The Study of Philosophy in Law Schools and Top Law Schools

The Study of Philosophy in Law Schools and Top Law Schools

By Brian Leiter

Over the years, many readers of this Report–notably students wavering between graduate and professional school–have expressed interest in having information about opportunities for philosophical study in law schools. There are, of course, a number of similarities between the study of law and philosophy: lawyers and philosophers both hone their argumentative and dialectical skills (indeed, law is one of the few professions other than philosophy in which the analysis, construction and refutation of arguments is a central part of professional life); both are concerned with clarity and logical rigor; and many issues in law– affirmative action, abortion, privacy rights, punishment, contractual promises– have important philosophical dimensions. Legal philosophy has been a thriving area of debate in law schools ever since H.L.A. Hart’s The Concept of Law (1961); and issues of moral and political philosophy have been discussed both in connection with legal philosophy, as well as constitutional law, torts, and contracts. There is a large legal literature on the philosophical foundations of criminal law (addressing, for example, issues about free will and moral responsibility, and the justification of punishment); and, in the last thirty years, there has been a growing interest in law schools in philosophy of language, metaethics and Continental philosophy.

Unfortunately, a great deal of what passes for “philosophy” in law schools– even at some excellent law schools– is sophomoric. Students thinking of getting a legal education, but who want to keep their philosophical interests alive (or perhaps even pursue a career in legal academia), must pick their schools carefully.

Many publications rank law schools; none do it competently, and most produce rankings that are regarded as bad jokes by legal scholars and lawyers. (The most notorious are the U.S. News rankings, though their reputational surveys provide some useful information. For criticisms of the U.S. News “methodology,”; and an attempt to develop a ranking system based on more conventional academic criteria, see For a recent poll of American law faculty evaluating schools in terms of scholarly excellence see: 40-us- law-faculties- in-terms- of- scholarly-excellence- 2017-edition.html).

For purposes of students thinking about teaching careers, the most important factor is the scholarly distinction of the faculty. There are some 200 accredited law schools in the U.S., but the top law schools in terms of faculty quality are (in alphabetical order) the following: Columbia University; Cornell University; Duke University; Georgetown University; Harvard University; New York University; Northwestern University; Stanford University; University of California, Berkeley; University of California, Los Angeles; University of Chicago; University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; University of Pennsylvania; University of Southern California; University of Texas, Austin; University of Virginia; Vanderbilt University; and Yale University; on the cusp is the relatively new law school at the University of California at Irvine. Graduates of these schools also dominate the job market for law teachers, though graduates of Yale, Harvard, Chicago, and Stanford have a disproportionately large share of that market as compared to the others—though Berkeley, Michigan, NYU, Columbia, Virginia, and Penn all place well (and Northwestern JD/PhDs in various disciplines also perform competitively).

Students should bear in mind that intellectual standards in law schools are not the same as in philosophy departments. A good deal of work at many top law schools would be considered sub-standard by scholars in the cognate disciplines, including philosophy. Nonetheless, there is a reasonable correlation between prestige of the law school and intellectual caliber of the faculty, but philosophy majors have repeatedly told me about their surprise and disappointment at some of what goes on in the classroom at leading law schools. This is why it pays for students with a serious interest in philosophy to investigate law schools with some care.

Those top law schools in the United States offering the most for students with philosophical interests are (in alphabetical order): Berkeley, Chicago, Columbia, Cornell, Georgetown, Michigan, NYU, Penn, Virginia, UCLA, and Yale; in my judgment, Chicago, NYU, Penn, UCLA and Yale dominate at present (though Columbia still enjoys the half-time presence of the preeminent figure in the field, Joseph Raz, now in his late 70s). In Canada, the top choice is the University of Toronto, though Osgoode Hall/York University in Toronto cooperates with McMaster University (which does not have a law school) to form another strong cluster of law & philosophy faculty. (Queen’s University in Kingston is also very good.) In the United Kingdom, where law is an undergraduate degree, the most attractive choice is Oxford University, though many of the other leading law faculties—especially Cambridge University, King’s College, London, University College London, University of Warwick, and University of Surrey—have strong law “philosophy” profiles as well.

Students with strong philosophy interests considering law school are obviously well-advised to weigh many other factors besides the opportunities for continued philosophical study and reflection. Since the program at most law schools, however, does include considerable opportunity for elective courses, philosophically-minded students may want to consider their philosophical opportunities.

Many universities now advertise joint J.D./Ph.D. programs (some schools which don’t officially “advertise” them will permit students to pursue a J.D. and Ph.D. simultaneously anyway: Berkeley and Chicago are examples). Students are well-advised to investigate how such “joint” programs work in reality, and whether there is any real coordination of faculty and interests between the Law School and Philosophy Department. Such courses of study are most valuable for those thinking about a career in legal academia, where it is now very common for law professors to have graduate training in another discipline. Most important for a career in legal academia, though, are graduating from one of the elite law schools, having published writing, and faculty recommendations. Students with academic ambitions and philosophical interests that lend themselves to legal study may want to consider legal academia: compared to philosophy academia, salaries are much higher, tenure-tracks shorter and less daunting, research support better, and teaching loads more reasonable (two courses per term is the norm;
three courses per year is also not too uncommon).

Given Oxford University’s continued preeminence in legal philosophy, one possibility also worth exploring is earning the DPhil at Oxford and earning a law degree from a top U.S. school.

Other law schools that offer particularly good opportunities for philosophical study in the Law School are: Boston University; Fordham University; Georgia State University; University of Illinois; University of Minnesota; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; and University of San Diego. Georgia State offers the strongest JD/MA program in the country after BU (BU is a stronger law school overall, though in moral, political and legal philosophy Georgia State is competitive or perhaps better).