Joni Hersch and W. Kip Viscusi, a pair of Vanderbilt Law School professors, are publishing a paper, "Law and Economics as a Pillar of Legal Education," which features an argument for why law schools should hire people with doctorates, and in particular doctorates in Economics (such hiring practices correlate with both higher law school rank, and higher citation rates for law faculty publications), and also advertises the existence of Vanderbilt's five-year old joint J.D./Ph.D. program in law and econ. On one level their argument is a fairly harmless exercise in academic empire-building, but on another the paper features all sorts of information of interest to those of us concerned the ongoing slow-motion collapse of the current delivery model for legal education in America.
The paper reveals that 27% (359 of 1,338) of the tenured and tenure-track faculty, excluding tenured and tenure-track clinical faculty, at the 26 highest-ranked law schools per USNWR currently hold Ph.D. degrees. (Typically, this type of analysis renders both clinical and legal writing and research faculty invisible). Of this subset, "ninety-one faculty members have a Ph.D. in economics, followed by 61 with a Ph.D. in Political Science or related fields (e.g., Government and International Relations), 50 with a Ph.D. in History, and 43 with a Ph.D. in Philosophy." 32% of the tenured/tenure-track faculty at the top 13 schools have Ph.D. degrees, with 20% of those in the bottom half of the cohort do. Northwestern leads the pack with 50% of its tenured/tenure track faculty holding doctorates. Other schools with a higher than 35% Ph.D. quotient include Yale, Stanford, Michigan, Berkeley, Penn, and Cornell. 65 of these law professors don't have a law degree. (Since comparatively few senior law faculty have doctorates, these percentages would seem to indicate that at many of these schools a solid majority of all new hires in recent years have had Ph.Ds.)
Anyone who has had much exposure to both the dire employment situation for law graduates and the generally poor quality of American legal education, which as many people have noted often (indeed, sometimes even at "leading" law schools) fails to deliver much of anything in the way of either edification or vocational training, will at this point be tempted to go off on a tirade about the cloistered narcissistic self-indulgence of overpaid and under-employed law professors, who are obsessing about citation counts while the legal system burns.
That kind of reaction is both perfectly understandable and eminently fair. It does, however, run the risk of appearing to be -- and in some cases of actually being -- essentially anti-intellectual. I don't want to be misunderstood to be arguing that there's something wrong with doing serious academic work on law and legally related topics. I've noticed that occasionally the comments on this blog have veered off into attacks on the whole notion of studying topics such as, for example, gender and the law, while caricaturing the ideas of people such as Catherine MacKinnon, who in my opinion have done very important and valuable academic work.
But a fundamental problem with the current structure of legal education, especially at the highest-ranked schools (which because of the ratings nonsense everyone else attempts to imitate) is that the overwhelming majority of law students, including the vast majority of law students at the top schools, have almost literally no interest whatsoever in academic work per se, no matter how valuable and important such work may sometimes be. With very few exceptions, law students are not people who would have gone to graduate school in the social sciences or humanities if they hadn't chosen to go to law school instead. This was true of, conservatively speaking, 19 out of 20 of my classmates at Michigan 20+ years ago (at a time when the school was, much to my delight, in the midst of a veritable orgy of "Law and" faculty hiring), and even more true at schools at less exalted strata of the legal academic hierarchy.
Law students want to be -- or at least think they want to be -- lawyers, not economists, or political scientists, or historians, or philosophy professors. Very few law students, just like very few lawyers, are intellectuals in any real sense of the word. (A commenter points out quite properly than not all academics are either, especially in law schools). This is not, I hasten to emphasize, in any way a criticism of law students and lawyers. There's nothing special or praiseworthy in being interested in ideas for their own sake, any more than there's something special or praiseworthy about being interested in automobiles or cooking. Society needs a certain number of reasonably well-educated and trained intellectuals, just as it needs a certain number of competent mechanics and dedicated chefs, but the idea that everybody should or can be an intellectual is as absurd as the idea that everyone should be able to rebuild the engine of a 1995 Corvette or whip up a first-rate paella.
All of which is to say that if there's a good argument for turning law schools into faux graduate programs in Economics (or anything else) I have yet to hear it. The argument for requiring three years of post-undergraduate education of any kind before people are allowed to practice law is at this point extremely weak. The notion that it makes sense to turn law faculties into places full of economics and political science and history and philosophy professors who have literally never practiced law a day in their lives (and, increasingly, have not ever even been in a law school classroom before they taught their first class in one!) is, shall we say, somewhat problematic -- unless you think it's a good thing that law students are now paying $150,000 for the privilege of helping to make possible the impressive faculty citation totals cited in Profs. Hersch and Viscusi's article.