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Sunday, November 06, 2011

Writing Agenda: Short vs. Long Pieces

In my last post, I talked a bit about how many fields junior scholars might write in.  It sparked a much more thoughtful post from Paul and some great comments.  So I thought I'd follow up with a post about another piece of the writing agenda puzzle: short vs. long pieces.

There's been a lot of talk about this among us juniors at Pepperdine of late.  Our junior faculty is eight strong (and still growing).  As a group, we had a particularly strong publication cycle last Spring (yes, you can read all about it here).  And one of the nice things about strong law review publications is that it brings you into conversation with the people in your field - often in the form of requests for symposium contributions and book chapters.  In that way, symposium pieces/book chapters represent a really great opportunity to participate in great scholarly conversations (for these reasons, I myself recently signed up to write for the Yearbook on Mediation and Arbitration's upcoming symposium that will address arbitration law in the wake of AT&T Mobility).

Of course, on the flip side, symposium pieces/book chapters always take longer than you think they will.  As a result, they invariably cause you to push off larger projects.  The cost there is (at least) two-fold: (1) the big projects are often the ones we're all most deeply committed to working on because of their connection to our primary scholarly objectives, and (2) a junior scholar's record is often measured in terms of the big law review articles.  

I've gotten a lot of good advice from colleagues on this one, much of which boils down to "choose wisely."  Trying to accurately assess how long a symposium piece will take you and the connection of the piece to larger scholarly objectives seems to be key in deciding when to say yes and when to say no.  

Any other thoughts out there on how to decide when to take on smaller projects?

Posted by Michael Helfand on November 6, 2011 at 12:52 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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I too have received invites for shorter pieces - some of which I accepted and some which I did not. For me, the issue involves 2 questions: 1 very important, and the other less so. The very important question is one Dean Koh years ago suggested asking when faced with such questions (and I'm paraphrasing since I'm working off of memory): does this activity/request advance my scholarly agenda? If the invitation is directly on point w/r/t my research agenda, then game on. If, however, the request is a one-off, I'm unlikely to accept unless ... the answer to the second question is really positive. Second question I ask is how is this particular publication likely to look to a PT&S committee? Here, I'm thinking primarily of how prestigious the journal is. So if the project is a one-off but the journal soliciting my involvement is a top 30 or 40 flag, I'm likely to do it. That's my personal hybrid approach anyway.

Posted by: 2 yr prof | Nov 7, 2011 3:52:25 PM

Enjoyable post and comments. Dan, let me offer one slight clarification to the last substantive sentence of your comment. It doesn't seem crazy to ask folks to write more, but I assume you mean that as a prospective rather than retrospective matter: if the formal tenure standards in place at an institution require three pieces, say, then I don't think the fact that law reviews have (sort of, depending on a variety of factors including the author's personal fame and institutional clout) instituted space limitations justify requiring more articles mid-stream. Of course the school can always revisit its tenure requirements.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Nov 7, 2011 2:26:05 PM

I have generally not done symposium pieces, but I have started to get invited to conferences. That's great. I want to get invited to conferences in my field. The potential downside is that there quite often seems to be a requirement of producing a symposium piece/book chapter. I haven't figured out what the appropriate balance is yet. But I am starting slow - only one symposium piece per year until I figure out how many I can really manage without delaying my full length pieces.

With respect to Dan's comment above. I too want to be an "easy case" at tenure. If the symposium pieces slow down my primary scholarship, then I guess I will have to decline them until after tenure.

Posted by: Stuart Ford | Nov 7, 2011 11:45:59 AM

BR, yes, I was thinking of that as a goal not a requirement but consider: at a lot of schools people go up in their fifth year (sometimes the fall, like at FSU), so that tenure/promotion takes effect the beginning of year six. But for the vote to occur in the fall, it means that the portfolio is assembled at the end of year 4 and sent out over the summer to scholars for external evaluation. So, if the goal of the prawf is to go up at the beginning of year 5, and the prawf wants to be a relatively easy case, then having 6 pieces in 4 years would make the person (barring other issues) a pretty easy case, and of course, that's what you want: to be an easy case. Of course, some of these 6 could be co-authored, but 5-6 pieces would be a good and not unreasonable aspiration to have at any solid law school. If you produced 4 solid pieces over four years, then that's great, and one will probably do well at most schools with that. But now that law review articles are shorter, it doesn't seem so crazy to ask folks to write a few more either, especially if there's a pre-tenure leave thrown in there. My two cents.

