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Monday, July 11, 2016

Should junior legal academics write a book? (and if so, when?)

As a junior academic, I found Chris Walker's recent Junior Law Prawfs FAQs Series here at Prawfs to be quite useful and informative. I don't intend to add an exhaustive series of posts on this topic this month, but I do hope to contribute a little to that rich conversation, as I think it's worth continuing.

First of all, I want to ask about the place of books in legal academy - specifically, should junior (or aspiring) law profs seriously consider writing a book? And, if so, when? How should such a decision be approached and where should a junior prof be thinking about submitting their work? (Brian Leiter has previously blogged about ranking the prestige of presses in law, but there are also other such lists for other disciplines - often with some overlap.) Books obviously consume a large amount of research and writing time, and could potentially distract an author from publishing as much in journals. However, many legal academics write books (though quite a few authors often incorporate a number of previously published law review articles as chapters, which does help keep the book from completely consuming the author's output during the writing period). As a point of reference, I have just signed a book contract myself, and I know others who are proposing and writing books at the moment, both inside and outside of legal academia. The process, and the decision-making that up to my decision to initiate it, was both difficult as well as quite encouraging, and the prospect of the book itself is quite exciting.

I've noticed what I suspect might be two approaches to writing books among legal authors. First, those that started as book-length projects from the outset, with select chapters sometimes also serving as the basis for separate law review articles published in the months or year before the full book. Second, I would guess that other books only became books after an author had published quite a bit on a topic and then, subsequently, decided to incorporate his or her scholarship together into a longer, more extended discussion. I suspect both of these approaches have their pros and cons.

I also wonder if scholars with PhDs approach questions about books differently than those without PhDs? I am now working at a law school in the Netherlands, and I quickly noticed that here (as apparently in other parts of Europe), law PhD Candidates are often expected (or required) to publish their dissertation in book format. (In fact, in a recent PhD defense in our department, the committee consistently referred to the PhD Candidate's dissertation as a book (e.g., "In your your book you argue that..." or "I really enjoyed reading your book, but..."). In my own PhD program, there was no expectation (or even pressure) to publish my dissertation as a book - even when it was a holistic body of research (that is, not a collection of 3-4 published articles, as some often are in certain disciplines).

So, a set of questions:

  • should junior legal academics be thinking seriously about book writing?
  • What considerations would you suggest need to be taken into account?
  • If a person decides to pursue a book project, are their times within the typical model of professional development (e.g. pre-tenure, first couple of years as a faculty member, etc.) when a book does or does not make sense?

Based on my own experience, I think a book makes sense for me at the moment because the book project builds on (but is not) my PhD dissertation, and also brings together legal research and empirical findings from a single multi-year and multi-method study. A series of articles based on the work is also a possibility, but it doesn't allow me to tell the bigger story that is emerging from my data and analysis in a holistic and integrated way. I plan to publish a couple of journal articles along the way, based on chapters, but these will only provide small glimpses into the larger results I hope to present in the book. As for timing, publishing a book after establishing yourself as an authority in a field obviously lends a book some heightened credibility, but publishing a book earlier might also really help establish that authority in the first place. (Chris's earlier post "How Do I Become a Voice in My Field?" and subsequent posts are also relevant here.) In my case, my research project is wrapping up now and I didn't want to sit on writing or publishing because it might be better timed at some possible point in the future, and I hope to move onto other projects anyways. I'm currently a post-doc and not yet in a continuing or tenure-track faculty position - which also means I have fewer teaching and administrative responsibilities to distract me from research and writing now than I will (hopefully) have in the coming years, which also makes this time an attractive option.

But, I'd be interested to hear what other have to say...

Posted by Bryce C. Newell on July 11, 2016 at 11:30 AM in Books, Jr. Law Prawfs FAQ | Permalink


My sentiment has always been that junior faculty should be emphatically discouraged from writing books. The reasons are many. I'll limit myself to the argument that the opportunity costs are too big, both in terms of tenure and intellectual development.

Tenure: many faculty members will value a successful book project about as highly as one good article -- and the signals of quality (e.g., the quality of the publisher) will be less clear to them than would be the case for an article. Even if senior colleagues credit a book as multiple articles, the junior author is greatly reducing her opportunities to diversify project risk. If the book gets finished and lands with a great publisher to much public applause, fantastic. If not, and you spent 3 years on it, you're fired. If one or two articles are lukewarm or end up in a drawer, no big deal.

