Has Legal Scholarship’s Lonely Genius Moment Passed?

Africanized_Bee.gifCheck out this magazine piece by Jacob Hale Russell of 02138. Russell pulls an old chestnut from the fire: professors at Harvard Law School are (gasp!) using research assistants to draft sections of articles. According to Russell, HLS “is particularly known for this practice, probably because lawyers are used to having paralegals and clerks who do significant research and writing.”

Forgive me, but this is an unbearably silly argument. To the extent that HLS professors have practice experience, it isn’t at firms where paralegals do much (if any) substantive legal work. Plus, the hit job on Dershowitz is very undersourced.

But the real kicker is at the end, when Russell seems to argue that using RAs has reduced the aggregate quality of professors’ work:

Harvard professors writing quietly and alone have penned some of the most significant books of the last century. At 538 pages of dense prose, John Rawls’ Theory of Justice, first published in 1971, could hardly have been designed to be a bestseller, but his concepts, like a “veil of ignorance,” have permeated modern politics and law. Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars, published in 1977, before he left Harvard for the Institute for Advanced Study, is now in its fourth edition and stands as one of the most significant ethical analyses of war. More such great and lasting books will surely emerge from Harvard. But will we really know for sure who wrote them?

Russell seems to imagine a past consisting of a brave cohort of lonely geniuses working in Langdell’s stacks. Today, by contrast, professors are, at best queen bees in hives of workers slowly advancing the ball.

Does this feel like an accurate representation of the current state of the world to you folks?

(Image Source: Wikicommons)

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4 Responses

  1. TJ says:

    I think you are winning the battle but losing the war here. OK, Russell might be going somewhat over the top; but the larger message that professors should not be using research assistants as ghost writers–especially if they don’t even bother read the ghostwritten material–should be rather uncontrovertial. That it is apparently so common that you use “(gasp!)” to comment on the practice only shows the extent of the problem, not its acceptability.

  2. Stuart Buck says:

    Not just “using research assistants,” but “purporting to write a scholarly book that, in fact, engaged in blatant plagiarization, with the only excuse being that it was the research assistant’s fault for deleting the attribution before sending to the publisher (as if it otherwise would have been OK for a research assistant to submit material directly to a publisher under a professor’s name).”

    To my mind, it is scandalous and corrupt that such practices are tolerated. Not just that: The overly-extensive use of research assistants seems problematic to me too. No one cares if a President or CEO hires a team of speechwriters, but the role of a scholar should be to take responsibility not just for approving the final product but for doing most of the research him- or herself. I do not think that a “scholar” can make as much of a genuine scholarly contribution if he is mostly reviewing the research of novice underlings, rather than becoming familiar with the research materials for himself.

    I’m curious: what would happen to the productivity of many famous “scholars” if they were barred from hiring or using research assistants for a few years?

  3. Stuart Buck says:

    Just to amplify on this: I do not think that a “scholar” can make as much of a genuine scholarly contribution if he is mostly reviewing the research of novice underlings, rather than becoming familiar with the research materials for himself.

    I’ve noticed that if I read someone else’s summary of the law in a particular area, I’m inevitably constrained by the things that they have chosen to mention. If I go back and research an issue from scratch for myself, I might notice all sorts of trends or parallels or contradictions that seem interesting to me, but that someone else (particularly a law student) might not have picked up on. Moreover, just by doing the research for myself, I know the subject more thoroughly and deeply than if I merely read a memo in which someone else tries to summarize their own research.

    There’s no excuse for a “scholar” to rely too heavily on the pre-packaged work of relative novices.

  4. Thomas Collins says:

    Stuart Buck stated that:

    “No one cares if a President or CEO hires a team of speechwriters, but the role of a scholar should be to take responsibility not just for approving the final product but for doing most of the research him- or herself.”

    I agree with Stuart Buck’s description of the role of the scholar. However, I doubt that many law professors really possess the soul of the scholar. Most are essentially sophists who use their wit and verbal skills to make a living. The true scholar is more likely to be a store clerk who spends his or her free time at at library than a Harvard Law School professor (or a professor at most other law schools). Now, sophists can be very bright folks who can contribute to a society’s “intellectual capital.” But let’s not take them so seriously that we think that they are scholars, even if they hold “prestigious” positions at “elite” institutions.