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Brian Leiter
University of Chicago Law School

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Friday, December 18, 2009

The Most Important Developments (for good or ill) in the Legal Academy Since 2000

So there were over 500 votes cast, but unfortunately, there was also a spurt of strategic voting for #2 on the list, which had lagged at the bottom of the top ten for much of the polling--so much for Internet polling science!  Here are the results:

1. U.S. News ranking of law schools  (Condorcet winner: wins contests with all other choices)
2. Cognitive Science, Neuroscience, Biology & Law  loses to U.S. News ranking of law schools by 244–198
3. Interdiscplinary scholarship generally, at the expense of traditional or doctrinal scholarship  loses to U.S. News ranking of law schools by 310–163, loses to Cognitive Science, Neuroscience, Biology & Law by 258–202
4. Cyberspace generally  loses to U.S. News ranking of law schools by 334–133, loses to Interdiscplinary scholarship generally, at the expense of traditional or doctrinal scholarship by 240–198
5. Blawgs  loses to U.S. News ranking of law schools by 331–133, loses to Cyberspace generally by 216–212
6. SSRN  loses to U.S. News ranking of law schools by 337–131, loses to Blawgs by 218–211
7. "Empirical Legal Studies"  loses to U.S. News ranking of law schools by 336–143, loses to SSRN by 213–208
8. Behavioral Law & Economics  loses to U.S. News ranking of law schools by 360–109, loses to "Empirical Legal Studies" by 240–166
9. Proliferation of VAPs and Fellowships  loses to U.S. News ranking of law schools by 374–91, loses to Behavioral Law & Economics by 212–170
10. Economic downturn in the job market for lawyers, especially at the biggest firms  loses to U.S. News ranking of law schools by 381–76, loses to Proliferation of VAPs and Fellowships by 193–174

The idea that "cognitive science, neuroscience, biology & law" was the most important intellectual development in the legal academy is obviously silly; perhaps it may prove to be in the decade ahead, but right now, it's still quite marginal, and some of the work done in this vein is extremely confused.  Still, as an aspirational model, one may hope that law professors will become better versed in developments in cognitive science (and not just the now-outdated situationism in social psychology!). 

Contrast with the situation of Empirical Legal Studies:  every year now, every leading law school is seeing multiple candidates doing empirical work (whereas I can't think of any candidate we've seen doing work in 'cognitive science, neuroscience, biology & law").  I would say ELS has a more plausible claim to have been the most important substantive trend in legal scholarship, though the verdict is out on whether this is for good or ill.  Far too much of the work is clearly driven by the existence of a dataset, rather than a clear analytical or theoretical purpose.  The common currency of what law professors do--whether doctrinalists, or economists, or philosophers--is discursive reasoning and argument, and that is not obviously at a premium in a lot of ELS work.  But hopefully the quality will trend upward, and the best of this work has obviously made a substantial impact in legal scholarship.

The economic downturn in the job market for lawyers is probably too recent to qualify as an important event for the decade ending--but it may well prove to be the major event for the decade to come.  Unles the market rebounds, we are going to see significant changes in the legal academy--some law schools are going to fold, and salaries and research support, long the siren's call of law schools, are going to stagnate or decline.

I was surprised at the strong showing of "interdisciplinary scholarship," not because it hasn't displaced (not always for good!) traditional doctrinal scholarship, but because one might have thought that battle was won in the 1990s.  But the strong showing here suggests to me that the revolution in the legal academy that began in the 1970s is now complete.

For legal scholarship, SSRN has obviously been more important than blawgs, though I suspect for law students, blawgs have loomed larger as a window into the legal academy.  Without a doubt, though, Cyberspace came into its own as a force in legal education--through SSRN and blawgs especially--during the last decade.

The proliferation of VAPS and Fellowships has had a significant impact on the job market for new law teachers--their success, and increasing importance, is no doubt connected, in significant part, to the triumph of the interdisciplinary model of legal scholarship.  Whether economic developments will permit law schools to sustain this new system remains to be seen.

And, finally, there is U.S. News, which probably has become more pernicious in its influence during the last decade, as we have had occasion to note.  Until journalists stop treating the U.S. News rankings as news, or until more publications and evaluators enter the market for comparative evaluations, U.S. News will continue to be the tail that wags much of the legal education dog.  Alas.

Signed comments from readers are welcome.  Full name and valid e-mail address required.

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I generally agree with your assessment of the results, but wonder whether the poll was skewed by (a) combining substantive trends re. fields of study/methodology with non-substantive developments (e.g., USNWR, VAPs, etc.), and (b) possible confusion regarding whether "legal academy" meant that academic-only trends should be preferred.

Otherwise, even discounting for recency, it's remarkable to me that the economic downturn placed tenth -- suggesting rosy views re. the transience of economic downturns (and the relative permanence of recent academic trends -- or, as I said, a narrow reading of the question), or a decoupling of professorial and student concerns. Hope the former!

Posted by: Edward Swaine | Dec 18, 2009 7:14:20 AM

I voted earlier and checked in later and the results were much more like what you think appropriate. "Cognitive science, neuroscience . . ." was near the bottom and empirical legal studies near the top. I wonder if a late rush of voting manipulated the results. If your polls are important enough to manipulate, you've made it.

Posted by: Frank Cross | Dec 18, 2009 8:39:40 AM

Some quick (but not very careful) googling leads me to believe that US News probably started ranking law schools in 1994. Did it take until the 00's for schools to really start caring and trying to move in the rankings in dubious ways? That seems possible to me, but I'd be curious to hear from anyone who might have been paying attention as to whether this is a phenomena of the 00's or if it dates back into the 90's as well.

[BL: US News first ranked law schools in 1987, based on reputation. Starting in 1990, they started the bizarre stew of criteria approach. Law schools behaved badly in the 1990s, but it may well have increased in the 00s.]

Posted by: Matt Lister | Dec 18, 2009 11:59:58 AM

I think it shows the insularity of law schools that the US News survey or empirical research, which affects a few people at a few law schools, would rank ahead of the economic crisis. I think the impact of the latter has already been very much greater, affecting the whole way people think about legal education, and will undoubtedly become more so in the years to come.

Posted by: mike livingston | Dec 18, 2009 4:31:20 PM

The most important development in legal academia in the past decade is not mentioned in the poll: the extraordinary increase in law school tuition (roughly doubling for many private institutions).

This helped enable the rise of interdisciplinary studies, ELS, and VAPs. Law professors are much better paid and have lighter teaching loads. Many law graduates carry tens of thousands of dollars of debt. And law schools, now expensive relative to expected income (outside of corporate practice), are especially vulnerable to a contraction in the legal market.

Legal academia would look very different today--leaner, focused on training lawyers--without the past decade of hefty tuition increases.

Posted by: Brian Tamanaha | Dec 21, 2009 12:50:27 PM

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