December 31, 2009
Using the Mosaic Theory to Develop a Research Agenda
Posted by Trey Drury

First, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone!  After spending several days exposing my kids to snowball fights, ice skating, and sledding with the in-laws, I'm back in New Orleans grading exams.

Last week, I promised to explain how candidates on the law professor job market could use the mosaic theory of developing scholarship to their advantage when developing a research agenda.  Several folks have discussed the basics of a research agenda and its role in the hiring process over the years.  My purpose is to provide specific advice for those trying to craft a research agenda.

From my brief service on our appointments committee, I've noticed two types of mistakes that candidates make.  The first type, creating an under-theorized research agenda, simply lists a series of proposed future articles without clearly explaining the connection or theme among the articles.  The second type, an over-theorized agenda, proposes to accomplish some grand goal but does not provide a concrete set of steps that will actually achieve that goal.

Using the mosaic theory will help avoid either of those two mistakes.  Here's how.

Most entry level candidates have written or are writing an article or two by the time they are on the market.  These are the first tiles in a candidate's mosaic.  You, the candidate, need to ask yourself - what about this article interests me?  Why did I pick this topic?   Thinking hard about this question leads to a slightly higher level of generalization.  Once you've arrived at this level, you have found the palette of your mosaic - are you using greens, blues, earth tones, etc.  This palette is the theme of your research agenda.  Now, think about another issue or two or three that reflects the same concerns.  Those will be your next articles, the new tiles you are trying to place.  It's that easy (and that hard).

If I've learned how to use this blogging software correctly, I'll continue with a concrete example after the jump.

Let's say that you read Gantler v. Stephens at your firm this year, and one of your clients has freaked out that its officers now owe fiduciary duties.  You've researched the area and prepped the partners in your section to advise officers on how, if at all, their obligations have changed.  Based on this experience, you have written an article criticizing Delaware for imposing fiduciary duties on officers without requiring corporations to indemnify those officers who are successful in defending actions brought against them.  You urge revision to DGCL 145 in response to Gantler

You can (and should) use this article to begin your agenda.  You don't need to make bold claims about the theory of the firm, or agency costs, or whether state regulation of corporate governance leads to a race to the bottom. (Although, of course, you can.  If you do, make sure you understand the broader context where you are working, and be familiar with that literature.  If you are not, you are in danger of what I call over-theorizing above.)  Just think long and hard about why you like this topic.  It has to be something more than "I was exposed to this area in practice and developed an expertise in it."  This explanation stinks because, once in the academy, you won't have clients whose problems feed your writing. 

So, why do you find your article fascinating?  Maybe the role of officers interests you.  Maybe you enjoy thinking about the proper use of indemnification, insurance, and exculpation.  Maybe you wonder whether and how the imposition of fiduciary obligations impacts behavior.  The hard part is - you really need to be fascinated by your topic.  If you are not, you will not persuade others that it is fascinating.  You will probably fail to convince them that it is even mildly interesting.  Passionate candidates give great interviews, get faculties excited, and get offers of employment.

Let's say you are intrigued by the role of officers in a corporation, and the impact of potentially expanding legal liability on officer behavior.  That is the palette of your mosaic and the theme of your research agenda.  Now you need to think of concrete applications of this theme.  Those will be your next proposed articles, the new tiles in your mosaic.  You could look at whether officers in jurisdictions that impose fiduciary obligations on officers (like Louisiana) behave differently from those in jurisdictions that do not.  You can see how officers who are also directors fare differently from those who are only officers, and try to figure out why.  You can look at liability imposed by federal law on officers and determine what purpose, if any, this additional imposition of liability might serve.

Once you've vetted three or four topics well enough to know that you can write an article about them, you've got a coherent research agenda.

Finally, I am not advocating the abdication of fundamental questions.  Rather, I am arguing that this incremental approach to scholarship might inform our perspective on these questions.  Then, when addressing the big picture, we might be in a position to make a more meaningful contribution.

Happy New Year to all!

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