Over at Balkinization, Professor Brian Tamanaha (St. John’s School of Law) argues that most law schools should abandon their vigorous pursuit of interdisciplinary studies in law:
[P]erhaps detailed knowledge of the social sciences—anything beyond rudimentary information every educated person should possess—is irrelevant to the practice of law.
It seems evident that one can be an excellent lawyer without knowing any of this interdisciplinary stuff, while it is not obvious that learning this will make a person a better lawyer. A stronger case can be made that this information might improve the performance of judges, but a more efficient way to deliver this benefit is to set up classes (in economics, statistics, etc.) for sitting judges—programs which now exist.
Brian contends that non-elite schools should reconsider whether they should emulate top-ranked law schools in focusing heavily on the interdisciplinary study of law:
In the non-elite law school universe–with schools almost entirely dependent upon tuition, with a majority of graduates who do not get corporate law jobs and only rarely become law professors–the interdisciplinary movement cannot be so easily justified.
Let me just give three reasons why it might be a bad idea for non-elite law schools. First and foremost, as argued above, there is no evidence that it will make their students better lawyers. Second, it costs a lot of money to go interdisciplinary, and (because non-elite schools are tuition driven) this money will come out of the pockets of the students. Third, their education might suffer if their faculties emulate the elite law school trend toward hiring JD/PhDs with little or no practice experience (assuming a person with some experience in the practice of law has a bit more insight to impart to students about how to be good lawyers). . . .
The bottom line of this post: the notion that interdisciplinary studies within law schools promises to improve the practice of law is an old idea backed up by little evidence. Non-elite law schools might not be serving their students well if they get caught up in this trend.
I strongly disagree. Brian’s post seems to be informed by a common set of assumptions about legal education and practice that I think are false. These assumptions involve a particular vision of what tools are necessary for law practice and of what good lawyering is all about, as well as a vision of what role legal education should play in preparing students for the practice of law.
With regard to the vision of law practice, I think that it is a common assumption that it involves learning doctrines, rules, case holdings, drafting skills, etc. While this is part of law practice, the practice of law is tremendously varied. Some students go on to become judges and policymakers. Many will work for government, for think tanks, for public interest organizations. Many might work in house at companies, where they might also be making policy. For example, one of the most rapidly growing positions is that of privacy officer — most companies have numerous people devoted to understanding privacy law and making corporate policy with regard to privacy. In any policymaking position, knowledge of existing legal doctrine is just one part of the job. One also needs to be able to see the big picture, to make wise policy choices beyond merely complying with existing law.
Moreover, the practice of law involves many dimensions. Some students will become trial lawyers, and interdisciplinary knowledge might enhance their ability to make eloquent arguments before the jury. Literature, psychology, rhetoric, and other fields are very important for a successful career as a trial lawyer. One of the difficulties in justifying interdisciplinary legal studies is that often the materials read or studied don’t have a direct bearing on practice. So if one reads Melville or Shakespeare, or reads works of behavioral economics, psychology, or sociology, the benefit isn’t in terms of having authorities that one can cite in a brief or recite before a jury. But the exposure to these ideas, the process of reading and thinking about these works enhances one’s general store of knowledge, one’s understanding of life, and so on. This indirectly enhances one’s ability to practice law. The brilliant funeral speech of Marc Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar is a wonderful display of rhetoric, and much can be learned from comparing it with Brutus’s speech. Behavioral economics, psychology, and cognitive science — the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, for example — reveals how the framing of choices can have dramatic effects on what people will choose.
Brain notes that “no convincing evidence has been provided to demonstrate that ‘interdisciplinary studies’ will help one whit in the training or performance of lawyers.” But is there a way to produce the evidence he desires? Is there a way to prove that learning history, literature, philosophy, psychology, economics, and other humanities have any value for most careers? What would be the metric by which this could be measured?