Thursday, June 14, 2012

The law school industrial complex: “Will somebody please incentivize me?”

Law professors have it pretty easy.  First, they make a lot of money—sometimes "between $320,000 and $410,000 per year" when you count their stipends, bonuses, and other creatively-labeled cash payments.  (In fairness, though, a prof’s total salary at most law schools typically falls within the $110,000 - $225,000 range.)  Second, they teach only three or four courses per year—that’s right, per year—and the word “year” in law school-speak equates to about eight months out of the calendar year; in other words, summers off.  Third, while requirements vary, typically a law professor will only have to publish four articles in seven years in order to get tenure.  (To put this into context, in my most recent seven-year span I’ve published more than three times that much—ten articles and two books—in addition to actually practicing law.)

Now, high pay and lax job requirements are fair game for criticism (especially if you’re a recent, unemployed law grad who had to foot the bill for the professors’ laidback lifestyle), but what really upset me was that two professors actually published an article about how to “incentivize scholarship”—something that is already part of the highly-paid law prof’s job.  Stated another way, professors are publishing articles about how to get professors to publish articles.  No kidding.  According to this summary, here are ways for law schools to “provide greater institutional support for their faculty's research efforts”:

  1. Setup a “three-tiered workshop program” to provide an “implicit writing schedule” for the professors;
  2. Type-up and distribute “brochures focusing on recent, high placements [in law reviews to] convey faculty achievement”;
  3. Start adding a “rotating mention of faculty accomplishments in the alumni magazine”;
  4. Institute “weekly coffee klatches” for the faculty to discuss their writing;
  5. Create a “general award for scholarship achievement”; and
  6. Create a “separate Law Review Award, for placement in the top sixteen law reviews”
I can’t even bring myself to comment on two adult males using the phrase “coffee klatches.”  But as for the workshop program, do adults who earn six-figures per year really need someone to give them a writing schedule?  If yes, then law schools are hiring the wrong people.  And as for the other things—glossy brochures, mentions in the alumni rag, and the various awards—I have some better ideas for the law schools.  Here they are:

  1. Tell your existing faculty that they’re making an obscene amount of money—some are even calling them “pigs at the trough”—and there are a lot of people who can teach and write just as well (or better) and are lined up to take their jobs.  Then ask if that sufficiently “incentivizes” them. 
  2. For new faculty, only hire professors who love to teach and write, and who won’t need to be “incentivized” to do what they’ll be paid a lot of money to do.  Hint: If a candidate hasn’t published four articles before he applies for the job, then chances are that he doesn’t love to write. 
  3. Also for new faculty, only hire professors who have actually practiced law.  (Surprisingly, legal experience is disfavored—or at least not valued—by most law school hiring committees.)  Seeing how law works in practice helps a lawyer to better appreciate legal theory, and it also generates a nice flow of genuine ideas for books and articles for years to come—no more forced, worthless scholarship.
  4. Finally, for the long-term, rethink whether you really want your professors to publish at all.  First, most of what a typical faculty publishes isn’t helpful to anyone.  Second, it appears that many professors are afraid to publish anything without the promise of a gold star and the approval of their peers at multiple faculty workshops and conferences.  So, for your existing profs that don’t like to write, give them the option of increasing their teaching load instead.  If, in the meantime, they come up with a brilliant idea, they’ll write about it anyway—you know, just for the love of the game.
There.  That should do it.

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