Posted by: Dan Markel | Nov 7, 2011 11:18:35 AM


I imagine you must be referring to a goal (3 major pieces every two years) rather than a requirement (and even as a goal, it seems to be a pretty aggressive goal especially during the first two years). I find it rather hard to believe that any school with a 6 year tenure clock has 9 major articles as the standard. Unless, of course, we are working with different definitions of major (with mine being a 20-25K law review piece).

Posted by: BR | Nov 7, 2011 12:40:39 AM

Thanks so much Michael, Jessica and Dan for the really thoughtful comments!

Posted by: Michael Helfand | Nov 7, 2011 12:19:35 AM

Here are a few thoughts.
First, I think it's ok to write short and long stuff pre-tenure but as a matter of caution, I would a) veer away from symposia unless they're relatively high profile within your field, and
b) make sure the short stuff is only your "plus" each year, rather than thinking that a whole bunch of short stuff can substitute for the one real article a year that you should be aiming to write. In other words, if someone had five pluses but only 2 full articles as they went up for tenure, that person would be in jeopardy. Of course some schools have lower numerical standards and only insist on a couple articles, but I think a general rule of thumb should be to write one article and one plus (symp/review essay/) per year, or alternatively 3 major pieces for every 2 years.

I should add one more reason for this caution. If you're hoping to ever leave your school (or at least generate market interest in your possible mobility), you have to be careful about the signals you send to committees. Some schools will make decisions by looking at your most recent 3 pieces, while other persons will just look at a few of your most highly placed ones, and others will look at just whatever strikes their fancy. Unless you tell a school which of your pieces you really think are emblematic of your best work and potential/trajectory, you're at risk of them looking at one of your "throw away" pluses, and then they don't really see you in your best light. To the extent that stuff matters to you, it's a good idea to stick to the model of the major article written for competitive submission.

Posted by: Dan Markel | Nov 6, 2011 9:01:39 PM

One thing I really like about book chapters and symposium pieces is that they have real deadlines. For anyone with procrastination problems, these forced deadlines may actually increase the amount you write.

I also find myself lured in by the camaraderie aspect to these endeavors, but as you say often end up pushing off my larger projects. Detrimental to tenure? Probably depends on your school (and the quality of those shorter pieces).

Posted by: Jessica Owley | Nov 6, 2011 2:10:52 PM

I've never said no, and I've never regretted it (caveat, I don't have tenure yet, so I suppose I could still regret it). At my AALS new teacher's conference, I remember Doug Berman saying write everything down. If it's super short, blog it. Moderately short, essay. Somewhat short, book chapter. Longer, law review article. But write, write, write.

As a result, one of my best received and cited essays is 8 pages. It's been written up in JOTWELL (thanks!) and republished. Another 10 page essay that came from some comments on an AALS panel got me invited to a great workshop in Germany. A small book chapter allowed me to find a home for a time consuming but short empirical project that would have had a really hard time finding a home in a law review article. And that chapter was a follow up to a shorter empirical essay published on a law review website. Yet another short chapter allowed me to tell a practical story about starting a clinic.

Yes, you have to choose wisely, but if you are interested in lots of things, the shorter articles allow you to publish a lot of ideas that would go nowhere in law-review-land.

That said, YMMV. I've heard there are faculties where you are supposed to stick to a specific agenda in a narrow area and target law reviews. I've never been on one, thankfully, probably because they wouldn't be attracted to my choice of topics.

Posted by: Michael Risch | Nov 6, 2011 2:09:46 PM

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