Thursday, November 23, 2006


Thomas KuhnAlmost always the [individuals] who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change. . . . [B]eing little commited by prior practice to the traditional rules of normal science, [these individuals] are particularily likely to see that those rules no longer define a playable game and to conceive another set that can replace them.

To make a difference in science, so it seems, you have to start very young, or else reinvent yourself utterly. This is why Geoff Rapp's inaugural PrawfsBlawg post, Are Young Scholars Too Old?, should be required reading for anyone interested in starting a revolution in legal academia.

Just when does "juniority" end and seniority begin? At the most practical level, Geoff is simply asking about the appropriate cutoff date for the Young Scholars Law Abstracts, the Yale-Stanford Junior Faculty Forum, the AALS Paper Contest, and other things seeking to foster relatively recent entrants into legal academia. The obvious choices are either an arbitrary number of years (usually seven, sometimes five) or a professional threshold such as tenure or promotion to full professor.

But the rapid emergence of the visiting assistant professorship as the de facto gateway to a tenure-track position raises a different question. I am less concerned with the definition of juniority than with its transformative value. The creeping insistence on an ever larger set of credentials -- clerkships, degrees beyond the J.D., VAPs -- necessarily delays the physical age at which law professors begin their careers in earnest. Indeed, if Thomas Kuhn's observation about scientific revolutions holds true in law, we may be wasting some of the most potentially transformative years of individual careers by delaying would-be upstarts' full-fledged arrival within the academy.

Bluto BlutarskyDo the math. Phenoms aside, Americans begin college no earlier than 18. And then there's college itself. Remember the scene in Animal House in which John Belushi's character (Bluto Blutarsky) laments, "Seven years of college for nothing"? That used to be funny. If we hope to keep the academy open to members of the lower and lower-middle classes -- individuals known to this forum as "Hardy boys" and their sisters in spirit -- some professors will indeed have spent six, seven, eight years on the path between high school and the bachelor's degree. Add as many as four years for the J.D. (completed part time, of course), one or two years clerking, at least two years on another advanced degree, and one year as a VAP. God forbid that an aspiring law professor might also . . . practice law. We have taken our hypothetical aspiring academic well past her or his 30th birthday. The fictional Roy Hobbs would be downright young in a gathering of rookie law professors.

There is a world of difference between one's 20s and one's 30s:
Nanci GriffithOnce I had a love from the
Georgia pines
Who only cared for me
I wanna find that love of twenty-two
Here at thirty-three
Nanci Griffith, "I Wish It Would Rain,"  on Little Love Affairs (1988). When the diamonds fall, darlin', they burn like tears. If only once in a very blue moon, the legal academy might consider hiring a rookie slightly before her time.
Jurisdynamics Network media specialClick on the embedded media player below to listen to Nanci Griffith, "I Wish It Would Rain":
Nanci Griffith, Little Love Affairs


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Over at Law School Innovation, I posted a comment to the same effect: the new "helping hands" for junior professors serve mostly to make entry to tenure track slots later, more costly, more laborious, more credentialist.

It's similar to adding a 2-3 year layer of non-equity partnership at law firms; both are ways not to completely pull up the gangplank but rahter to make the gangplank longer and longer.

11/23/2006 6:25 PM  
Blogger Orin said...


I'm confused.

The widespread use of VAPs is all about MoneyBall, right? Schools are no longer relying exclusively on law school credentials, and instead want actual proof of writing ability. The more, the better. It's hard to write at a law firm, though, so candidates do VAPs in order to get a chance to write and prove they can and will write.

I would think you would applaud this; it seems to me that it's all about actually proving scholarly merit rather than relying on proxy credentials. In other words, it's all about the spread of MoneyLaw.

What am I missing?

11/24/2006 12:47 AM  
Blogger Frank said...

Gotta love Nancy Griffith!

I am of two minds on the issue. On the one hand, one might credibly argue that the legal academy needs less "paradigm shifters" and more people willing to do "normal science" within established and robust paradigms. Dan Farber's paper "Against Brilliance" made a similar point in an entertaining way.

On the other hand, a purely academic credential-creep can undervalue the insights and contributions of practitioners. Moreover, it can encourage a type of apprenticeship that can lead to "safe" work designed to bolster a failing (or increasingly irrelevant) paradigm of inquiry. Garber has great thoughts on this topic:

Her view resonates with Chen's point about "credentialization." And we should also be aware of a potential class bias creeping in as well (it's much easier to do a PhD with help from parental money, or at least the assurance that relatively wealthy parents can help one out if the right job fails to materialize.).

Random points:

This post from Paul Horwitz may be of interest:

This article attacks Farber's thesis in "Against Brilliance":

12/11/2006 5:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The implied conclusion here assumes that these "added" years and experiences are voids, which is silly. Advanced degrees provide precisely the outsider's view of legal issues that produces revolutions--thus the rise of of law and ____ work--and research/VAP positions provide an opportunity to think and write outside the narrowed trajectories that one must pursue on the tenure-track, where it is expected that you will do the work you promised to do during your job talk. More prior academic training and experience ensures that new faculty will have had a chance to build their vanguard before entering the tenure track, promising more interesting and revolutionary work leading up to tenure, rather than the series of more polished student notes that once marked the early careers of legal academics.

2/01/2007 1:58 PM  

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