Monday, January 21, 2008

Interdisciplinary Stuff

It's been fun reading the various posts on this topic but, for me, some of the analysis is a little fuzzy and some not fuzzy enough. Still, most of what follows may just reflect not being up to speed on what is happening in legal education at non elite schools (other than my own) so I am beginning this post with a preemptory "never mind."

If the topic is, as Brian originally put it, "offering courses from other academic disciplines (economics, statistics, anthropology, etc.) in the law school curriculum, creating law and social science institutes of various sorts within the law school, offering joint JD/PhD programs, and hiring JD/ PhD faculty," I am not sure I understand the problem. I will call this the "hard" version of Brian's thesis. (The soft version, which is not his at all but which seems to be the one to which some people are responding is that Law Schools are overly enamored of interdisciplinary faculty.) In the hard version, the programs will only succeed if students enroll. If they do, is the logic that there is an obligation to discontinue them in the interest of giving the students what they really need? I doubt it. At my school, students already flock to bar oriented courses and I doubt there would be any change if we offered a course in statistics or a law and statistics specialization. In fact, I feel certain that we could offer a statistics course till the cows come home and no one would enroll if it were an elective. If required, there would be open revolt. In any case, not a single student will believe the course will be useful on the bar exam and, thus, unwittingly sign up.

I also wonder how many of the 185 non elite schools are actually offering these courses and programs. I just do not know but I worry that this may be like last month's blogging about unhappy law professors -- no empirical backing. In any case, one's response depends on what law school is for at the non elite schools. The theme seems to be that at the non elite schools it is even more important to prepare people to pass the bar exam and practice law. I could be wrong but I am pretty sure that the number of people attending law school who view it as a natural extension of an good education has increased. They may or may not practice law in the conventional sense. And I am not sure that the increase in this number, assuming it exists, is any lower at non elite schools. It may be higher if applicants are sensitive to placement rates. In fact, if college graduates are paying attention to the market at all, they understand that going to law school for the sole purpose of becoming not just an attorney but one with a satisfying life is increasing a long shot. Hopefully, they are looking for something more. At the close of Jim Chen's post two spots below, he notes that the real threat is decrease in law school applications. I am not sure that is a threat or maybe just reality setting in but one way to meet the threat is to offer something new. Interdisciplinary responses may save legal education.

The soft version of Brian's hypothesis -- too much emphasis on interdisciplinary matters -- is a different matter altogether and comes through more in the various responses than in his orginal post. He uses law and economics as an example of an interdisciplary area in which students can learn all they need to know by reading the book. And, therefore? Does that mean the teacher of antitrust should know just enough economics to get by? Does it mean that the property law or constitutional law teacher should know just enough history to get by? It seems like the interdisciplinary issue should be approached on a course by course basis. For some areas, being an effective teacher and scholar requires a high level of interdisciplinary work. Other areas probably require less.

Somewhere in all this I "hear" the argument that a downside of the interdisciplinary route is teachers without extensive practice experience. Sorry, but I am rolling my eyes right now. Judging by my school's hiring and that of other schools, "extensive practice" is hardly prized. Plus, just how important is having practiced for 2 years 25 years ago. I mean, how many times can the same war stories be told? I am not convinced that two years of practice in a particular specialty in a single law firm that, in all likelihood, will be unlike the firms most non elite law schools grads will join means better teaching. I am not saying that schools would not do well to place more emphasis on practice. I just don't think they do. In fact, 10-15 years of practice probably works to disqualify most potential candidates. Admittedly this is off-set to some extent by the wide-spread use of adjuncts.

The scenario Brian describes can be expensive but only if a School is actually hiring people who do not teach law at all. Again, I'd like to hear just how prevalent this is. If they do teach law, it's not expensive at all. Where else can a Ph.D/J.D get a job but in law teaching? At bottom can some of the worry -- certainly not by anyone who has commented so far -- be traced to competition for jobs?


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