July 18, 2006
Should Young Scholars Engage in Empirical Legal Research?
Posted by Lisa Fairfax

I am at the SEALS annual conference and getting a chance to see some interesting panels as well as workshops for new law professors. One panel I attended focused on new developments in empirical legal research. Although the work in which people were engaged sounded interesting, each panelist asked the question, should young scholars engage in such research? The answer appeared to be no, with some qualifications. There were essentially four reasons why people responded no to the query.

First, the research takes a long time, too long for people on a tenure clock.

Second, data that is not public is extremely hard to get, feeding into the first problem and potentially undermining the saliency of the study.

Third, the finished written product is generally not that long and possibly too scientific for traditional scholarship, making it difficult to place the article in a traditional law review, and hence potentially undercutting the weight given to the article during tenure review.

Fourth, for purposes of external reviews associated with tenure and promotion, it is difficult to find outside people who can evaluate the work. And apparently if you find someone with a social science background who understands how to conduct empirical research, there is the possibility that she will be overly critical if the law professor fails to appropriately defend her methodology for the study.

Alas, there were some who encouraged young scholars to pursue empirical research saying that it was rewarding, that young scholars could develop a theory piece first so that they were not relying solely on their empirical article for tenure purposes, and that young scholars can team up with people from other disciplines to help with the research and writing. Of course this last point raises the concern that during the tenure process some may discount the work because they could not discern which portion of it should be attributed to the young scholars.

Overall, there was a strong and I think familiar undercurrent against taking on this kind of research as a young scholar.

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