Sunday, November 12, 2006

All roads lead through tax

Counting taxesOne of the nice things about writing on a blog, as opposed to being limited to comments, is that you can turn a comment into a full-blown post. So it is here.

A commenter on Scouting the scouts on the boulevard of broken dreams asked for a clarification of this observation:
There is nearly always a tax person on the scout team. . . . From the candidate's perspective, the trick is to see how well the tax person interacts with everyone else. The tax teacher is the canary in the birdcage; he or she is an indicator of interpersonal relations on the faculty.
This observation provoked this comment:
I don't understand the tax professor comment, but I am intrigued. . . . Is the idea that tax professors are generally the outsiders, at least in what they work on, so that if they get along with others it says something good about relations on the faculty? No, that's not quite it . . . anyway, please do say more.
Happy to oblige.

As I've said on this forum, the basic income tax course "has everything a law school course should have, plus the added bonus of being relevant to the future professional interests of virtually every law school graduate." Wait, there's more:
[Tax] covers the full range of business law issues and provides the perfect platform for considering, at the highest manageable levels of abstraction, the very purposes of government.
Karen BrownOr, as my former Minnesota colleague Karen Brown said at a public address so eloquent and moving that I still consult it, twelve years later, as a model of refined rhetoric, "If you can do tax, you can do anything."

In other words, tax professors are the designated generalists of any faculty. Other generalists may prowl the halls, but they are a rare and mostly deprecated breed in an academic culture that favors specialists over generalists and credentialed specialists over autodidacts. (Translation: dump your clerkship interviews and get a Ph.D. instead.) Tax professors, regardless of prevailing intellectual fashions, are indispensable. As a result, they are the only generalists you will reliably find on just about any law school faculty. This also explains why good tax professors make good members of a scout team at the hiring combine. They can converse with anyone, at least long enough to decide whether it's worth bringing a candidate back to campus.

Knight of the Mirrors
I am the Knight of the Mirrors. Behold me, Don Quixote, and despair!
Of course, if a law faculty has forsworn or has never developed a vibrant intellectual culture, the tax professor on the scout team is likely to reflect the culture that the faculty in question has developed. Or the faculty as a whole has some strong members, but faculty politics dictate that only the blandest, least lively faculty members can serve on the appointments committee. In this circumstance, because mediocrity knows no disciplinary boundaries, a tax professor is as likely as anyone else to qualify for the suddenly politicized and sensitive mission of scouting the AALS. What will now be on display at the hiring combine won't be the lively, intellectual atmosphere of the law school. But the reflection that does appear will bear some resemblance to real life.

The AALS hiring conference as truth serum, you see, works both ways. It shears candidates of their credentials and forces them to perform sans résumé, as it were. Thirty minutes under pressure represent a terrible basis for evaluating would-be law professors, but the screening interview beats reliance on useless or even misleading paper records. This is why law schools send scouts. At the same time, though, the candidates themselves are scouting the law schools. And if the scouts fail to project an attractive, intellectually active image of their law school . . . well, let's just say this. It's hard to project something you don't have.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tax professors as potential intellectual leaders. Could you run that by me again? Seems like it should show up in at least one day of one of my tax classes. Not so far!

11/13/2006 7:36 AM  
Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

Jim: Ok. Now let's see you write that with a straight face.

11/13/2006 8:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks! That's some serious blog service--ask a question, get a full post as an answer overnight...

--anonymous questioner from original post

11/13/2006 8:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Show me a person who can't teach tax, and I'll show you someone who shouldn't be teaching in law school at all.

11/13/2006 10:33 AM  
Blogger Ann Bartow said...

Y'all know those scenes in Animal House where the "cool kids" at all the "cool fraternity" rush parties dump all the outsiders and geeks togther in one remote corner of the room? That's where all the tax profs are, and I know this because that is where the IP profs get directed as well. Someday the tax and IP geeks will take over the law school world; we're in the corner planning this right now.

11/13/2006 2:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I understood the post to suggest that a tax professor is likely to reflect the quality of the school in general - so if your tax instructor(s) are not inspiring, that might indicate that (a) you're not taking a tax class from a "tax professor", just someone low on the totem pole who got assigned a class nobody wanted to teach, or (b) the school you're attending doesn't have a very active intellectual culture among/within its faculty.

None of that necessarily has much to do with whether or not the school is useful to you as a student - law professors expect one thing from law schools, students expect something quite different.

A law school that doesn't have a delightful intellectual culture probably can't break into the top (whatever) ranking, but if it's ABA accredited, it'll be enough to take the bar in any state, which is what most students need.

On the other hand, if you're going to spend the next 5-10-20-30 years working with a group of people, it'd be nice if you get along well with them - students come and go, but tenured faculty are unlikely to be very mobile, especially if they're not very good.

11/14/2006 12:19 AM  

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