May 18, 2011
Becoming a Great Law Professor
Posted by Gordon Smith

Lance Liebman just told a story at the Annual Meeting of the American Law Institute about a conversation with the legendary Harvard Law Professor Austin W. Scott. Among other things, Scott was renowned for his Restatement of Restitution, written with Warren Seavey, who is also well known for his work on agency law. Importantly to this story, Seavey authored eight casebooks, six Restatements (in whole or in part), and roughly twenty law review articles.

Liebman and Scott were colleagues at Harvard, and Scott took Liebman aside one day to offer some advice to a young professor: "To become a great law professor, one must write a casebook, a treatise, and a Restatement ... Seavey never wrote a treatise."

This story does not paint a flattering portrait of Scott, but it illustrates the dramatic change in legal academe since the early 1970s, when this conversation occurred. It is impossible to imagine anyone giving Scott's advice to a young professor today. The sort of doctrinal synthesis that lies at the heart of casebooks, treatises, and Restatements is not highly valued among today's law professors, even though it has real-world value.

What is the measure of a great law professor today? The highest achievement of a law professor today is creating a new concept or theory that is used widely by other academics in the field. In the areas we write about on this blog, many of our foundational ideas were developed by economists or organizational theorists, not law professors, but you might think of the "separation of ownership and control" by Adolf Berle or "transaction-cost engineering" by Ron Gilson. These ideas shape the way we think about the world, and that is no small accomplishment.

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