size and moves into their academic prime.

For such a young school, BYU’s rise to its current status is really quite amazing. It seems to me that it is a school like George Mason that is getting better, in contrast to schools like Northwestern or Utah, that seem to be not quite as good as once they were. (For what it is worth, I would also put my law school alma mater, Harvard, in the category of not-as-good-as-they-once-were law schools.)

As I understand it, BYU Law School is currently searching for a new dean. It will be interesting to see who they pick. I think that unless the new dean places a much greater emphasis on scholarly activity by the BYU faculty that BYU may have risen as far as it is going to go.

[An earlier version of these comments was posted to the ldslaw email discussion list]

24 comments for “BYU Law School

  1. One thing I’ve always wondered is why the MBA and Law programs are pushed, while basically any other department isn’t encouraged to have a strong grad program. Isn’t this a tad odd?

  2. There are fewer law schools than graduate schools in the country. Thus, it may be easier to produce a top-notch respectable law school than a top-notch respectable graduate school.

    Also, one can not got to a top law school and nevertheless make an meaningful contribution to the legal profession. I don’t think the same can be said of going to a non-top grad program in philosophy.

  3. Nate is right on that. Also, to make a top grad program would require recruiting top grad students and hiring top faculty throughout the country. This is harder to do for programs like philosophy, political science, etc. where not many of the top people in the discipline are LDS. I’m not sure how the law and business schools do it, but given what I know about sociology and a few other academic disciplines, there just aren’t that many LDS who sit among the elite of the discipline. Of course, if the Board relaxed some of the hiring constraints and started putting more money into faculty recruitment, anything is possible.

  4. I’m not suggesting that they have top grad departments. Just that they actually put some focus into grad departments. They have them in many fields, but they really don’t emphasize them at all.

  5. Why a law school and business school but no PhD program in x, y, or z? A few possibilities:

    1) Perhaps the powers that be regard much of academia to be fluff–noodlings and meanderings of no particular worth to those who follow such paths.

    2) Perhaps the powers that be regard much of academia to be harmful to the souls of those who pursue it. Academia is often perceived (justifiably) as hostile to religious and conservative moral beliefs. Why facilitate the entry of the Church’s youth into that particular lions’ den?

    3) Perhaps the powers that be regard BYU as an investment. As the (restated) motto goes, Enter to Learn, Go Forth to Earn. ROI on a PhD–almost *any* PhD–is much less than that on a JD or MBA.

    I’m sure there are dozens of plausible reasons why a school would place more emphasis on a law or business school.


  6. I have talked with folks familiar with the founding of BYU Law School. They tell me that the Brethern, especially Marion G. Romney, wanted a law school because they precieved the need for a forum in which and LDS voice in legal discussions could be fostered. Thus, they thought a Mormon law school was necessary to produce Mormon lawyers committed to carrying gospel principles into the law and for Mormon legal scholars to provide research on legal issues from a Mormon point of view.

    I am not sure to what extent BYU Law School has really pursued these objectives. My sense is that it provides a very respectable professional training that is much like the professional training one would get at Washington University or some other similarlly ranked institution.

    BTW, folks frequently claim that legal education, which places a very high premium on being able to vigorously argue both sides of often hottly contested moral issues, leads to ethical nihilism, etc. (See, e.g., Scott Turlow, One L for a standard example of the gripe.)

    In other words, I think it is a mistake to see law as some theologically safe technocratic discipline as opposed to morally challenging fields like Literary Theory or Philosophy. Law school walks you through the arguments for and against excluding probative evidence against murderers, requiring rape victims to resist, enforcing harsh contracts against the poor, the pros and cons of allowing corporations to lay off thousands or pollute their environments, the propriety of destroying communities for economic growth, constitutional protection for abortion, sodomy, homosexual marriage, etc. etc.

  7. Nate, I hate to say it, but I think your comments about the law school faculty are, in general, true of the faculty as a whole.

