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A Forum at YLS for Young Legal Scholars from across the Country

Experience meets youth when legal scholars from around the country convene at the Stanford/Yale Junior Faculty Forum. The annual forum, which will meet in May this year, aims to close the gap between what law school's teach and the scholarship performed by legal faculty by bringing together junior scholars and their more experienced colleagues. After its first two iterations, the innovative program has been described by its participants as "fabulous" and "one of the best educational experiences I've had."

A common tack for legal scholars following graduation from law school is to clerk for a judge for one to two years and then gain professional experience working in a law firm or other organization. Despite their years of schooling and practical training, when the new legal scholars join the academy (unlike Ph.D. graduates) they have not received formal instruction in the methods and mores of research and scholarship.

And so, the SYJFF invites these junior scholars--specifically those with between one and seven years experience teaching in a law school--to submit unpublished papers in a wide range of topics. Each submission is reviewed by a jury of accomplished scholars, and between eight and ten papers are finally selected to be presented at the SYJFF. The selected junior scholars gain experience presenting an academic work and having their work reviewed and critiqued by experts in their field.

The goal is not only to deal with the specific ideas in each paper, but also to evaluate the general approach to scholarship. "I was well trained in law school to do lots of things, but not to write scholarly papers," says Alan Schwartz, one of the cofounders of the SYJFF and Sterling Professor of Law at YLS. He says it took him years to master the process on his own. And as a senior professor participating in the hiring process, he saw junior scholars struggling with the same challenge. A colleague of Schwartz's, Ronald J. Gilson, the Charles J. Meyers Professor of Law and Business at Stanford Law School, had noticed the same gap in legal training, and the two founded the SYJFF in 1999, with the first meeting in 2000.

Schwartz provides one example of the subtleties of legal scholarship: "One thing that a lot of young scholars have trouble with is distinguishing between a positive and a normative argument. . . . People tend to blur the two." "Positive" refers to a description of the state of things as they actually are, while "normative" refers to statements about how things ought to be--and keeping the two categories absolutely straight in the course of an argument is essential to establishing the power of a paper's conclusions. Schwartz also points out that different genres of legal scholarship have their own conventions and expectations, which may not be apparent to a neophyte.

The forum migrates each year between the law schools at Yale and Stanford and changes its focus slightly in each locale. The sessions at Yale deal with public law and the humanities, while conferences at Stanford center on private law and dispute resolution. Annelise Riles, a visiting professor at YLS this year and professor of law at Northwestern University School of Law, presented a paper in the area of international law at the inaugural forum in 2000, and particularly appreciated the depth of attention her work received. The senior scholar evaluating her paper "had read the paper so carefully that she was able to provide a lengthy commentary on three of my footnotes," she says. Riles describes her paper as "experimental," as it applied anthropology to international financial law. And she says that the feedback that she got at SYJFF "helped me to frame what I was trying to do in a way that would showcase its significance."

Michelle Travis, an assistant professor of law at Northwestern School of Law of Lewis & Clark College who participated in the 2001 session, said it was "fabulous" to "receive feedback from the most prominent scholars in the country in different areas of the law . . . [The SYJFF] provided a place to discuss the process of scholarly inquiry itself." She presented a paper titled "A Disability or Not a Disability?" which applied cognitive social psychology to the area of disability law that deals with employment decisions. She particularly valued the input of scholars with perspectives very different from her own, such as law and economics scholars--viewpoints she "wasn't able to tap into easily in any other forum."

In addition to the hard work of scholarship, Schwartz hopes that the forum will help create a "national constituency of scholars," with lines of communication between senior and junior faculty in specific genres and a general sense of community in the field as a whole. Both Riles and Travis mentioned how much they enjoyed interacting with their colleagues during the forum. In fact, Riles described the SYJFF as being like a "candy box" of exciting people and ideas.

Submissions for the conference receive blind evaluation, so the participants come from all over the country, with no bias toward any institution. In addition, the senior scholars who are on the evaluation committees and attend the conference come not only from Yale and Stanford but from Harvard, Columbia, Virginia, and Duke, among others.

Ronald J. Gilson noted at its founding in 1999 that the forum was "the first real effort to create an institution devoted to helping young law school faculty develop their scholarship."

After her experience, Travis made the observation that, in addition to the collegiality and benefit to her own paper, the forum facilitates the production of a lot of outstanding work. Travis's paper is due to be published in the March 2002 issue of the Vanderbilt Law Review, and Annelise Riles reported that her paper from the forum has become the core of a book she's now completing.

It seems that the SYJFF is meeting, if not exceeding, its original goals.