Nick Pederson is a graduate of Yale Law School. He was gracious enough to answer some of our questions about law school, the legal field, and his current work. Look out for Part II of the interview next week!
Why did you choose Yale Law School?
The truth is Yale was never my dream school. I’m from Atlanta, I like sunshine, and after getting deeply annoyed that virtually every top law school in the United States was in a terrible climate, I decided I wanted to go to Stanford. But in the end I was drawn to Yale for what I think are the right kinds of reasons… I had gotten really into constitutional history and theory. Yale is really strong on these fronts, with many of the very best names in the field — names that were on the books I’d been reading. Now that I’d gotten in, I wanted to go take classes with these guys.
What was your favorite law school experience?
This is a super nerdy response, but my favorite law school experience was working very closely with two major professors at Yale whose books I’d read before law school and really liked. YLS is a very small community… The laws of supply and demand, therefore, give you a great chance at doing pretty much whatever you want. For some people, this means going into New York and working at Goldman a couple days a week; for others it means leaving school for much of the semester to work on a presidential campaign; for still others it means running national law student associations like NLLSA, ACS, or the Fed Soc. For me, it meant helping one legal luminary with his major book, and working very closely with another luminary on my own research.
Any myths/stereotypes about law school you’d like to debunk?
I don’t know how qualified I am to speak about most law schools… but I am happy to debunk one major myth about Yale Law School. When I applied to law school, people talked about Yale as this kind of idyllic paradise in legal academia, where collaboration was everywhere, competition nowhere, and the everyday stresses of law school were simply not to be found. There is of course some truth to this caricature: the school gives its students tremendous freedom to pursue their own interests, and it does not encumber them with GPAs and class ranks. But Yale Law School is not a relaxed place. It is a tight concentration of some of the most dauntingly intelligent and driven people in the country… With Yalies the pressure comes quite on its own.
Want to tell us what you are working on now?
Sure thing. I am writing a book right now, on a fellowship at NYU Law School. It’s growing out of research I started with those two professors in law school. Basically it is about this long-forgotten founding father — the man who literally wrote the bulk of the Constitution. Turns out this man was a very progressive guy… Nine years after the Constitution’s ratification, however, he died in total disgrace, as a Supreme Court Justice on the run from the law. As a result, his name — James Wilson — was buried with his body. I think it is fascinating that one of the two primary framers of the Constitution was such a progressive man and remains so forgotten. I’m trying to tell Wilson’s story, and, I hope, play a small role in bringing him back to life.
What do you think about the value of the law degree in today’s economy?
Well, the simple truth is that it’s not at all what it used to be. When I started law school, high-paying law jobs were a dime a dozen… But let’s face it: those days are gone. Graduating law students face stiff competition — not only from other competitive law students, but also from the sea of unemployed lawyers that has formed in the past few years, many of whom — unlike students — have extensive lawyering experience. Back in the day, spending $100 to $200K to pay for your J.D. was not a particularly risky venture. You could rest assured that the high salary would be waiting for you at the end, like a jug of cool water at the end of a marathon through the desert. But that simply isn’t true anymore.