The Quality of Legal Academics

by F.

“And the burned Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire,” as does my curiosity: I’m starting again to read what legal academics are saying. What are they saying?

Not much, as far as I can see.

Why is there so much bullshit in legal scholarship? Sure, there’s Posner and there’s Sunstein, and a few others (I’m behind the times, I know—I’ve been practicing law for too long). But most of this stuff is just trash. And there is just so much of it. How can the quality be so low?

Well, first off, legal scholarship hasn’t traditionally been quantitative. And it borders on politics and “policy,” which are basically just means of trying to persuade others to adopt your preferences.

Tyler Cowen was asked by a reader of his blog, “Which is the better profession—legal academic or economics professor?” Cowen’s answer:

You will have a greater chance to work with ideas and concepts [as a law professor]. A greater chance to write books and also to read them. You are more likely to strut, wear three-piece suits, and speak in stentorian tones. If I were starting out today, perhaps I would take that route, although I would fail at the strut and the suits. The pay is higher and upward mobility is easier to accomplish.

But overall the quality of intellectual debate is higher in the economics profession. In economics the return to rhetoric is lower and you can’t get away with blather. Your articles are refereed by your peers, and not by graduate students (well, it depends what journal you submit to…). The academic world of law has weaker quality filters, which of course also makes it more open to new ideas.

I’ll say it has weaker quality filters. One particularly notable feature of legal scholarship, I think, is Two Card Monte. To be fair, this shows up in many disciplines, and it is very effective. Here’s a diagnosis of how it works in computational neuroscience:

Two Card Monte: The street card game (shell game) played in academia: you sell the computer scientists that your model is an important contribution to biology, and you sell the biologists that your model is an important contribution to computer science. But it is neither. Works even better with more than two disciplines involved. The more remote they are, the better.

This may partly explain why there are so many hybrid legal disciplines—law and economics, law and neuroscience, law and evolutionary psychology. It many ways, this is like literary “theory,” which doesn’t have much to talk about by itself (How much “theory” is really needed about literature? Not much), so it needs to grab material from other disciplines (bad philosophy, bad economics, bad psychology) as input for papers, lectures, books, and its other products.