Interdisciplinary, or Why We Can't Have Nice Things
At the Legal Whiteboard, Jeff Lipshaw hops aboard the speeding train.
Bill [Henderson] and I have already posted separately (here and here) about our mutual sense that the traditional disciplinary walls of the profession are crumbling, not just in terms of regulatory aspects like multi-disciplinary practices, but in terms of the integration of legal expertise with other aspects of enterprise, policy, mediation, and the like. (Nothing like a blog to flog your own work - blog flog? - but I've written about this in The Venn Diagram of Business Lawyering Judgments: Toward a Theory of Practical Metadisciplinarity.)
In that continuing vein, the Wall Street Journal has a story this morning about school administrators and corporate recruiters rethinking the value of an undergraduate business major. "The biggest complaint: The undergraduate degrees focus too much on the nuts and bolts of finance and accounting and don't develop enough critical thinking and problem-solving skills through long essays, in-class debates and other hallmarks of liberal education."
In practice, I use lessons from psychology, sociology, philosophy and business constantly. That could explain why I obtained an undergraduate education before law school. As Jeff notes, a complaint about undergrad is that it has left its tether of liberal arts and, at least for a degree in business, become too nuts and bolts oriented. That may be, given that I haven't spent much time in an undergrad classroom since early 1979. While my undergrad degree was pretty nuts and bolts, we were required to fulfill the distribution requirement that forced us to leave college with an education so that we could, at minimum, go to cocktail parties and not appear foolish.
But the use of the word "interdisciplinary" in law school scares me. Greatly. First, if students aren't gaining a breadth of knowledge in undergrad sufficient to prepare them to take a viable role in society after law school, then the problem seems to be that they should either address the failure at the undergrad level or not admit them to law school.
Does law school exist to compensate for an inadequate undergraduate education? That's where lawprofs seem to be heading, thus expanding their own utility and scholarship but solving someone else's problem. Mind you, it comes at the expense of a legal education, as no one suggests they add another year or two to law school (thank god) so that they can both cover the legal aspect as well as the interdisciplinary aspect.
But a particular concern is that law students graduate without any idea about business. Certainly a working knowledge of the business world is hugely valuable, whether to understand what clients do when they aren't being billed for unrequested memos, or to use in the creation of their own successful practice. This too raises some questions.
Is there enough room in the law school curriculum to include a B-School education along with an L-School one? Maybe a course or two, but not if it comes at the expense of, say, evidence. If business class replaces Law and Basket Weaving (another interdisciplinary favorite), then all is good.
But who is going to teach this? All the lawprofs who have created successful law practices raise your hands? Nobody. Well, all the business school profs who have created successful law practices raise your hands? Nobody. This could be a problem.
For as long as the debate has raged over what to teach in law school, there has been scant acknowledgement of two issues: first, that the world of theory and scholarship that lawprofs love more dearly than life itself isn't the world students bought into when the signed up. They came to be lawyers, not distractions from time better spent thinking deeply about how tenure can be assured.
Second, the integration of real world knowledge and skills, both legal and business, can peacefully coexist with theory and deep thoughts. Sure, it means that some of the really screwy scholarly stuff will have to go to make room for actual useful knowledge. The vessel is only so big, and once filled, there's no room for a bit of nasty nuts and bolts talk, even though that's what law students want and need.
This raises another problem, of course. Who will teach students about real life law as well as theory? Who will teach them business alongside philosophy? There aren't too many lawprofs whose experience outside the Ivory Tower enables them to do more than either make stuff up or read it from a book. That's not real life, folks.
And for the few who do have actual experience in the law, in business, in life, their scholarly brothers and sisters frown upon such banal experience. There is no support in academia for guys who use two syllable words when there are five syllable words available.
The locomotive toward "interdisciplinary" education for law students is one driven by academics, and only takes academics aboard. The very notion of isolationist purity of academic disciplines is a creation of scholarly vanity rather than utility. Academics see their specialization as a way to become better recognized as an expert, by focusing on one thing and nothing else. In the real world, no one gets to be so myopic. We may have favorite subjects, but we learn what we need to learn and use whatever we have in our arsenal.
Embrace breadth of knowledge. Learn to love economics and organizational behavior. Every bit of information we possess makes us better at what we do, or at least provides us with better chatter at cocktail parties (and there's nothing wrong with that). But the formality with which the scholars approach it, even the creepy use of yet another multi-syllable name for what they should have been teaching all along, and you've got to love Lipshaw's term, "metadisciplinarity," can't be good. It smacks of substituting one myopic vision for a newer version. Can't lawprofs just teach students what they need and want to know without creating yet the next educational morass?