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Wednesday, January 04, 2017

AALS Annual Meeting Reform Suggestions, Part II: Take Attendance

Following up on yesterday's post on the AALS annual meeting, there are three more specific suggestions I would like to make in the remaining posts. The first has to do with attendance at the AALS annual meeting, and specifically the question whether a number of attendees are "lobby sitters" who do not actually attend much if any of the meeting programs; whether law schools, especially in a time of budget shortages, really ought to be paying for that activity; and what might be done about it. 

It is impossible for any person attending to figure out how many law professors at AALS attend many of the programs, some of them, very few of them (or the annual AALS luncheon only), or none at all. It is true, and I think anyone who has ever been to AALS will agree, that it seems as if many people attending AALS just hang out in the main hotel lobby, stirring only to sign up for random prize drawings at the publishers' booths and go out to dinner with friends, without attending many or any actual programs. It's impossible to say: the faces in the lobby change, and of course they may leave to attend many programs and then return to the lobby. But it is at least a possibility that some professors attend the annual meeting largely, if not entirely, to get a (law-school-subsidized) trip to sit in a hotel lobby in SF, NY, or DC, a (subsidized) chance to see far-flung friends, and a nice (subsidized) dinner with them. That's not what the annual meeting is for. Nor is it what law school budgets, including discretionary faculty "research" or "professional development" funds, are for. 

I would recommend the following modest proposal: Require people to sign in at every program meeting, and carefully compile and record the attendance data. Requiring everyone to sign in before entering a program meeting, and compiling the data, will require some greater expenditure of resources, but it's not immense or impossible. It may not stop people from leaving the room shortly after signing in, but so be it.

Follow up on this by sending to the deans, and only to the deans, data about their own professors' attendance, noting the name of each faculty member from that school and the number of programs for which he or she actually signed in. Leave it to individual deans, in consultation with their faculty or not depending on individual school policies, to decide how to respond. Maybe it will turn out that all the seeming lobby-sitters actually do attend various programs, and maybe not. Maybe the dean and/or faculty at a given law school will decide that it is a waste of that school's budget to subsidize a trip that consists largely or exclusively of dinner with friends in some distant metropolis. Maybe they will decide that the law school can and should refuse to subsidize any AALS trip where the attendee fails to attend fewer than three, five, or more programs. Maybe they will decide to leave the use of such funds purely within the discretion of individual faculty, even if the funds are used unwisely. The students at those schools, or the central administrations of those universities, or state legislators where public universities are involved, may be also curious about those data and ask to see them, and react accordingly depending on the answers (or the refusal to give any answers).

The results might be unpleasant, but they don't strike me as unreasonable. In particular, it doesn't seem unreasonable to me for deans to question whether their budget is best spent subsidizing dinner-with-friends junkets. Nor does it seem unreasonable for students and other law school funders to ask the same questions. At the least, such a policy would certainly help us to learn more about actual attendance practices by individual law professors at the annual meeting. 

A couple of anticipatory responses to questions or objections after the jump.

A note or two about some possible comments or questions. (I field-tested these posts on Facebook before posting them here and got some interesting responses, incidentally. I'm grateful to those "friends" who responded.) It may be argued--it has been argued--that what happens at those friendly dinners is more intellectually interesting than anything that takes place at the actual meeting program. It may be also be argued that those informal meetings and dinners are good for professional advancement and so on, perhaps as distinct from and perhaps inextricably linked to intellectual development. I have a few answers to these points. The first is that I'm happy to elicit discussion of these issues and hardly expect my proposal to meet with complete agreement. Indeed, I look forward to agreement, disagreement, and anything in between. 

