The Audiences for Legal Scholarship

Shapiro and Pearse’s latest study of the most-cited law review articles has inspired a lot of blogging and commenting about the proper audience for legal scholarship. This topic arises from time to time, so I wanted to offer some thought on it.

In my view, what makes legal scholarship so interesting is that there are many different audiences for it. The field of law wears many hats. It is a profession, a subject of public debate, a means of governance, and an academic field connected to many other academic fields. Legal scholarship can legitimately focus on any or all of these roles, and therefore any of these audiences. It can choose an audience of practicing lawyers (the profession), judges or lawmakers (the means of governance), other academics in law (the academic field), academics in other fields (the connections to other fields), or even the public (the subject of public debate).

In my view, all of these audiences are perfectly legitimate. The goal of legal scholarship is to offer insight into the legal system, and it can do so in different ways. Some insights happen to be ones useful to practicing lawyers; others to academics; others to judges; others to the public. In my view, it’s short-sighted to say that any one of these audience is the “right” audience. It’s human nature to think that one should be the focus, I suppose. Everyone in the legal system thinks that they should be the audience: Judges want more scholarship relevant to judges, practicing lawyers want more scholarship relevant to practicing lawyers, etc. In my view, though, the field of law serves too many roles for that. The proper audience for a particular idea about the law depends on the idea. As long as the idea offers insights into the legal system, then authors should pick the audience most interested in that insight and address that audience.

I don’t mean to suggest that I necessarily approve of the current distribution of audience choices found in legal scholarship today. Being ambitious people, many legal academics focus on the audience that is most likely to advance their careers. Law professors are hired and promoted by other legal academics and spend their time hanging out in an academic environment, so they tend to care about impressing other academics first and other audiences second. This leads academics to undervalue other audiences, I think. Some professors will strain to make whatever points they can to try to impress an academic audience (especially at higher-ranked schools) even if it means overlooking much more important insights that might be of significant interest to other audiences. But that bias doesn’t change the broader point that all of these audiences are valuable ones.