Should the Legal Academy Be Interdisciplinary?
Orin Kerr has an interesting post with excerpts from a debate between Stephen M. Feldman and Richard Seamon about the legal academy. Fedman writes that law schools ought to become even more interdisciplinary than they already are: “Interdisciplinary scholarship, done well, can generate creative methods and original insights in previously stale areas of thought.” Seamon, in contrast, observes:
The problem with promiscuous interdisciplinarity is that it does little to improve our graduates’ ability to practice law or to improve the quality of justice. Furthermore, it distracts us from pursuits that would bring such improvement. . . . There seems to be a strong consensus that law schools do not adequately prepare their graduates to practice law and that basic, competently rendered legal services are not widely available to the poor and the working class. Under those conditions, it is selfish and irresponsible for the legal academy to pursue interdisciplinarity on a broad scale so that law professors can feel good about themselves despite their abandonment by the legal profession.
I agree with Feldman. Seamon provides no reason why interdisciplinary studies are unhelpful to the practice of law or the quality of justice. His main gripe is that legal services are not adequately provided to the poor, but this has little to do with an interdisciplinary focus. Indeed, perhaps the study of sociology and literature might inspire students to be more aware of the need for legal services for the poor. There is no reason to assume that teaching students more about legal doctrine will lead them to careers in the public interest. Interdisciplinary scholarship and courses teach students a broader view of the law — to be more critical of the existing legal structure and to understand the role it plays in society. This broader vision of the law can be very helpful for the law’s future development. Many students one day will become judges and lawmakers, and having had some basic exposure to statistics, economics, literature, philosophy, sociology, psychology, and other disciplines will hopefully let them improve the law, which is often hopelessly antiquated in its understandings of these disciplines. The law of evidence, for example, is based on faulty assumptions about psychology. Many opinions make judgments based on unsound empirical assumptions. Many a judge could use a lesson in statistics. And many a judge or legislator would benefit from the depth of normative thought and reasoning that reading literature and philosophy can help develop.
I often find that much about the current practice of law is unimaginative and mechanical. I’ve read many a brief that was like a paint-by-the-numbers exercise. The best lawyers, in my view, have a broader understanding than just rules and legal doctrine. They know how to persuade the judges they appear before; they know how to pick juries; they know how best to resolve a dispute, whether by trial or settlement. Lawyers are problem solvers, and they must utilize a wide range of skills and bodies of knowledge.
Also, it is hard to imagine how law can be separated from interdisciplinary approaches. The formalists of the late 19th Century wanted to see law as something completely self-sufficient and pure. But that just isn’t how law is.