Why legal scholarship?

Some readers outside of academic circles may understandably wonder about the usefulness of engaging in scholarly research and writing, especially when much of what professors produce seems abstract, theoretical, and laden with jargon and citations. I can’t speak for all academic disciplines or all scholars, but I can address the inquiry from my standpoint and experience as a law professor.

For me, engaging in legal scholarship has opened the door to the development of law reform proposals such as drafting the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill and challenging the practice of unpaid internships. In both of these instances, the work started with a foundational writing in the form of a comprehensive law review article:

Here’s a snippet of what I say about that scholarly process in my forthcoming article, “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law” (Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice):

For law professors, lawyers, and law students, the most likely publication venue for this foundational writing will be a scholarly law journal. The traditional law review article, even with its stodgy and sometimes excessive conventions of style and citation, requires us to document our sources and to spell out, in painstaking detail, the bases of a conclusion or recommendation. In this sense, it also serves as the primary database of sources informing our work, containing through footnotes our main bibliography, which in turn show how these materials relate to the overall analysis and argument. As a whole, it serves as the core document for subsequent efforts to bring a topic before a more public audience. If the writer has succeeded in the tasks of research and analysis, then the recommended action steps may justifiably be considered “evidence-based.”

That foundational research piece becomes the basis for advancing law reform initiatives, such as “drafting model legislation or administrative rules,” “developing litigation strategies,” “supporting impact or class-action litigation through brief writing and other tasks,” and “designing bureaucratic or structural reforms.” It may also involve public education work such as blogging and social media outreach, providing interviews to print and electronic media, and partnering with supportive organizations.

In other words, doing legal scholarship creates opportunities to influence the law and how people think about it.

I wish I could say that legal academe has embraced scholarship for the potential usefulness of its content, but like in so many other academic disciplines, questions of individual and institutional prestige and rankings tend to predominate discussions of what “counts.” In too many circles, scholarship has become mainly a commodity, signifying who stands where in the pecking order and deployed as currency to obtain appointments at more prestigious institutions.

In a 2010 law review article, “Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Practice of Legal Scholarship” (University of Memphis Law Review), I critiqued that debilitating culture of scholarship and suggested that there are healthier ways for us to regard and use scholarly work. I framed my viewpoint in the context of therapeutic jurisprudence, a legal philosophy that implicitly favors laws and procedures that promote psychologically healthy outcomes.

In essence, I challenged a prestige-driven culture of legal scholarship that inevitably produces “a handful of ‘stars’ and a vast assemblage of ‘worker bees,'” with the twist being that a lot of people eventually lopped into the latter category have bought into that value system. The far better approach, I suggested, is to value scholarship for its content, meaning its ability to inform, enlighten, provoke, and persuade, and letting the rest take care of itself.

***

Annotated Bibliography

For those interested in reading more about the intersection of scholarship and social action, I have included a short annotated bibliography of some 40 relevant, mostly non-legal books in my article, “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law.”

3 responses

  1. Thank you for that explanation. So often, rigidly controlled research scholarship prevents new discoveries. On the other side, repeatability is equally important to describe, explain, or prevent. I agree with Debra Healy, thank you for your courage to continue to fight the scoffers.

  2. Debra and Peggy, you offer unwarranted praise invoking the term courage! It’s more like getting totally PO’d about certain aspects of conventional academic culture. Plus, I have the benefit of tenure. (If you’re not willing to stick your neck out a bit with (supposedly at least) the protection of academic freedom, then you should give up your spot to someone who will make an effort to stand on principle.)

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