Lay down the law

Studying the law in the United States has long been characterized as a vocational pursuit. The most common law degree in the U.S. is the Juris Doctor, usually referred to as a J.D.; it’s a degree designed specifically for the purpose of preparing students for careers as practicing lawyers. On July 11, however, the landscape of legal education changed dramatically when Yale Law School (YLS) announced its plans to implement a Ph.D. program in law, the first of its kind in the United States. Unlike a J.D., a Ph.D. in law is strictly academic and is intended to prepare students not for practicing law, but for teaching it.

In the past, to compensate for the absence of a law Ph.D., law school graduates who hoped to pursue careers in academia received Ph.D.’s in different but related disciplines, such as political science or history. In many ways, these disciplines go hand in hand with law, but the lack of law Ph.D. programs has led to an absence of proper legal scholarship, and this absence has, in turn, led to a lack of coherence in various aspects of legal thought. Robert Post, LAW ’77, who is the dean of Yale Law School, hopes that that the creation of this program will lead to the “consolidation of the legal disciplines.”

The program began accepting applications in August, and the first class will begin in the 2013-2014 school year. The program will accept only five applicants for its inaugural class. Post said that while he cannot predict the number of applications that the program will receive, he expects that the process will be highly competitive. The program is extremely well-funded, due in part to a grant from the Mellon Foundation, as well as various private donations. Applicants must have a degree from an American law school in order to be eligible for consideration. Unlike most other Ph.D. programs, which often take up to seven years to complete, the doctorate in law will only take three years, in part because students will come into the program having already studied much of the basic material in law school. The culminating dissertation will likely consist of a series of scholarly articles, the likes of which are necessary for those seeking positions as law professors.

The ability to publish these articles should make Ph.D. candidates more qualified candidates for teaching positions. Gordon Silverstein, assistant dean for graduate programs at the law school, said, “There was something missing. In terms of preparing students to become law professors, that market has become much more competitive than it used to be.” He continued, “Applicants need to have a much more developed writing portfolio. This degree will put them in a much better position in the job market.” John Paredes, LAW ’13, agreed: “When you’re working as a lawyer, you don’t have time to write papers, and you don’t have the intellectual community to help you develop the big ideas.”

According to Post, YLS had been discussing the possibility of creating this degree for over two years, and Silverstein expressed a similar sentiment. “It was a long process and a long set of conversations within the Law School about the academic argument and the professional argument for this degree,” Silverstein said. Although the program will be run by the YLS administration and taught by professors from YLS, this degree, like all other Ph.D.’s, will be administered by the graduate school.

According to Silverstein, the program, which is unlike any other in the United States, has the potential to change the face of legal scholarship and teaching. “It might have an important effect on how we think about law because that’s what’s been somewhat lacking,” he said. “People tend to pursue a fairly narrow agenda, and part of what a Ph.D. is about is breadth and depth, so this will afford people the opportunity to engage in a broader conversation. Having a few people on your faculty with that kind of background will be exciting.”

With the creation of this program, Yale Law School is making a concerted effort to fill what it sees as a significant gap in the current field of legal scholarship. According to Silverstein, Yale was in a unique position to make this effort. “Yale [Law School] is very small,” he said. “It has a faculty that is second to none. It has always been a remarkably academic and thoughtful law school, and it has a large number of people who have published not just traditional scholarship.” He added, “The faculty is well-positioned to develop this kind of program, where at other schools it would have been less plausible.”

The legal community will watch the program carefully over the first few years of the program to monitor its success. According to Silverstein, if the program is successful, it is likely that other top law schools will add Ph.D. programs in law as well. “We know that other schools have talked about it,” he said. “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they created a similar program.” Martha Minow, dean of Harvard Law School, declined to be interviewed for this article.

Some students, however, are concerned that this new program remains too much of an unknown entity. “No one knows what it’s going to look like,” said one Yale Law student who asked to remain anonymous. “It’s unclear how the graduates will be received.” That same student added, however, that the program remains appealing because Yale’s faculty will likely make a serious effort to ensure the success of their first several rounds of students. “The Yale faculty is investing a lot of its reputation in this program,” the student said. “Because they want the program to succeed, they will put considerate effort into placing the graduates well.”

Despite any concerns potential applicants might have, the Law School remains optimistic about the success and importance of the program. Many of those interviewed for this article maintained that the shift from thinking about law as simply a vocational pursuit to an academic one was a long time coming. “I’ve long thought this was important and that it was odd that it didn’t exist,” Silverstein said. “It was long overdue.” Post noted very simply that the goal of the program is to improve legal education in the future. “In the long run,” he said, “it will simply produce better trained legal professors.”

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