More directly, even if these points are true, I'm not sure they merit full subsidy of lobby-sitters' attendance at the annual meeting by law schools, especially when they are accompanied by the extra expense of actually registering for the conference. (Many professors have complained, fairly or not, that the registration fee for AALS is pretty substantial.) Interesting intellectual discussions with far-flung friends may be more enjoyable and fruitful at a nice restaurant in New York, but can be held more inexpensively at conferences elsewhere, by email, or via Skype. In particular, one would expect more intellectually fruitful discussions to be held at subject-specific conferences, and "mere" dinner-with-friends gossip and discussion to be the nature of meet-ups at a general conference. Professional individual advancement of certain kinds (planning conferences or joint book projects, for instance) can be valuable for law schools. But, again, I'm not sure that justifies paying a substantial registration and travel fee, absent any attendance at the actual meeting. Other kinds of professional advancement--trying to make a lateral move, say--can also ultimately be good for law schools, but there's still less reason to accept without meaningful discussion the proposition that law schools should subsidize it, especially by paying for someone's registration fee at a conference that he or she doesn't attend. If that's all you're there for, you can always pay on your own dime to travel to the same city and stay at a cheaper hotel nearby, without registering for the meeting or asking the law school to pay for anything. (Or you can ask the law school to subsidize that kind of trip, and see what happens.)

In any event, it would be interesting to find out what people are doing at the annual meeting, and discuss openly how to shape our funding policies accordingly. Taking and reporting on attendance will facilitate that. And if the data suggest that the dinner-with-friends discussions are more interesting or valuable than the program meetings themselves, then: 1) law schools (and their constituents, such as tuition-paying law students) can have a useful discussion about how to respond to that; and 2) the attendant embarrassment will certainly be a strong incentive for the AALS to plan better programs.

It may also be noted that there are other conferences held in concert with the AALS annual meeting, which the AALS has gradually treated with a more welcoming spirit in recent years. The most prominent is the Federalist Society meeting, which is very good, but I have also attended at least one fine session of the Lumen Christi meeting. Registration fees for those meetings are low or non-existent, and I am informed that conference rates are available at the AALS hotels at least for those who register for the FedSoc meeting. I have no problem with law schools subsidizing a trip to attend one of those conferences, even--or, rather, especially--if the person seeking the subsidy doesn't register for the AALS annual meeting. They're serious conferences in themselves, and signing up for one and not the other would save the law school paying for the trip considerable expense. The interesting question arises whether, if law schools stopped subsidizing AALS trips absent a showing of actual attendance at some number of program meetings, the lobby-sitters and dinner-with-friends types, if they exist, would simply sign up for and not attend one of those conferences. I think we can burn that bridge when we come to it. But I'm really not sure how that possibility would play out. Some professors might be shameless about accepting a subsidized trip to not attend the AALS meeting, but refuse to register to not attend the Federalist Society meeting, for strange political reasons. If people stopped attending AALS but continued taking advantage of subsidies for FedSoc or some other simultaneous meeting, AALS might respond in various ways, including more vigorous competition and a more attractive (and perhaps more politically diverse) annual meeting. And it is possible that the changes in law school funding policies that might result from all this, or the change in relationship between the AALS meeting and the satellite conferences, would lead the satellite conferences to start charging a registration fee, taking attendance, or something else.      

It's worth observing that at least one or two sections have come up with creative ways to combine the networking and friend-meeting aspect of the AALS annual meeting with actual programming content. The environmental law section, for example, plans annual field trips that seem quite popular. I haven't attended one of those field trips, so I can't speak to their merits. But they do indicate that there are productive ways to enable people, at least within a particular field, to network and see friends while encouraging participation in section events rather than mere lobby-sitting.  

Of course, it's possible that there is little or no "lobby-sitting" behavior at AALS. And if there is, some might argue that it's nobody's business but their own how they choose to spend their time and their professional development funds. Requiring people to sign in for program meetings and collecting and analyzing the data would help us to answer the first question. And I welcome the more open and transparent discussion that would result from the latter argument, if anyone cares to make it. Whether it's anyone's business or not depends in part on the specifics of individual law schools' policies regarding professional development funding. But I think it's hard to argue that how individual law professors spend law school money that is earmarked for professional development purposes is no one else's business. It's not just a salary bump, or at least it sure ain't supposed to be.

