Efficient Browsing and the Legal Workshop
A consortium of top law reviews has just launched a new site, the Legal Workshop. (Solum gives his thoughts here) Unlike sites such as the Harvard Law Review Forum or the Yale Pocket Part, the Legal Workshop will publish shortened, popularized versions of articles that appear in the reviews. I heard about the idea a couple of weeks ago, when Georgetown Law Journal asked that I produce a shortened version of my forth coming article in their journal for the site. It strikes me as a very good idea, regardless of whether it excites the general public (an apparent goal of the project, and one about which Solum rightly expresses skepticism). As a professor, I suspect that this format will ultimately prove more useful to me than that adopted by say the Yale Pocket Part. The reason is that it helps me solve a problem: consuming legal scholarship.
I run into two problems. First, the volume of things that I am potentially interested in vastly exceeds my ability to read it. The result is that there are lots of things that I don’t read but would like to. Indeed, given that I am a particularly slow reader, this is a bigger problem for me than for my co-bloggers, all of whom seem much better read than me. (My excuse is that I had a learning disability as a child, didn’t learn to read until I was about 12 years old, and am still very slow.) The result is that much of the scholarship I read is directly related to a something that I am writing at the time. It is simply difficult to read much else. This feeds into my second problem: namely that most of my ideas (to the extent that I have ideas) come about serendipitously. I can plan and organize research on a particular idea. It is difficult, however, for me to plan and organize research on finding an idea. For me at least, the most effective way of stumbling on to new ideas is to read randomly what interests me and then engage in intellectual day dreaming. It can be time consuming.
I think that a large part of what counts as thought is simply arbitrage. It is taking ideas from one area and applying them to a new area. This structure, however, means that often the most useful research that you do is unrelated to any research project. Another way of putting this is that new research projects develop when I am thinking and reading about something else and then find a connection. (For example, my Georgetown piece, which looks at generality and specificity in contract law grew out of an analogy I saw between contract law and Federalist No. 10.) There is thus a sense in which intellectual browsing is immensely important for research. I need a way of dabbling and dreaming efficiently.
The “problem” with something like the Pocket Part is that it rather than decreasing the cost of browsing, it simply increases my ability to analyze a particular argument in greater depth. There is a sense, however, in which I don’t really need help doing this. This is what I do when I do specific searches of the literature and amass all of the articles on a particular topic. The Harvard Law Review Forum doesn’t really make this process any easier, even if it provides a home for good material that might otherwise not be written. It’s good but it simply doesn’t do anything to reduce my browsing costs because the new material that it generates in some sense requires or assumes that I have already read the articles in the main journal. That, however, takes time. Ideally, however, the Legal Worship should increase the efficiency of my browsing. What I am hoping is that it will let me consume more ideas than I would get from either skimming SSRN abstracts (broad but shallow) or reading long-form articles (deep but time consuming). I am hoping that it will open me up to more moments of serendipity, which is what I ultimately need.