Should the Legal Academy Be Interdisciplinary?

lawbooks1a.jpgOrin 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.

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12 Responses

  1. KipEsquire says:

    It seems to me that the question is whether interdisciplinary study removes constraints or imposes them. If the former (e.g., abolishing prejudices such as “real scholars don’t do ‘law & psychology'”), then interdisciplinary is a good idea; but if the latter (i.e., just another twist on “publish or perish”) then why bother?

  2. Simon says:

    Kip – an important corollary to that point is that the constraints are. Some constraints are desirable, and can lead to far more practical and effective solutions than expanding the range of options. Dan’s “interdisciplinary studies expands the toolbox” argument essentially pits against one another those who believe in learning to use a few versatile tools well against those who want a different tool for every application. Of course, the problem arises that the more tools there are to master, the less adept the craftsman becomes at any particular one. As the bumper sticker wisdom goes, be careful not to become so open-minded that your brain falls out.

    All in all, I see little that is pursuasive in Feldman’s comment. But then again, what do I know – I’m but a formalist.

  3. Deven Desai says:

    Dan, it seems a key point in your argument is based on the idea that “Many students one day will become judges and lawmakers.” Yet according the ABA only some 11% of lawyers are in either the judiciary or the legislature. Furthermore, while a good lawyer does more than rote brief writing, it seems that the debate may be about whether the mass of students are receiving the basic legal analytical tools needed to practice before they try to apply interdisciplinary ideas to the law.

    Let me re-phrase the issue. How often will lawyers handle the more progressive cases calling for the benefits of the interdisciplinary work? It seems that is Seamon’s point at some level. This idea is not to disagree with your points that the best lawyers “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” and a knowledge beyond the law helps with those skills. Rather could it be that law firms and law students are saying that the fundamental practice skills are not served if students receive only interdisciplinary instruction and that in fact the perception is that the “Law &” approach, as Seamon puts it, is perhaps thriving at the cost of the other set of skills?

    As you know, I am not opposed to “Law &” approaches to the law. Interdisciplinary endeavors can achieve much of what you ask them to do. It does, however, seem that legal academia could fulfill both Feldman’s interdisciplinary and Seamon’s ability to practice law mandates. Indeed, to achieve your goals of creating the best lawyers who are consummate problem solvers or judges and legislators who can operate within the system yet still appreciate when justice demands a shift, it would seem that both skills are required and sacrificing one for the other would be the mistake.

  4. Bruce Boyden says:

    I think the answer to the question in the title depends on large part on the forum: scholarship or classroom instruction. By and large, I think classroom instruction should be devoted to training lawyers in law and legal methods. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my interdisciplinary classes; but aside from a couple of Supreme Court amicus briefs, I don’t think they ever helped me in practice. If I were still practicing, I would have been much better off taking admin. law, paying attention in corporations, and taking some sort of advanced legal writing class. On the other hand, legal scholarship gets a lot of mileage out of interdisciplinary insights (I hesitate to call it “interdisciplinary work” due to the high standards some have for that term). I think that’s all well and good; but not terribly practical.

  5. Deven — I generally agree with you, but I take offense at Seamon’s view that being interdisciplinary and teaching skills are mutually exclusive. Law schools teach plenty of practice skills through clinics; and they teach plenty of doctrine (except, maybe, schools like Yale and a few others). Every law school has clinical education, moot court, mock trial, and other ways to develop skills. Many classes (including my own) incorporate problem solving.

    I doubt law schools can produce ready-made lawyers who are ready to go out of the box. Being a lawyer, much like any profession, requires practice. Nobody expects a doctor fresh out of medical school to be ready to go — it takes a residency and years of further training. In other words, legal education doesn’t end when a student graduates. It prepares a student for the next step in learning, which is working under the guidance of lawyers or judges and actually practicing law.

    Bruce — As far as scholarship goes, I agree that scholarship has become less relevant for many practitioners. But there is a tendency among some practitioners to dismiss all legal scholarship as unhelpful, when in fact, a lot can be very enlightening and helpful.

    I completely agree that more attention should be paid to teaching legal method — statutory interpretation, analogical reasoning from precedent, etc. I think that interdisciplinary work can be very helpful in legal method, as it informs interpretation, reasoning skills, etc. These skills are best cultivated with a broad background in the humanities, something that many students don’t have. It is true that classes are often focused around doctrinal areas, not legal method skills, but I see this problem as caused by too great a focus on doctrine and rules, not by incorporating interdisciplinary insights.

