Last year, my colleague Elie Mystal opined as follows: “Any lawyer who calls himself ‘doctor,’ like a Ph.D., should get punched in the mouth.” Given the self-aggrandizing nature of a lawyer taking on the additional title of “doctor,” I can’t say I disagree with him (with all due respect to the efforts on Facebook to get lawyers referred to as doctors).

But what if lawyers — more specifically, aspiring law professors — actually got Ph.D. degrees in law? That’s what will soon be happening at Yale Law School. The school just announced a new “Ph.D. in Law” program, aimed at aspiring law professors.

How will this program work? And is it a good idea? I reached out to a number of prominent law professors, all graduates of YLS themselves, for thoughts on their alma mater’s plan to grant a new degree….

Yale Law’s “Ph.D. in Law” program is designed to be a three-year course of study for individuals who already have their J.D. degrees and who want to teach law. The program page on the law school website explains:

In their first two semesters, Ph.D. students will take coursework to acquire the background and research skills they need to complete a dissertation in their field of interest. After their first year, students will take qualifying examinations to test the literacies and skills they have acquired. During their second year, students will develop a dissertation prospectus and begin work on a dissertation. The dissertation may take the form of either three law review articles or a book-length manuscript and will make up a portfolio of writing that students can take with them on the job market Ph.D. students will receive the full support of Yale Law School’s Law Teaching program, which has had remarkable success in placing graduates in tenure-track positions at law schools.

Room 127: Doctors in training?

YLS will start accepting applications for its Ph.D. program this fall, and the first class of doctoral candidates will start up in New Haven in fall 2013. As noted in the school’s press release, students in the program “will be entitled to a waiver of the cost of tuition and will receive a stipend to cover their living expenses” — thanks in part to generous support from the Mellon Foundation and from Meridee Moore, a 1983 graduate of Yale Law who founded Watershed Asset Management LLC.

So at least nobody will be emerging from this program saddled with six figures of (additional) educational debt. That’s some very good news. And Ph.D. candidates get health insurance too.

What’s the justification for the new program? Again, from the press release:

“In the past few decades, legal scholarship has matured as an academic discipline,” said Dean Robert Post ’77. “Because the level of the scholarship expected of entry-level law professors has risen quite dramatically, increasing numbers of law professors now pursue Ph.D.’s in allied disciplines like economics, history, philosophy, or political science. Because such disciplines train students in standards and questions that are different from those of the law, the natural next step for the legal academy is to create our own Ph.D. program that can focus on the questions and practices of the law itself. Students obtaining a Ph.D. in law may, of course, engage in interdisciplinary studies, but their work will be anchored in the framework of legal scholarship.”

The release goes on to note that Yale Law “already is the most important institution in the United States for the education of future law professors.” Despite its small size, YLS produces about 10 percent of U.S. law professors (including the deans of eight of the top ten law schools).

So that’s how the Ph.D. in Law program will work. Is it a wise idea, for either students or for Yale Law School? I reached out to a number of prominent law professors for their perspectives….


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