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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Law Swag

The law-blog ranks have seen lots of discussion of so-called "law porn" -- the glossy, oversold brochures that flood faculty mailboxes as law schools from far and wide try to convince us of their US Newsworthiness, if I may coin a phrase.  (See, e.g., here, and see also this post from Ann Bartow both complaining about the choice of the phrase "law porn" and passing along a first-hand account of its genesis).  We've heard most of the criticisms -- blah blah blah waste of paper and resources, yada yada extravagant claims, blah blah blah playing into the US News reputation game.  Those blah blah blahs aren't dismissive.  Those are perfectly valid claims, although I confess I do read most such brochures, and find the ones that are directed at other scholars rather than at alumni to be interesting -- even NYU's breathless version of same.  But we have heard these claims before.

One thing I haven't seen addressed much is what I'll call "law swag."  I'm not referring to the "freebies" that West and Aspen give us at AALS conferences (or don't give us, as the case may be).  I'm talking about the stuff we law professors get just about every time we visit schools for symposia, special lectures, and so on.  Shirts, mugs, hats, notebooks, bags, etc. -- all embossed with the name and logo of the school.  I know a professor who must have a sweatshirt for every ABA-accredited school in the US (although I don't know how many of them were swag and how many were purchased, to be fair).  My own speaking occasions have been limited so far, but I certainly drink many a morning cup of coffee with the assistance of mugs from various law schools. 

Let me ask two questions, the first one fun and the second a little provocative.  First, what is the best law swag you have received?  I really hope this one gets responses, because I'd love to know -- I'll plan my travel schedule accordingly!  My vote is for the small, hardbound notebook I got from UCLA last year, which I still use for my honored-in-the-breach daily to-do lists.  A close second is the handsome tocque BC Law gave me, although there's not much call for it here in 'bama.  A dishonorable mention goes to a school in Orange County, formerly accused of playing shenanigans with SSRN, whose school name disappeared from the mug after about two washings.  What has been your best swag?  Or the worst, for that matter?

My second question is: should we feel at all queasy about accepting law swag? 

It's not the same as law porn, surely: it's not an unsolicited system of mass gifts; it doesn't involve extravagant truth-claims; it is a token of appreciation for showing up and speaking, and such gifts should be well thought of; and its givers are often students, not faculty. 

On the other hand: such gifts are expensive and a waste of resources, both financially and environmentally; they are unnecessary, since in truth all of us would show up anyway; in some cases they are given to speakers who have already accepted honoraria, which should be gift enough; we (or many of us) feel at least somewhat disapproving toward similar practices in the medical profession; surely part of their purpose is to make visiting profs walk away feeling good about that school, for purposes including gaming US News; and surely in that they are at least as successful, if not far more so, than standard brochure-style law porn.  When you tote up those considerations, can we really justify morally accepting that next mug or T-shirt or kitchen magnet?  And why, other than naked self-interest, do we appear to be so much more upset about law porn than about the free gifts most of us accept with gratitude and alacrity?

I don't want to be the guy who kills the goose who lays the golden egg; I like my BC Law knit cap!  I would like to hear what others think.  Maybe, if we're lucky, Paul Caron will also educate us as to any tax reporting obligations -- although if you've gotten swag that was so expensive it required you to report the gift, please email the name of the school to me here privately rather than post it publicly; no need for everyone to know about it.       

Posted by Paul Horwitz on April 10, 2008 at 09:46 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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At a couple of conferences that my school has hosted, we've given the speakers a cute little clock. I'm pretty sure that's become our sort of standard speaker's gift. I think that people got little glass knickknack-holder kinda jar-thingies one year, too.

I can't recall ever giving anything to a workshop / brown bag visitor. Though now that Paul mentions it, perhaps we should start giving them coffee mugs. Those aren't too expensive, and are a nice gesture.

