Paul L. Caron

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Why Are Law Professors So Unhappy?

Tax Prof Michael Livingston (Rutgers-Camden) blogged earlier this month about Why Are Law Professors So Edgy?  The reasons:

A friend of mine has come up with a novel explanation as to why law professors, who would seem to have a pretty privileged life, are so persistently uneasy...

[T]he professorate, according to my friend, is one of the few activities that is (a) very competitive, (b) primarily personal (that is, noncooperative) in nature, and (c) almost entirely devoid of objective standards that might be used to measure success or failure in the activity. Competitive, both because of the kind of people who go into it and the endless run of tenure, promotions, offers at supposedly better institutions or publications, and so forth. Individual, because our teaching and scholarship is with very limited exceptions done alone. But almost entirely subjective, because beyond the sheer volume of articles or citations, no one has ever come close to a rigorous system for evaluating academic performance or even what such a system would try to measure.... .

Like Einstein's theory of relativity, my friend's insight is deceptively simple but has enormous explanatory power. I have often marvelled at how a group of people with nearly 100 percent job security, writing articles that have no discernible impact on the world outside academia, both work so hard and are so obsessively worried about their standing in the pecking order. The answer is provided by the theory: they behave in this manner because they are doomed to compete, without anyone else to share the responsbility, in an activity in which they can never know whether they have succeeded or even what succeeding might mean. Like musicians singing to an empty hall, or athletes playing in an abandoned stadium, they have only themselves and a few ephemeral signposts--a good law review cover, a visit at a nominally "prestige" law school, what have you--to signal that they are advancing in their quest. It is a bitter fate indeed, although presumably someone has to do it.

Dave Hoffman (Temple) responds in Making Law Professors Happy:  "This makes the world I live in look quite grim, and I don't know that I buy the descriptive claim. Are professors any more unhappy than doctors, accountants, GM workers, or real lawyers? I doubt it.."

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I am not sure law professors are less happy than anyone else is. I am quite sure that they are more eloquent in expressing their unhappiness. I think we're probably ahead of GM workers, at least for now.

Posted by: michael livingston | Mar 26, 2006 8:59:11 AM

"Aren't law professors "real lawyers?"

Nope. Trust me. I have made the mistake of putting one on my payroll. Damn near worthless he was.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz | Mar 25, 2006 11:02:44 PM

The question "Are professors any more unhappy than doctors, accountants, GM workers, or real lawyers?" caught my eye. Aren't law professors "real lawyers?"

Posted by: Stuart Levine | Mar 25, 2006 9:25:58 AM