“Hiding your light under a bushel is not a winning strategy”: top law professors give their advice to young academics

October 30, 2014

Author Interviews

Looking back on a long career, what would you do if you could have your time again? We asked Jan SmitsMichael Trebilcock and Mark Tushnet what advice they would give their younger selves.

Professor Jan Smits, Chair of European Private Law at Maastricht University and academic director of the Maastricht European Private Law Institute:

I started my academic career at a time when the study of law was still very much dominated by a doctrinal approach. This approach was certainly the leading one at the department of private law of Leiden University, where I started to work as a PhD-researcher and a lecturer in 1991. This was a closely-knit community of young lecturers and only a few full professors who were housed in their own building at the famous Rapenburg canal.

Young staff members were given lots of freedom in a somewhat anarchistic atmosphere that is hard to find in present-day academia. I thrived here because I could read what I wanted to read, and write what I wanted to write. The only thing relevant was that one produced high quality work and taught students in a stimulating way. I had applied to a position on the reliance principle in the law of contract, apparently did well in the interview, but on the very first day of employment my supervisor told me that in case I had changed my mind and wanted to write about something else, or with another professor, this was also fine. This generosity was typical of the atmosphere of that place and time and almost unthinkable in the university of today.

If I were to start my academic career all over again, I would search for an environment in which I would have this type of freedom combined with a stimulating community of scholars who see each other on a daily basis to discuss their work, so a community in which it does not matter whether one is a full professor or a student because it is the quality of the arguments that matters.

After the PhD, I went away. This was the right decision to make because it broadens your horizon, but I should have gone abroad instead of to another Dutch university. Today, I would surely have tried to teach abroad for a few years right after the PhD.


Professor Mark Tushnet, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law, Harvard Law School:

The U.S. legal academy has changed dramatically in the years since I entered it in 1973, so the advice I would give myself as of 1973 is quite different from the advice I’d give someone entering the legal academy today. Specifically, expectations about scholarship are quite different today.

In 1973 legal scholarship in the United States was primarily doctrinal, examining judicial decisions with an eye to assessing their legal correctness, defined generally in terms of consistency with prior decisions and underlying accounts of the overall structure of the relevant doctrinal field. There were some outliers, fortunately for me including the faculty at the University of Wisconsin Law School, where I started teaching. The faculty there was quite open to “law and society” approaches, which we would now describe as interdisciplinary scholarship drawing (there) primarily on sociology and social history.

Expectations about the rate of scholarly productivity were relatively modest. Faculties differed in their approaches. Probably the most common position was that published scholarship was a relatively small part of the legal academic’s work. Where scholarship mattered, faculties focused on two paths. One was the regular production of relatively small articles, perhaps three pre-tenure; the other was the single large-scale project, the “tenure article,” reasonably broad in vision and ambitious in aspiration.

Today U.S. legal scholarship is different both in subject matter and in quantitative expectations. Although “mere” doctrinal scholarship continues to be produced, the scare quotes indicate that it has lost almost all of its cultural cachet within the legal academy. Interdisciplinary work is now strongly preferred, though the disciplines on which scholars draw are quite varied. This preference interacts with new forms of training for potential legal academics, who now typically have substantial training in both law and some other discipline, either – most commonly – in the form of an advanced degree in a discipline other than law or, less commonly, self-training in some sort of fellowship or quasi-“post doctoral” position.

The interdisciplinary focus affects quantitative expectations as well. The “several small articles” model has been widely displaced. Because doing good interdisciplinary work takes times, the “ambitious and long tenure article” model has risen in prominence, although sometimes legal academics with degrees in another field can draw on their doctoral research to publish several dissertation chapters as free-standing articles.

In short, the advice I would give myself today is something like this: Write fewer but longer and more ambitious articles.


Professor Michael Trebilcock, Professor of Law and Economics, University of Toronto Faculty of Law:

Looking back at the first ten years of my academic career, I have two major regrets:

First, I did not engage seriously enough with the interdisciplinary dimensions of areas of research interest to me in a way that the issues demanded, and I have continued to regret not having better formal training in another discipline.

Second, I treated scholarship (like many academics of an earlier generation) as a solitary affair, where one worked quietly on one’s own on an academic paper and slipped it of to an often local legal journal where peer review was minimal to non-existent. I have subsequently come to appreciate the enormous value of circulating successive drafts to colleagues with shared interests, both in one’s home institution and in other institutions, for critical comment, while at the same time seizing onto opportunities to present successive drafts at conferences, workshops, symposia etc and incorporating critical comments and constructive suggestions in further revisions to drafts. I now quite commonly go through five or six drafts of a paper in this iterative process, and prefer to submit major papers to peer reviewed journals where further critical feed-back can be expected. This process of successive revisions to major papers enormously improves their quality. Developing a thick skin to criticism is a precondition to effective participation in such a process.

And finally, I would add that strutting your stuff (assuming you have stuff to strut) is important in attracting attention and career opportunities. Hiding your light under a bushel is not a winning strategy.


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