    Why not push other grad programs? My theory is that it has mostly to do with money: you can give a lot more students a BA for the money you spend on an MA or PhD. That doesn’t explain why we do have a law school and a business school and why we put a lot of resources into them, but part of the answer is that they support themselves.

  8. I have a very unscientific reason for the fact that BYU law school has risen so dramatically and so fast in such a little time. Very smart people go there (and by very smart I mean people with good grades and a good/great LSAT score, which admittedly does not make you smart) when they could have gotten into “better” schools because they AREN’T MARRIED. An example would be two good friends of mine. Both of these young women graduated with honors and great LSAT scores. Both got accepted into “better” schools but decided to stay at BYU to increase their chances of getting married. I’m not saying if this is good or bad. What I would argue, however, is that the rankings need to be reexamined to allow for things such as this. I realize I’m now off on a tangent but to bring it back to the original point, if US News changes how it ranks to place more emphasis on faculty, BYU may drop (I have no basis for this argument other than what Nate said about the faculty perhaps not being up to par) in the rankings which in turn would require the administration to take a hard look at their faculty.

  9. For the record: I don’t think that the BYU law faculty are affirmatively bad. I simply think that they are not as good as the law faculties at schools with similarly qualified student bodies. I have heard some BYU law professors claim that BYU students are as well qualified as those at NYU. Who knows if this is true. However, taken as a whole, I don’t think that anyone would claim that BYU’s law faculty is as accomplished and productive as NYU’s faculty.

  10. I don’t know if anyone reads this…the last post was almost 9 months ago, but I am a BYU law student, and I’d beg to differ about the general quality of the faculty at the school. From the beginning, the school has had great faculty (e.g., Rex Lee). Likewise, many of the current faculty are widely known and respected. For example, David Thomas is and has been chief editor of Thompson on Real Property for years, and regularly publishes in quality journals. Then you have James Gordon, Gerald Williams, Larry EchoHawk (former AG and gubernatorial candidate in Idaho), Richard Wilkins (former assistant solicitor general), etc.

    When you factor in the age of the school and consider what the professors are probably paid to be here, etc., BYU probably has some of the best professors in the country. Just some thoughts…

  11. This comes a little bit late and happens to be a bit off the specific topic but, What’s the BYU Law experience like for the non-Mormon? I’ve gotten a diverging number of opinions from my LDS friends who have, like good friends, asked acquaintances who attended the law school for their opinions on the matter. It seems to me that BYU Law holds out the prospect of being an opportunity for growth and interesting exchange for the non-Mormon with the guarantee of at least a few momentary feelings of alienation. Any thoughts?

  12. I guess I shouldn’t expect too much response given the sheer number of responses on the board and my place on an old thread. But, here goes a second post in the hope of getting noticed. Can anyone give me any insight into BYU for the non-LDS? Specifically, BYU Law for the non-member?

  13. Keep plugging away, Martha G. Someone will notice.

    I didn’t go to BYU law school myself, but my impression is that if you are respectful you’ll get along fine, get a good education, and get a lot less debt. But I’m not 100% positive.

  14. I don’t know anything about the experience of non-LDS at BYU Law (or LDS for that matter. I didn’t go to law school there.)

    However, I would like to respond to Aaron’s point. I am not arguing that the faculty at BYU is bad or that it isn’t good. There are clearly some very talented, very productive, very smart professors at BYU. My only point is that they have a very high quality of students. If you compare only BYU students to the students at other schools, I suspect that it does better in the rankings than it does over all. If you compare only faculty to other faculty, I am not sure that this is the case. This DOES NOT mean that the BYU faculty is bad or stupid or poorly trained or lazy or what not. It simply means that BYU has the capacity to improve. That is it.

  15. A couple of thoughts.

    First, the reason for BYU is to provide a core LDS experience. That is the primary reason for the school.

    The MBA program, at one point, thought it was very inappropriate for MBAs to return to countries where they served missions, the thesis being that they were “cashing in” somehow. A group of apostles had a talk with the faculty and resolved the issue. The Church sees the guys returning as a very good thing, bringing back strength to those areas.