Two final points on this subject. First, given my view, which I offered in the first post, that learned societies do or should mean something, and that there is or ought to be some value in having annual gatherings of a learned profession, I do think there is something important about discussing all this in the context of the AALS annual meeting specifically, and I do hope that the result of such a discussion is a policy or social norm that encourages actual participation in the meeting by attendees, rather than mere lobby-sitting. If a change in policies also encourages better and more attractive programming at the annual meeting, so much the better. And if it results in a few people having to spend their own money on what is essentially a personal trip, or staying home instead, I will not weep overmuch at that prospect.

Second, it is fair to note that individual school policies concerning paying for attendance at the AALS annual meeting have already changed at many schools. For instance, many schools that used to automatically and separately subsidize attendance at the AALS annual meeting now require professors to seek reimbursement for this trip out of their general professional development funds, forcing them to decide whether to spend those funds on AALS or on something else. (If there are law professors out there who only "attend" AALS, or SEALS, but without actually attending any program meetings, and who face no difficult allocation decisions because they never attend conferences in their own fields and have no other professional activities or needs on which to spend their professional development funds, well, that raises another set of questions about those individuals, if they exist.) Surely that is mostly the result of general budgetary concerns, but I suspect it also has to do with implicit judgments about the value of the annual meeting. Having more and better data about attendance might shape these policy changes further. Refusing to subsidize AALS trips by lobby-sitters might encourage the AALS to improve its programming further. (In fairness, I argued in my first post that complaints about the content of the meeting are overstated.) That would surely be a good thing, and it might lead law schools to return to their earlier policies, which allow and encourage attendance at what is, after all, the annual meeting of the legal academic profession's learned society.      

Again, I welcome comments--hopefully temperate, but critical comments and questions are certainly welcome. Enjoy your day at the conference!




Posted by Paul Horwitz on January 4, 2017 at 10:28 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


Interesting proposal, Paul. My sense is that laws schools that allow/encourage attendance to AALS already know that a number of their profs are not attending lots of panels. Many deans either view this as okay or don't want to deal with backlash from cracking down on it.

Rather than asking AALS to compile attendance at every panel (incurring the cost and hassle), deans who care about this issue can simply ask their professors to submit a post-conference report indicating which panels they attended. This requirement alone will dissuade some folks from attending at all, and it will nudge those that do go to the conference to attend a few more panels than they might otherwise. Taking attendance suggests mistrust that professors will honestly report their conduct to their own deans. I don't believe many professors would submit false reports to their deans.

On your general series of questions, you might also consider an underlying presupposition of both posts--that AALS is a learned society (not a trade association). Unlike other learned societies, the members of AALS are individual law schools, not law professors. The history and actions of AALS (raised in your first post) suggest that it is not (or not only or mainly) a learned society.

Posted by: Brian Tamanaha | Jan 4, 2017 12:19:14 PM

The last paragraph of Brian's comment is really the key here. AALS is really designed around the interests of law school administrators, rather than those of scholars or (heaven forbid, students). So many panels are non-substantive that many faculty view attending them as a waste of time.

The key problem with the substantive panels is that organizers often fill them with friends or persons the organizers wish to impress, rather than panelists who actually have something new to say. Too few of the panels are filled from calls for papers. As a result, most organizers trot out the same old "celebrity" professors who once had fresh and important insights but now aren't particularly interested or motivated to come up with something new for the panel.

Posted by: Rob Anderson | Jan 4, 2017 2:57:45 PM

I appreciate both of your comments, and I suspect I'm going to have to write a separate and unplanned post on the learned society vs. something else question. Another writer off-line made the same point about membership structure. I'm not sure that should be dispositive of what the organization does--and if it is, I'm not sure why it should hold an annual meeting for professors, let alone midyear meetings and other meetings on particular substantive areas--but I take the point and want to think about it further.

Rob, on the second paragraph of your comment, while I'm not sure I agree with all its premises--or, at least, I have tried not to behave that way when planning section programs, and I believe program planners are encouraged not to--I do want to say: Wait for Post Number Three! It addresses the "celebrity" question. Thank you for the segue!

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jan 4, 2017 4:09:31 PM

This is a great post. In my experience, many, many professors don't attend any aspect of the conference, but instead use this opportunity as a free trip to an exciting city prior to returning to the classroom. I think an attendance option would be great idea upon which a law school could condition travel funds.

