Sound Advice for Aspiring Law Professors:

My former colleague Larry Ribstein offers sound advice to new law professors:

The discussion feels like Groundhog Day not because of some mysterious plot device, but for the more down to earth reason that new people keep arriving [into the profession], and they need to have something to say.

And sometimes they do. The truly new things are new ways of addressing the old problems - empirical research, application of other disciplines (e.g., behavioral psychology, philosophy), finding connections with other areas of the law (contract, choice of law, intellectual property, antitrust).

Just as Phil Connors [of the movie Groundhog Day] eventually learned something, so do participants in the corporate governance debates. But we, like Connors, have to waste some time. The time might be reduced if the new entrants would simply spend some extra time reading the old stuff. I would suggest starting with the short collection of Coase's writings in "The Firm, the Market and the Law," and the works of Henry Manne, which I discuss below.

First, I agree with Larry on the central point--it would be useful to legal scholarship if everyone would get the basics of a given area down first before they move on to more exotic bells, whistles, and anomalies. I believe that one major cost of the lack of peer review by law journals is a lack of institutional memory--the life-cycle for reinventing wheels over and over again seems to be much shorter in legal scholarship than in other disciplines, and the booms and busts more rapid. In part, I think this has to do with the fact that a fair amount of "new" scholarship is a repackaging of older ideas, often simply under a different name.

Without rehashing the whole peer review v. non-peer review debate yet again, to my mind one benefit of peer review is that it tends to prevent errors of omission--i.e., completely ignoring a relevant article or argument that is related to the subject under examination. This means that old ideas can be passed off as new--and often, not even intentionally, just unintentionally because of a lack of knowledge of what came before. Of course, the process of graduate school training, including mandatory courses and field exams also goes a long way to insuring that you have a basic grasp of the foundational material. Nothing like that exists in law, that I can see. This process argument is distinct from the substantive argument about whether peer-review reduces the amount of junk in law reviews. (One cost of peer-review, on the other hand, is that it may generate more errors of comission, of the Bellilles type, where at least the daunting law review editing process would have required him to produce his full stack of "research" for some sort of review.)

But Larry's observation triggers a second thought that I have long held--that incoming law professors would do well to dedicating themselves to mining the "classics" for ideas, especially if it is someone who is doing interdisciplinary work, but is not formally trained in an interdisciplinary field. I know economics best, and so for example, I constantly turn to Buchanan & Tullock, Alchian, Coase, Hayek, and others to stimulate and organize my thoughts. Another colleague of mine spent some fruitful time working with Frank Knight's Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit. Larry suggests revisiting Henry Manne, a point with which I agree. I am constantly coming across old chestnuts of articles that could be fruitfully mined for insights, especially those that predate modern law & economics, but which could easily be mined for law & economics. Instead, many young legal thinkers just glom onto odds and ends of contemporary works, looking especially for gimmicky products that can generate the "new ideas" Larry describes. I suspect that there is a similar canon in political science, philosophy, or history, that would be equally fruitful. I have often thought that revisiting the classics might provide a sounder foundation for new ideas than some of the more trendy stuff with a short shelf life. In addition, many of the classic works in law & economics are better written, more intuitive, and less formal than current professional scholarship, and thus will often be more accessible and useful to those lacking formal training.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Reading Period for Law Professors:
  2. Sound Advice for Aspiring Law Professors: