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Dean Michael Fitts on Cross-Disciplinary Legal Studies at Penn

March 01, 2011

Integrating Knowledge, Advancing the Profession

Michael A. Fitts, Dean and Bernard G. Segal Professor of Law

“Today, in an increasingly complex and globalized world, society’s problems do not come neatly packaged,” according to Michael A. Fitts, dean of Penn Law. “Legal problems are almost always more than just legal problems.”

As the boundaries of traditional legal practice and scholarship blur, whether across such fields as business or environment or human rights, Penn Law’s vision has become clearer: a cross-disciplinary approach to legal education is critical to preparing law graduates who can navigate this increasingly complex world as leaders and influential decision-makers.
“As I began my tenure as dean [in 2000], I saw that a cross-disciplinary legal education is so important because the profession is rapidly changing,” said Fitts. “Today and in the coming years great lawyers must have skills and insights in the various fields in which their clients operate.”
Whether in business, in public interest and advocacy, or in government, Fitts explained, “The world needs lawyers who understand the law in its various contexts, and who are able to integrate disparate areas of expertise to solve real-world problems.”
Such examples, he observed, range from a bioethics policy advisor who must understand the science of stem cell research before she can make recommendations about what is legal and ethical; to a firm’s counsel dealing with cross-border cooperation in financial insolvency cases; to attorneys helping clients understand how computer-based crimes may challenge traditional concepts of the law.

Fitts has led Penn Law in a systematic effort to bring a cross-disciplinary perspective into the legal curriculum itself. Law School faculty have developed courses, seminars, and clinics that draw together multiple fields, and frequently co-teach courses with faculty from other schools and departments throughout the University. The majority of faculty members hold joint degrees, and many hold joint appointments with other professional schools at Penn.
“The cross-disciplinary perspective pervades Penn Law,” Fitts said. “Together with our culture of community and our outstanding faculty, it’s become a defining feature of who we are.”
Indeed, a distinguishing feature of Penn Law, Fitts noted, is that “We are the only top law school with as many elite, law-related professional schools both as proximate to each other on campus and as intellectually connected here at Penn. That is, Penn Law’s academic program is integrated with other professional schools at Penn that are preeminent in the fields in which lawyers are now and will be engaged: whether in business, medicine, science and technology, human rights, or education, as examples.”
This physical proximity to Penn’s other renowned departments and schools also provides a tremendous advantage when bringing together faculty and students to explore contemporary issues and problems. Moreover, Penn Law has designed its programs to capitalize on its strategic advantage of being connected to Penn’s other world-leading schools. For example, Penn Law integrated its academic program with the University’s calendar so that law students could seamlessly take classes across campus to complement their Law School courses.

Penn Law students have embraced this innovative cross-disciplinary approach to their legal education; for example, in the 2010-2011 academic year, 45 percent of 2L and 3L students took a total of 689 classes outside the Law School (students can take up to four courses outside the Law School as part of their JD).
Fitts, who was recently reappointed to an additional five-year term through 2015, has overseen the creation and expansion of a cross-disciplinary faculty and programs at Penn Law, unrivaled among leading law schools, including:
  • 30 joint and dual degree and certificate programs offered in partnership with schools across the University – including the JD/MBA with Wharton, the first-of-its-kind joint degree offered by elite business and law schools.
  • A wide offering of interdisciplinary courses. For 2010-11 over 44 percent of Penn Law’s upper-level seminars and courses are cross-disciplinary, and 45 percent of 2L and 3L students took courses at other Penn professional schools and departments.
  • Clinical programs within the law curriculum ranging from child advocacy, international law, legislative affairs, mediation, public interest, to the Supreme Court, that engage students directly in real-world casework and provide outstanding professional development opportunities.
  • Centers, institutes, and programs bringing together faculty and practitioners to conduct research and host lectures and symposia examining key challenges in the law and related fields, such as business and economics, environment, health, regulation, and technology and intellectual property.
  • Faculty who are leaders in the law and related fields; in addition to the JD 70 percent of Penn Law faculty have advanced degrees, and approximately 50 percent of faculty have secondary appointments or affiliations with other Penn professional schools, departments, or centers.
In addition, Fitts said, “Penn Law remains a small, collegial environment where people’s ideas, backgrounds, and fields of study intersect intellectually and professionally. From the curriculum to the faculty to the physical space at the Law School, we encourage thoughtful interaction and inquiry, so our students can learn to skillfully navigate across the law and related disciplines as they prepare for their careers.”

“I chose Penn Law because I was interested in the Law School’s cross-disciplinary curriculum, and I was excited about the opportunity to gain hands-on experience through the Law School’s clinical programs, particularly the Legislative Clinic,” said Sharifa Anderson L’ 10, Legal Honors attorney at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “Penn Law’s integrated approach made it easy to pursue a certificate in Business and Public Policy at the Wharton School, and provided an opportunity to engage in dialogue with students and faculty from diverse backgrounds in law, economics, business, government, and urban policy across Penn’s campus.”

In addition, Anderson said, “From housing to education to transportation to healthcare, dialogue both inside and outside of the classroom shaped my thinking about the implications of law and policy for various stakeholders and communities. As a Law School intern with the Senate Judiciary Committee, I felt prepared to make a meaningful contribution to the legislative process. And as a new attorney at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, my cross-disciplinary education has given me a sense of confidence in being able to provide guidance on a wide range of legal and policy questions that affect the housing market.”
Likewise, a desire for a cross-disciplinary legal education “was one of the main reasons I chose Penn Law,” said Melissa Snyder JD/MBE ‘09, an associate in Duane Morris’ health law practice group in Philadelphia. “Penn is one of the few top schools with an outstanding joint degree program in the law and bioethics, and I was able to complete my joint degree in three years - the integration between my JD and my Master’s was seamless.”
Snyder explained: “Health care is a complex, highly regulated field. Cross-disciplinary knowledge between law and health care gives me the ability as a lawyer to develop a more comprehensive outlook and explore creative legal approaches and solutions to the complex problems our clients face. In my classes outside the Law School I was able to interact with the kinds of professionals from other disciplines who will one day be clients – in my case, physicians, nurses, hospital administrators, and other health care professionals – and hear their perspectives and concerns about their fields. I was able to combine my skills, such as legal reasoning and developing an argument, with writing and advocacy in health care and bioethics. It gave me the best of both worlds, in my education and now in my practice.”
For more information about Penn Law’s cross-disciplinary approach, please visit