Don’t Disparage

January 7th, 2023 / By

The AALS Annual Meeting is wrapping up here in San Diego. I’ve attended several terrific panels, enjoyed time with old and new friends, and had many engaging conversations. But one comment from this meeting will particularly stick with me. Those are some words from Dean Danielle Conway, uttered during an “author meets reader” session focused on Joan Howarth’s superb new book, Shaping the Bar.

“Legal educators,” Dean Conway said, “should stop disparaging one another.” I thought immediately of all the cutting comments I’ve heard (and, I confess, made) over the decades of my academic career. But Dean Conway’s point referred to more than this individual sniping. She noted that whenever we say things like “top-20 law school,” “national law school,” or “top law school,” we implicitly disparage other law schools. And we use those attributions to cloak ourselves in the same kind of gauzy prestige that we purport to deplore in US News.

Why do we so often feel the need to define ourselves as better than others? Or to define ourselves in ways that sharpen divisions in the legal academy? “I teach at a school that values scholarship.” “I teach at a school that values teaching.” “I’m a theory person.” “I’m a hands-on practice person.”

I’m not naive enough to think that we can erase comments that implicitly disparage others. And sometimes it is worthwhile to talk about our differences, especially if we can move past rhetoric to talk about the actions behind those words. How exactly does your school value scholarship or teaching? Is it possible to value both equally? Why not?

But even if we can’t eliminate comparative identifications from our conversations, I’d like us at least to note those phrases when they occur. Was it necessary to refer to a school as a “national one”? Or to note that a friend teaches at a “top 20 law school”? As Dean Conway so acutely points out, we cast a lot of negativity with those phrases.


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