The Legal Beat
AALS 2017 (Part II): Why Are We Here?
Posted on Thursday January 05, 2017
The life of the law professor is the best life of all. We get to teach students, pretty much set our own hours, and write. Or maybe that’s just me who gets to do that, living the lucrative life of a law blogger.
Still, there are downsides to being a professor. We didn’t get to be professors because we are psychologically healthy human beings. We are obsessed. We all want to be recognized for our scholarship. We want to stand out. We want external validation. As Calvin (the cartoon child) once yelled, “I am significant, screamed the dust speck.”
The problem is, that’s what we all want. We all want to stand out in a crowd of people who all have scholarship that should be recognized. In other words, law professors have the 8th grade quest for meaning problem on Lake Wobegon (“everyone is above-average”) steroids.
I point this out because it explains two fundamental critiques of the annual American Association of Law Schools (AALS) Conference. The first is: The theme every year suggests that something is evolving, yet we are not. This year the theme is “Why Law Matters.” Did we suddenly forget that it mattered? Are there others who dispute that it matters? I’m pretty sure given the election we are all trying to understand precisely what parts of the law may not matter at all anymore because they will be repealed or not enforced.
And there’s even a theme among the themes:
2017: “Why Law Matters”
2016: “From Challenge to Innovation: American Legal Education in 2016”
2015: “Legal Education at the Crossroads”
2014: “Looking Forward: Legal Education in the 21st Century” (LPB stops here to note that the 21st Century started in 2000.)
2013: Global Engagement and the Legal Academy
You get the picture. There is the notion that the law is always changing, always evolving, expanding. That legal education is always changing, evolving, and expanding. And it matters. We matter.
When you look at the panel topics, however, they look familiar throughout the years. They make me think that, in fact, we are doing the same thing we always do. Every year. And therefore nothing is changing, even as the law changes around us.
This leads us to the second problem. Some have critiqued the AALS for not being inclusive, diverse in viewpoint, and thus leaving many panels with the same panelists saying the same things every year. Heck, the Federalist Society has its own shadow conference. Why? If we only stop to argue the minor details in otherwise agreeable panels, have we learned anything in the process that contributes to society?
Before I get hate mail, allow me to assure you that I’ve attended, moderated, and even participated on many interesting panels. All the panelists would agree with me. But I’m not sure the audience would. I recall one year where I was the only audience member in a panel discussion. (Must… not… check… phone!) There are a lot of empty chairs for some panels, yet lots of people in the lobby.
I suspect the other reason for low turnout is that we law professors are so specialized. My friends and I might be the only people in the world interested in Underwater Basket-Weaving Law, but we can meet the AALS requirements for a panel if we are lucky enough to have a section. We might take up a collection and pay actors to sit so our counts are higher.
I point these things out because, this year, it might be good to reflect on what we are doing. Why do WE matter, not just in terms of getting our articles published in the same place (and hopefully not saying the same thing)? How we can better society? How we can interact outside the echo chambers we’ve created? How can we add value to society, and not just to our own CVs?
I hope this blog starts that dialogue.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ll be at the cocktail reception. Just like last year.