Does Interdisciplinary Education in Law Schools Work?

Josh Wright —  17 January 2008

The value of interdisciplinary legal education is coming up once again. This time, Brian Tamahana argues that the interdisciplinary movement is a bad idea:

the notion that interdisciplinary studies within law schools promises to improve the practice of law is an old idea backed up by little evidence. Non-elite law schools might not be serving their students well if they get caught up in this trend.

Tamahana’s argument is largely empirical: “there is no evidence that it will make their students better lawyers.” He also argues that such a move may not be cost-effective for non-elite law schools and that students might suffer if they are taught in by an increasing fraction of JD/PhDs with little or no practice experience. There has been plently of blog commentary on this issue (see, e.g., Dan Solove, Ethan Leib, and some very interesting comments at Brian Leiter’s Law School Reports). Predictably, as one of those JD/PhDs with little practice experience teaching at a school that prides itself on interdisciplinary legal education, I tend to believe there is considerable value in interdisciplinary education — especially economics.

But I don’t want to turn this into a general defense of law and economics. Nor do I want to spend any time with the second and third aspects of Tamahana’s arguments. The commentary from Solove and others covers those issues. But what about the empirical question? Is there any evidence that such education will make students better lawyers?

What about this study from Craft & Baker (2003) in the Journal of Economic Education that we blogged about awhile back? The most pertinent finding is that undergraduate education in economics lead to higher earnings as a lawyer. I suspect that the level of interdisciplinary education in law school is similar to the subject matter that one would learn in an undergraduate program. Here’s the abstract:

Using nationally representative data, the authors examine the effects of preprofessional education on the earnings of lawyers. They specify and estimate a statistical earnings function on the basis of well-established theory and principles. Along with standard control variables, categorical variables are included to represent graduate degrees in addition to the law degree and an assortment of undergraduate major fields. Holding a Ph.D. or M.B.A. degree, with the law degree, is associated with significantly higher earnings in some sectors. Lawyers with undergraduate training in economics earn more than other lawyers, ceteris paribus, and economics is the only undergraduate field associated with earnings that differ significantly. The available evidence supports the hypothesis that economics training increases a lawyer’s human capital compared with other undergraduate majors.

Apparently, at least some employers tend to believe that there is something value in this type of education for lawyers. That’s certainly a start to answering Tamahana’s empirical challenge. Of course, there are some obvious concerns with endogeneity and selection effects here (which the authors discuss at 278-279 at the link above). But the most interesting result appears to be that neither undergraduates in other majors with high average LSATs or other majors with similar content (business, accounting) generate the same increase in lawyer earnings. The authors properly and cautiously conclude with some reservatation about whether they have identified a causal relationship here:

Although firm conclusions cannot be drawn from this analysis, the available evidence suggests that the effect of an economics bachelor’s degree on the earnings of lawyers results from more than simply self-selection effects. Hence, it appears that the development of additional human capital may be playing some role.

I’m certainly not arguing that the study is dispositive of a link between economics education and quality of legal education in terms of producing value. And perhaps there is something different about undergraduate education in economics and integrating in economics to the general legal curriculum. Though I doubt any differences in that vein are really significant to the debate here. The question of what exactly produces value in the legal education process is an incredibly important one. But if this evidence cuts in any direction, it is that economics education does indeed tend to make students better lawyers.  If further study was to support this finding, perhaps it would suggest that the more important question for legal education is not whether interdisciplinary education makes for better lawyers, but what types of programs improve legal education under what conditions?

6 responses to Does Interdisciplinary Education in Law Schools Work?

  1. 

    Not only do I think Brian is right, but I actually think faculties in most law schools should not be required (or expected) to do any research whatsoever, and should not be evaluated on the basis of research. Nothing is wrong with having teaching schools and research schools. That’s why we have both liberal arts colleges and universities. (I am aware of the sad recent trend to push faculties of liberal arts colleges into the research direction… if it succeeds, it will be a real loss).

    It’s good to have a choice: attend a teaching school, where the faculty really knows something about the practice of law and is hired to teach, or attend a research school, where almost nobody on the faculty has significant practice experience and everyone is evaluated on scholarship. Today, this choice is impeded by the common-pool rankings system, which forces low-ranked schools to mirror high-ranked schools by stressing research over teaching.

    Perhaps the solution is to explicitly separate teaching and research law schools for the ranking purposes, as we do for universities and liberal arts colleges. And then, let the market decide which schools students really want. Maybe then, going to Chicago-Kent law school would no longer signal to employers that you just didn’t make it to Northwestern, just as today, going to Swarthmore doesn’t mean you couldn’t get into Columbia.

