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Law, Letters, and Society

Justice John Paul Stevens at the University of Chicago
Former Supreme Court Justice of the United States John Paul Stevens at a fall 2011 discussion co-sponsered by the Law, Letters, and Society Program at the University.

This interdisciplinary program subscribes to the idea that law is a tool of social organization and control that is best understood by studying both its rhetorical artifacts (letters) and the empirical consequences of its application (society). Courses are led by faculty members from the Law School as well as such departments as Anthropology, History, and Classics. Students have access to the 600,000-volume D’Angelo Law Library, one of the nation’s leading centers of legal scholarship. After completing introductory work in legal reasoning, students take additional courses in law and society, plus other courses that support related topics, areas, skills, or concerns. Majors produce two substantial research papers during their junior and senior years.

This major is not open to transfer students, and has a competitive application process in the student’s second year.

The Introductory Course must precede all other course work in the major, because it establishes the intellectual moorings of the program. The importance of the Introductory Course lies not in its content (indeed, its precise focus and scope may be different from time to time) but on its approach to the nature of law. In 2010–11, for example, the Introductory Course was Legal Reasoning, a study, based primarily on cases, of the classic conventions of legal argument in the Anglo-American legal system. In other years, the Introductory Course might be Roman Law or Greek Law, Medieval Law, a text-based course on ancient legal philosophy, or a comparison of modern legal categories and policies with those of former societies and cultures. The objective is not so much to establish a historical foundation for modern studies as to demonstrate that legal systems are culturally rooted; that urgent, present concerns may obscure important characteristics of legal ideas and behavior; and that many recurrent themes in Western legal thought are shaped or driven by both common and uncommon features. Unlike many legal studies programs that attempt to orient study of the law in primarily contemporary debates, usually in the field of American constitutional law, the program seeks to organize its exploration of law as a system rather than as a forum or an instrument.