Intellectual development. My view is that new faculty should have a least a little fox in them. Writing a book is usually an exercise in intensive hedghog-ery. New researchers should, by virtue of writing a series of projects (even if connected), be forced to read a wider set of background literature. It generates new ideas, makes them more well-rounded, and again has diversification benefits: maybe it turns out that project #2 is the one that will really make you passionate about scholarship. Finding out after year 2 that the book's topic is pure drudgery to you is probably miserable.

All of these points hold, though perhaps to a lesser extent, for the PhD entry-level faculty member who already has a draft book / dissertation. How much more time should be invested in making it into a publishable manuscript? Unless the PhD discipline faculty will vote / write tenure letters, I would say very little, for the reasons I've already given. Making a dissertation a book is not always a 6-month affair. I've seen a whisker-close tenure vote for a colleague who never managed to quite get that dissertation into print by tenure time, and the hit to other measures of productivity was obvious on the c.v.

No doubt others will have contrary views, and these are mostly aspects peculiar to U.S. law schools.

Posted by: BDG | Jul 11, 2016 11:42:18 AM

Good set of questions. My own view is generally positive. A book was part of my own tenure file, and I was blessed with a very supportive faculty and didn't face any of the problems described by Brian in his paragraph 1. But probably this judgment should be made on a school-specific basis. Are there valued members of the faculty who have published and are continuing to publish books? Or are most of the people who publish primarily article publishers? If the former, then I might feel more comfortable devoting some of my pre-tenure clock to a book, particularly if I could draw from an existing reservoir of research and scholarship for the bones of the book.

I also disagree with Brian's paragraph 2. I don't think it's necessarily true that people who write books are hedge hogs. They in fact may write about many different sorts of things. More writing may lead to more writing, on different subjects and of different kinds. Less to less. Book writing might also help precisely to create the sorts of cross-disciplinary bridges that a fox might prize--methodological bridges, for example, that might have been difficult to build as readily without the book scholarship.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Jul 11, 2016 3:55:23 PM

I agree with Brian's concerns, although I am more encouraging about it. My basic view is if you try it, you either better make sure you get it done or you better be the type of person who can write some articles at the same time (whether book chapters or something else). How I would advise a colleague may depend on the colleague.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jul 11, 2016 4:01:04 PM

Every candidate and every school is different, so generalizing is hard. If you have to generalize, though, I think BDG's advice represents the common wisdom and should probably be taken as the default answer.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jul 11, 2016 10:43:38 PM

One other concern I would note based on this post, a book that comes out of a dissertation, with scattered articles, may leave a general skeptic like me wondering what the author has for the future. I am all for publishing a dissertation but the few cases I have seen where really only the dissertation has been published in various forms have generally led to a modest publishing career.

Posted by: MLS | Jul 12, 2016 9:31:40 AM

I share the notion that the opportunity cost of a book project may be too great for juniors. I decided to wait on book projects until I had a body of published articles. Then, when a likely cluster of papers started to look like a book, I tied the pieces together. I'm in the middle of a similar project now. Whether I know how to write a book at this stage in my career is open to doubt, but (speaking only for myself) I was much less well equipped to tackle such a project when I was on the tenure track.

Posted by: Jim Pfander | Jul 12, 2016 9:18:09 PM

Thank you all for engaging. I appreciate the comments (and I suspect they may be helpful to others who may read this now or at some point in the future as they consider a book project).

BDG: I was struck by your statement that, in the eyes of many faculty members, a book is only weighed about as heavily as a single good article. Do others find this to be the case in other law schools? This is an interesting observation - and this reality (if it's broadly true in legal academia) strikes me as quite different from the expectations that many PhDs might have coming from humanities or social science disciplines (where a book is often a needed or very highly valued part of the tenure package) who might be thinking about trying for a law teaching job. Thus, this seems to be an important observation for those who would consider writing a book pre-tenure, as the opportunity and time-related costs could be quite substantial.

I also agree with the sentiments that writing a book should not come to the exclusion of all other writing (i.e. law review articles not part of the book/dissertation), as keeping a consistent publication history over time is obviously important. And, of course, only publishing parts of a PhD dissertation and nothing else can be a clear signal of impending scholarly problems.

Posted by: Bryce Newell | Jul 13, 2016 3:13:15 AM

Since you asked about the weight typically (or often) given to books, let me offer my perspective. Most law school tenure files are thin, two or three articles and maybe some other pluses in the file, so a book can't really count for more than an article, unless a faculty was willing to only accept a book, which I suspect at most schools, would not be the case. In other disciplines, tenure files are likely to contain substantially more scholarship (though not in all disciplines) and, unlike law, some other disciplines expect/require a book, which also makes it easier to weigh in the balance since all files are likely to include a book.

Posted by: MLS | Jul 14, 2016 10:34:54 PM

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