The Influence of the Olin Programs in Law and Economics at Yale Law School and Otherwise:

In The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement, Steven Teles discusses the success of the John M. Olin Foundation programs in helping to establish law and economics as a force to be reckoned with in American law schools, especially at the elite schools.

Undoubtedly, the Olin programs were a great success on many levels. Teles notes, however, that as law and economics became more "mainstream" it also began to take on certain mainstream characteristics that are unlikely to be pleasing to those who ran the Olin Foundation: like academic economics, it has come to be increasingly dominated by moderate liberals, not the free marketeers preferred by Olin, and, like academic economics, it has become increasingly mathematically oriented and therefore less directly of interest to noneconomists in the legal academy who don't "speak the language."

Nevertheless, when I read work from other disciplines, or attend interdisciplinary conferences, like the annual American Society for Legal History conference, the effect of the spread of economic sensibilities on legal academia is rather apparent. Historians and others not affiliated with law schools are far less likely to be sensitive to economic reasoning, including public choice reasoning, than are law professors with similar interests, and far more likely to throw out vague phrases with obvious economic connotations without defining their terms.

To put it another way, I suspect that at most respectable American law schools, a speaker presenting a paper on 19th century labor reform who talks about "exploited workers" will be asked to define what he means by "exploited," if he didn't already anticipate that question in his remarks. From my experience, in other disciplines not only would such a speaker not likely be asked to define the term, the speaker wouldn't be able to provide a rigorous explanation if asked, and indeed had never considered what "exploited" means beyond the idea that any poor worker can be deemed exploited in a quasi-Marxian sense. Similarly, in law schools, unlike in history departments, a speaker who presents a paper about the historical triumph of some seeming good cause will likely be asked whether there is an alternative "public choice story" casting some doubt on the public-spiritedness of the relevant campaign. When I was a new professor in the mid-90s and attended ASLH conferences with my George Mason affiliation displayed on my name tag, I occasionally got comments from older attendees along the lines of "George Mason! Hmmph! I hope you [law and economics] people aren't planning to do to legal history what you've done to other subject areas."

Teles also points out that when Olin funded programs at elite law schools, it had very limited control over how its money was used. Olin officers, however, figured that economics was inherently more "conservative" and "scientific" than the vast majority of what was going on in law schools, so diverting resources to law and economics would be most likely be beneficial to its cause.

While that was likely true, in some cases it's hard to see that Olin got much bang for its buck. For example, Teles quotes a 2000 memo from the Foundation expressing great satisfaction over the success of its fellowship program at Yale Law School, noting, for example, that "sixty-one former JMO [John M. Olin] Fellows hold professorial positions at American law schools." Teles suggests that "some of this perceived success with students was simply a function of attaching the Olin brand to future lawyers who would have ended up succeeding regardless."

That, in my experience, is an understatement. My understanding is that at other law schools, Olin Fellows received special financial assistance, attended special seminars, and otherwise received benefits that other students did not, thus tempting some of the most promising students into exploring, or retaining an interest in, law and economics. At least when I went to Yale, this wasn't true. Yale had a strict policy that the Law School gave only need-based financial aid. So, Olin money was used to provide financial aid to students who would have otherwise received financial support directly from the law school. The result was no net additional aid to Olin Fellows, and the freeing up of law school resources for what Olin would likely have thought to be generally nefarious purposes.

Moreover, I was an Olin Fellow, and I don't recall any other particular benefits to, or requirements of, the fellowship, other than an annual invitation to attend a reception at one of the co-directors' houses. There was a weekly law and economics workshop that students could attend as a one-credit course, but my recollection is that this workshop was open to all students, and was not mandatory for Olin Fellows.

That's not to say that Olin had no effect on the Yale Law School. It funded the important faculty program run by George Priest (and co-directed by Susan Rose-Ackerman when I was there), and also provided stipends for Summer research for students interested in law and economics. And perhaps the tens of thousands of dollars Olin annually spent on student scholarships was necessary to persuade skeptics on the law faculty to tolerate the presence of the general Olin program.

In any event, it's true that having the Olin fellowship on one's c.v. provided a signal to potential future employers, including judges and hiring committees, that one had an interest in, and perhaps a talent for, law and economics. But it's unlikely that the fellowships themselves significantly changed the career interests or trajectories of their recipients. I was somewhat surprised to discover that the staff at Olin apparently believed otherwise.