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Improve socio-legal education

by Annie Bunting and Laura Gómez


Since its inception, the Law & Society Association has provided a space for exchange of ideas about law and society teaching. The LSA has attracted scholars from a wide variety of disciplines but also from a wide variety of institutions and programs. Some law and society faculty teach in elite law schools, others in small liberal arts colleges (without either a law school or a socio-legal degree program) and others in departments with justice studies or law and society programs. Graduate students are also trained in a wide variety of programs but few doctoral students are trained explicitly in law and society.

Recently, in North America, the terrain of university funding and enrolments has been shifting: we are in an era of contracting resources in higher education generally, and a multi-year running drop in applicants to U.S. law schools, in particular. There are widespread calls to shift the metrics of productivity and success in the educational context more broadly. While there is much talk of interdisciplinarity and internationalization at universities, the resources are not necessarily matching the rhetoric. What does this mean for law and society programs and courses? And how should the Association respond to the changes in higher education and challenges for law and society teaching?


(i) Institutional health of law and society programs and teaching: There is a sense of concern amongst LSA members about the health and sustainability of undergraduate legal studies programs. The Consortium of Undergraduate Law and Justice Programs (CULJP) was formed in 2003 and is separate from but related to LSA – a “sister organization” which normally meets the day before LSA’s annual conferences. CULJP serves as a clearinghouse for program development, job opportunities, and curricular innovations for their members (44 programs) and the general public. CULJP has been discussing the issue of institutional health amongst their members. CULJP also recently strengthened its ties with LSA under the presidency of Michael McCann. The LSA Undergraduate Program subcommittee surveyed the CULJP members and found that “steady state to growth rather than retrenchment best describes undergraduate programs in socio-legal studies”; this contradicts to some extent the anxieties produced by the UC Santa Barbara and NYU program closures and pressures on other programs across North America. There is certainly growth in criminal justice programs and growth north of the border with new PhD programs and law and society programs.

But what are we to make of coincidental program closures and lack of institutional support for law and society programs and teaching? What are the opportunities for collaborative teaching and curriculum developments? What are the innovations in pedagogy in our field? How are these ideas transferred and shared amongst law and society faculty? What role could the Association play in supporting program and curricular development?

(ii) Internationalization: There has always been a healthy number of international graduate students doing law and society research in North American programs. There has been an expansion of graduate programs in law schools over the past 15 years, as well as a growth in the number of international law students in LL.M. programs. Further, there is now increasing competition between schools for those international students. What is the impact of the participation of international students on both legal education and American law students? What impact, if any, is the migration of lawyers from non-Anglo-American traditions having on the curriculum and experience in law schools?  Is there any evidence of diversification and internationalization? Does the expansion of LL.M. programs have any implications for resources for interdisciplinary approaches to law and society teaching within the same universities?

When you then consider PhD programs in the field, the picture becomes more complex, with diverse programs in and outside law schools. (See the LSA Subcommittee on Graduate Programs report). We do not have statistics on the proportion of PhD class made up of foreign students but anecdotally there is a small proportion of international PhD students in North America. This number is likely growing, though not at the pace of foreign trained LL.Ms.

(iii) Graduate Education: The LSA Graduate Programs Subcommittee found that the joint JD/PhD programs are the most prevalent and oldest graduate programs producing law and society faculty in the United States. It is not clear, however, the authors state, that law and society scholarship is being taught, fostered and produced in the joint programs. There is a persistent risk of silos between law and other disciplines in joint degrees. The quality of law and society training seems to come down to individual supervisors and other intellectual communities available to socio-legal graduate students. When coupled with the recommendation from the subcommittee that graduate education needs to diversify, the question of program development, mentorship and the role of the LSA is crucial. How do we support and train the next generation of scholars? Where can interested graduate students look for law and society programs and opportunities?


In 2011-12, the then President of the Association, Michael McCann, struck two committees to examine challenges in education in law and society including program development and sustainability, curriculum development, and graduate training. The first was the “Undergraduate Program Committee” (chaired by Marjorie S. Zatz) and the second was the “Subcommittee on Graduate Programs” (chaired by Calvin Morrill); both committees reported to the LSA Executive in April 2012 and organized panels at the 2012 and 2013 LSA annual meetings. The LSA ought to continue to work closely with CULJP and ought to support a consortium of graduate programs in law and society. Further, the LSA should try to provide more opportunities for exchange of ideas about curriculum and innovative teaching in our field.

We welcome your comments on these challenges and suggestions.

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