AALS: A Modest Dissent
posted by Robert Ahdieh
Many thanks to Dan for the welcome, and to all the Concurring Opinion permabloggers for inviting me to visit. As a long-time reader, I’m glad to make my first – and hopefully not last – foray into the blogosphere here.
In posts preceding the recently concluded Association of American Law Schools (AALS) Annual Meeting, Brian Leiter and Orin Kerr respectively questioned the intellectual content, and suggested the underwhelming quality, of AALS conference programming – or at least that part of the “programming” that occurs in the hotel’s ballrooms, as opposed to its lobby and various hallways, and at an array of nearby restaurants and bars. This critique is hardly unique to them, moreover. Rather, it seems to constitute the conventional wisdom.
Having spent almost three days last week not simply “at AALS” in the abstract, but actually at the conference site (I’m close enough to the City not to have devoted time to shopping and sightseeing), I thought I would devote my first post to offering a modest dissent from the Leiter, Kerr, et al. critique.
Of course, there is the standard defense of the AALS annual meeting as an occasion for systematic schmoozing – a species of speed dating for law professors. (On this count, I might note that this year’s venue – the Hilton New York – had some real strengths. One could basically set oneself on an infinite loop up and down the escalators at either end of the second and third floor (see the 3-D tour) – where most of the schmoozing took place – for the entire weekend.) But a defense of schmoozing would be too easy: What’s not to like about it? Instead, I want to suggest that AALS may have merit of the intellectual variety, notwithstanding Brian and Orin’s critique.
In essence, this possibility turns on the distinct nature of the intellectual payoff that one might get from AALS, versus the specialist meetings of scholars (e.g., the American Law & Economics Association (ALEA); Law & Society) that Brian highlights as alternative, more intellectually stimultating venues for legal academics to meet. I emphatically agree that the latter offer far better occasions to engage with cutting-edge scholarship – and, in light of the critique of AALS as a schmooze-fest, with cutting-edge scholars – in one’s field. I have long described ALEA as one of my favorite conferences, given a combination of its content and format, and also enjoy the annual meetings of the American Society of International Law and the American Society of Comparative Law.
Perhaps the AALS offers intellectual benefits of a different variety, however. Thinking about the Leiter, Kerr, et al. critique of the AALS annual meeting as I reviewed the weekend’s schedule, I was struck by my ability to identify a substantial number of sessions I was interested to attend, and individual panelists I was interested to hear.
Reviewing my various markings and notations, further, I realized that the panels highlighted often fell well beyond my research interests in the substantive areas of corporate and securities law, contracts, and international trade, and in institutional implications of administrative law, regulation theory, and federalism. Among other sessions, I’d marked panels on judicial independence, empirical research, access to justice, disability rights, the Supreme Court’s approach to religious doctrine, the future of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and the Fourteenth Amendment. (Apologies to the many other ones I also found interesting, but have left off this list…)
Perhaps, it occured to me, I was doing something different at AALS than I do at ALEA, ASIL, and other more focused scholarly gatherings. Perhaps I was feeding a different intellectual need. Perhaps, more specifically, the AALS annual meeting was an occasion to explore areas of general interest, lying beyond my areas of scholarly emphasis.
The AALS annual meeting, in this perspective, might be seen as a way to preserve some part of our generalist capacities as legal academics. Even as specialization – quite appropriately, in many respects – increasingly becomes the norm among legal academics, it might be that AALS offers us an opportunity to get a taste of other areas of research and study, be they one degree or many removed from our particular areas of research.
If so, it might help to justify the relatively more limited intellectual stimulation we get from AALS panels in our own field. As I heard it said repeatedly over the weekend – to one well-versed in the relevant subject, the content of most panels felt like a reporting of recent, yet familiar, research; like a review of old ground, etc., etc. To the relative outsider, however, the same panel may have offered a useful window of insight, into issues under discussion in the field.
To be clear, I do not mean to posit the foregoing as the intention of the AALS annual meeting organizers, or even as descriptive of the patterns of panel attendance, among the vast majority of AALS attendees. It might, however, constitute some defense of the AALS annual meeting – or at least something like the AALS annual meeting – as an intellectual venue for legal academics.