New law Ph.D. meets national scrutiny

As the Yale Law School prepares to venture into uncharted territory by enrolling Ph.D. students next fall, scholars nationwide are unsure that the school’s new doctoral program will ultimately benefit legal education.

The three-year degree Ph.D. program, the first of its kind, is designed to give J.D. graduates an opportunity to broaden their portfolio of scholarly work while learning to teach, Law School Dean Robert Post said. Law School administrators said the program will not only prepare aspiring law professors for an increasingly competitive job market but will also affirm the law’s status as an academic discipline. Several law professors interviewed said this stance marks a departure from the traditional view of law as a field studied from the perspective of other disciplines, rather than as a discipline on its own, leading many scholars to question the new degree’s relevance.

“The point that Robert Post makes about the possibility of there being a study of law that is independent of other disciplines, I think, is a hard point to make,” said Lauren Edelman, the associate dean of the Jurisprudence and Social Policy program, a multidisciplinary doctoral program at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. “It’s somewhat unclear to me what it means to say that [the new Ph.D.] is wholly about law, given that law itself is a field very much populated by Ph.D.s in other disciplines, and much of the legal scholarship takes into account many of the fundamentals and methods represented.”

The growing number of legal scholars with doctorates in other disciplines has made the definition of legal scholarship an open question, said Robin West, a professor at Georgetown Law Center who has been involved in its fellows program. But Post said candidates with doctorates who are applying for faculty positions at the Law School occasionally veer too far into the neighboring disciplines.

“When you learn to look at something like an economist, you sometimes forget how to look at it as a legal scholar,” Post said.

Through the new degree program, Post said, students will develop a strong portfolio of legal writing that is critical for securing job opportunities in the legal education market and also gain teaching experience.

Despite their concerns about the program, scholars interviewed said the top-ranked Law School’s history of producing law professors makes it a suitable home for this unconventional degree. Bob Berring, a former interim dean of Berkeley Law, said the brand of legal education taught at Yale is already so academic that many in the profession consider it impractical.

“I’ve been to five law schools in my time, and, of course, graduates of Yale dominate the legal academy,” Berring said. “But whenever someone from Yale comes up in conversation, someone always makes the joke, ‘Yeah, but they didn’t go to law school, they went to Yale.’”

James Kwak LAW ’11 said he feared the new degree would start “an arms race” in legal education, where multiple other top-tier law schools would create similar Ph.D. programs, would become a standard at faculty hiring committees nationwide. Kwak, who was offered a position as a law professor during his third year of law school, said he sees no fault in the current system through which J.D. graduates become law professors by first clerking for judges and then doing fellowships.

Post said he does not intend for the new Ph.D. to displace Ph.D.s in other disciplines on the job market. Rather, he hopes for the new degree to add another option for students crafting their courses of legal study.

A current student interested in a career in legal academia, who requested anonymity because he will soon enter the legal job market, said the major advantage of the new Ph.D. program will be to allow students time to devote to research and writing, which are difficult to work into a J.D. schedule.

Approximately 10 percent of law professors nationwide hold degrees from Yale Law School, as do the deans of eight of the top 10 law schools.

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