  6. Tom says:

    Sure, it’s good for lawyers to know something about statistics, economics, literature, philosophy, sociology, psychology, and other disciplines. But is it crazy to expect them to have learned those things in the four (or more) years they spent getting their undergraduate degrees?

    To the extent that law schools are concerned that their graduates don’t understand anything except the law, couldn’t they address this by favoring more liberally educated people in the admissions process?

  7. Really, it matters what exactly the issue is. We can’t just talk about “interdisciplinary trends” in general and pretend to be discussing the most interesting part of the debate.

    There are special interdisciplinary topics out there which a law school ought to teach. If they don’t, they risk making naive students.

    If the issue, for instance, is whether or not eyewitness testimony is reliable, then you’d better believe that those who study law are missing out on something critical by not learning some social psychology. But that doesn’t mean leaving the old curriculum behind whole-hog. It means, at most, making some special seminars mandatory.

  8. Deven Desai says:

    It seems that so far people agree that the ideal is that both interdisciplinary work and skills are developed. And for what it’s worth I think Dan is correct: hostility to one over the other is detrimental.

    As for the idea that undergraduate course should prepare students for these areas, good luck. Unlike medicine law does not have a preset list of courses (biology, organic and inorganic chemistry, physics and often calculus, English composition). Perhaps law schools should offer at least a strong recommendation or even a set list of courses. Logic, economics, English composition, and philosophy is a quick list. Still precisely the interdisciplinary and diverse views that make law school and talking with lawyers great might decrease if one had to take economics or philosophy. As such perhaps a set of equivalents within disciplines might make sense. Students would choose among courses but would have to hit three, four, or however many courses the school decides in total to satisfy the requirement.

    Benjamin, how would a faculty require seminars when it seems to me that students already push back on the number of required courses and agreement on non-core material might spark large clashes on what is necessary (e.g., race theory versus economics) within a faculty? I ask because I think your instincts may be correct, but I am not sure how it would happen.

  9. Part of the trouble on any educational front is going to be both making decisions on the basis of a) consider the practical constraints on building a curriculum, b) considering what it would take to provide a top quality law education, and what it would take to provide a minimally satisfactory one, c) separating the necessary from the dispensible in both categories, and then d) balancing one’s decisions about the necessary against practical constraints.

    One can easily argue that the enactment of the sort of thing I’ve suggested would be what’s necessary for a top education in law, and I think a case can be made that it’s minimally necessary as well. Relatedly, it’s useful to keep in mind that it’s not always necessary to delve too deeply into the peripheral subjects, and this fact may ease the practical burden slightly.

    Still, ultimately, how one would enact an education in relevant peripheral areas would depend on the goals and practical constraints unique to a particular school. Perhaps, in some cases, a school might award special certificates for those students who voluntarily attend seminars on special topics in law, or somesuch thing. It would certainly look good on one’s CV to show that one is cognizant of, for instance, the relevant parts of criminology.

  10. Deven Desai says:


    Perhaps one way to go with what you are suggesting is to follow the certificate programs that many schools seem to be deploying but on a larger scale. A school might choose to look more like a graduate program where all classes were of a school of thought (a colleague of mine suggested this possibility). I think that approach has strategic flaws given the size of a law school and the shifting winds of thought though arguably some schools already operate under such a system.

    Another possibility would be to establish distinct tracks within a school. For example, all students would take the first year courses. After that, students would go into tracks they had selected before entering law school. So each third could track for criminal law, law and economics, critical race theory, intellectual property, or whatever the school chose as its tracks. The faculty would establish the course requirements but a theoretical/thematic framework would guide each track. In addition, the school would maintain some of the benefits of different approaches to the law because the students would know each other from their first year courses and facilitate interaction. In addition, the faculty would have some intellectual diversity based on the number of tracks.

  11. Stuart Buck says:

    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

    I agree that everyone should know some basic statistics, since nearly everything can be analyzed in terms of statistics, yet many statistical concepts are not exactly intuitive.

    But the rest? As much as I enjoy each of the subjects on the laundry list, I’m very skeptical. What evidence is there that a judge who took one course in law school thirty years ago that mentioned a few works of “literature,” or a couple of sociological studies, has any higher likelihood of “improving the law,” whatever that is supposed to mean?

  12. Deven,

    Your “tracking” proposal makes good sense, especially since there are different kinds of careers in law. The only trouble is for determining the curriculum of those graduates who aren’t sure what part of the profession they want to get into.