Sunday, January 7, 2007
Posted by Jeff Lipshaw
Let me start this off with the obvious disclaimer. I am a "beginning" law professor (personally, I like to think of myself in the same vein as my hero Horace Rumpole who, having never "taken silk," i.e. become a Q.C., is consigned to the category of aging "junior" barrister). But I think I may be in a very select group of "beginning law professors" who spent as long as I did in practice before being called to the academic bar.
So while I took with substantial gratitude the advice offered last Friday morning at the AALS New Law Professors section, I also listened to it with the perspective of starting what is at least my third career, the first two of which resulted in the equivalent of tenure. And one piece of advice, in the midst of all the other good advice, buried in the middle, and perhaps not, and offered up by that wisest and kindest of academic mentors, Larry Solum, stood out among all the other combined wisdom. (Note: this picture captures the real Larry far better than the taxidermic one Paul Caron used at the session!)
I strongly urge all take to heart his message to concentrate on the intrinsic value of the work. I am too much of a Kantian to be able to assure anyone that if you do all the right things, the real world results will come. As they say, shit happens. But I am positive, to a moral certainty, that there is no other alternative. The paradox in every meaningful achievement is that you focus on the independent variables to the function y=f(x), because you simply cannot force y into being.
Let me try to be more concrete about this in a different way. In my function, y is about ME. It's the result I want for myself. In Humean terms, it's the passion for something to which my reason is slave. It is the inward focus on me, my needs, my desires, my career, my life that in my other careers I have seen (in myself and others) transferred into an organizational inward focus - where what this all means for me (a partner or an executive) or us (the law firm or the company) far outweighs any consideration of what this all means for others (our clients or customers or employees). But, ironically or paradoxically, it's the outward focus that lets us achieve our inward goals.
Unfortunately, the impact of the normal or standard curve doesn't end when we get onto the tenure track, any more than it did when we were accepted at elite undergraduate schools or or elite law schools. Everybody we hired in our law firm had already experienced several levels of stardom, but some people didn't make it to partnership. In every one of these circumstances, we hope to hell it's not us. But I'm fifty-two years old, I'm not going to be the President, or even a Senator, or on the Yale faculty, and there are very few things as to which I can say I'm in the top ten in world. We walk a fine line between ambition and despair.
We will get lots of instrumental advice: how best to game the law review system; what kind of publications work best for tenure committees; how best to dress when teaching classes. But the advice that resonates with me is the kind given by Larry: look outward because, paradoxically, the result of the inward look is instrumental to our passions and ultimately unsatisfying. Write because you have something to offer the world; teach because you have something to offer your students; serve because you have something to offer your institution. We didn't make this choice of career for an instrumental end, and we shouldn't conduct it that way either.