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Monday, January 16, 2017

AALS as Trade Association vs. Learned Society, and Whether or How it Matters

This is my last post, God willing, on the AALS annual meeting. In my first post, I argued, in a nutshell, that the AALS is the American legal academy's learned society; that this is a reason to welcome and defend it against its harsher critics; that the AALS or individual executives, treating the organization more as a kind of trade association than a learned society, "have sometimes been too willing to cast themselves in the role of defenders of and advocates for law schools and legal education, rather than academicizing these questions and treating them as subjects for dispassionate and disinterested study"; and that this reflected itself this year in the annual meeting theme, "Why Law Matters," which a) assumed the answer to a genuine question and b) focused in substantial part not on why law matters, but on why American legal education and law schools matter. I did my best to display some sympathy and understanding and to recognize some of the organizational dynamics that push it in this direction, but I was still critical. 

In response, a couple of posters here and elsewhere, and one commenter on my post, pushed back on the assumption that the AALS is a learned society rather than a trade association. Mark Tushnet wrote at Balkinization that unlike most academic learned societies, the AALS is organized by law schools rather than by law professors, and said that "[t]he AALS's structure means that it almost necessarily must be something like a trade association for law schools--perhaps with something like a learned society attached to it once a year." "There is in fact," he said strikingly, "no 'learned society' for legal academics." Given that, Tushnet argued, "it's actually something of an achievement that the AALS's annual program has become as intellectually substantial as it is now." Here at Prawfsblawg, Dan Rodriguez offers a short post worth reading in its entirety. Here's a substantial chunk of the post:

[The AALS] is an association of law schools, not an association of law professors. Always has been. Perhaps there is an important place in the academy for an organization of law professors (other academic professions have such associations), but that is not the mandate, the purpose, or the function of the AALS....Prof. Mark Tushnet got us nicely riled up many years ago when he set out as the theme of his presidency, the idea of the AALS as a learned society. Whatever power this had as a normative prescription, and as an exhortation to improve the academic programming of the annual meeting and other AALS conferences, it created a trap to which Paul and other distinguished law profs have fallen into, which is seeing the AALS as an entity whose primary purpose is providing professional development opportunities and good intellectual content for a hungry professoriat. Worthy endeavors indeed (hence the great suggestions for improving the meeting), but AALS functions principally, and by design, to reflect and represent the interests of member law schools....While the AALS surely ought to focus a good part of its attention and resources on providing meaningful opportunities for law professors to engage, to exchange scholarly and pedagogical ideas,...we do our member law schools a disservice to evade and avoid squarely acknowledging its function as a trade association and an interest group.

Dan and Mark, for those of you who may not know, are both past presidents of the AALS, as well as individuals I know and admire. I have not researched the range of disciplinary associations of whatever kind, and am happy to defer to their description. I did note in my original post that "ours is a learned society related to a regulated profession, and thus faces some distinct issues, as opposed to the questions that face, say, a learned society of historians or literature professors"; if that's not a recognition that the AALS is formally a "trade association" rather than a learned society, it's at least an acknowledgment that there are reasons why it might lean in that direction. (In that sense, it's relevant that Mark points out that when he looked into it during his presidency, "the only other profession that had only an association of schools and not an association of professors was dentistry"--another regulated profession. Without my having canvassed the issue fully, note similarly the existence and function of the Association of American Medical Colleges.) So, okay, let's concede, at least arguendo, that the AALS is a trade association, albeit one that also holds an annual meeting that looks a lot like those of other academic disciplines--with more content on legal education itself, perhaps, but also with substantive programs on particular legal subjects. What then? Does it affect my criticisms, and if so how? 

As usual, my friend Orin Kerr asks the questions I would ask, and more economically, in his comments on Dan's post. One might put it simply and sympathetically by noting that, even if (as Dan argues in the comments to his post) there is no "tension" between its functions, they may make for odd bedfellows. One wouldn't expect a trade association based on the membership of individual existing law schools to argue in its official capacity, say, that some 20 or more of them ought to shut down. (I'm not averse to this argument, but neither is it an article of faith for me.) But one might expect an individual legal academic--and most key AALS officers are legal academics--to argue just that upon academic reflection. One wouldn't expect the AALS to argue that law doesn't matter, or matter much; or that whether it matters or not has little to do with whether law schools matter; or that law schools' academic function ought to be such as to exclude various measures--proliferating LL.M. programs, various one-year "certificates" that coincidentally and happily provide much-needed income, and so on--that might be crucial to some schools' survival or well-being. But an individual legal academic might conclude just that. "Tension?" Maybe not, as long as individual speakers are free to press that point at the annual meeting and in the Journal of Legal Education, as they are. (A nice test case might be a proposed "Hot Topic" program like "First, Let's Kill All the Law Schools" or "Law School Monopolies, Public Choice, and the Economic Incentives for Law School 'Innovation.'") "Odd bedfellows?" I don't think that's an especially harsh or implausible description.  

