Social sciences gain a foothold in the nation's law schools

How do women fare under no-fault divorce laws? Why do people pay more in a small-claims court in Maine than in other states? How are disputes resolved in small Turkish villages?

Such questions are grist for the mill of academic research on the workings of the legal system. Over the past two decades that mill has been churning out information and analysis at an ever-increasing rate.

But most of that research has not been done in law schools. It's been done elsewhere on campus - in the departments of economics, anthropology, sociology, history, political science, and psychology.

Slowly, but steadily, and not without some discussion, the social sciences are making their way into the law schools and having an impact on the training of lawyers.

In addition to professional training, many law schools now provide courses on the history of law, law and economics, or the sociology of law.

Some schools like the University of Wisconsin and the University of California at Berkeley are noted for a strong interest in the study of the legal system. Other schools, including Yale and Stanford, have added social scientists to their faculties.

In many schools the research is filtering into existing courses as more and more lawyers become interested in understanding the impact of their work, explained Stanton Wheeler, a professor of law and sociology at Yale.

Others are ''indifferent, if not hostile,'' according to Lawrence M. Friedman , a law professor at Stanford.

At issue is how much ''context'' the students should get with their training in the technical skills, he said.

''People disagree about the proper weight that should be given to the social sciences,'' said Professor Wheeler.

There is no organized resistance to including social science studies at law schools, Wheeler said. It is more a lack of interest or an unwillingness to make a financial commitment.

''Some look at it with a benign neglect,'' he said. ''It is not what they do.''

But Professors Friedman and Wheeler are among those who argue that law students need an exposure to the work of the social scientists. Both were early members of the Law and Society Association, an organization of about 1,300 members which encourages research on the legal system. They, and others, would like to see more law students being exposed to that research.

''It doesn't make you a better lawyer in terms of earning power,'' Friedman said. ''It does make you a better lawyer in terms of being aware of the social meaning and consequences of what you do.

''There are lawyers making $500,000 a year,'' he said, ''who wouldn't know a social science from a vegetable.''

It is important for lawyers to have that broader perspective, he added, because so many hold influential positions in society, including public office. Research on the legal system is being cited more and more in debates on public policy.

As society turns to the legislatures and the courts to fight discrimination, for example, lawmakers need to understand how laws affect people's behavior.

''This is a society that purports at least to right the wrongs ... through law,'' said Stewart Macauley of the University of Wisconsin and president-elect of the Law and Society Association. ''We use law for social engineering. So you have the simple question of how you make the wheels go round.''

''It is one of the tools you want to use if you want to grapple with some serious problems,'' said Wheeler.

Lawyers are using not only the research of social scientists, but also the tools, such as statistical surveys, according to Wheeler.

''They are more likely to see the possibility of doing an important study on behalf of a client,'' he said. ''They can talk statistics.''

There are some areas of law, such as discrimination suits, in which statistical information can't be avoided, he said. It is part of collecting evidence.

Studies on the reliability of eyewitnesses and on tax compliance have also been used more and more by lawyers building their cases, he said.

The amount of research being done on the legal system has grown with the social sciences and will probably continue, said Friedman.

''The strength and the importance of the legal system within society is so obvious that it is bound to attract attention,'' he said.

There is even a place for such seemingly esoteric work as the study on disputes in Turkish villages, he said, because someone may use it when looking for new ways to mediate disputes.

''It becomes one tiny stone in a mosaic,'' he said. ''Society as a whole needs this kind of basic research in order to understand social problems and to get a grip on our very large, massive, and important legal system.''

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