Posted by: Kaimi Wenger | Apr 14, 2008 4:34:17 PM

Two thoughts (okay four):

1. Paul is right - it's "toque." Pronounced "tewk." Not as in DeToqueville, however, so watch confusion. That's more like 'toke,' which, while perhaps law-related, is in a different context. Yet both leave one with a messy head.

2. Best swag - designer coffee beans in a very pretty packaged re-usable tin. Coffee was the special local blend from the locale in which the conference was. Now I don't drink coffee or tea, but was wildly impressed with this thoughtful little gift.

3. Worst swag - a little book light with a clip that has this very bright, blinding light which I'm certain causes retinal damage but could probably light up an entire plane. The sad part about this was actually not even that, but the fact that I thought it was sooo cool until I saw it months later in a dollar store at two lights for a buck.

4. Future swag - I think I'm going to ask that we start giving away Queen's Law toques. Great gift for our American visitors!

Posted by: Erik S. Knutsen | Apr 12, 2008 4:38:09 PM

Paul, You wash your coffee mugs?

Orly, How did you get the wine past the TSA at the airport?

Posted by: John | Apr 11, 2008 7:37:23 PM

I just received confirmation from the schools that I presented at last year that the value of the coffee mugs, tote bags and t-shirts that I received was indeed considerably enhanced by the school logo. I should report the higher value as taxable income.

The information was sent to me on Form 1099-BLLSHT

According to the instructions for the Form 1040, I'm supposed to take the information and put it on my personal Form 1040 on Schedule U.R.IDIOT.


Posted by: Chris Hoyt | Apr 11, 2008 2:10:45 PM

I liked it when U-Vermont would give out small, tasteful, and tasty containers of maple syrup at their AALS reception.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Apr 11, 2008 10:37:37 AM

No doubt about it: the best gifts I got have been(please take note!): chocolate (UConn/Erasmus/once from some publisher) and wine (UC Hastings / Melbourne).

Posted by: Orly Lobel | Apr 10, 2008 11:50:15 PM

"My second question is: should we feel at all queasy about accepting law swag? "

Absolutely, Paul, you weren't there, but at First Amendment Law Symposium at UNC, I had a chocolate Tar Heel that made me queasy.

Posted by: Paul Secunda | Apr 10, 2008 5:43:58 PM

Best swag 2007-08: fancy coasters (I never deposit a beverage on my coffee table without seeing Drake Law School's logo).

Second-best swag 2007/08: desk clock (from same unnamed OC law school Paul mentioned above).

Other conferences though have produced no swag, and I am OK with that. I don't really like advertising things (self included).

Posted by: Dave | Apr 10, 2008 1:50:31 PM

Well then, to go to your primary question: yes, it's okay to get gifts. I am often told that it is "good for the school" to participate, as a student, in its institutional life. So in addition to all of my classes and meetings with my Dissertation Support Group, I check out paper talks, brown bags, etc. (and not just the ones with free food. Actually, I rarely go to those, because they are usually firm sponsored and more schmoozy than paper talky). If I, as a particular kind of institutional citizen, am told that it's good for the intellectual life of the school to be an engaged participant when scholars from other institutions visit to present their works and share in a community of ideas, then as a school we seem to place a value on visiting scholars.

Providing the institutional space is of course, all that a school must do. Providing an audience is what it should do, and hence, all the flyers I get about talks at this center for the study of law and _____ and the other. But beyond that, a school appears to want to advertise itself as an institution that welcomes ideas from the outside, and scholars from the outside. It is a sort of "branding." My partner has worked in marketing, and tells me that the free swag isn't for you, it's for the organization that wants to promote itself. Gives a good impression that they value you and your participation. And having been a student on a symposium committee for a journal, yes, this cuts into our journal resources. But it also advertises our journal and our school, and is marketing a "product" (the symposium) that we've worked hard on and are very proud of. We know that whenever you look at that School of ____ Folder with the appended nametag sticker that tells you which conference it was from and sponsored by which journal, you'll remember this experience and our own contribution to the schlolarly discourse.