Then there is the question of the fact of the annual meeting. Again, I'm a defender of the annual meeting, and, like Dan and Mark, I think it's better than its most convinced critics argue, although obviously it's imperfect (what isn't?) and I suggested some reforms. But we might well ask why, if the AALS is a trade association first and foremost, and one organized around law schools rather than individual law professors, it exists at all. We might treat it as lagniappe. There's a flavor of this in Dan and Mark's posts. They write, respectively, that "what is more surprising to me is that the AALS has maintained such strong attendance and loyalty, warts and all," and that "it's actually something of an achievement that the AALS's annual program has become as intellectually substantial as it is now." Both of them have pushed to make the annual meeting better, however, and I don't think either of them think the reaction of law professors to the notion that an annual meeting is kind of a bonus should be gratitude and silence.

But another way to read the fact of the annual meeting is that the AALS is, functionally if not formally, at least in part a learned society, and that it wants to be and/or holds itself out to be one. The by-laws and membership structure may cut against that, or against viewing it only as a learned society. But law professors have, for lo these past hundred years (or several hundred), often argued that form can be less important than function, that organizations evolve within or despite their formal structures, that we should not elevate process over substance, and so on. So maybe the "trade association" answer is not complete. And that point is enhanced when we reflect that even if the annual meeting itself includes many programs on legal education, the AALS also holds subject-specific midyear meetings, and that many of its annual distinguished speakers end up speaking about law, or legal academic work, not just about law schools and their welfare. 

Again, I'm happy to concede that the AALS is at least a trade association, although possibly not only one, or that is a trade association "with a difference." Both Mark and Dan, as I understand them, don't rest absolutely on this point. That is, they still think the annual meeting is important and don't think it should be immune from criticism and reform, including suggestions about how to make the annual meeting itself more academically useful, just because it could dispense with an annual meeting (or midyear meetings) altogether, or limit it to a meeting of law school administrators, or what have you. And it is at least possible that we might think of the AALS in the end as being neither fish nor fowl. The question then would be whether we think of it as being free to be imperfect at both functions, or demand that be excellent at both, or suggest that it divest itself of its "learned society"-type functions, or something else.   

I come out somewhere like the following. 1) Okay, it's a trade association. 2) For many intents and purposes, the presence of things like the annual and midyear meetings suggest that it is also, in function and in the understanding of most law professors if not in form, a learned society. As Dan notes, if there has been confusion on the part of law professors about this, it's a more-than-natural confusion. But I think it's more than just confusion; it is now part of the identity of the AALS, membership structure notwithstanding. 3) Insofar as it is a trade association, I have much less (or no) cause to complain when the AALS or its executives speak up in the interest of legal education and law schools themselves. 4) Insofar as it also conducts meetings that conform more closely to the learned society model, it should at least give thought to making sure that its annual themes and programs are fairly academic in nature, broadly understood (I see nothing wrong with programs on teaching better, for instance). The AALS might need to lobby others, but it doesn't need to lobby or convince individual law professors attending the annual meeting. I don't want to attach more importance to it than is warranted, but I still take the general view that "Why Law Matters" is an imperfect theme from that perspective, especially when married to arguments that law mattering is the same as something like current legal education or law schools mattering. In dealing with others, it may take a more emphatic position (which, as it comes from a trade association, individual law professors may critique or take with a grain of salt; the conclusions of individual law professors need not conform to the interests of individual law schools, or existing legal education as a whole). At the annual meeting, it should be very catholic and open-minded about such questions. 5) Law professors are free to push for at least some aspects of the AALS to conform more closely to the model of a learned society. Doing so may create, or enhance, tensions between those different functions that might not otherwise exist. So be it.

Even at this length, this post is just a starting point on this issue, which clearly requires more introspection and discussion from law professors themselves, myself included. Mark and Dan have given us a lot to think about.      

Posted by Paul Horwitz on January 16, 2017 at 10:39 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


Anyone know why the FRC this year will be held so late? I see it is scheduled for November 2-4. That leaves only two weeks between the conference and the week of Thanksgiving.

Posted by: anon | Jan 16, 2017 11:24:06 AM


In response to your posts, two past presidents (Mark and Dan) have explicitly stated that AALS is a trade association. Your argument appears to be that, even if it is a trade association, law professors believe AALS is a learned society and this belief in effect makes it a learned society. Consequently, you say, it's a hybrid of both.

But you might ask a different question: Why do many (most?) law professors believe AALS is a learned society, and are surprised to be told that it is a trade association? Is is possible that AALS is a trade association that enjoys the legitimacy (and cover) provided by presenting itself as a learned society? If this is true, then perhaps the hybrid image you suggest is less benign than it seems.

Posted by: Brian Tamanaha | Jan 16, 2017 8:12:50 PM

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