A student writes with a variation on a question I have gotten from others over the years:
I'm coming to the end of my undergraduate career and am, naturally, thinking about my next destination. Being a philosophy major, I've developed a strong interest in legal philosophy. I've also always had one eye set on law school. My question is simple: what special advantage does a legal education give to someone who is interested in a career in legal philosophy? If the options are graduate work in legal philosophy in a philosophy department or law school (with the intention of either doing a combined degree or a philosophy degree afterwards), other things being equal, is the latter more advisable? I ask this especially in light of the heavy debt that one must incur should she choose to attend law school.
I realize that most of the heavyweights in legal philosophy are law school-educated, so I don't doubt that there is significant merit in receiving a legal education. But I would nevertheless appreciate it if the (important?) role legal education plays (in terms of specific skills or knowledge) in being able to do legal philosophy is clearly spelled out.
Certainly one can get a very good education in legal philosophy in a handful of PhD programs (or via the DPhil in Law at Oxford, for example), and without going to law school. Many substantial contributors to legal philosophy in the past fifty years had only the PhD in philosophy (Joel Feinberg and Gerald Postema are obvious examples). Some who work in legal philosophy earned the PhD and also spent a year studying in a law school for an M.S.L. degree (examples are Jules Coleman and Arthur Ripstein). So given the time and the cost, why get a JD in addition to a PhD?
I can think of two main considerations that favor getting both degrees, one practical/professional, one intellectual.
First, with the JD, as well as the PhD, one is also eligible for teaching positions in law schools. There are pure PhDs teaching in law schools, but in all cases (e.g., Nagel at NYU, Nussbaum at Chicago), they were appointed to the law faculties well into their careers and after having established substantial reputations. While a small handful of law schools (e.g., Penn and Northwestern) have begun hiring junior faculty with only the PhD in certain social science fields, this seems to be driven mainly by the demand for scholars who do emipirical work on the legal system. Given that law schools will hire legal philosophers, but only if they have the JD, someone who wants that option should also earn the law degree.
But why want that option? (I wrote a bit about this a few years ago--see esp. the last couple of paragraphs here.) There are the obvious practical/professional benefits: higher salaries, more research support, better teaching loads, shorter tenure tracks. There is also an intellectual benefit, or so it seems to me: one can do more with the subject if one is teaching it to students who know the law (consider an analogous case: how much philosophy of physics can one meaningful teach to students who don't know any physics?). That was not a benefit I fully appreciated until I began teaching the subject to law students. It is certainly true that the majority of JD/PhDs during the time I've been teaching have chosen to enter law teaching (with some notable exceptions, of course, like Stefan Sciaraffa at McMaster and Hanoch Sheinman at Rice).
Second, there is one important, but not overriding, intellectual reason to get the JD as well as the PhD: namely, understanding how lawyers really think, and how the legal system really operates, is not something one can pick up from PhD study only. (One really ought to practice law for the same reason, since there's a limit to how much of this one learns in law school.) My own philosophical work on American Legal Realism would not have been possible without the background of a legal education and some law practice. But anyone working on the philosophy of particular substantive areas of law--for example, criminal law or torts--will be greatly helped by formal legal education. It is probably not an accident that most of the leading writers in philosophy of criminal law and torts (for example, Stephen Perry, Michael S. Moore, Mitchell Berman, George Fletcher, among others) are trained as lawyers.
On the subject of cost, it is worth noting that there are also JD/PhD programs that offer funding for both parts of the degree. To be sure, admission tends to be highly competitive, and, unfortunately for aspiring philosophers, some of the schools that offer such funding (like Harvard and Stanford) are pretty thin on the philosophy of law. But there are schools, like NYU and Penn and UCLA, which do provide funding for the joint degree that might be quite attractive for an aspiring legal philosopher (though bear in mind that NYU and Penn have better track records on their alums getting law teaching jobs than UCLA). Finally, of course, there is the option of doing the degrees at different institutions. Law schools offer a lot of merit aid to highly qualified candidates, and someone with the PhD, or having done significant graduate work, may well be in a competitive position for such aid on the JD side. Finally, since starting salaries in law schools range from 80-160K these days (depending on the caliber of the school and the region of the country--and with the bulk of the jobs in the 110-120K range), even someone in debt from the JD side of a JD/PhD should be in a position to service student loans.
UPDATE: A reader points out, correctly, that most top law schools have "loan forgiveness" for those who go into less renumerative careers, which might well include a JD/PhD who went into philosophy teaching--but one would need to investigate the terms of the loan forgiveness program at a law school carefully.