Friday, May 20, 2011

Barry Friedman on Getting a Legal History Job at a Law School

Friedman (quoted from part of a very interesting paper about his writing of a historical book without formal historical training):
As welcoming as the legal academy has been to various disciplines, historians seem to have a hard go at it when it comes to law school hiring, a curious fact given that—as Novak observes—the legal academy at times seems history-obsessed. There is a
reason: because as interdisciplinary as the legal academy tries to be, it (more or less) continues to insist that members of that academy pursue questions germane to law and society. As broad as that net can be, and from where I sit it is indeed quite broad, historians coming to law from history often appear to be lost in questions of history that bear only a tenuous connection to the broader world. As fascinating as those questions can be, they often have no apparent relationship to law.

From my own experience as a longstanding member of my law school's appointments committee, and as someone obviously sympathetic to the hiring of legal historians, I throw out another, related, thing to consider. Outside the very top, wealthiest law schools, most law schools either don't want to, or can't afford, to hire a "pure historian". It's not (necessarily) that they object to legal history as a methodology. Rather, they want to be sure that (a) faculty hires are able to cover big classes, such as first-year classes; and (b) that they will be interested in and able to interact on an academic basis with their non-historian colleagues.

This means, in short, that being a really good historian won't be enough to get you a job at most law schools--you have to show a real interest in, and talent for, law, and you should also be aware of academic literature and trends outside of history that relate to your project. So, if you are writing a history of laws that prohibited and then allowed women to own property, and an interviewer asks, "is there a public choice story there?" or "how does this relate to Catherine MacKinnon's feminist interpretation of the common law, as expressed in her recent Harvard Law Review article," or, "does this effect how I should teach family law," saying, "well, that's outside the scope of my historical research," much less "what is public choice?" or "who is Catherine MacKinnon?," or "I don't concern myself with modern family law," just isn't going to cut it at most law schools, no matter how good a historian you are.

I know that it's hard enough to get through one's graduate school classes, teaching, and thesis work without also having to worry about relevant non-historical literature. But it is what it is.