Posted by: Anon | Jan 4, 2017 4:13:22 PM

Thanks, Paul! And in the interest of full disclosure I have benefited from the "friends" invitations in the past, so I suppose I'm a hypocrite. Anon may have a good point too. The level of engagement in the conference may be inversely proportional to the tourist attractiveness of the host city in January.

Posted by: Rob Anderson | Jan 4, 2017 5:28:45 PM

I'm not attending AALS this year, but the mandatory attendance idea misses the point that informal interactions (the hallway/lobby conversations) can be professionally valuable. It's a nice way to catch up, get advice, learn what others are doing, etc. AALS is a nice time to do this, especially for interactions with colleagues who aren't in my field (and therefore I'm not likely to see them at focused subject matter conferences).

The conference report idea may be a better way to capture a conference's value, and weed out those who are more interested in sight-seeing than engaging.

Posted by: Amy | Jan 4, 2017 9:23:30 PM

I appreciate the comment. Let me say with respect that I don't think I "miss the point," inasmuch as I acknowledge and agree that informal interactions can indeed be professionally valuable. Especially but not exclusively in a time of straitened budgets, however, I'm not sure they justify law school subsidy in and of themselves. (To be clear, I'm not suggesting you think they do.)

The attendance proposal is one way to bring that question to the surface. I am open to others. One not mentioned in the posts and comments so far is to require signing-in at sessions for two or three years, not for purposes of sending information to deans but so the AALS can compile and report to the world at large (anonymous) data about attendance at sessions versus registration at the conference.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jan 5, 2017 9:30:01 AM

As someone who has attended both AALS and SEALS and has attended both panels and sat in the lobby with the express purpose of trying to meet people as they come by, I have found that the "lobby sitting" - or, as one could more generously characterize it, professional networking - is in fact *more* valuable for the attendee and the law school, than attending panels. In fact, I would argue that the point of any professional conference, whether it is for law professors, lawyers, engineers, or other professionals *is* the networking aspect, and the panels, as such, are a good way to get one's name out in the industry of choice, and perhaps, as an attendee, pick up one or two ideas that may come in handy later.

Attending a panel, even if it is of a presented paper in your field, is perhaps valuable for the presenter to get feedback, but it is often a way of advertising that you have written a paper. This could just as easily be done by sending around on a listserv and soliciting probably better, deeper feedback from those that actually read the paper rather than just hear you discuss it for 10-20 minutes to get the highlights. For panels without papers, the panels become a roundtable discussion with the audience as, generally, passive participants who are trying to follow the conversation from the outside.

Professional networking, on the other hand, is a chance to form the deeper connections that lead to joint papers, cross school projects, increased cross citations, and invitations for talks, and many other professional opportunities. The chance of this happening in the five minutes after a panel when everyone is milling about is almost nil. *Particularly* for junior faculty, who are still trying to make a name in the field, the professional networking portions of the conference, where you can get a colleague at your school or in your field to introduce you to many of their colleagues, either in the lobby or at dinners, are far more valuable than being in the audience at a panel in your field. It may be valuable to be on a panel, but with AALS panels anecdotally being populated by more senior or well known faculty, it may not be even possible to be on a panel without doing the fair amount of professional networking that is required to get invited.

Finally, how many panels, especially at AALS, are really relevant to one's field? The sections generally have one panel each, and some combine with others. Unless you are a prolific cross disciplinary scholar, it is not that likely that you can even find a panel in each session that would meet your requirement of a learned society meeting that you could participate in meaningfully. I would say this is by design, so that the conference, as all conferences should, allow that time for professional networking. That this occurs in the lobby, or at dinners, or anywhere other than in a panel session, strikes me as the major value of any conference.

Now, this doesn't mean that a reporting requirement to a dean about what you did at the conference - how many people you met, what conversations you had, projects you discussed, etc. - would not be appropriate. It would at least act as a deterrent to those that go to the conference and just see the sights in the city. But it would be fairly myopic of any law school dean to require only panel attendance as the criteria for a successful conference attendee.

Posted by: anonandoff | Jan 9, 2017 2:07:05 PM

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