Hofstra’s Richard Neumann has made an estimate of the cost of producing a law review article by a professor at a top law school, and says it’s in the $100,000 ballpark. Here is the National Journal article, reporting on a conference on the future of legal education.
His estimate factors in the salary and benefits for a tenured professor at a high-paying school who spends between 30% and 50% of his or her time on scholarship and publishes one article per year. It also takes into account possible research grants, which many schools offer professors to help fund their scholarly work, and the costs for research assistants.
This is intended as a benchmark, of course. Like every other law professor who read this article, I assume, I promptly started reflecting on my costs of scholarly production, and more importantly the factors that go into it, and came up with a different figure (hint: I’m much cheaper, and my conclusion was ... my dean should pay me more!!). (I didn’t come up with an actual figure for myself, but thought it was obvious that I’d be closer to the cost of Hofstra production than Harvard.) But as ballpark estimates go, this is interesting, even if the methodology is controversial because there are so many different ways to count these things.
More broadly, this is another move in an escalating debate as to the value of legal scholarship, whether in relation to its monetary costs of production or any other thing. I’m invested in the enterprise, to be sure, but I do think it’s more complicated than simply an expensive exercise in hierarchical signaling without a lot of value in the signaling materials themselves. I’m not eager to emerge as an ardent defender of the current ways and costs of legal scholarship, but I don’t think it’s worthless by any means (and that includes stuff that to non-academics must surely look pretty valueless, rummaging around in the conceptual foundations of law and jurisprudence, for example).
I can’t imagine returning to the rigidities of the old model of the hegemony of the top law reviews and few if any other mechanisms by which to get one’s ideas out. But I also think that we’re in a very confused state in which, outside of law and economics, the standards for what is good and bad scholarship are not very clear. Those standards are not clear, at least to me – and that leaves aside the further question of whether even “good” scholarship has any use outside the academy. For that matter, the law and economics scholarship sometimes seems to operate according to a Standard of Professional Economist Envy, which is an odd way of outsourcing one’s standards.
Not a day goes by when, working away on something, I don’t regret the implosion of the humanities and its loss as a source of disciplinary authority within the legal academy. While embracing the profoundly altering insights of law and economics and its methods, I don’t embrace the somewhat ludicrous desire by important parts of the legal academy to ape the social sciences in an attempt to find a new source of disciplinary authority. Precisely because I am more grounded in humanities than social science, it occurs to me see this as a question of sensibility, the sensibility of an academic discipline about itself. But it is also hard to blame the academy for that move, given the self-immolation of the humanities as a source of meaning (philosophy excepted, and yet it also lost its traditional place to economics as the mother-discipline standing behind law).
Yet any move to re-invigorate the humanities within law requires academics who are willing to grapple with both humanities and economics. There are some who are willing and able, but it’s hard, partly because law and economics by its nature seeks to find rigor by putting bounds around its models, quite correctly so long as one understands that at some point, one must be willing consider What Lies Beneath, even if it will not fit the tests of rigor. (Bernard Harcourt’s new book comes to mind; I don’t share all of its substantive views (actually, I disagree with much of it, but that’s neither here nor there), but it is a model of engagement with both forms of scholarship, and I admire it very much).
Actually, getting practical, I think a fundamental problem with the current model of scholarly production is that it favors writing over reading. I don’t think legal academics spend much time reading, let alone pondering or puzzling, anymore. The nature of the hierarchical signaling game says that quantity matters more than anything else, because we don’t have common grounds for evaluating quality – law and economics aside – and many of the remaining, crudely social-sciencey but not really, indicators of scholarly impact and all that favor quantity. It’s like an SAT test that imposes no penalties for wrong answers, for one thing. There are no wrong answers; just big piles of stuff to compare to each other. The shift in the economics of book publishing means that lots of things that are just a couple of articles strung together appear as books, which is fine if one likes to have the book in hand – but, let’s be honest, is there any legal academic today who doesn’t have a book contract with Oxford USA?
So I think people – including me – conclude that writing is more important than reading as a career strategy, and prioritize it. Or that the connection between the two is a lot less weighted to the reading side than it once was. Once there is a bias in favor of writing over reading, the writing that is out there contains relatively less stuff that is worth reading, and on it goes. It is true that the nature of law and the fact that it has a hugely “conventional” aspect to it, means that inevitably legal scholarship moves and very little of it can hope to have a shelf life. That’s different, though, from what I think is going on today, in which people are struggling to get their voices heard and which produces an increasing amount of static as a result. Positive feedback loop.
I have, of course, no evidence for any of this (which raises another point – is it possible that the current trends in academic research, toward social science empiricism, for example, are more expensive to produce than traditional legal scholarship – but also more useful even if more expensive?), so I’d be curious particularly what legal academics think goes on in scholarly production. It might just be that I’ve confessed my own solitary scholarly failing, That I Don’t Read Enough, and that everyone else reads day and night before producing new scholarly works. But I sort of doubt it. Also, this is just my musing and this is particularly subject to revising my views.
(Update: To put the point about the humanities as (non)-source of disciplinary authority within the legal academy somewhat differently. One might say that the chief consequence within academic law of the rise of post-modernism has been to cement law and economics as the intellectual crown jewel of the legal academy.)