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Monday, September 29, 2008

Advice for Beginning Scholars

The other day, I asked Jeff Lipshaw to look over the paper of a person in his area who was going on the market after a few years in practice. I thought the feedback Jeff offered was the sort that could fruitfully apply to a number of aspiring scholars. In the comments, I invite you to offer your own thoughts. Here it is, with Jeff's permission, somewhat redacted:

1.  As a matter of style, use footnotes, not endnotes.  Scholars will want to see the basis for statements you are making.  It's a pain to go to endnotes.  Eugene Volokh has a nice template for creating a document that looks like a law review article.
2.  The overwhelming burden is to demonstrate to law professors that you think and write like a law professor, not a practitioner.  Be careful, therefore, about not falling into a practitioner's trap of using case cites to support empirical assertions.  If you are making an empirical assertion, one needs empirical data, or one needs to weaken the point, like "courts are still struggling with the issue." 
3.  Remember your audience.  It's not judges or practitioners.  It's other law professors.  Pure doctrinal work nowadays [is a risk] without sufficient theoretical or social science orientation for a hiring committee to say "whoa, now there's a practitioner who really gets it."  You really want to center your discussion in the scholarly debate on this issue, bringing in the cases to support your scholarly contribution.  Think of it this way:  how would you make this a piece that [some big dog in the area] wants to read and respond to?  A good thesis would state for example not that there should be uniformity and consistency in the law, but rather WHY the lack of uniformity and consistency in this area is a social problem, who in the academy has addressed it (or if you are the first, why that is), and why you are making a scholarly contribution.  If you have experience as a practitioner that informs your theoretical views, don't be afraid to assert it, even as "casual empiricism." [But be sure to know the limits of your method and and its opportunties.]

What I would emphasize is point number 3. Unless you're already a professor at Yale Law School, where the soft expectation is to create a literature rather than advance it, many good articles intervene in ongoing academic debates. Additionally, having courts as interlocutors (or your target audience) is a generally risky strategy compared to having other academics who have weighed in on an issue; it's especially useful to pick a debate where leaders have already made some claims and you want to show what's missing or overlooked in those accounts as a springboard for advancing your take. Of course, that advice does not apply to everybody. But it is probably worth your consideration; my sense, moreover, is that I suspect it's an important way to signal to law review editors that you are somehow advancing the discussion. Of course, I'd be curious to hear what others have to say about this topic.

Posted by Administrators on September 29, 2008 at 02:57 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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"Eugene Volokh has a nice template for creating a document that looks like a law review article."

I wonder, could I be cheeky and ask if you have a link to that?

Also, must just say that I and lots of other folks too I think, hate endnotes in books as well as in articles.
Just read the Omri Ben-Shahar edited very interesting 2007 book on boilerplate, with all the notes made effectively inaccessible in 22 pages at end of book = very considerable subtraction from the user experience.

Posted by: Geoff | Sep 29, 2008 5:35:46 PM

I appreciate this post. I like the substance of Point 3. Pressure to write like seasoned scholars sometimes prompts beginning scholars to forgo the opportunity to say something meaningful on a subject that they have special insight on due to personal experience. I am starting to think that we have to start with things that we know well, and that mean something to us personally, before moving on to complex, transdimensional arguments.

Posted by: Kimberly Alderman | Sep 29, 2008 5:46:22 PM

My advice would be that a topic can never be too narrow, but it can easily be too broad. I've seen more than a few people take on too much in an article and end up abandoning it, spending considerably more time on it than they intended, or writing something that is too scattershot. Conversely, I've never seen anyone take on a topic that ended up being too narrow to support a scholarly article. Indeed, when people end up with a "short" article based upon their topic being narrow, it typically means that they spend less time on the article than they intended, and the article often gets placed well as law reviews end up looking for shorter articles to fill the back of their books.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Sep 29, 2008 6:13:36 PM

Prof. Markel, thanks for the post.

Geoff, http://www.law.ucla.edu/volokh/writing/article.dot

Posted by: anonymous | Sep 30, 2008 7:24:12 AM

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