Rediscovering law school
Is law a true academic discipline? With some exceptions, law lacks an internationally accepted basis of scholarly communication and interaction.
Law schools are fascinating institutions. For centuries, the common law countries managed without university jurists. In England, where law school is a latecomer to universities, one can still be called to the bar with a degree in classics or history, followed by a one-year conversion course and in-house training at the Inns of Court. Would we accept such a path for becoming a medical doctor?
In Europe and elsewhere, law is considered an academic discipline, aiming at educating both academics and future practitioners. US law schools – which follow on from three or four years of college – by contrast train their students for the legal profession: law is a professional discipline in the US. Nevertheless students run most scientific legal journals, including the initial culling of manuscripts, the evaluation of their content, the decision as to whether to publish and the final editing. Ever thought of students running Nature or the British Medical Journal?
For these and many other reasons the question often arises: is law a true academic discipline, both in terms of teaching and research? With some exceptions, law lacks an internationally accepted basis of scholarly communication and interaction. The predominantly held view of lawyers is that they are not real academics.
The reputation of legal research is an old topic which had already been raised by a German scholar, before the first American law schools even emerged and long before legal research in the UK was considered to be a true university discipline. In Berlin, in 1847, Julius von Kirchmann gave a lecture to the elite jurists of the Berlin Law Society, on – what he called – the worthlessness of jurisprudence as a science (Über die Wertlosigkeit der Jurisprudenz als Wissenschaft): even a partial revision of the law can turn whole law libraries into collections of waste paper. The root of most evil in the German courts was to be found in the law schools, Kirchmann argued. The malign influence of jurisprudence (black-letter law) had to be stopped, if only by dismissing the parasitic legal scholars from their universities.
That’s nothing new under the sun. In the eyes of some American scholars, today’s American legal scholarship seems to be nearing a really deep depression. In a most entertaining discussion between two well-reputed American legal scholars – Pierre Schlag and Richard A. Posner – Schlag speaks of legal academics ‘argu[ing] among themselves (… ) in a kind of mock common law sort of way’, ‘spam-jurisprudence’ as well as ‘case-law journalism’, and in the end ‘nothing happening’. A dozen good scholars would do for the whole of the United States. In Leiden, meanwhile, a young PhD candidate defended his superb PhD which was graded cum laude just last week. Hardly spam research, I would say.
Worldwide, in teaching as well as in research, law schools are in search of their mission. My research, therefore, is about law schools, ranging from the US and the UK to the continent of Europe, as well as the Far East, Latin-America and Africa. It is hard to tell how many law students and law schools there are worldwide. My guess would be: around three and a half million, in many thousands of law schools. These students, their professors, as well as the great law schools they belong to, deserve a book.