The Nature of Our Profession I

I thought I might take the opportunity while guesting here at Co-Op to talk about the nature of legal scholarship. One topic that I think is worth discussing is the nature of our conferences.

First, there is the standard “panel” conference. Each panel has three or so law profs. Each prof writes a paper prior to the conference and summarizes the paper at the conference. After all three panelists have spoken, audience members ask questions for about an hour. Second, there is the commentator format. Each session is about one or two papers, often the commentator goes first and the panelists respond, (although the order can be reversed). Then, audience questions.

In contrast, there are two “conference” formats that are less common. One is the “no presentation, no commentator, 100% questions” format. Bottom line: come prepared or don’t come at all. Another format is the innovative “roundtable.” Here no one writes a paper. Rather, a small group 10-20 folks get together to talk about a pre-selected group of materials and hash out the issues.

How to choose? Keep reading…


Of course, to choose among formats, one must answer some questions. Here are three that strike me as preliminary:

First, for whom do we hold conferences? If they are for the audience, then a panel format provides the most information to the general public. But breadth comes at the expense of depth. If conferences are for the panelists (and other participants), then an all question format (very concentrated and high intensity) or a roundtable format (learn a lot by chatting) seem to be the best options.

Second, what is the role of the conference paper? In many disciplines, presenters read their papers. We don’t. This seems to reveal less concern with text than in other disciplines. Is that correct? It does appear that folks often do not give their best work and best efforts to conference papers.

Third, depending upon the value one sees in conferences, we have to ask how much work a conference should be for participants and/or a general audience. Should it be accessible only if one comes prepared? Or, should faculty be devoting more time to other endeavors, such that demanding conferences should be discouraged?

For my money, I’ll take the 100% question format and the roundtable format. I know I work the hardest but learn the most from both of these formats.

Any thoughts? And are other innovations out there?

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5 Responses

  1. I definitely prefer the roundtable and question formats. I learn little in most panel conferences. People spend way too long presenting papers that I have already read. The virtue of a conference, I believe, is for scholars to get together and talk about something — to interact in a way beyond the way that they ordinarily interact. I can always read and comment on papers on my own time. What I often cannot do is have a group discussion with other professors about a particular topic or paper. This is what a conference can facilitate.

    The panel format is indeed often the best for an audience, but typically only for an audience unfamiliar with the panelists’ work. At many conferences, I’m quite familiar with the panelists’ scholarship and would rather see how they respond to questions rather than hear them summarize their papers.

    Maybe the ideal conference seeks to combine all of the formats — one set of panel presentations, followed by a roundtable workshop on some papers, plus some allotted time just for a question session.

  2. Frank says:

    I saw a panel at AALS in January on telecomms that was like an extended argument on the topic, moderated by Mark Lemley. It was very engaging.

    Given how difficult it is for people with heavy family care obligations to travel very extensively, I hope we see more virtual conferences, such as the one described here:

    http://techtheory.blogspot.com/2006/11/new-kind-of-academic-exchange.html

  3. 1. I’m not sure I recognize the distinction between “no presentation, no commentator, 100% questions” and the roundtable — the way I look at it, one variable is the presentation/interrogation style and the other has to do with the number of focal points. So I’m partial to roundtables that direct questions/comments to party G about her paper from a small number of interested parties (A-F, say), then have B-G direct questions at party A, and so forth.

    2. I agree with Dan that panels are better for audiences that are unfamiliar with the work. Another way to think about it is that the roundtable is valuable for injecting new ideas into your field, such as by attracting the fleeting interest of really smart people who would never be willing to commit themselves (and who might never be invited anyway) to the relatively intense and specialized character of a roundtable.

  4. Orin Kerr says:

    I think it largely depends on the nature of the conference; law review symposia are different from AALS subject matter conferences, for example. From the standpoint of an audience member, though, I prefer more people speaking for shorter periods.

  5. HughRice says:

    Organize it however you’d like; in the end, it will all still be useless.