  2. 

    Jody: I don’t really disagree with you about the strength of the evidence, as the post makes clear. I also agree that I’m really not addressing Brian’s main point. In fact, I’m only talking about law and economics and not interdisciplinary education in general. So I’m explicitly only taking on a small part of Brian’s claim.

    As for the trade-offs, I’m not convinced the burden of proof is very substantial here. I’m not aware of any overwhelmingly convincing evidence that the other things you talk about (clinical training, doctrinal training, etc.) are systematically producing better lawyers. Of course, if you know of any, I’d love to see it.

    Perhaps we are all taking shots in the dark here concerning what the best approach to legal education is. But I think we may view the problem differently. My view is to let a thousand flowers (or approaches to legal education) bloom and let the market decide which is producing better lawyers. If a law school believes that it can produce better lawyers by increasing doctrinal or clinical training or specializing in public interest law or law and economics or just about anything else, I believe that students, employers and law schools can sort out which approaches work just fine. Specialization is not for everybody, and doesn’t have to be, but that doesn’t mean that it cannot generate substantial benefits.

  3. 

    Some evidence, maybe, but very weak, as your list of caveats indicates. Even if we assume causation (which the study itself is careful to disavow), all we have established is that an undergraduate education in economics leads to higher paid lawyers. Nothing suggests that even more economics education in law school would continue to increase lawyer pay.

    More fundamentally, this doesn’t address Brian’s main point which is the question of trade-offs. Even assuming that economics education in law schools increases pay (and assuming this is a good proxy for educational value), any such benefit must be traded off against devoting those same resources to something else (e.g. clinical training, more doctrinal training, etc.). Given that interdisciplinary research is a change from the status quo and would involve, by definition, diverting resources from elsewhere, I would expect the burden of proof to rest with those calling for change.

  4. 

    Brian,

    Thanks for the comment. And obviously you are right about exercising caution regarding drawing causal conclusions. I thought I was. Economists get a bit sensitive about being accused of making unwarranted assertions about data. So let me defend myself about my level of caution, which I intended to be high, e.g. the first clause in the sentence you point to reads “if this evidence cuts in any direction”, the next sentence begins “If further study was to support this finding”, and the first sentence of that paragraph states that “I’m certainly not arguing that the study is dispositive of a link between economics education and quality of legal education in terms of producing value.” And just in case, I will not say that I don’t think that this study establishes such a relationship on its own. It is, however, some evidence on the question. And I think some pretty interesting evidence at that! (Robustness of this effect is a different question).

    Now that we are done with that, the “more pay” = “better lawyer” question is interesting, certainly. And it is obviously true that some very smart lawyers chose lower paying jobs. And some not so smart lawyers get really high paying jobs from time to time. But the question is whether economics education is producing some value in terms of human capital that employers are willing to pay for *on the margin.* Very smart and capable lawyers with *all* kinds of undergraduate majors presumably choose low paying jobs from time to time — so then why is it only economics majors that get this bump in pay? Perhaps selection effects, but the effect doesn’t appear for other business-related majors.

    As to your point about the *dubious* link between pay and the quality of the lawyer, you don’t have to believe economists (perhaps this is a relief?). But perhaps you believe the employers doing the paying who have in their interest hiring the best lawyers they can and paying for skills that clients value.

    If one assumes this effect is robust, and it does not apply to other high LSAT scoring majors, nor to other business-like majors, I think it is pretty interesting evidence in favor of the hypothesis that economics education is producing some valuable human capital. Interesting. Relevant. Not dispositive.

  5. 

    Josh,

    As you obviously know, you must be careful about drawing causal conclusions of any kind from this study.

    This assertion in particular seems unwarranted: “economics education does indeed tend to make students better lawyers.”

    What it shows, if I understand your summary of the study correctly, is that lawyers with an undergraduate training in economics end up in better paying jobs.

    Perhaps an economist would conclude that “more pay” means “better lawyer,” but that strikes me as a dubious proposition.

    Very smart and capable lawyers choose lower paying jobs all the time. Heck, some even give up money to become law professors.

    Brian

  6. 

    Tamahana is making the fundamental logical error of statistics: “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Thus, one could logically ignore everything he says without missing a wink of sleep, as the fact that he has no evidence is utterly meaningless.

    Perhaps a little law and economics — or other interdisciplinary instruction — might have filled in that gaping hole in basic education (or lack thereof)