August 15, 2008
Joy in Legal Academe
Posted by Gordon Smith

I love being a law professor. Love it.

Many days, I wish I could be better at it. Some days, I wish I could do other things, too. But this career is all consuming, and I have never regretted pursuing it.

So I was profoundly saddened by Jim Chen's confession: "I enthusiastically try to make legal education worthwhile for others even though — and arguably because — I wish I had followed almost any other career path besides the one I took."

Jim was responding to Bill Henderson's excellent post on ELS Blog on building "school-specific" capital, which he views as the secret sauce in creating "wonderful places to work." Bill describes school-specific capital as "desirable law school attributes, such as innovative curriculum, public service reputation, alumni good will, that remains largely intact when a professor leaves." Bill and I were talking about similar themes just the other day, and this post is a treasure. Here are a few paragraphs in which Bill diagnoses the problem:

Law schools with high levels of school-specific capital can be wonderful places to work.  Conversely, schools that have squandered their school-specific capital in the single-minded pursuit of scholarship can be spiritually depleting. This was the experience of Julius Getman (Texas Law).  In this book, In the Company of Scholars (1992), Getman reflects upon his annual ritual in the 1960s of attending the AALS annual meeting in the hopes of generating a lateral offer. Eventually he moved from Indiana to Stanford to Yale, with visits at Cornell and Chicago along the way.  But in the end, he was largely disillusioned with the professional satisfactions of being at the top of the hierarchy.  Academics at elite institutions were often insecure, elitist, focused on personal agendas, and uninterested in solving real world problems.  (This may be true at all institutions, suggests Getman, but only more so at the very top of the food chain.)


I suspect a lot of law professors aspire to work at institutions that are committed to being "effective", "useful" and "enjoyable" from the perspective of all stakeholders--that is school-specific capital.  But most of our discourse does not reflect a understanding of how such institutions are created.  Most of us want to believe the most prestigious schools are such places; that way we don't have to do much original thinking.

[B]uilding and/or maintaining an effective, useful, and enjoyable institution requires a critical mass of scholars who are willing behave in ways that may undercut their currency in the lateral market -- e.g., creating a new law school program, teaching a labor-intensive skills-based course, and attending alumni and student mixers rather than writing another law review article.  When colleagues leave for "better" schools, momentum toward firm-specific capital is undermined.  I know a few schools take pride in their "feeder" status; yet, I have gradually concluded that this line of thinking as an unproductive rationalization.  When the faculty is churning too much, there is no continuity or buy-on for time horizons that are needed for truly ambitious institution building. Success is equated with exit.

The trick, then, according to Bill, is to create school-specific capital. Is this sort of capital necessarily separate from scholarship? Consider the post earlier this week by Brayden at on "Creating a Community of Scholars." The post describes an aspiration for an academic institution, and at the core of that aspiration is scholarly achievement. Brayden quotes an email from a reader:

The prior administration has attempted to pursue a more scholarly direction by adopting the usual trappings of scholarship support: generous conference funding, summer research grants, research leaves, works-in-progress sessions, annual conferences, etc. But something is missing. As I have spoken to my colleagues, some of us have concluded that we provide nice support for research, but we don’t really provoke research. Most of my colleagues suggest that we have the wrong incentives in place — insufficient consequences for failing to do research, for example — but I am not convinced that this is a game of incentives. Or at least that there isn’t more.

Perhaps this is like playing the piano. You can play all of the notes that Beethoven wrote, but still be lacking expression. Similarly, we can structure the incentives to promote scholarship, and we will get more, but will it inspire us and advance knowledge? I don’t want someone who is laboring over an article simply to get the completion bonus that we now offer. I want them to labor over the article because they have a thirst for knowledge. Intrinsic motivation.

So my question is this: does this have anything to do with organizational structure? How does one structure an organization to encourage the development of intrinsic motivation?

This prompted a thoughtful comment:

What the writer seems to be describing is joy. There’s very little in the literature about designing organizations to promote joy. Where org design is about predictability and repeatability in coordination and cooperation, the rewards of intrinsic motivation are… intrinsic. I just can’t think of a way to structure Coltrane’s classic quartet to produce the joy I think I hear in Coltrane’s phrasing. I don’t know how to configure Wilco to get the quality of creation Jeff Tweedy produces in each new iteration. If there is an optimal organization design to produce joy, that’s the article of the year.

Hmm. This seems right, as far as it goes. Good organizational design alone does not produce joy. But it seems to me that Bill is saying something closely related, namely, that bad organizational design can suck the joy right out of a job. (Perhaps this is the source of Jim Chen's and Julius Getman's frustrations?) My takeaway from Bill's post: give joy a chance.

The tougher problem comes under the heading "Solutions." Bill struggles with that, even when pushed to clarify by Jeff Lipshaw. (Unfortunately, Bill's example of building school-specific capital is a professor who lateralled away from the school where the capital was supposedly created.) Still, I believe that some organizations have the sort of magnetic attraction that Bill describes in his original post, and I believe that law schools can develop that sort of magnetic attraction around a culture of scholarship. I will have more to write about this in the future, but in my view, the key is encouraging the notion that the production of scholarship is not a monk-like experience, but a community effort. If you have ever been part of an intellectual community, you know that they are wonderful places to work and hard places to leave.

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