Another frank and interesting post from Belle Lettre, entitled The Perils of Packaging. The post discusses much of the career advice that the anonymous Belle has received from advisors at the LLM program at "Liberal Law School"--a big prestigious place with a liberal reputaton that we can infer from various hints is not Yale (which must be "Elite Secret Society Law School"). Belle writes about advice to write on particular topics to create a "package." Here is a taste:
So there is much to think about, now that I'm at the very beginning of the journey. Do I continue to stumble my way towards my goal, turning on a dime at the suggestions of others towards new paths of scholarship? Or do I take what I'm doing now, and make sure that it becomes a very tight, coherent package in 5 years? Do I dare take on a project on welfare reform law? Do I dare apply for a visiting scholarship to France or England to work on comparative federalism theory in 3 years?
The perils of packaging is that it is that packaging limits you to a certain box, of a certain size, and of a certain shape. If I continue to work on my beloved federalism and employment discrimination law, I could easily find ways to integrate the two and start work on ERISA preemption, state sovereignty issues with the various anti-discrimination laws, etc. etc. But if I wanted to move off on a tangent towards a project on welfare reform and the regulation of states through the spending and taxing power, can I or should I? Is that employment law enough? does it sound like a weird migration? What if I shift from doing American federalism to do a comparative federalism project? Do I dare?
One comment about Belle's post. In a way, the advice that she is getting seems somewhat "old fashioned" to me. As many readers of Legal Theory Blog know, I'm the Chair of the Appointments Committee at Illinois. If I were giving advice to someone who was starting a graduate program to prepare to become a legal academic in the United States, my mantra would be "tool set" and not "package." The idea of a package is based on the notion that hiring is driven by the traditional doctrinal paradigm--you hire someone for their course package and aligned scholarly interests--all based on the doctrinal categories that define courses and "fields." And a lot of hiring does work like that. But increasingly appointments committees are looking for candidates who have high-powered tools and who have demonstrated a knack for selecting interesting problems.
What do a I mean by "tools"? Well, I think most appointments committees assume that competitive candidates have excellent doctrinal skills--that they can crunch cases, statutes, rules, code, etc. Increasingly, what separates candidates is the possession of some significant set of interdisciplinary tools--the ability to do law and economics, normative legal theory (moral and political philosophy), to do empirical work (data acquisition and analysis), to deploy PPT (positive political theory or "game theory" applied to political problems), and so forth. If I were advising someone who was just starting a postgraduate legal education, I would counsel that their projects should enable them to develop and master some transdisciplinary tool set.
What do I mean by a knack for selecting interesting problems? To tell you the truth, I'm not quite sure. I know that nothing can kill a candidate with great credentials more effectively than a boring project. I know that a candidate who looks marginal on paper can come alive in an interview of job talk if they have a really intriguing project. A really interesting problem is likely to be something that hasn't been worked to death. A really interesting problem is likely to have a clear normative payoff--an impact on the shape of legal doctrine. And a really interesting project is likely to have some quality of intellectual complexity or beauty. All I can really say is that "I know it when I see it."
This is not to say that "packaging" one's doctrinal focus is a bad idea. Of course, it's a good idea. Lot's of law schools do "slot based" hiring, and for them, you need to fit into a slot. But candidates with a really great toolkit and a knack of selecting interesting projects are likely to be perceived as having the ability to fit the available slot so long as it isn't too distant from their package. And being a legal academic isn't (or shouldn't be) about getting the right job and settling in to a slot. It should be about intellectual growth and discovery--which surely involves transcending one's "package."
For what its worth.