Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Scoping Scholarship

Recently, law blogs (at least the few that I read) have been abuzz with discussion of the recent draft report of the ABA task force on "The Future of Legal Education."  That report has some less-than-flattering things to say about the motivations of law professors.  The resulting discussion often circles back to an old critique: that we write things that aren’t particularly useful for people in the non-academic world.  But academia’s independence also has fierce defenders.  They argue that if we commit ourselves to writing things of immediate value to practitioners, we’ll fail to consider systemic issues with our legal system and society, and instead will unwittingly become enablers of the status quo.  Implicit in both critiques is the premise that there is an inherent tension between academic and practitioner expectations for scholarship.  But I wonder if that tension really is so inherent, and I have a practical suggestion for avoiding, or at least reducing, it. 

The suggestion is straightforward: at the outset of any research project, we academics ought to spend some time discussing the project concept with practitioners (including non-lawyers) in the field we’re planning to write about.  I’ve done this with several of my research projects, and it’s been rewarding in several ways.  First, it lets me tap into practitioner knowledge, which is particularly helpful if, as is usually the case, there are practitioners who know a lot more about my subject than I initially do.  Second, and relatedly, it lets me know what questions practitioners are struggling with.  If I can help answer those, my work will be more useful to them.  Third, it alerts people in the field that I’m working on their area of interest.  Often they’ll follow up with me later if they hear about something relevant, and sometimes the initial contact has led to non-academic presentation opportunities, which then can open new discussion and feedback loops.

To people who argue that legal scholarship should be more useful to practitioners, that may sound good, but the proponents of academic independence might have a concern: wouldn’t these conversations tend to make scholarly work narrower and more anchored to the status quo?  To a small degree, the answer is yes; often ideas that sound appealing in the abstract suffer when they collide with day-to-day realities, and one result of these conversations usually is to compel qualification of whatever hypotheses I began with.  But that’s not a bad thing.  One purpose of scholarship is to get people to think or act differently, and that’s hard to do if they can easily dismiss you as naïve.   Also, I’ve found that the resulting changes usually are subtle.  Practitioners, in my experience, often want an academic perspective on the issues they work on.  They’re often excited when someone has time to compile a broader database that they would ever have time to collect themselves, to think systemically about issues they confront in piecemeal fashion, or to integrate their day-to-day experiences into broader theoretical frameworks.

Of course, this is not an original suggestion.  It’s something many academics already do, and it helps explain why, despite all the critiques, there is quite a lot of useful thinking in academic work.  This approach also doesn’t work for every project.  But I’d still suggest that for most projects, early outreach ought to be standard practice.  The relationships between academics and practitioners can be highly symbiotic, and talking at the outset of a research project is a good way to build that symbiosis.

- Dave Owen

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