The Usefulness of Legal Scholarship
posted by Daniel Solove
A reader of my post about the N.Y. Times critique of legal education writes, in regard to the value of legal scholarship:
I happen to be on the editorial board of a T14 law school’s law review, so I have to cite check and read articles regularly. Of those I’ve read, I can’t think of a single one I thought would be useful to a practicing lawyer. The problem is, in my experience, most seem to advocate a fundamental change in philosophy to an area of law that diverges from what precedent would suggest. To me, this seems extremely unhelpful, because A. Lower courts aren’t likely to accept a grand new theory that seems to contradict what SCOTUS is saying, B. As far as I can tell SCOTUS seems not to usually change its theory either, and C. I don’t think most policymakers tend to read law review articles.
This leads me to be inclined to believe that most law review articles are useless. Are you saying my sample is unrepresentative of what’s out there? Or do I simply have a narrower definition of usefulness? Could you perhaps suggest some articles from the past year that in your mind represented useful legal scholarship?
This commentator assumes that usefulness is the equivalent of being accepted by the courts. I quarrel with this view for many reasons:
1. An article can have an influence on cases, even if difficult to demonstrate. Many courts don’t cite law review articles even when they rely on them. Judges are notorious for not being particularly charitable with citations. They often copy verbatim parts of briefs, for example. If a law professor relies on a scholarly work even in a minor way, the professor will typically cite to the work. Not so for courts.
2. Most articles will not change the law. Changing the law is quite difficult, and if most law review articles changed the law, the law would be ridiculously more dynamic than it currently is.
3. No matter what discipline or area, most of the things produced are not going to be great. Most inventions are flops. Most books, songs, movies, TV shows, art works, architecture, or anything produced are quite forgettable and will likely be forgotten. Great lasting works only come around infrequently, no matter what the field.
4. Most people are forgettable too. In the law, most practitioners and judges have been forgotten. Only a few great ones are remembered. Of the judges who are most well-known, it is interesting that many were more theoretical in nature and had a major impact in changing the law — typically in ways law professors might change the law. Think of Benjamin Cardozo, who wrote many articles and books and who radically changed the law. Think of Felix Frankfurter, a former law professor. Think of Louis Brandeis. Think of Oliver Wendell Holmes. These were jurists who were thinkers. They were readers. They were literary. They were writers of scholarship too. Maybe the forgettable practitioners and judges are the ones who ignore legal scholarship.
5. The commentator’s remarks that I quoted above seems to be only focused on judicial decisions. Legal change can occur legislatively as well as through administrative rulemaking. A lot of legal scholarship that critiques the law can have influence in legislatures or with agencies.
6. The commentator writes: “I don’t think most policymakers tend to read law review articles.” I doubt that the Congresspeople themselves read law review articles, but staffers might take a look where relevant. They won’t likely read them cover to cover, but if there’s an article on point that is helpful, I believe they will read it.
7. In my own experience, I’ve found that some of my more theoretical writing has been read frequently by practitioners. My book Understanding Privacy, for example, is a theoretical account of what “privacy” means and why it is valuable. I base my theory on the ideas of Ludwig Wittgenstein and John Dewey, and I cite to a lot of social science literature. More than some of my more so-called “practical” work, it is this book where I receive the most positive feedback from practitioners. In particular, a lot of Chief Privacy Officers in business, government, and education find the book useful.
8. Legal change can be slow. Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis’s The Right to Privacy was a very influential law review article, spawning four privacy torts in a majority of states. They published their article in 1890. Ten years later, the article would have been viewed as a failure. No courts had adopted their theory. No legislatures had adopted their theory. Finally, in 1902, the N.Y. Court of Appeals rejected Warren and Brandeis’s theory. At this point, the legal scholarship naysayers would be saying that Warren and Brandeis’s article would have been a total flop. A dozen years had passed, and a court declined to change its precedent based on the article. But then the N.Y. legislature stepped in and recognized a privacy tort based on the article. And slowly, other courts and legislatures followed. This process was slow. It took about 50 years to unfold.