Friday, July 04, 2008

Is Law School Graduate School?

My sense is that on most campuses, law schools are not regarded a quite up to par as far as other graduate programs. I was discussing this with a close faculty friend (really) who said part of the reason is that legal scholarship only seems to rise to graduate school level when it is combined with another discipline and involves empirical work. I do not totally agree but I think there is a great deal of truth to the observation. On the first point, so many articles are already interdisciplinary that is hard to believe this makes a difference. I doubt there are many articles in law reviews that limit their sources and influences to cases and treatises. On the empirical end, I agree more with the statement. I cannot put my finger on it but I am not sure law can be regarded as an equal to others at the graduate level unless ideas are tested in one way or another and a body of “findings” developed that only law professors have the expertise to develop. At this time, law seems to have only a derivative claim to graduate level status.

I have often written that most legal articles are actually service and not scholarship. The dividing line for me being whether the author starts with a question or hypothesis or is writing to prove a point he or she want to convince others of. The difference would be like:

a. Courts have traditionally ruled in favor of tall people (This is usually written by a short person) and I am going to show you why you should agree with me.

b. Does height affect the rulings of courts?

Law teachers are generally trained to do the former and so that is what they do. Articles that disagree are like battling briefs and if you only read one you very likely to get one part of the story.

Aside from the advocacy writing as opposed to idea testing what other things separate law from other graduate programs?

I have a hunch that law professors give more machine graded exams that professors in other graduate programs. It’s not the exams that matter but what the teachers teach and the students learn when the evaluation tool is a machine graded multiple choice exam. I could be wrong but please do not comment with examples one way or the other. This is the sort of thing that needs to be actually tested and not go down the usual law professor path of dueling briefs and examples. Part of this hunch is based on talking to some joint degree students who observe “A multiple choice machine graded exam makes the course all of a sudden seem less serious.” I mean, are Ph.D.s handed out on the basis of multiple choice questions and answers?

Another possibility is the nature of the evaluation at tenure and promotion time. I am sure the system can be gamed in other disciplines and that there are arguments about quality, but I doubt the panic is anything close to that of untenured law professors who worry about their reviewers. They are worried for good reason. They have written briefs and people who disagree have to overcome their own feelings on the issue to be objective. I have observed that people who disagree are more willing to be objective and praise a paper than people who agree with the position are willing to note when a project has been shoddily executed. And there is, of course, the market for letters.

On hiring I suspect there is also a different although I am sure it is of degree. Law school hiring often hinges on the advocacy of a hiring committee for one candidate or another. This advocacy, which can be just a notch above selling beer (Get it before it runs out! Everyone’s favorite!), is based on knowing the candidates for 30 minutes to an hour. Campus visits are not about the candidates but about the group who invited them and their desire to be seen as having made good decisions. Of course, the faculties never see the alternatives but, more importantly, in law there is so little to go on. There is no dissertation and consequently, largely irrelevant factors come into play.

It does occur to me that the rankings of law schools might be viewed as law schools that are true graduate programs and then the rest that simply train lawyers. Even if that is the case, becoming more graduate school like would seem to increase their effectiveness.


Blogger Stephen said...

I think if there was more writing and far smaller class size, law school would look more like a normal graduate school.

All it takes is a maximum class size of twenty and no class without writing assignments.

7/05/2008 7:42 PM  
Anonymous Matt said...

There are lots of ways that law school isn't like grad school in an academic program, (as someone who has done both I think I know fairly well) but what I'd like to mention is the bit on tenure. Maybe I'm mis-reading you but it seems you're saying that law professors are _more_ worried about tenure review than non-law professors. I don't know about people's subjective mental states but since it seems that it's much easier to get tenure in a law school, even an excellent one, than in most academic departments this would be a weird worry if so. (See Brian Leiter's various discussions of the matter for more detail.) Contrast, just as an example, the pretty high tenure rate at Harvard Law in the period between 1975 and 2002 (I'm not sure what it was but it's well, well above 50%, I'm sure) with the fact that the philosophy department at Harvard tenured _no one_ in that same time period. It's an extreme example but not an unrepresentative one, I think.

7/07/2008 3:07 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

Matt: You may be right about which ones are more and less likely to get tenure and, therefore, who should be worried more. What I see is all kinds of concern about who the reviewers will be because the scholarship they will examine is largely subjective and often politically oriented.

7/07/2008 4:07 PM  

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