Teachers and Scholars

The latest issue of the Law School’s Faculty Newsletter, which summarizes faculty scholarly activities over the past few months, is now available here.  As I looked over the newsletter, I was struck by the breadth, depth, and variety of our scholarly activities.  It also led me to think about the role that legal scholarship plays in the life of a law school and in our legal system.

Being a law professor is a multi-faceted job.  Our first obligation, as teachers, is to our students: we must prepare them to be competent, responsible and successful members of the legal profession.  We also have an obligation, as institutional leaders, to build and strengthen the law school and its programs.  But that is not all.  As scholars, we also have important obligations to the public, to the legal profession, and to the law.  Legal scholarship has been the focus of some criticism lately, in particular in a widely read article in the New York Times.  That article seemed to call into question the entire enterprise of legal scholarship (by noting, for example, that a substantial percentage of law review articles are never cited or quoted).

That kind of criticism fundamentally misunderstands the role of scholarly research in general.  Research is the engine that drives innovation, that spurs change, that advances societies.  And while not all research takes place in universities, much of it does.  Indeed, the role of universities (and the law schools in them) is to advance the common good through education and research.  The research of academic physicians is essential to the advancement of medicine.  The research of academic economists is essential to the development of economic policy.  And the research performed by law professors is essential to the advancement of our legal system.  Legal scholarship is the R&D of the rule of law. Not every medical experiment will work, but that is hardly a reason to abandon medical research.  So too with legal scholarship.

It is true that some legal scholarship can be pretty far removed from the practice of law or from real-world questions of legal policy.  But, while it’s easy to take pot shots at particularly obscure articles, the vast majority of legal scholarship is motivated by a desire to develop real solutions for real problems.  (In an apparent effort to highlight the irrelevance of legal scholarship, the author of the New York Times article cites an article by a philosophy professor that was published in a philosophy journal.  While I have nothing against philosophers — indeed, the continued study of philosophy is essential to civilization — that simply isn’t the kind of work that is being done at our law school.)

At St. John’s, our faculty is involved in research activities designed to advance our understandings of the law, the legal profession, and legal education.  Some faculty members are experts in particular areas of legal practice; others are experts in historical events with obvious relevance to today; others are exploring some of today’s most important public policy questions; and still others are exploring how to make legal education more effective and inclusive.  Take a look for yourself.  In just the past few months, our faculty has published four books, placed several articles for publication, hosted multiple conferences, presented over a dozen academic papers, and made multiple media appearances.  The focus of our research and expertise runs the gamut from tax law to war crimes prosecutions; from class action litigation to the globalization of the legal profession; from trusts and estates law to evidence law; from drafting contracts to teaching legal writing; from diversity in the legal profession to predatory lending, consumer protection, and mortgage market reform.

The activities described in the Faculty Newsletter show law professors taking seriously their obligation to be teachers and scholars.

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