A Mini University?

Thanks to Michael and Devan and the rest of the crew here for inviting me to join the conversation on “What kind of institution do we want a law school to be?”

The institution I’d like is, well, perhaps pretty close to the ones we already have–something like a mini university, or maybe it’s better analogized to a liberal arts college. Either way, it’s an institution that has people with expertise across a wide spectrum–from hard-core law subjects (obviously) to economics, philosophy, sociology/anthropology, literature, history, and business (accounting) and some other areas like quantitative methods. A law school faculty of thirty people can cover a whole lot of intellectual terrain. And one of the great treats of being a part of a law school community is the opportunity to learn from very smart people who’re expert in neighboring fields, or maybe even fields that are a few miles down the road from my patch.

A virtue of teaching in law schools is that you have the opportunity to interact on a daily basis with people of differing expertise and talents. Although I do not write in criminal law or jurisprudence or economics, I am constantly exposed to the insights from colleagues who do. This must be what it’s like to be on the faculty of a liberal arts college, where there are relatively few (if any) people in your area of expertise but you learn from smart people in other disciplines. It also requires us as faculty to stay current in more areas than you’d typically expect of faculty in a university department. My friends who teach in history departments typically teach something like American history from Revolution through Civil War and some allied courses (like, oh, the old South, Jacksonian America, and the coming of the Civil War). Yet, law faculty will typically teach in several distinct areas. There’s something exciting about keeping up with the latest in equity and civil procedure, as well as trusts and estates, even though it is time consuming. You have the chance to show your students the ways that what we study is connected. Law school education has become what college was in the 1950s and 1960s (and what it still is at elite colleges and universities and maybe the honors programs at a lot of other schools)–a great general education in writing and reasoning.

And so as the students get all the benefits of introductions to the latest in theory and practice, we as faculty get the pleasure of seeing that from our colleagues. I think that makes us better rounded. And while it’s a favorite past-time of law faculty to decry how bad legal scholarship is, it also has a lot of virtues. Often it’s engaged with contemporary problems and often it draws upon many disciplines comes from the fact that it’s produced in law schools rather than arts and sciences departments. Some of my favorite legal academic literature, like Robert Cover’s Justice Accused: Antislavery and the Judicial Process and Morton Horwitz’ Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860, integrate law with other disciplines–history and philosophy in Cover’s case and history and economics in Horwitz’ case. I’m not sure that literature could be produced in a traditional history department–and I think history departments are a lot more open to innovation than a lot of departments. Basically, law schools foster broad and engaged work.

I guess this was driven home to me a few years back when I read the NYU Law School magazine and I thought, wow, this place has a huge and extraordinary faculty, “It’s a mini university!” And in hindsight, I think, maybe not even mini, maybe just university.

Now, how might we encourage more of this? That’s a subject for another day!

One thought on “A Mini University?

  1. We have a real maxi-university just beyond the law school gates. Wouldn’t it be better (and cheaper) to forge better connections with the faculties that offer knowledge and wisdom to the legal community? Legal scholars do a remarkable job pulling humanities, social science, computer science, and engineering knowledge into law schools. But everyone agrees that it could be done better.

    As someone who produced legal scholarship just outside the walls of NYU law school for years yet rarely got invited in, I have to say that we should all do much more to engage.

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