Thursday, March 15, 2007

More on law school academic culture

Today I was in Philadelphia, at Penn Law School, presenting my paper "Beyond the Pro-Consumption Tax Consensus." One anthropological question I got, from an economist in attendance, is why law profs' papers often over-claim, e.g., by generalizing a particular economic model with restrictive assumptions to serve as a source of very broadly stated real world conclusions. (I should note that this is what I was critiquing in my paper, not exemplifying; the question in a sense was why my paper needed to be written.)

I think it's partly from the nature of law review publication, where you need to make big claims in order for student editors to figure they should publish it. A second cause is the enthusiasm of the convert, where law profs are coming into another discipline in order to make use of it. A third is that simply using a given economic model, even if one over-claims from it, can represent an advance if people in law were unaware of it.

In conversation at dinner following the dinner, I emphasized the law review element, but with an internal feeling that I was indeed over-claiming for this explanation. As I was rightly asked, aren't people calculating past publication to their peer readers. (And I noted in an earlier post the strategy I've heard about whereby you over-claim so the law review will accept your piece and then take out the offending language once you're in the door.)

Upon reflection, there's also something distinct in law school academic culture (possibly derived in part from the law review editing experience, which so many law profs had) that applies to judgments by one's peers, as opposed to student editors. This is the paradigm of shifting the paradigm, often in Yale Law School type form to trumpet a cute little syllogism as a universal precept in lieu of more serious and careful analysis.

I remember in my days on the University of Chicago Law School faculty, when lateral hiring prospects were up for consideration, when the question would be asked of someone who evidently had done good work: "Yes, but has he/she shifted the paradigm for anything?"

At which point I would always think: "Fine, but what if the previous paradigms were just as good or better?"


Anonymous said...

I would add: modern law profs are in the business of establishing, or maintaining, a brand identity, in a winner take all world. That doesn't leave much room for modest claims (or garden maintenance). "Simplify, then exaggerate."

Tax Student said...

Professor Shaviro, one would expect that JD/PhDs (because of their training) and/or those at top schools (because of the security of being on faculty at NYU or Harvard) would be less prone to broad statements, but that does not seem to be the case. Thoughts?

Daniel Shaviro said...

Top, middle, or bottom, everyone wants to make a splash. It's a competitive, entrepeneurial field, albeit in the soft currency of prestige and influence.