Brian Leiter's Law School Reports

Brian Leiter
University of Chicago Law School

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Monday, October 17, 2005

Scholarly Rankings and What Goes on in the Classroom

A graduate of Cornell Law School now practicing with a leading law firm in New York City writes:

I was reading the Law School Reports blog (which is great, by the way), and I saw that you mentioned that NYU did not provide a better education in social scientific approaches to law than Cornell.  I graduated from Cornell last spring.  To be honest, I don't think Cornell provides any education in social scientific approaches to law at all.  The only time I was exposed to Cornell's social scientific knowledgebase was during a brief presentation
to admitted students in the spring prior to matriculation.  I understand that Cornell's faculty may have a strong interest in this approach to law but I do not think that this translates--in any way--to an education in this approach for Cornell students.  Cornell Law courses simply do not contain any social science content whatsoever.

I ran this question by a number of graduates and no one in their three years at Cornell had any expose to the social scientific approach in class.  In fact, they were uniformly shocked that we had a reputation for providing such an education to students.  And one of these students was a research assistant to Professor Eisenburg so, presumably, he would have had some familiarity with this element of the curriculum if it existed. I am not saying that I didn't like Cornell or was provided with an inferior education there but, trust me, there is no social science in the curriculum.

It is surprising that a school whose scholarly profile in law and the social sciences is clearly so strong would not have that profile reflected more clearly in the curriculum.  I wonder whether other Cornell faculty, students, or alumni have different perspectives?

UPDATE:  A Cornell faculty member writes:

Brian, to say I was surprised by the post from our alum understates--that is, assuming I understood the thrust of his (or her) post.  My immediate reaction was that this semester--literally, right now--my colleagues teach various courses that directly (and quite literally) involve social science (broadly defined) and, indeed, empirical methodologies.  Additional curricular offerings are scheduled for future semesters.  Such courses have been taught in varying levels every year that I have been on this faculty.  Insofar as our faculty is especially noted for this scholarly strength it naturally follows that our course offerings express this dimension.   Moreover, in every course I teach I always make a point to draw on and reference the relevant social science evidence and scholarship where appropriate to inform class discussion.  Finally, what I describe are simply my quick reactions to the post.  I'm pretty sure there's more at CLS, especially after one broadens the construction of "social science" to encompass more than the hard-core empirical.  If our alum was suggesting that CLS' entire curriculum is not oriented around a social scientific perspective, however, he (or she) is certainly correct.  After all, empiricism is merely a scholarly tool and one perspective, it is not a "religion" or "philosophy" that would fundamentally shape the presentation of any standard law school course, at least here anyway.

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What? They don't read Brown v. Board of Education?

Posted by: Dean C. Rowan | Oct 17, 2005 8:18:19 AM

Could it be that social science was recently implemented in the curriculum? This might explain the disparity between current course offerings and the lawyer's experience.

Posted by: Arpan | Oct 17, 2005 10:40:20 AM

Or... could it be that students don't really know what it means to integrate social science into law teaching, and therefore don't recognize it when they see it? (And to think I've been speaking in prose all this time!)

Posted by: Lawprof | Oct 17, 2005 3:53:59 PM

Hmm--echoing lawprof's comment. Is it possible that the Cornell students don't realize that the faculty are using social science methods? Reminds me of the person who muses that everyone has an accent except her. And so maybe when the Cornell faculty are teaching social scientific analysis, the students just think that's typical legal analysis. By way of illustration (or perhaps by way of illustration of the reverse), some years ago one of my colleagues mentioned to me that he'd heard from some of my students that I was teaching a heavy dose of law and economics. I found that rather surprising; I was only teaching the (what to me seemed limited) L&E in the casebook. Even that limited amount was out-of-keeping with the (then) norms here and so it seemed unusual to students. Perhaps if students hear about empirical method in all their classes, they will not even recognize it as unusual or noteworthy.

Posted by: Alfred Brophy | Oct 19, 2005 7:02:45 AM

The comment is odd, but strangely flattering. Our esteeemd alum is overlooking the pervasive influence of economics (a highly influential social science) on torts, corporations, and antitrust (to name but a few). The student may have failed to notice the influence of the psychology of judgment and chioce on my own environmental law and administrative law courses, but they were there, embedded within the analysis and not ghettoized on "social science day" or some such thing. A field has successfully permeated law when its influences is so commonplace that one cannot imagine a course without it. Economics has acheived that in many courses at Cornell (as elsewhere), and the other social sciences permeate our cirriculum in their own ways, to a lesser extent.

I assume that what our alum means is there si no course that is widely taken at Cornell such as quantitative methods or the like that would enable a practicing lawyer to rely on and critique the use of social science in a complex lawsuit. True enough.

ALSO, I would resist mingling the influence of "social science" and "empirical methods". They overlap extensively, but do not mean the same thing at all. For example, a practitioner who needs to assess a mass of public health studies of the efefcts of various toxins in teh workplace would benefit from understanding empirical studies and quantitative methods, but that would not be social science.

-Jeff Rachlinski

PS. Brian, I thought you resisted anonymous postings?

Posted by: Jeff Rachlinski | Oct 20, 2005 8:52:51 AM

Cornell 1L here. Admittedly, I've been studying the law for a mere nine weeks, so I'm in no position to evaluate anything. This said, I feel as if social science is touched upon in all of my classes. From attempting to place economic values on procedural safeguards to the effects of race in jury verdicts, there's not a 1L class where the social sciences haven't shown up for at least a cameo.

Posted by: Mike | Nov 4, 2005 7:52:49 PM

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