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Changing Legal Education

February 20, 2013
  by Rick Livingston

Munch painting Jurisprudence 1887










Strange but true: among the official list of humanities disciplines named in the 1965 authorizing legislation for the National Endowment for the Humanities is jurisprudence.  Not surprising, perhaps, given that the statute had to be drafted by lawyers; still, it’s not that often that “the science or philosophy of law” (as Merriam-Webster defines it) turns up in humanities curricula, let alone its secondary meaning as “a system or body of laws.” Courses on moral reasoning (like Michael Sandel’s Justice) are common enough, and studies of policy, to be sure.  But jurisprudence?

The reason is surely that, in the U.S., the study of law has long been professionalized. In a process genially described in Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas, once law became a subject for academic study (as opposed to being mastered through apprenticeship to a lawyer), a gentleman’s bargain reserved it for graduate school, while the undergraduate curriculum was left free for liberal (i.e. non-professional) arts.  Jurisprudence’s place among the humanities preserves the idea that law can be one of the arts of citizenship, rather than a body of technical expertise. 
What got me thinking about this history is a recent NYT article about how changes in the practice of law are raising pressure to rethink legal education.  The Great Recession hit law firms hard, and created incentives to outsource legal research work, among other things, to lower-cost venues overseas.  As a result, hiring slowed, and a drift of recent graduates, underemployed and overindebted, began to pile up outside the gates of law schools.  The ABA has convened a task force on reforming legal education, there’s a move afoot to emphasize hands-on learning (the return of apprenticeship!), and proposals to cut back the canonical three-year training to two. 
But one of the most interesting ideas (from a humanities perspective, anyway) comes from Michael Moffitt of the University of Oregon Law School, who has started offering law classes to other parts of the university.  “The problem is that we have been selling only one product,” Mr. Moffitt said. “But if you are getting a business degree, you need to know about contract law. City planners need to know about land-use law. So we at Oregon are educating not just J.D. students.”
The rationale is admittedly market-driven and consumer-oriented, but the acknowledgement that law is woven into the fabric of everyday life (rather than existing outside and above society) opens the door to a deeper reconsideration of its role in the curriculum.  What would happen we began to consider jurisprudence as an aspect of general education, thinking of justice as the cultural commons?  Would it begin to reunite the archipelago of specialized professional ethics (business ethics, medical ethics, ethics for engineers)? Could it reinvigorate a notion of democratic citizenship—everyone a lawmaker—at a moment when the political system feels increasingly decrepit? 
UPDATE:  The day after I finished this post, the NYT published an Op-Ed advocating a return to apprenticeship in the law.
Image: Edvard Munch, “Jurisprudence” (1887); courtesy Wikipedia.