Institutes of Excellence and the Global, Departmentalized Law School

Thanks to Deven all of us are thinking this week about an issue that we should indeed always be reflecting upon: realities and ideals of law schools. A law school is a multitude of things and has different meanings and consequences for different people. Law schools are workplaces, learning centers, research institutes, communities, and sometimes also advocacy forums and even for-profit businesses. Even if one thinks, as I probably would argue, that as an institution at-large, law schools should usually not be run simply as for-profit competitive businesses nor they should have particular political missions (perhaps though differentiating between the institution as a whole and particular research institutes within it), competition (in all its senses) and mission are part of the game. I think that the best that one can hope for in an institution that inevitably has internal inconsistencies, idiosyncrasies, and at times conflicting goals is a general strive for good faith excellence. Not the kind that is driven by rankings, but the kind that is driven by a group of people interested in getting “it” right, experimenting with various models, reflecting on the various goals and measures of success, and striving for constant improvement.

One thing that I have been concerned about, partly as someone who studies institutional change and organizational theory; partly because I took the non-traditional route to law teach, coming from abroad and getting an LLM and SJD before going on the U.S. teaching market; and partly as someone who teaches in a respected, but non-elite law school, is the possibility of change in an enviornmnet that is highly resistant to real competition and change. Law schools today, in form and to a large extent in substance, look very similar to what they looked like many decades ago. Change is tremendously slow and movements in the rankings between top 10 law schools and others is almost non-existent. There are many reasons for this and I will not touch on all or even most of these reasons, but let me put forth a thought exercise about how things could look a bit different. First, I have been a strong advocate of PhD programs in law. In fact, I believe that in order for law schools to be truly interdisciplinary they must stand on equal grounds to other disciplines and train academics in similar ways to other departments. This would have several positive ripple effects: it would require the legal academy to seriously consider, and constantly reconsider, what it means to get a solid scholarly legal education. It would require us to pose the question internally, not more in a passive reactive way as consumers of other signals across the campus: what are the different forms of legal scholarship and what is the type of training that is useful for them. It would also institutionalize the informal process of mentoring the next generation.

In the hard sciences, not only is a PhD required, but also, a lengthy post-doc is expected before people begin their tenure-track. The model that seems to most fit the bill for law schools however is that of the business school. Business schools are, like law school, professional and interdisciplinary. MBA students are trained to practice business administration in various capacities and sectors of the economy. At the same time, business school professors are expected to produce serious scholarship, published in peer-reviewed journals. And while business schools are interdisciplinary and embody various methodologies and approaches from economics, psychology, accounting, sociology, organizational theory and engineering, they themselves grant PhD degrees and train the majority of their future generation of academics. This leads to more intense and dynamic competition among the various schools, as each school has its own strengths in some departments and capacities and weaknesses in others. It also differentiates between how good a job a law school is capable of doing in training and placing future businesspeople in the industry and how it mentors new scholars. The two are not the same and to think that all of these aspects can be capture in one ranking system is absurd. Finally, the business school model also offers some insight on how a two-track system, professional (MBA or JD) and academic (PhD), contributes to the internationalization and globalization of education. Instead of having the two-tiered tracks of “American” (JD) and “foreign” (LLM/SJD) as in law school, the professional/academic system integrates American and non-American students at all levels of the institution.

I welcome your thoughts, there is a lot to be worked out, I know, but at the very least this can provide a thought experiment as to what we value in the strive for better institutions. More to come…

4 thoughts on “Institutes of Excellence and the Global, Departmentalized Law School

  1. Many law professors are really just second year associates (from a lawyer’s perspective). You need to ask yourself just what does a second year associate really know? What legal work would you entrust to a second year associate to do unsupervised?

    You’ve hit an excellent point on the difference between an MBA and a DBA (or the other various doctorate degrees in business), and other PhDs.

    I would also note that the widespread use of adjuncts also means that a PhD who is on the market will also have had significant experience teaching — under supervision — and will have had training in how to teach.

    By comparison, most law professors have had no experience, prior to starting their first job, in teaching.

    You make some interesting points.

  2. Orly,

    Do all business schools operate this way? It seems there are many MBA conferring schools that are unlikely to have PhD programs. I could be wrong but I think accredited business schools outnumber law schools but a fair amount.

  3. deven, you are right — more business schools than law schools because accreditation is much looser when there is no equivalent ABA/AALS requirements. and yes, not all b-schools have PhD programs, but all of the ambitious ones do…

  4. Right. Then what is it about law school that calls the cost into such question? Are the top 200 business schools charging much less? Do business school students have different expectations as far the return on the degree? Guaranteed employment is not in place.

    The PhD point seems to argue for a more stratified system which may make sense but I am trying to see where the cut-off in business schools is for offering such programs.

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