Last week, my post on the Ten Most Interesting Articles in 2011 got linked by Professor Alexandra Lahav at the fine Mass Tort Litigation Blog. She recommended my list of ten interesting but unwritten articles to students looking for notes topics, although she cautioned that 

I don’t agree with Mr. Trask’s assessment of my own work, legal academia or what people ought to write about …

Which is a completely fair opinion, even though I’m not entirely sure what those assessments are myself. Leaving aside what I think of Professor Lahav’s work (I’ve featured it three times on this blog, and included it in one "Ten Most Interesting" list–I think her work is thought-provoking and worthy of serious discussion), I recently bemoaned the fact that 2011 was not a great year for interesting class-action scholarship. (Specifically, I complained that too many articles either previewed the same Supreme Court cases, or predicted the death of the class action.) And, in doing so, I stepped into a old debate that has grown heated in the past few months: what is the point of law school (and law professors) anyway?

The sources of that heat make this a particularly important question right now. The cost of legal education keeps rising, and so does legal-sector unemployment. While it grows more expensive, it also appears that legal education is becoming less relevant to actual law practice. Most of us have to justify our existence sometime, and law professors are taking their turn in the hot seat. They’re not all doing it gracefully. While some have been thoughtful, others have been defensive, or self-congratulatory.

So what are legal scholars good for? They have two primary roles: they teach students and they research. I’ll leave the teaching alone because it’s been (let’s just say "too long") since I was in law school, and I don’t currently interview new hires.

But legal scholarship? Here I have an opinion, one that’s been informed by reading pretty much everything published on class actions in the last four years through LEXIS or SSRN. I frequently rely on legal scholarship about class actions, on this blog, in my other writing, and in my own legal work. I think scholarship is more useful than most lawyers realize, even if you do have to sift a lot of silt to get to the gold. Since this is a defense-oriented blog, I focus on scholarship that is useful for class-action defense lawyers, but those are hardly the only worthwhile articles.

But I also think that legal academia is suffering from an ethos problem, one that stems from too much legal scholarship making too little effort to be relevant or interesting to those actually in the law. And, since law review articles may cost as much as $100,000 of student tuition each, that’s a shameful waste of resources.

I’m a firm believer in academic independence. It enables scholars to follow where the facts and law lead for a given problem. That’s something professional advocates can’t do in the same way. And I accept that academic independence means that legal academia will never be merely a free R&D department for private lawyers.

But there is no reason, given the money law students (and, by extension, taxpayers, law firms, and clients) spend to fund those articles should result in so many proposals that ignore current law, faux dissents to existing opinions, jeremiads, or rehashes of the same Supreme Court cases. It should be eminently possible for academics to write articles that are original, useful, and still interesting to read.

So, based on those assumptions (and because I have a book deadline at the end of the week), here are ten simple things legal academics could do to make their work more relevant, and more interesting:

  1. More looking for the overlooked. Professor Miriam Gilles wrote an excellent article on class-action arbitration–in 2005. It was good because lawyers weren’t paying much attention to arbitration at the time. In the past year, as the legal status of class-action arbitration got resolved, we saw a flurry of articles rehashing Professor Gilles, but nothing focusing on emerging trends in numerosity, motions to strike class allegations, or new uses for superiority. Why not? Why weren’t there any professors watching these trends?
  2. More focus on district court cases. Where do you find the overlooked? On the front lines. And those are the trial courts. Based on two years’ work with LEXIS, I can confidently say that the federal court system produces between 50 and 100 opinions in class actions each week. That’s a lot of raw data, and a lot of overlooked trends. Who’s looking there? Hardly anyone. Instead, everyone focuses on the same few appellate cases.
  3. More focus on how the common law actually works. Many law review articles focus on Congressional action, what the Supreme Court should do, or arguments that are just plain contrary to existing law. But it takes little effort to come up with our own wish lists and invoke the genies of a unified Congress or Supreme Court. In our common-law system, most of the real change occurs when lawyers convince a trial court to rule their way. (That then generates those cases for appeal that the Langdell method loves so much.) So why aren’t more articles proposing new arguments for lawyers to make?
  4. More work with primary litigation documents. District court cases shouldn’t even be a cutting edge. Lawyers breed documents like crazy, and in these days of ECF and PACER, it is entirely possible to get access to entire court dockets without leaving the comfort of your office. So why aren’t law professors taking more advantage of these rich seams of raw data? Imagine a survey of the most common commonality arguments. Or the most common discovery requests, and whether they get actual responses.
  5. More natural experiments. There are 13 federal judicial circuits, 89 federal district courts, and 50 state court systems. Each of these has different judges, and come up with subtly different lines of cases. Economists love stuff like this; it means they can test all kinds of crazy theories. Why haven’t our law professors done that? Got two different rules on experts at class certification? You can test how that affects certification rates, or filings of class actions. Where are these articles?
  6. More predictions and more followups. Scientists make predictions, and then follow up on them later. Legal scholars make predictions ("The class action will die soon!") but rarely follow up on them. And yet, the followup is the most informative part. It even adds some drama–everyone loved when Oprah would revisit her best stories.
  7. More changing of minds. Unless a scholar knows everything when she starts out, she should encounter facts that will change her views at points. (It’s certainly happened to me.) Yet we rarely see that in scholarship.  Depaul professor Mark Moller recently did so in an interesting article on due process arguments. Why isn’t this more common in articles? From a rhetorical standpoint, it adds credibility to an argument. And from a human-interest standpoint, it adds some drama.
  8. Less overt ideology. Academics are certainly free to root for whomever they want and vote for whomever they like. But the ideal of the academic is that she is free to go where the facts lead. The appearance of partiality can harm even disciplines that should be immune from political controversy. So why not leave the partisanship to the lawyers and think tanks and tackle questions without preconceptions? I guarantee scholarship that aims toward neutrality is more useful to judges, and there is no question articles would be more interesting if we couldn’t predict the results just from the author’s name.
  9. More fact-checking. Plaintiffs make one claim. (Class actions as a whole deter corporate wrongdoing.) Defendants argue the opposite. (Class actions in practice overdeter by focusing on government investigations.) The factual debate has a real impact on which legal rule is a better idea. Who’s right? Legal scholars are ideally placed to referee these debates, particularly if they’re seen as open-minded and not overtly ideological. 
  10. More identification of stakes. Legal debates happen for a reason, and it’s rarely just that one side is good and the other is not. Instead, specific arguments often involve specific strategic and tactical choices in litigation. Identifying the practical stakes to various legal positions helps to put those debates in context–for students, for judges, and for practitioners new to an area.

These suggestions are simple, but not easy. Fact-checking takes work. Convincing student editors that district-court rulings have merit will be a slog. But they should lead to scholarship that’s both interesting to read and actually relevant to how lawyers argue (and judges decide) cases.

I’ve had my fill of top ten lists, and I’m sure you have too. Next week, we’re back to the usual "case and a thought" method. So come back then for the classic case In re General Motors Pick Up Truck Fuel Litigation, and a review of Judge Posner’s How Judges Think.