Monthly Archives: February 2016

Empirical Law in Canada: Lessons for U.S.

On Feb. 18-19, 2016, Osgoode Hall Law School at York University in Toronto held a marvelous interdisciplinary law conference for graduate law students – i.e., graduate students in training to teach law.  (What a terrific idea, right? Actually training law-professors-to-be in their chosen craft!) (Yes, we know about the joint JD-PhD programs around the country, and Yale’s new program, but – Canada is way ahead of us, as I’ll explain.)

The conference was appropriately titled:  “Choose Your Own Adventure:  Exploring Law and Change through Interdisciplinary Research, New Legal Realism, and Other Perspectives.”  “Break Down Disciplinary Boundaries” — the conference program suggested — and “Explore Alternative Methodologies.”  You could “Engage with Other Scholars” while you would also “Build Professional Skills.”  (Wow, Skills and Scholarship can fit together, with the “skills” component embracing everything from teaching skills to research skills to practice skills!  Imagine that!  A world where law professors can be trained in all aspects of their profession – and those aspects could actually fit together.)  You begin to see why there might be some “lessons for U.S.” in here.

To top things off, many of Canada’s law-profs-in-training have considerable practice experience.  In fact, some of them are practicing law while they train to be law professors.  Well-versed in practicing law, they also get to learn deeper ways to think about what happens in practice (at many levels of law) as part of the research they do for their graduate law degrees.  Someone working on environmental law, for example, might be able to explore interdisciplinary avenues for redefining the way we conceptualize natural resources like water.  Or attorneys contemplating how new codes for civil procedure might actually work in the real world can take a look at what affects citizens’ willingness to adapt to these changes.  (Sociolegal researchers in the U.S. examining legal consciousness would have something to contribute here, as would those who’ve studied how people’s conceptualizations of law affect their actual behavior.  We could also ask what happens in private as compared with state-provided mediation or in mediation as compared with litigation, across a variety of kinds of cases/litigants/courts.)  All of a sudden, whole worlds of social science and social science theory become relevant to legal scholarship and practice  — and under this system, people actually seem to believe that training in both law and other disciplines might be useful.

The Canadian graduate law students I heard at the conference were fluent in legal doctrine and procedure, in theory ranging from Dworkin to Derrida, in quantitative and qualitative empirical approaches, in the nitty-gritty of law practice (and were also thoughtful about teaching practice skills).  Many of these attorney-researcher-teachers will have the analytical and methodological ability to question and study deep assumptions that underlie law, so that efforts to re-think and reform law can become more than skin-deep.   And when they train their own students to practice law, those future lawyers will have a much broader world of expertise upon which to build.

Imagine, for example, a conference where a quantitative study of civil needs among middle-income citizens could speak comfortably to the same audience as did a qualitative study of how legal educators might approach teaching issues of access to justice.  Or where someone studying IP law and fashion design drew on the latest thinking about how to define “design” from disciplines outside of law, to inform the very outdated concepts still enshrined in law.  Or where a study of law teachers dug deeply into how casebooks and syllabi and teaching methods did or did not intersect with law teachers’ aspirations for their teaching and their students.  Interview studies, behavioral law and economics, interpretive research on differences between indigenous oral traditions and writing-based Anglo-American conceptions of evidence, statistical studies, jurisprudence, international relations regime theory – and all mingling in the fresh discussions of a new generation that seemed less concerned with verbal contests for superior position in an argument than they did with “getting it right,” “understanding it better,” finding fresh solutions for entrenched legal problems.

The conference also drew young scholars from other countries, and reported on research from a broad variety of locales.  For example, one researcher’s fieldwork in Australia uncovered the limitations of statutory law in protecting indigenous land rights, despite much triumphal rhetoric to the contrary.  The sense of a broader vision – of legal understandings that seek to rise above parochialism – was aided by listening to presentations in a language other than English (French).  It was also aided by the way the conference began with a reminder of indigenous peoples’ relationship with the site on which the gathering was being held:

“We recognize that many Indigenous nations have longstanding relationships with the territories upon which our campuses are located. We acknowledge our presence on the traditional territories of the Mississsaugas of New Credit, the Huron-Wendat, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, and the Métis Nation of Ontario.”  See http://www.osgoode.yorku.ca/about/

These sorts of challenges to parochial understandings – including those of law — fit well with the conference’s wider themes and purposes.  Perhaps certain legal systems’ frameworks – their legal ways of posing questions and seeking answers – are not the only ways to envision law (or of posing legal questions or seeking answers to those questions).  In her opening address, Professor Dayna Scott of Osgoode Hall urged her audience to dare taking a wider lens – to embrace an exploding set of methods that might take them beyond the comforts of doctrine.  (Although, as she clearly would acknowledge, these students take account of doctrine as well – putting them squarely within New Legal Realism’s call to study both law-in-books and law-in-action.)   Like many in the NLR movement, she urged that students take not only methods but also theories from other fields as they enlarged their vision of law.  An openness to multiple empiricisms, she pointed out, would permit them a deeper understanding of law’s relation to the “real world.”

And indeed, as I listened to the deeper accounts of law emerging from the work of these young scholars, I saw a bright future not only for forms of new legal realist work, but for those working within and at the mercy of law.  I caught glimpses of a model for interdisciplinary legal work where multiple methods and theories and disciplines could be brought together in service of better understandings – and practice – of law, without needless bickering over who is better or more important.  The Canadian legal academy may not have this entirely put together yet, but I’d say they’re a fair bit further down the track than are most of their counterparts south of their border.

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