Skip to main content
Those Who Can't, Teach: What the Legal Career of John Yoo Tells Us about Who Should Be Teaching Law
Mississippi Law Journal (2011)
  • Lawrence Rosenthal

Perhaps no member of the legal academy in America is more controversial than John Yoo. For his role in producing legal opinions authorizing what is thought by many to be abusive treatment of detainees as part of the Bush Administration’s “Global War on Terror,” some have called for him to be subjected to professional discipline, others have called for his criminal prosecution. This paper raises a different question: whether John Yoo – and his like – ought to be teaching law.

John Yoo provides something of a case study in the problems in legal education today. As a scholar, Professor Yoo is considered something of a superstar; he has been described as “a leading scholar on the relationship of international law to constitutional commands.” Even so; he teaches at a law school – an entity engaged in preprofessional education. Prior to tenure in the Bush Administration, Professor Yoo had little experience in the practice of the law; as we will see, this makes him typical of the current generation of legal educators. Professor Yoo also represents something of a natural experiment of a type that we rarely see – the unusual case of a leading legal scholar with the limited professional experience typical of his generation who leaves the academy and practices law on a regular basis. When Professor Yoo actually practiced law, he made quite a hash of things. It is remarkable that the legal academy could regard as something of a superstar an individual who proves unable to practice – at an acceptable level – the profession for which he is training his students. Professor Yoo’s case is unusual in that he took the rare step of leaving the academic cocoon and venturing into a position where his professional deficiencies were likely to be exposed, but there is reason to believe that his lack of professional judgment is common among the scholars of his generation. All of this suggests that there is something deeply wrong with the state of legal education today.

This article begins by illustrating the deficiencies in the legal work of Professor Yoo during his service in the Department of Justice. It then explain why those deficiencies cast grave doubt on Professor Yoo’s qualifications to teach law. The article concludes by observing that Professor Yoo's case illustrates the problems that inheres with the legal academy's decision to champion the theoretician as teacher instead of those who have developed the kind of professional judgment so critical to success in the practice of law.

  • Office of Legal Counsel,
  • Legal Ethics,
  • Torture,
  • Legal Education
Publication Date
Summer 2011
Citation Information
Lawrence Rosenthal, Those Who Can't, Teach: What the Legal Career of John Yoo Tells Us about Who Should Be Teaching Law, 80 Miss. L.J. 1563 (2011). Available at: