Does Interdisciplinary Education in Law Schools Work?

Cite this Article
Joshua D. Wright, Does Interdisciplinary Education in Law Schools Work?, Truth on the Market (January 17, 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?