Jason’s Lesson’s Learned About the Legal Academy and Getting In

Pelican has decided to abandon his efforts to scale the walls of the legal academy and proposes this simple eight-step program for others who would follow in his footsteps:

  1. Don’t do interdisciplinary work. The legal academy doesn’t know what to make of it unless it is economics.
  2. Don’t go to a school without a law review or grades. I did and it was a huge problem.
  3. Get on law review, clerk, write.
  4. Check the faculty listings at most law schools. Go to the most often listed schools: Harvard, Yale, etc. It does matter as law faculty select their own, usually. I was told by a faculty member as a 1L expressing interest in the academy that I should transfer immediately to Harvard if possible. I didn’t.
  5. If you think you want to be a legal academic, look at what is on the FAR form in your first or second year. Orient your academic career to produce a good looking FAR.
  6. Remarkably, the legal academy does not care about your ability to raise research money or bring in grants.
  7. Don’t publish in interdisciplinary journals. Publish only in law reviews writing only dense and impenetrable texts.
  8. Demonstrated impact of your work in policy or law is not relevant.

This critique could be extended broadly to much of the academy (not just law schools). I had once thought I might like to teach law, but now I can only really see myself as a clinician.

Two contradictory academic trends:

  • The tendency toward dense, impractical writing that only makes sense to other insiders. This is often but not exclusively the influence of postmodernism. Steve recently brought Chomsky’s response to postmodern thought to my attention. It boils down to this: sure, it might be complicated. But there are lots of other fields that are complicated–quantum mechanics, nanotechnology, even game theory–in which an expert can still explain to a bright layperson the contours of the field sufficient for the layperson to get the gist of it, even if they can’t grasp all the details without extensive study. This doesn’t seem to be true of postmodern philosophy. Is the emperor naked? Paul Graham’s How to Do Philosophy reflects a similar attitude with less of a political bent, although my friends pursuing philosophy doctorates claim Graham has got it all wrong.
  • The tendency to reduce all disciplines to a science, particular the humanities and social sciences. This can either mean approaching the study with some method that approaches “scientific rigor” or literally basing the analysis in an already recognized science, preferably neuroscience. While I can see some sense in incorporating neuroscience, cognitive science, and certainly psychology into fields such as economics, I don’t think this is a good thing to the extent it overwhelms other modes of analysis, particular for literature. Neuroscientist/author Jonah Lehrer discussed this phenomenon (and its drawbacks) with Christopher Lydon in an episode of the newly-revived Radio Open Source. (Warning to Debian readers: Radio Open Source has very little to do with open source software.)

[Tags]Law, Legal Academy, Postmodernism, Neuroscience, Jonah Lehrer, Paul Graham, Philosophy, Noam Chomsky, Christopher Lydon[/Tags]


  1. Dylan Thurston Dec 25

    I don’t see how any of the 8 points listed show how law is being reduced to a science? Academic scientists, for instance, certainly care about whether you can get grants, and care to some extent about demonstrated impact. Interdisciplinary work can be problematic for scientists as well (depending on the context), but I think that’s a problem with the general structure of academics more than anything else.

  2. adam Dec 25

    I was using Jason’s post as a launching point for some more general comments on my perception of academia. The postmodernism point is more closely related to what Jason wrote than the “science” point. In any event, the two trends (if I’m correct they exist) are at the very least in tension with each other if not contradictory.

  3. Jason Dec 27

    The postmodernism point is more closely related to what Jason wrote than the “science” point.

    I think the impact of critical legal theory does have something to do with it. However, it isn’t the only cause. The problem of law reviews stems in many ways from Langdell’s reform of legal education, the rise of legal realism (which really is your point), and the use of students to edit and select manuscripts for law review. The use of students as law review editors is perhaps the single most influential cause of the law review problem.

    The road to reform of the legal academy is strewn with many bodies of those who have tried to fix this in the past.

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