A Few Thoughts on Law School Specialization

Josh Wright —  1 October 2006

The topic of specialization in law school faculties has come up again in the blogosphere, as tends to be the case around hiring season. Mark Fenster starts us off at Prawfs with a very thoughtful post noting some of the potential costs associated with specialization and concludes:

To me, the ideal law school would be one where there are a few people whose work is like mine, but lots of really interesting and open and brilliant people whose work and whose politics are somewhat and even completely different from mine.

Larry Solum also chimes in, seeking a more precise meaning of specialization in this context, noting the relationship between size and specialization at the faculty level (i.e. larger faculties have an advantage in specializing while satisfying curricular constraints), and concluding that:

Specialization is necessary for true success because excellence in legal scholarship requires serious training in a relevant tool set. Without a cluster of legal economists, it is difficult to reliably train legal economists. Without a cluster of normative theorists, it will be difficult to train future legal academics with serious normative theory skills. Of course, a very large law school can have clusters in several methodologies and doctrinal fields. The smaller the institution, the more difficult it is to diversify and hence the greater the importance of focus or specialization.

Both are excellent posts and provide an interesting contrast. Mark is more skeptical about specialization, emphasing the costs associated with its execution, i.e. the natural tendency of the “best athlete” strategy to work against specialization, as well as curricular constraints. Solum’s message is more optimistic for the medium-sized, up-and-coming law school, pointing out that methodological specialization is attainable and perhaps even necessary for law school success.

I have some thoughts on law school specialization and the optimal level of faculty methodological diversity that I would like to add to the mix, informed primarily by my experience thus far at George Mason — surely the most frequently cited case of successful specialization (for a recent indication of success of this type, or at least productivity, here are Tracey George’s new ELS Rankings with GMU down a notch into the #2 spot). Because I have only worked at Mason, I suppose my views on these issues should be taken with a grain of salt. All of that said, a few notes on methodological specialization below the fold (some earlier thoughts are here).

1. The Research Benefits of Specialization.

Specialization brings with it a number of tangible benefits, particularly for a junior. Perhaps the most obvious point is that you need not wonder whether your research output is valued. The methodological commitment of the school leaves no doubt. From discussions with junior peers, this is often raised as an issue of significant importance.
A second obvious benefit, and the most important in my mind by far, is that peers with methodological expertise are readily available as a resource. This is no abstract, theoretical advantage. To give a very personal example, within ten steps of my office door are three legal economists with varied backgrounds and subject matter interests (not to mention a handful of others if I want to make a trip upstairs…). I spend a good amount of time bouncing ideas of each of them, and other senior colleagues with methodological expertise. Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of these benefits is the faculty workshop series. Again, I don’t know much about the workshop series at other schools, but my sense is that the specialization at GMU renders its in-house workshops a more effective resource for juniors doing law and economics. The quality of feedback available in house, before a paper is ready for SSRN or to submission for a conference, I believe, allows juniors to efficiently increase the quality of their output, which in turn, makes it more likely that these folks can attend better conferences (where they will get more feedback), etc.

My own experience has been that my abilities and output have improved as the result of the availability of a critical mass of senior law and economics scholars as well as the different manifestations of the law school’s metholodological commitments. It is also worth noting that the benefits are most likely sensitive to the balance between the number of seniors and juniors within the methodological specialty, i.e. too few seniors relative to juniors and the latter lose mentorship and feedback opportunities; too few juniors and the liveliness of debate suffers or there are fewer new ideas.

Of course, legal scholars can be expected to self select to some degree into an environment which they find conducive to their own productivity. Where Mark may find himself more stimulated and more productive in an environment where “there are a few people whose work is like mine, but lots of really interesting and open and brilliant people whose work and whose politics are somewhat and even completely different from mine,” my own productivity may be more responsive to an environment where a greater fraction of the faculty speaks the same language.

2. The Elusive Scholarly Tradeoff Between Specialization and Diversity, Or Avoiding the Echo Chamber.

Mark emphasizes the potential for specialized programs to “become echo-chambers, and . . . fence out those who might bring an important external challenge.” This is a real possibility. And one that it is important for any scholarly unit to avoid. How does a law school seeking to appropriate the benefits of methodological specialization minimize this possibility?

Here, the natural heterogeneity within law and economics provides insurance against the creation of an echo chamber. I sense sometimes (to be clear: this is not in response to Mark’s post) that this point escapes those who look at a school like George Mason and assume that a methodological commitment to law and economics is a sufficient condition for a monolithic, ideological approach to scholarship. I disagree. Law and economics itself supplies ample room for diversity. A look at the methodological arsenal of GMU’s own group of legal economists is instructive: neuroeconomics, experimental economics, econometrics, price theory, institutional economics, formal game theoretic modeling, etc. The diversity within economic science works against the echo chamber effect.

By way of comparison, Henry Manne’s hypothesis was that the failure to specialize, to the extent such failure was a function of an ideological truce, would itself produce an environment conducive to scholarly complacency:

“the most likely result of any attempt (by whom?) to balance a faculty ideologically will be a truce among the faculty (who after all prize the quiet life above all else) and an implicit agreement not to argue disruptive issues publicly or privately.”

Anybody who sincerely believes that this form of “within-economics” diversity is incapable of providing lively, vigorous, and productive scholarly debate can consider this an open invitation to attend our Thursday workshop series (send me an email, coffee is on me).

3. Other Tradeoffs?

I am not claiming that there are not important tradeoffs involved in achieving specialization. There surely are some trade-offs to be had. Other than the echo-chamber, some obvious candidates are: (1) curricular/ subject-matter diversity; and (2) losses to students in attending a law school where the faculty are committed to such a methodological specialization.

With respect to the former, one might suspect that economic analysis of the law might especially attract scholars in particular areas, i.e. commercial law, antitrust, securities regulation, etc. But with the spread of economic analysis to virtually every doctrinal specialty, I am skeptical that a broad methodological agreement that the tools of economics are useful to solve legal problems requires a significant narrowing of subject matter expertise among the faculty. It may well be the case that scholars whose comparative advantage is methodological in nature may be interested in a broader set of legal problems, which may lead to more diverse doctrinal expertise. I also suppose that I would advise any law school contemplating a methodological specialization to make sure they are proximate to a ready supply of adjuncts to fill any pressing curricular needs.

But what about the students? Again, the most obvious harm to students that I can think of is that specialization causes a reduction in JD curriculum coverage because it tends toward certain doctrinal specialties. But as noted above, I just don’t think that is the case with methodological specialization in law and economics. Perhaps there are other tradeoffs I am missing from the student perspective?

In any event, I thought it might be a worthwhile endeavor to share some of my thoughts from my first two years in the legal academy as a junior law and economics-type at an institution known for methodological specialization in law and economics. While GMU Law may be unique in the degree of its methodological commitments, my sense is that other law schools do have the types of specialized groups or clusters contemplated in Solum’s post. What are positive and negative experiences of juniors (in particular) in those clusters? I welcome others to share their own experiences or thoughts on methodological specialization in the comments or offline.

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