So I wouldn't feel too bad about it. It's what schools do to brand themselves, and in a way that doesn't sound too much like a market-driven model of mindless law porn and students-as-consumers. It's intellectual branding. I 'm cool with that.

Posted by: Belle Lettre | Apr 10, 2008 12:50:34 PM

Addendum: whether we ought to feel right about that is one question. The other is the more gossipy question -- what kind of swag have folks out there received, good and bad? I'm still deeply curious.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Apr 10, 2008 12:33:19 PM

I think the difference, Dan, might lie in the student symposium vs. faculty speaker distinction. I don't know whether faculty-run symposia as often provide law swag, and I doubt that many regular workshop speakers get them, but I suspect distinguished speakers often do. I did note in my post that to the extent the gifts come from students, my sentiments toward those students are so warm that I gladly accept the gifts; but I did also want to ask whether we profs should discourage the practice despite our natural glee at receiving such bounty. Belle, believe me, I'm not jaded about visiting other schools -- hell, in every other post I'm practically begging the world at large to invite me to speak. Nor am I jaded about the mugs etc. -- I love 'em. So, I'm sure, does everyone else; the question if whether we ought to feel right about that.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Apr 10, 2008 12:32:08 PM

I am clearly going to entirely the *wrong* set of conferences, workshops, etc. Except for the tote bags I've picked up at SEALS, LSA, and AALS, of which I have beaucoup, I've got literally nada in swag. I've often hosted our enrichment speakers and while I've given lifts to and from the airport, I've never thought to impose such tchochkes on our guests. Maybe we're out of step. But if so, why am I am being utterly denied?? The only answer I can think of is that I have turned down every symposium invitation (all 3) I've rec'd and maybe that's where the swag is. Meanwhile, I also gave a talk at BC last year and there was no toque for me. Paul, your talk must have gone over better than mine...

Posted by: Dan Markel | Apr 10, 2008 12:16:57 PM

I am going to all the wrong sorts of conferences. Mugs? I would love a mug.

Going as a student means that at most you'll get a pen; going as a presenting almost-faculty means that you'll get a folder and maybe a t-shirt. At some point, I feel like I am going to be my engineer brothers and only wear t-shirts I get at tradeshows--er, conferences. A little dorky.

I'm so early in my career that I am That Overexcited Newbie. I sneak out during a coffee break and discreetly take pictures of the campus. I like to buy postcards of the school I visit to remember the architechture and grounds. My favorite thing isn't swag, but a present--the session leader for GWU's ICS summer seminar gave his pocket copy of the Constitution, and no joke, it is in my briefcase at all times. As my partner says, "like Dennis Kucinich!" I'm early in my career so it all feels like memories, like my Marquette ball point pen. But no doubt, with a few years, I'll become jaded like you all and not appreciate mugs.

Posted by: Belle Lettre | Apr 10, 2008 12:08:48 PM

To better tap a law school's inner-swag potential I propose that US News incorporate a "measurement" of a law school's swag into its overall ranking. That way, Rick (and, no doubt, many others) will quickly become swamped with coffee-cup options.

Posted by: Michael Heise | Apr 10, 2008 12:06:15 PM

I drink too much coffee, and so I appreciate the coffee-cup swag I've received from several schools.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Apr 10, 2008 11:38:26 AM

No, Bruce, it's a misspelling. I should have left out the "c". We Canucks spell it this way, I believe, and so indicate some of the online dictionaries, although they also point to "tuque." And yes, I believe we pronounce "toque" like "tuque." Any fine Northern-dwelling, seal-clubbing, poutine-eating Canadian types are welcome to offer their own etymological views.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Apr 10, 2008 10:36:29 AM

Tocque? Is that an alternate spelling of tuque? (Or vice versa.) Is it still pronounced "tuke"?

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Apr 10, 2008 10:28:42 AM

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