Law School Specialization @ UC Irvine?

Cite this Article
Joshua D. Wright, Law School Specialization @ UC Irvine?, Truth on the Market (September 03, 2007),

Larry Ribstein offers a great post on the vision of law school specialization offered by Henry Manne which aimed to produce diversity between rather than within the law school. Larry discusses a recent potential example of this form of diversity at UC Irvine which has communicated an apparent interest specialization in the form of a commitment to produce “public interest lawyers.” For those interested, Larry has riffed on this theme previously. Institutional specialization at the law school level is also a subject that I’ve blogged about before in the context of a specialization in law and economics, see, e.g. here. In the context of this broader framework, UC Irvine’s reported interest in such specialization raises all sorts of interesting questions about the relative costs and benefits of the approach.

My previous post is couched in somewhat predictable terms for an economist: identifying any tradeoffs between “within faculty” specialization and diversity.  I argued there that law and economics currently enjoys such a broad domain over subject matter that one potential cost of a specialization strategy, reduced curricular coverage, was minimized.  Another potential cost, production of a faculty-wide “echo chamber” where intellectual creativity from “outside” is not rewarded, appears minimized heterogenous nature of the methodological commitments in economics (neoclassical, game theoretic, experimental, behavioral, etc.).  I think the George Mason experience demonstrates that the specialization approach can certainly be successful.  Note, however, that this proposition was obviously far riskier when it was actually taken when economic analysis of law was limited to antitrust and corporations and its methodological tools were limited relative to today’s state of affairs.

But what about other types of specialization, whether they involve commitments to methodology, subject matter, or even, as in the case of the hypothetical “public interest” specialization, a “mission.”  What are the benefits to that particular type of specialization? And at what cost?  The case in point, a widespread institutional commitment to public interest law, is an interesting example.  Surely, “public interest law” is vague enough to cover just about any subject matter.  Indeed the CPEC recommendation discusses the “public interest” mission in the following terms:

…the proposed UC Irvine Law School is intended to challenge students to think more deeply and critically about a number of complex social issues regarding: (a) equal opportunity; (b) racial and national identity; (c) minority rights; (d) civil and individual rights; and (e) social justice

I’m quite sure that (a) – (d) in the above paragraph can arguably be linked to a number of courses that are a regular feature of the modern law school curriculum.  So there need be little cost in terms of failure to satisfy curricular needs by adopting such a strategy. Another major cost of specialization can be that it produces what Mark Fenster has described in a post on this subject as “echo chambers” where external challenges are ignored and lively intellectual debate stymied.  Both Thomas Lifson and Professor Bainbridge note that the UC Irvine Law mission is distinctively oriented to the left politically.   Would this “tilt to the left” prove to be a significant cost at a “public interest” law school in the “echo chamber” sense discussed above?  Would “external challenges” (perhaps, to turn things around, law and economics?) be ignored?  The answer lies at least partially in understanding if the commitment is solely to subject matter or whether “public interest” really is a proxy for other methodological commitments.  I don’t claim to know the answer, though I’m personally not sure “public interest” is sufficiently well-defined in the legal education context to run this thought experiment with any sort of confidence.

Whatever the costs, it is also interesting to think about the possible benefits of this strategy from a faculty research perspective.  The benefits in the law and economics setting involve not only knowledge that your research agenda is valued by the institution, but also a wealth of nearby and accessible resources familiar with your general form of analysis just down the hall. From my personal experience, this latter benefit is the real advantage of specialization.  Will UC Irvine generate these types of research benefits with its “public interest” specialization?  I wonder about this.  Perhaps there are methodological synergies? I’m not sure.  The wonderful thing about the “diversity between” approach is that the market has the capability of generating answers about the optimal “structure” of legal education.  In the meantime, it will be very interesting to watch if and to what extent UC Irvine adopts the specialization approach. As Larry says in his post: “let a million intellectual flowers bloom.”