The Changing Face of the Law Professor

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For Nesson, some of the empirical approaches of today’s law professors are often  “just boring” and “irrelevant.”

“Now they argue from data and think that this is going to be interesting,” said Nesson. “You go to a workshop where someone is delivering a paper, and you wonder, why would you spend your time working at this level of detail on this topic and who can you get to listen to it...It tends to lose me.”

"We can't turn law schools into graduate school for the study of law," Law School professor David B. Wilkins '77 said.

Others fear that the influence of Ph.Ds has made classes less practical, shifting the law school’s education away from its primary goal of professional training.

“We can’t turn law schools into graduate school for the study of law,” Law School professor David B. Wilkins ’77 said. “Most of the people who graduate from law school are going to be lawyers, or at least practice law for a period of time, and therefore we need professors who understand that dimension as well.”

Despite this fear, Wilkins credited the shift with bringing a more robust, interdisciplinary approach to legal problems.

“I think this has been a very important and very good trend in many ways if we think that legal problems aren’t just independently legal problems but are connected to economic efficiency or political institutions and how they operate our culture,” he said. “If that’s right, then we do need people who have the training to think critically about these issues.”

For Alan M. Dershowitz, who taught at the Law School for 50 years before retiring last December,  both types of professors are necessary to give students the best possible experience.

“We have to have a balance of people who can teach future lawyers to do what they will be doing as well as philosophers and people with academic backgrounds,” he said. “I think the best teachers are those who have both practical experience and a good base in theory, but I think we need to strike a balance between the Ph.D.s and the practitioners.”

To focus on the practical aspects of law, Dershowitz himself refrained from using hypothetical examples in his own classrooms, instead electing to only use real cases.

“In my own life, I’ve tried to bring my theory into the courtroom and my practice into the classroom, and that’s a combination that’s necessary at the Law School,” said Dershowitz, who defended a number of high profile cases during his career, including the murder trial of football star O.J. Simpson.

As law schools continue to search for this balance, they must remain true to their mission of preparing students to practice law, Dershowitz said.

“We are after all a professional school, and we perform a service to the profession and to the country by turning out superb lawyers, and superb lawyers have to be able to integrate theory and practice,” he said.

—Staff writer Tyler S. Olkowski can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @OlkowskiTyler.

—Staff writer Dev A. Patel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @dev_a_patel.