Sam Bagenstos (from Wash U) has some very interesting comments on my post, Belle Lettre on "Packaging":
Like you, I think the toolkit and the knack for interesting problems are key in entry-level hiring. (I guess, though, that I’d add a couple of things: (1) lots of law professors even at top schools don’t have “excellent doctrinal skills,” I hate to tell you; and (2) I wouldn’t confuse a “toolkit” with a “discipline” – big parts of a toolkit might be sharp analytical skills, the ability and inclination to draw lessons from a variety of disciplines, and intellectual judgment of various kinds.) But “packaging” – not of the “what courses shall I teach” kind, but of the “how do my projects connect to my toolkit” kind – does tell you something about an entry-level scholar. When a candidate can intelligently discuss an interesting research agenda that connects to her skills, you’re learning an awful lot – even if she never actually writes any of the pieces in that agenda. Similarly, telling a coherent story about how one’s teaching interests connect to one’s current and anticipated writing projects helps a committee learn more about the iceberg of the person’s intellectual ambitions than can be gleaned from the current written works that are at the tip. If someone has written three pieces, about wildly different topics (or using wildly different methodologies), and none is brilliant (and it’s the rare entry-level candidate who’s written brilliant work), it raises questions for me about intellectual focus and dilettantism. I want people who can make a real contribution to their field (which could be defined doctrinally or disciplinarily), and most people can’t do that by just dipping in and out.
I mostly agree with Sam--these are sharp and accurate points. I might disagree a bit about the relationship between "tools" and "disciplines." (Although I am guessing a bit about Sam's precise point and we may not disagree at all.) From my perspective, if a candidate has a "discipline" other than law, that is not in itself a positive factor. This may sound surprising, since I am obviously a big fan of interdiscipinary work: I have an appointment in philosophy, I regularly attend meetings of the American Philosophical Association, the American Political Science Association, and the Law and Society Association. I'm on editorial boards in two other disciplines, and do peer review in three other disciplines. So what's going on? In my opinion, the very best legal scholarship is "multidisciplinary" but focused from within the study of law. The very best legal scholars are conversant with some combination of law and economics, empirical methods, normative legal theory, and positive political theory--as well as the conventional skills of a legal academic, e.g, case or code crunching, legal hermeneutics, etc. There are some very fine legal scholars whose orientation is mostly or exclusively focused on the standards and values of a discipline other than law, e.g. they are primarily economists or political scientists or historians. But none of these disciplines provides the toolkit that is appropriate to a complete and sophisticated analysis of a legal problem. A pure economist who lacks sophisticated normative skills cannot make a complete argument for or against a legal rule; a philosopher who has no empirical or economic skills is likely to make arguments based on naive and false assumptions about the consequences of legal rules.
So if I were advising Belle on her approach to a graduate program (LLM plus SJD) that is designed to make her the best legal scholar she can become, I would emphasize the development of a toolkit that provides for comprehensive analysis of legal problems and I would discourage her from attempting to make herself into a sociologist or an economist or a philosopher.
Oh, and by the way, I take the point that Sam makes in his third sentence, "lots of law professors even at top schools don’t have “excellent doctrinal skills"--worrisome indeed. In many cases, when an appointments commitee detects shoddy legal skills, that is the end of the candidacy.
Thanks to Sam for permission to post his excellent comments.