Brian Leiter's Law School Reports

Brian Leiter
University of Chicago Law School

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Friday, December 31, 2010

The Best of 2010 Roundup

UPDATE:   Eugene Volokh is true to form (discussing the "ethics" of publishing legal correspondence does not require referring by name to a deranged cyber-stalker, but of course Volokh does), but some commenters actually make relevant responses (and here).  Tedious, but typical of Professor Volokh. 

*2010 began with an uproar about the AALS's rip-off registration fees for its annual conference, as well as some constructive suggestions for improving the annual meeting.   One year later, has anything changed?  Not to my knowledge, sigh.

*In March, Dan Filler (Drexel) joined the blog, bringing more frequent content, as well as a new perspective.

*The U.S. News charade  continued  without meaningful changes, alas.  Since U.S. News is no longer even a news magazine, but a vehicle for misinformation-by-ranking, there seems little prospect of it going away.

*On the other hand, this year's April's Fool post had a lot of folks taken in, at least initially.

*The scandal du jour for the Spring was the racist e-mail from a Harvard 3L, which brought forth the usual assortment of confused and know-nothing commentary from the right-wing end of the blogosphere.  Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.  (But the Volokh blog did offer a wide spectrum of amusement this past year.)

*Anyone who doubts the power of this blog (I know you're out there, and you will be smitten in due course!), take note:  a blog post in the dog days of summer on "empirical legal studies" has now resulted in an actual scholarly article in rebuttal!  The author is Cornell's Ted Eisenberg, intellectual leader and innovator in empirical studies of the legal system, and the only "concerns" about ELS to which he responds are those in my blog post (see p. 7 of his article).   Professor Eisenberg makes the utterly shocking allegation that "blog posts...often constitute unreflective, on-the-spot reactions provided to promote or provoke discussion," but we shall put that startling revelation to one side.   The truth is I've reflected a lot about ELS, over the course of dozens of hours of job talks and workshops by ELS scholars over the past five years.  Professor Eisenberg misunderstands, alas, my worry about the "skill level"  of ELS scholars:  no one doubts that many ELS scholars have strong empirical, statistical, and experimental skills, of the kinds one would expect from PhDs in various social science disciplines.  (The epistemic robustness of these social science fields is a separate question, but we shall also bracket that issue.)  My claim was that the,

analytical- and discursive-skill level of ELS scholars appears to be, on average, low, or at least lower than the typical law & economics or law & philosophy interdisciplinary scholar of yesteryear.  This isn't surprising, given that the genre rewards technical skills related to number crunching and data analysis, as well as research design, rather than smarts on your feet, the ability to draw conceptual distinctions, or construct and deconstruct arguments.   But the latter intellectual skills are the ones needed in law, both in thinking about law and in teaching law, not the former.   Perhaps this is also why discussion of empirical papers typically follows the same tedious pattern of wondering how one controls for this-or-that variable, with the presenter showing, cleverly, how s/he already controlled for it, or admitting that s/he didn't, so that this is an issue for future work, etc. 

Analytical and discursive skills ("smarts on your feet, the ability to draw conceptual distinctions, or construct and deconstruct arguments") are different intellectual skills than experimental design and statistical analysis.  But analytical and discursive skills are the ones we are honing in our students from the first year of law school onwards, and they are the skills that law professors need if they are to discharge their tasks.  This is why economists and philosophers fit so naturally into the law school world, because both disciplines require those kinds of intellectual skills.  To be sure, the high end of ELS scholars--like the Cornell folks, or my colleagues Malani and Miles--are both skilled in social scientific techniques and analytically acute and discursively agile.  But the parade of over-sold ELS job candidates who are sometimes neither, and rarely both, is long indeed.

*Summer also brought an informative thread with comments about VAPs, Fellowships, and other information for those interested in academic careers.  Students who missed it may want to check it out.  This post  from later in the year is also relevant to prospective law students with a possible interest in law teaching.

*No year in the legal academy is complete without yet another hack study purporting to demonstrate the terrible obstacles faced by conservatives in the legal academy.  Gimme a break, guys!

*A new study of scholarly impact debuted in the fall: the top 70 law faculties!

*When The National Law Journal profiles five lawprof bloggers, you know law blogging has gone mainstream--but most striking was that my description of Eugene Volokh's blogging style as "passive-aggressive" struck a chord with a number of readers (as one Harvard professor wrote me:  "les mots justes")The aptness of the characterization dawned on me about five years ago (if readers will forgive a slight but perhaps interesting tangent).  Briefly:  a mentally ill individual, with what turned out to be a long history of harassing those against whom he had grievances, real or imagined, created a blog devoted to insulting, defaming, and harassing me (and my wife, my children, my parents, and anyone who reminded him of me!) and initially appropriated my name for the URL address in order to drive traffic to his ‘hate blog’.  (The blog is now defunct.)   After consulting with my colleague Mark Gergen about the law, I e-mailed the blog service provider that this was a tortious misappropriation of my identity (the URL was then changed).  That would have been the end of the matter, except the proprietor of that service forwarded my e-mail to Volokh, who--unbelievably!--decided to post my letter on his blog, linking as well (and thus giving newfound publicity) to the vicious hate blog of the disturbed individual.  Talk about creepy, malicious behavior under the guise of discussing a legal question!  It didn’t take much judgment to determine that the author of the hate blog was out of his mind (the repeatedly expressed wish to “make Brian Leiter cry like a baby” might have been a hint), nor did it occur to Volokh that perhaps my private letter to the service provider was not a fit subject for his commentary in a public forum.  A true tour de force of passive-aggressive blogging! 

*Right after Thanksgiving, we solved the great mystery of the factors law professors consider most relevant in evaluating the caliber of a law school.  Who would have guessed?

*And, in any case anyone missed it (it was right before the winter break), do check out Google's new toy.

So what will 2011 bring?  I'll be honest, I've been thinking about retiring the law blog, even though it's nice to know that if I want to communicate with every law school Dean in America, all I have to do is post on this blog.  The main issue is time, and whether this is time well-spent.  In philosophy, faculty moves are of great significance for prospective students, but in academic law, it is rare that a faculty move matters as much for prospective students.  So while there's no doubt other law profs are interested in this information, it's less clear that it serves an important practical purpose for students, and law faculty can increasingly satisfy their curiosity via other blogs.  Sometimes there are issues in the legal academy where the blog can play a useful role--Chemerinsky and Irvine comes to mind as an example.  I often hear that the blog is helpful to those thinking about academic careers, and that's gratifying.  The loyal and high-quality readership, and the interesting correspondence and feedback they generate, has been the biggest motivator, and so we'll keep slogging along for now, and see how things look at the end of 2011.

Thanks to all for reading, and best wishes for the New Year! 

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