Light & Verity

That’s Doctor Lawyer, thank you

The Law School launches a PhD in law for would-be professors.

Yale Law School has a reputation for turning out graduates who go on to become law professors. By the school’s own accounting, about ten percent of professors currently teaching in US law schools have Yale law degrees. The school hopes to increase that number with a new PhD program in law, aimed at law school graduates who want to pursue careers in teaching and research.

Dean Robert Post ’77JD says the program—the first of its kind—reflects the need to “bring legal scholarship back to law.” The program, which will begin in the fall of 2013, will offer free tuition and a living stipend. Students will spend two years taking coursework and exams and a third and final year on a dissertation.

Currently, Post says, most law students or postgraduate fellows get “no systematic training in how to do [legal] scholarship.” The PhD program is meant to provide rigorous education in research and in writing academic papers, something that is more expected of law professors than in the past, he says.

But some critics say that when many see the study of law becoming more interdisciplinary, a PhD purely in law isn’t what many students—or employers, academic or no—have in mind. “There is probably much greater value in having an area of expertise outside of law than just having expertise within the law,” said Evan Caminker ’86JD, dean of the University of Michigan’s law school. “The latter is something that, presumably, an academic will develop over time.”

Many law schools now offer dual-degree programs that combine a JD with a PhD in another subject. Students can get a JD along with a PhD in finance from Yale through the School of Management, for instance; Michigan has joint-degree programs for economics and history. Caminker said such programs are becoming increasingly popular.

But Post argues that law schools want tenure-track professors with experience in legal scholarship. “Many people don’t need or want a PhD in another area,” he says. With doctoral training in, say, history, “suddenly you start approaching problems the way a historian does, not the way a legal scholar does.”

Robert Nelson, director of the American Bar Foundation and a professor at Northwestern, sees the program as good news for the field of law, which is not known for research productivity. “Law is woefully under-researched compared to things like medicine,” Nelson says. “I think the PhD in law is one manifestation of the interest in that kind of systematic research on law.”


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