Ellen Kan

Three students from the inaugural class of Yale Law School’s Ph.D. in Law program — the first of its kind in the nation — will graduate this semester, signaling much promise for a program that faced controversy at its outset.

Amid national scrutiny, Yale Law School launched the nation’s first Ph.D. in Law degree program in 2012. Today, the institution is still the only top law school to offer a Ph.D. degree in law. The program chose five Ph.D. candidates out of 82 applicants for its inaugural class in fall 2013, and an additional five and three students for its subsequent two cohorts, respectively. Two students from the inaugural class deferred their graduation by one year. Of the three members graduating this semester — Maureen Brady LAW ’11 LAW ’16, Rebecca Crootof LAW ’11 LAW ’16 and Rory Van Loo LAW ’16 — two will begin tenure-track positions at law schools, and the third will serve as the executive director of a major law school research center — an appointment yet to be publicly announced.

“The program aims to prepare students to make particularly important contributions in the field of legal study, and we are doing very well in that respect. We have produced strong students with excellent publication records,” said Gordon Silverstein, the Law School’s assistant dean for graduate programs.

When the Law School first announced its three-year Ph.D. degree in 2012, legal scholars nationwide cast doubt on the relevance of the program. They questioned how the program, open only to those with a law degree, differs from the already existing dual degree that consists of a J.D. conferred by a law school and Ph.D. conferred by a graduate school of arts and sciences, or from other teaching fellowships granted by law schools. Yale Law School administrators argue that the school’s three-year doctoral program would cement the law’s status as a field of its own — as opposed to one studied from other angles such as psychology and other social sciences — and prepare budding law professors for an increasingly competitive job market. Two of the three graduating candidates declined to comment for this story, and one did not respond to a request for an interview.

The positions secured by this year’s graduates, combined with articles they have published during their Ph.D. candidacy, suggest that the program has been a success.

“[For some teaching fellowships], students are required to teach legal writing, which is something [they] will never teach again for the rest of [their] life,” Silverstein said. He added that compared to existing teaching fellowships at law schools nationwide, Yale Law School’s Ph.D. in Law degree program is much more rigorous, combining coursework, workshops and teaching requirements. The program is meant to be an addition to existing teaching and writing fellowships, not a substitute, Silverstein said.

After the Law School introduced the program, some legal scholars raised concerns that other law schools would follow suit, eventually making a doctoral degree in law a prerequisite for future professorships. Although the inaugural class of the Law School’s Ph.D. candidates has secured prestigious positions, Silverstein said the scale of program is too small to influence the job market just yet.

Silverstein said “a couple” of schools have looked into establishing a similar Ph.D. in Law program, though he does not expect these programs to come to fruition for a few years. Such a program is an expensive enterprise, he said, and a number of schools are watching carefully how Yale is doing before entering the relatively new territory.

Silverstein said what boosts students’ chances of landing jobs in legal academia is not a Ph.D. alone, but rather the writing portfolio they would accumulate during the three-year program. All three of the graduating Ph.D. candidates have published articles in major law journals, including the Yale Law Journal, Virginia Law Review and the University of Pennsylvania Law Review.

Amanda Shanor ’03 LAW ’09 LAW ’17, a second-year Ph.D. in law candidate, said that in the face of an increasingly competitive job market, it is not realistic to try and obtain a tenured faculty position — even at middle-range law schools — with only a J.D. degree and clerkships. One has to earn at least a Ph.D. in another discipline and be able to present a body of writing to stand out in the market, she said.

Current Ph.D. candidates interviewed agreed that the program helped them study through a specific legal angle. Traditional views hold that law is a field studied from a combination of other disciplines and not a separate field in itself. Shanor said that through Yale’s program, she has been able to work alongside prominent figures in legal scholarship and examine legal institutions and pressing questions facing the American legal academy today.

Shelley Welton LAW ’17, another second-year Ph.D. candidate, said while a J.D. degree program taught her the tools to practice law, the Ph.D. program trained her to think like a legal academic. Welton highlighted the writing workshops in the Ph.D. program as particularly useful, adding that the scholarly engagement during those workshops was much more intense than the feedback she received for her J.D. writings.

Welton added that legal scholars are still grappling with the question of whether law is a discipline in itself. While the program has taught her methods and processes related to legal analysis — providing a common language among aspiring legal scholars — there is not a common set of methodology for everyone, as different subfields in law demand different approaches, she said.

Law School students interviewed said they are aware of existing dual degree programs including a J.D. and a Ph.D. in another discipline, but said a Ph.D. in law is a better fit for aspiring legal scholars.

Kate Klonick LAW ’18, a first-year student in the program, said the Ph.D. in Law program was the best way to combine her background in legal education and her passion for psychology. Since Ph.D. training in psychology academia often takes seven years, a J.D. and Ph.D. in psychology dual degree would keep her in school for a long time.

All Ph.D. in law candidates receive a full-tuition fellowship and living stipend.