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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

What makes a law professor "successful"?

Having submitted my tenure application two weeks ago, I've been thinking a little about how to measure one's "success" as a law professor, partly in the context of contemplating how (and how well) the tenure process gauges one's performance, but much more in the context of contemplating the next 30-plus years of my career.

It's easy and, I think, natural at the beginning of one's prawf career to set clear, practical goals, namely: get a job; get tenure. And I guess one can keep those same goals later as well, either by focusing on getting a "better" job somewhere else, or by focusing on tenure even after one has it (i.e., "mission accomplished; now begins the idle walk toward an even more idle retirement and, finally, the long, blissful sleep of death").

But those possibilities don't really speak to me. I like my job. I'm not itching to leave, and I'm not itching to stop. In fact, and perhaps this goes against my consequentialist inclinations, I expect I'll be perfectly content to keep doing what I'm doing even if I can't point to any great practical accomplishment from doing it. Even so, I also think that accomplishing something is better than accomplishing nothing, and you're more likely to accomplish something if it's the thing you're trying to do. So, I ask: what exactly should I be trying to accomplish with the rest of my career? When I look back at what I've done (or haven't), how should I go about assessing whether I've been a success?

Maybe the obvious answer is to focus on the 3 things my tenure application focuses on, namely: teaching, scholarship, and "service" (the last of these is in scare quotes because it goes by different names and seems to have an amorphous meaning). But does it make more sense to spread one's efforts across all 3 of these things, or to focus one's efforts on what one does best? Perhaps a school's faculty is best if it maximizes its collective excellence in these 3 categories, which is not the same as having each individual member pursue all 3.

Anyway, whether one is pursuing any or all of these 3 things, I'm not sure what the best metrics are to measure one's performance in any of them. For now, I'd like to focus on scholarship, perhaps as it intersects with an aspect of service (in this case, one's relation to and impact on the broader legal community). What makes a scholar successful? Placing many articles in "top tier" journals seems like a weak criterion, to put it mildly (more on that, perhaps, in another post). It seems one should want to reach some audience, but who is that audience? Practitioners, political actors, other academics? Contemporary legal scholars seem almost determined to avoid having their published work speak to practicing lawyers, though of course maybe that's a mistake. As for politicians, it seems to me fairly rare that legal academics manage to have a direct impact on the shape or development of the law, and when that does happen, it seems to happen more via direct participation in some reform effort than via one's scholarship. Am I wrong about that?

If not, then I guess that when we law profs write, we're writing almost entirely to and for other scholars. Do others agree? And if so, are we then basically the same as most literature or sociology professors? The comparison is not intended to be pejorative: my wife's mom is a Thomas Mann scholar and her dad is a Max Weber scholar, and I'm hardly trying to insult my in-laws right before the holidays. Yet I suspect many law professors would read it as a put-down, because we often flatter ourselves that what we do somehow has more real-world import than what humanities professors do. I include myself in this; I sometimes feel a certain hauteur about being a legal scholar as opposed to some truly irrelevant ivory-tower type, though I can't articulate any basis for that feeling, especially since my career to date has done nothing to indicate that any non-academic will ever take my professional advice about anything.

Should I accept that I'm writing things for other law profs to read, and try to write things they will appreciate and learn from? Should I write for the sake of learning things myself, either for my own edification or so that I can teach students about what I learn? Or should I try to write for a "broader" or "mainstream" audience, and if so, what exactly would be the point of doing that? Or should I try to engage directly in law-reform efforts (as I did, with head-against-a-wall futility, before retreating to the academy)? Or should I do something else entirely, like spend my time trying to help my students get jobs? If tenure stamps a professor as "good enough," what makes a tenured professor as good as s/he can be?

Posted by Michael Cahill on December 16, 2008 at 09:00 AM in Life of Law Schools, Teaching Law | Permalink


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I think the most realistic answer, albeit a pretty unhelpful one, is that it's up to you to define what success means based on what you think is important.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Dec 16, 2008 11:25:24 AM

I am not sure there is not a canon of scholarshipa. In fact, a few years ago Matt Bodie put together a series of posts on the canons for different areas:


I do agree that legal scholarship remains different in two respects. First, while any worthwhile teacher and scholar in these areas will be familiar with certain scholarship, we may not become immersed in it in law school (except to the extent it is mentioned or excerpted in casebooks), but only when we begin our teaching. Second, to your peer-review point, the people judging our scholarship (the mythical 2L/3L) for publication (as opposed to hiring and/or tenure) may not be familiar with the canon, so cannot tell if we are engaging it, even familiar with it, in a given article.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Dec 16, 2008 11:19:11 AM

One issue I've thought a lot about, as a law prawf with a PhD in a social science discipline, relates to the challenges posed by the lack of a common "canon" of scholarship for law professors. Disciplinary debates can be limiting, but the process of going through a certain set of books in graduate school does, for better or worse, give scholars in that discipline a *common frame of reference* for evaluating scholarship, the importance of new debates or lines of inquiry -- and, at the very least, simply having informed conversations with one another. One problem with legal scholarship is that it has a kind of random quality. In the absence of peer review, there is no mechanism to ensure that law professors cite influential/important work in their own articles, in order to *advance debates* in a somewhat systematic way. My sense is that this problem also affects, in a more informal way, the quality of intellectual exchange among colleagues. I'm curious to know if anyone else finds this aspect of legal academia frustrating.

Posted by: anonprawf | Dec 16, 2008 10:27:49 AM

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