By Danielle Feinstein
The University of Chicago Law School has offered interdisciplinary courses and programs since founding the John M. Olin Program in law and economics more than 50 years ago.
From the program's inception, the law school instituted interdisciplinary programs in the areas of philosophy, history, international law and literature.
Dean Michael H. Schill, appointed to the law school this year from his position as dean of the University of California Los Angeles School of Law, said the interdisciplinary programs originated from a difference of opinion between a political science professor and the school's first dean, Joseph Henry Beale.
Beale was sent from Harvard Law School and favored the doctrinal education practiced at Harvard, Schill said. Beale's attempts were antagonistic to those of political science professor, Ernst Freund, and his desire for a scholarly focus on jurisprudence in the law school.
Schill marked the moment when the law school became a school of interdisciplinary programs as Beale's return to Harvard after his two-year term had concluded, and Freund's endurance and consequential solidification of jurisprudence.
One of Schill's primary objectives for the law school is to enhance the interdisciplinary programs.
In comparison to traditional ways of studying law, Schill said, society today is becoming "extraordinarily complicated and specialized. In order to have true insight into different substantive areas, you have to know the underlying disciplines."
Alison LaCroix, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, teaches courses in legal history, including federalism, constitutional law, federal jurisdiction and privacy.
LaCroix explained the importance of studying law in combination with history. "Chief lessons and historical facts are always complicated and very hard to translate from one historical moment to another. One thing that can be particularly helpful in law school is the light [the interdisciplinary program] sheds on legal doctrine."
When reviewing different Supreme Court decisions in cases that appear similar, it is tempting to reconcile those differences by looking at who the sitting justices were, LaCroix said.
But she believes that history tells people to look at when the case was decided, not only who decided the case, to reconcile the decisions. It is this chronological perspective that LaCroix deems a beneficial asset when studying law.
LaCroix had many opportunities for engagement in interdisciplinary programs during her education at Yale Law School.
"I think sometimes early in law school I might have thought that my interest in law and my interest in history were entirely separate, and I might need to pick one," she said. "But interdisciplinary programs in law school tells you you can combine them."
She hopes her students will reach this same understanding and acknowledge compatibility among their two passions.
The legal history program will be furthered with Laura Weinrib, a newly appointed faculty member starting at the University of Chicago in the spring of 2011. Weinrib was attracted to the law school by its "real commitment to rigorous academic discourse among and between the disciplines."
People from all over the university, including economists, philosophers and historians, join together for seminars and conferences or just lunch in the cafeteria to participate in conversations about law, Weinrib said.
As a faculty member at the law school, she aspires to educate future lawyers on the premise "that legal decisions are not made in a vacuum - that in any given case a lawyer can choose from a broad but bounded array of arguments."
Through a commitment to history, Weinrib hopes to "give students a sense of the breadth of possibilities that will be open to them, while alerting them to the historical constraints they, as lawyers, will inevitably face."
Martha Nussbaum is a long-standing faculty member of the law school as well as the philosophy department, and divinity school, and is an associate member of the classics department and political science department.
Nussbaum's courses include a course on emotions, feminist philosophy and literature, all of which, she noted, "lead to detecting hidden conceptions of society in many theories that people use on a day-to-day basis."
Nussbaum's multiple appointments throughout the University of Chicago illuminate the commitment to interdisciplinary education in the law school.
"That's one reason I decided not to go to Harvard in 2008," Nussbaum said. "It is much harder to do these interdisciplinary things there, or any other place, because there is much more bureaucracy, but here it is all quite seamless, and students from many different programs just come to class."
In the law and literature program, Nussbaum participates in teaching seminars titled "Greenberg Seminars," as well as participating in theatrical performances where students, faculty and even Supreme Court justices, such as Stephen Breyer, have performed.
In Greenberg Seminars, students can take a half-credit, informal course in either Nussbaum's or Judge Richard A. Posner's homes.
The seminars rely solely on discussion and examine a different literary and legal topic each year. Past topics included William Shakespeare, and gender, law and the British novel.
"Often, thinking about the way literary works depict legal situations will give us a deeper insight into the human meaning of the law. It is of great importance for future lawyers to not lose touch with the human meaning they are dealing with," Nussbaum said.
It is important not to bury oneself in the procedural aspects of law but, rather, to remember the ramifications law has in shaping a society, Nussbaum said. If we forget, it is as if "you are a skilled driver but you do not have a destination."
Brian Leiter, John P. Wilson professor of law and director of the Center for Law, Philosophy and Human Values, said philosophy teaches students to really analyze legal reasoning, to bring out the underlying assumptions about the nature of law.
Students may go in thinking a jurisprudence class will not be relevant to practicing law, but they leave the class understanding the different influences on judges and legal reasoning that explain why a judge rules a certain way, Leiter said.
These classes teach a refinement of analytical and dialectical skills, he said. "Analysis and argument are the bread and butter of a lot of what we do in law, whether in the classroom or the courtroom."
Alex Kolod, an associate in Kirkland & Ellis' New York office and alumna of the class of '09, worked with Nussbaum and Leiter when they participated in a Dutch television series on the ethics of the world financial crisis. The series consisted of discussions with students and faculty from various areas ranging from economics, philosophy, and corporate law.
Kolod remembered the unique experience as one in which people from a mixture of backgrounds united to discuss the state of the economy, with each person drawing on resources from a multitude of experiences and knowledge bases to add to the discussion.
This interdisciplinary experience made an impact on her that she believes will be valuable in her career. The regulations that will come out of the new Wall Street reform legislation will affect her firm's clients significantly, Kolod said.
"The perspective that I gained from listening to my fellow students, professors and philosophy grad students will help me look deeper into any similar issues that arise in my practice."
Lily Becker, a 2L, completed her first-year "elements" course at the law school - a class that served as a general introduction to the interdisciplinary study - this year. Becker reflected on her course with professor David A. Strauss as one that "gave me the perspective that law is an evolving discipline."
The law school should maintain interdisciplinary programs to continue providing law students with the opportunity to experience new modes of thinking that will benefit them throughout their futures, Nussbaum said.
Schill hopes to expand the interdisciplinary programs in the future by building an institute for law and economics as a part of the current Milton Friedman Institute and increasing the number of jointly appointed faculty. He hopes one day to see courses where students and professors from law, business and economics can join together, as well as see more students pursue joint degrees.
In an economy of severe unemployment, it is likely that some students will seek a law school education they believe will place them directly in employment, Schill said.
Schill predicted that some law schools would continue "focusing much more on immediately apparent skills, and other law schools would focus on more academic skills."
"My point is that it is wrong to think of interdisciplinary education as falling on either side of that divide," he said. "To be a good lawyer you have to understand and have insights from other disciplines."