    The law school allows the JRCLS to exist and has very interesting dynamics in regards to things that the Church considers important. Guess only time will tell, but so far they seem to think it is a positive thing. When I went, the non-members got along just fine (and, in 1979, girls in blue jeans got along just fine in the law school). I suspect it is just the same.

    Graduate programs in general are an entirely different story.

    MLAs? 90% never find a job. Philosophy grads? Outside of the top 20/top 50, don’t count on employment. Mostly they provide adjuncts so the professors don’t have to teach. For more, visit and just browse around. It is a sobering experience.

    MDs? The Church has resisted opening its own medical school for forty years, in spite of donors lining up. Few MDs are engaged. (Obviously some are, very much. The one in my ward’s bishopric, etc. But, “doctor’s wife” is the only career track I know of that includes “wife” in it these days, other than midwife).

    BYU’s students are around 20-22 overall. Its core students are around 12. The faculty, by “objective” measures is below the 40 mark. Not that they aren’t good, and not that through the years there have not been standouts at teaching who would not help the rankings (e.g. Woody Deem, Eugene Jacobs, etc.). Not that Thomas didn’t give the class the best explanation of a bad grade on a law school final I ever heard when questioned about the December final: “You made a factual mistake. Your logic is perfect, you understood the law, but you got the wrong answers because you got a fact wrong, so you got no points for that question.” He may have been a lousy grader, but he churns out publications and the school is lucky to still have him. As they are for the rest of the faculty, who appear to do a better job of teaching than they do of publishing and impressing other academics.

    If the law school is to move any further up the rankings it needs to hire “publishing faculty” whose duty is to publish while only teaching one seminar a year. 10-12 of those would turn things around. Anyone want to fund a few endowed chairs.

    Anyway, hope that answers the questions.

  16. I don’t think that general respectfulness will be a problem for me. What’s more, I think I’d be pretty well-prepared for the institutional peculiarities and cultural distinctiveness of BYU from reading boards like this one, talking story with my LDS friends and visiting the campus previously. I guess my questions go broadly to the following: 1. Is the admissions process skewed unduly against non-Mormons given the Church-affiliated and Church informed mission of the law school?; 2. How does Church doctrine concretely influence the teaching there beyond the declared interest in producing lawyers for the community?; and, 3. What’s mutual tolerance look like at the school? I have no problems with the honor code (looks alot like how I live already) and am not interested in doctrinal debate. At the same time, I’m not a church mouse, not willing to be timid and quiet at all costs, either.

    By the way, thanks to those who have responded so far. I appreciate it.

  17. 1. Is the admissions process skewed unduly against non-Mormons given the Church-affiliated and Church informed mission of the law school?; 2. How does Church doctrine concretely influence the teaching there beyond the declared interest in producing lawyers for the community?; and, 3. What’s mutual tolerance look like at the school?

    Assuming that you are a female martha, and a non-LDS applicant, the process will be slightly skewed in your favor.

    Doctrine doesn’t influence teaching much beyond a strong pro-family emphasis, and pianos in every room. When the original Rex Lee was alive, he always did an impressive job in turning the entire con law class into pro-bussing types (er, busing, integration, not kissing).

    As I noted, there was a lot more tolerance in general, including matters of dress, etc., and a lot of mutal tolerance. I thought well of the school then, think well of it now and the people I know there.

  18. Second that Martha. Being non-LDS will actually be a plus for your application, unless there are also another 20+ “Martha”‘s out there also. When putting together a diverse student body, having slots for some non-LDS folks is part of the program. There were several folks in my class (of 2004) who were not LDS…never heard of any issues & everyone enjoyed everyone elses’ company. :)

  19. I’m hearing alot of what I hoped to hear. Hopefully, there won’t be 20+ Marthas clamoring to get into the school and I’ll make the cut. After all, Ethesis, pianos in every room sounds like a good thing.

