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What Does a Law Professor Know, Anyway?

Larry Ribstein and Paul Caron each comment on today’s New York Times story on outsourcing legal research by large law firms — to law professors, among other people. The WSJ WSJ law blog picked it up here. Neither Larry nor Paul commented on what I thought was the most interesting part of the piece, which the WSJ blog dismissed as a stone thrown back at the ivory tower:

The more specific a client’s question is and the more detailed the knowledge of an area of law must be to answer it, the safer a big firm’s lawyer is, said David B. Goodwin, a partner at Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe in San Francisco. LRN’s business model is not a threat to such an experienced specialist, he said.

“A professor who teaches what I do for a living, which is insurance law, they don’t know more about the subject than I do,” Mr. Goodwin said. “I know more than they do, because what they do is teach generally. They have a casebook and they go through it every year. I spend 10 hours a day, 12 hours a day, 300 days a year, working on the subject.”

One way to read that passage is that it consists of a self-interested plea of a senior partner whose quarterly draws are largely financed by associates cranking out research memos by the hour. But I think that the comment is worth taking seriously; according to his bio, Goodwin has taught as an adjunct at Boalt, so he’s had more than a taste of the teaching life — if not the life of a tenure-stream faculty member. What intrigues me is what the comment reveals about the disconnect between the academic and practicing sides of the legal profession, that is, the extent to which each group of lawyers really understands what the other one is up to — or doesn’t.

Sure, there are tenured law faculty who teach from a casebook once (or twice) a year and otherwise don’t know much about the detailed workings of the subject matter they teach. (I have to hope, even here, that folks who don’t write in an area that they’re teaching in, or who don’t write at all, at least invest enough time in the material that they *aren’t* simply teaching from the casebook alone.) But a sizable proportion of the professoriate, particularly those who write regularly in the areas in which they teach, know at least as much of the details of the law as any practicing lawyer does, and may well know a useful thing or two about the theory, policy, and history of the law as well.

By the same token, it’s unwise for academics to be dismissive of the day-in-and-day-out practice of actual representation, dispute resolution, and deal negotiation. The criticism is familiar: Theory and policy in the law reviews frequently overwhelms how live lawyers and their clients actually have to live with the prescriptions that we hand out, even — perish the thought — on the off chance that something we postulate might be intended for law-on-the-street, rather than “policymakers” or judges or one another. Theory and policy are important, of course, but it’s wise to remember that our status is often not all so exalted among those who many faculty disdain. No, I don’t practice law any longer, but I did for nearly a decade, and some of my former colleagues, including partners for whom I worked, remain friends of mine.

I don’t have a solution, of course, and I guess that puts me clearly on the academic side of the line. But I can’t shake the sense that the profession as a whole would be better off if all of its parts had a more integrated idea of what we’re about.