How a yeshiva education prepares students for law school

A 1985 article in Yeshiva College’s student newspaper boasts of the school’s success in preparing graduates for law school. They reported that they achieved a 100% acceptance rate among students who applied to law school. More than a decade later, the same newspaper reported that nearly one-third of Yeshiva College’s law school entrance examination (LSAT) test takers scored at or above the 95th percentile. What factors contribute to the apparent correlation between the background and type of educational system that Orthodox Jewish students encounter (e.g., those at Yeshiva College) and their ability to succeed and thrive in law school?

Reuven Chaim Klein’s recently published study in “The Law Teacher,” published by the Law Teachers Association, shows how a yeshiva education prepares students for law school and legal careers. The researcher conducted interviews with yeshiva-educated law professors to learn about their approaches to this phenomenon and compared these findings with previous scholarly literature on the topic. Much of the existing scholarly literature focuses on the yeshiva’s focus on Talmud study, as well as the yeshiva’s use of the Socratic method and chavrus study models. To this end, this study sheds light on various aspects of traditional yeshiva education that may be beneficial to those pursuing a legal career. The results show that there is broad consensus that a yeshiva education promotes critical thinking and analytical skills through an emphasis on Talmud study, which can be beneficial in understanding complex legal concepts and arguments.

Traditional yeshiva education focuses on the study of the Babylonian Talmud along with relevant commentaries, legal codes, and halakhic responsa. The pedagogical methods traditionally used in yeshivas also help prepare students for law studies. Additionally, perhaps the prevailing culture of the school, which encourages diligence and work ethic, makes this mode advantageous for prospective law students. For example, yeshiva students often study for 9–12 hours a day. These long class hours can be a beneficial factor for future law students.

There is no consensus on the best way to prepare students for law school, and pre-law programs vary widely. Although North American law school admissions are based largely on grade point averages and LSAT scores, law school admissions officers also expect students who apply to take rigorous analytical courses. It seems likely that studying the Talmud in a yeshiva fits this description. Yeshiva graduates who have no education other than a high school diploma and often a nominal Bachelor of Talmudic Law (BTL) degree from their yeshiva are often accepted into the most prestigious law schools in North America. Professor Amiram Gonen of the Hebrew University said: “The fact that law schools are eager to admit graduates of important Lithuanian yeshivas speaks for itself.”

Klein compiles sources from the scholarly literature that show a causal connection between studying the Talmud and acquiring the skills necessary to succeed in law school. The Socratic method is a learning process during which the student is exposed to a series of questions that lead to certain logical conclusions. Through constant and persistent questioning, the student begins to understand the implications of his or her own position and ultimately why it is incorrect or can be robustly defended. This teaching method has long been associated with the academic study of law. The Talmud and its traditional commentaries make connections and draw conclusions. The process of questioning and analysis used in law school has been shown to also be quite relevant to the rabbinic ethos of learning, which employs the same forms of dialectical analysis and argumentation.

One aspect of yeshiva education that has recently attracted scholarly attention is how chavrus is learned. This traditional rabbinic approach to Talmudic study, in which a pair of students study on their own and discuss and debate a shared text, is the dominant mode of study in Orthodox/Haredi yeshivas. Students learn better when they expect to serve as a resource for others; students improve and practice their text skills, and reading aloud helps with memory. This way of learning has advantages in terms of peer collaboration and critical thinking. The argumentative interactions characteristic of chavrus study also have advantages in that they require greater intellectual, cognitive-linguistic, and interactive work on the part of student participants. Students who feel their views are being challenged reflect, clarify and critically analyze their opinions and creatively find counter-arguments. The scholarly literature does not explicitly link how to study chavrus with success in law school, but it makes sense to suggest such an association.

Studying with a chavrusa also teaches students how to debate and argue both sides of an argument. The ability to present arguments to both sides is important for lawyers who do not always have the opportunity to choose which side of the argument to defend. This is supported by the scientific literature, which sees chavrus learning as fostering reflective thinking with opposing views/arguments.

The data for this study comes from intensive interviews with people who have first-hand knowledge of this topic. The participants were rabbis with Talmudic education who also taught courses as law school lecturers. Interviewers could draw conclusions from these individuals’ dual experiences, both as former yeshiva students who attended (and excelled in) law school and as law teachers who taught previous yeshiva students. All interviewees understood the phenomenon of students who received a traditional yeshiva education being accepted and successful in law school as the result of a confluence of many factors. However, most of the rabbinical professors interviewed believed that studying the Talmud in the traditional yeshiva form is a major factor in the success of yeshiva students who later enroll in law school. This is consistent with one of the main goals of law school, namely to teach students “legal reasoning” – a term that corresponds to the goal of “thinking like a lawyer.”

Another element of yeshiva education that allows students to become familiar with the workings of the legal system is the way yeshiva students are trained to trace a given halacha through the legal writings of the Mishnah (2nd century AD), the Talmud (6th century AD), the Rambam (12th century AD), Tur (14th century) and Shulchan Aruch (16th century). This is consistent with the expectation that lawyers will be able to trace the history of legislation from its initial creation to its final application.

This research paves the way for prospective studies to examine how students, within a traditional yeshiva education, can be effectively prepared to collaborate and succeed in other fields, such as STEM subjects or the multifaceted areas of the social sciences and humanities.

Dr. Wallace Greene is the new director of the Keren HaTorah Yeshiva in Passaic-Clifton.