    If anyone has anything else to add, I’d be glad to listen.

  20. Martha, as a law school classmate of Nate’s I can’t speak directly about BYU law school, but I did go to BYU undergrad and have a couple of thoughts.

    Don’t be quiet as a church mouse! (Or don’t feel guilty about not being quiet as a church mouse.) I think a lot of the law school experience relies on being exposed to ideas that are diverse from your own. You will add to the experience of the other students, and they will probably challenge you too. If someone, by a small chance, is unkind to you because of your differences, then that person is not living their religion. Likely, it won’t happen. I imagine that any alienation you would feel would come in much more subtle ways. (But honestly, I think that anyone going to law school anywhere in the country will feel alienated at some point for some reason…at least you’re prepared!) I imagine that you’ll soon find a group of friends in law school, with whom you have common interests, and that will alleviate a lot of the feelings of alienation. Just like anywhere, if you put forth the effort, you’ll find somewhere to fit in socially.

    Just a note, as Mormons, we place a high degree of value on “kind” interchanges. This doesn’t mean that you can’t disagree with people, but you’ll get a lot farther if you do it with a smile. Put differently, you can get away with saying just about anything if you do it in the acceptable Mormon way. Make an overture of understanding, smile, totally disagree, smile, admit that you’re open to discussion, smile. (It works like a charm for me in Sunday School…)

    Good Luck on your application Martha! We’ll all be crossing our e-fingers for you!

  21. Martha,

    I am a BYU law school grad, soon hitting the 20-year point. So that kind of dates my experience… But by and large, the only way, really, that I knew any of my classmates were not LDS was when they talked about their membership in the “higher tuition club.” The tuition policy was, and I believe still is, to make tuition for LDS members comparable to in-state tuition at state schools, and for non-LDS members to out-of-state tuition at state schools.

    It was, and remains difficult to me to imagine a doctrine-influenced interpretation of property law or the rules of evidence. The only class that the LDS perspective was even mentioned was in the jurisprudence seminar, which was more of a philosophy course than a legal one.

    I join in wishing you luck in the application process. Remember, it is you recent grads that make my old diploma look better year by year!

  22. Eric, I was kind of at a loss as to how Mormon doctrine would express itself in certain contexts myself. I was somewhat afraid of being the odd-woman out when it came to social activities or whatever. Those LDS friends of mine that went to grad school at BYU assured me that I’d find the law school to be a more mature and open environment than might have been my experience if I had attended undergrad there while warning me that there might be a few honor code hawks in attendance even there (The type that scrutinize those outside the fold a little more intensely). Seems like I don’t have to worry too much (though I might denounce myself as being a member of the “higher tuition club” eventually)

    Karen, I’m interested in BYU precisely because I think it would be an opportunity to interact with different voices/viewpoints. I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to be relegated to only doing the listening. I’ll take the advice on discussion style as good advice. I’m practicing my smiling right now.

  23. Martha,
    I am a current law student at BYU. My class has about 4 or 5 non-LDS students in it, a few of which are my friends. As far as feeling left out, i cant speak for them but i do know that they have not been overtly ostrasized or left out in anyway. I would just mention that you should be prepared for some intense discussions (as any good law school expereince should be filled with) where you will all of a sudden have no clue about a certain reference or assumption. (This is assuming that you are not thoroughly versed in Mormon doctrine or culture), Overall, i will echo and endorse what has been said thus far regarding the general spirit of respect and tolorance. In fact, be prepared for some classmates to be extra-cautious around you as they will always be conscious of leaving a good impression on you and being extra cautious to avoid the “inside” jokes or references I mention above.
    Personally, i hope you not only apply and get in, but I also hope that you take affirmative measures to ensure that your “”diverse” point of view is heard and appreciated in a professional and respectful manner that will enrich the discussions that take place in and out of the classrooms at the lawschool.

  24. Most of us are pretty disappointed with how little BYU does to give a unique Mormon perspective on the law. But there’ll be some of that, enough to get you thinking.

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