As I hinted in yesterday's post, I am now formally affiliated with a law firm. Since the 1st of the current year, I have been "Special Counsel" at Dewey & LeBoeuf, the post-merger name of the former Dewey Ballantine and LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae. Over the course of the last several years, I have collaborated with Dewey Ballantine on an ad hoc basis, with my work on the constitutional challenge to NAFTA Chapter 19 being the most substantial case.
Needless to say, I'm delighted with the more formal affiliation. Of course, my primary professional role (both at Columbia for the duration of the current academic year and at Cornell beginning in July) remains that of scholar and teacher, but in forging an ongoing relationship with a law firm, I'm hoping to continue to bridge what I regard as a widening gap between the world of practicing lawyers and the academic world.
I certainly do not subscribe to the view that legal academics must be practicing lawyers in order to make a positive contribution to scholarship and teaching. There is room in the academy for a great many approaches, and some of the most important insights will often come from people whose principal expertise is in an allied field---such as history, philosophy, economics, and the social sciences more broadly. People with training in these fields may lack the inclination to maintain a (or ever to set) foot in the world of legal practice.
Nonetheless, I also think that it would be a great shame if the legal academy were to divorce itself completely from the practice of law. More than a few senior scholars who used to be lawyers go to the well of dated experience for problems to elucidate, when a more active involvement with current cases (a term I use broadly to include transactional lawyering as well as litigation) would alert them to new problems. I speak here from personal experience. My work on the NAFTA case gave rise to two law review articles on problems I never would have thought about were it not for encountering them in the course of a real-world case.
Of course, there are risks involved in wearing multiple hats, the most obvious being the potential for a conflict of interest. If I represent a client who would be advantaged by the law moving in direction X, that might "corrupt" my academic judgment, leading me to argue in favor of position X when my best objective analysis might lead me to favor Y. But I think this risk is both overstated and easily managed. It is overstated because all legal analysis is affected by the totality of a scholar's experience. Pro bono representation of a client, no less than paid representation, can "corrupt" a scholar's views, because once a lawyer takes on a client, she is obligated to make all the best arguments she can for that client's benefits. Thus, even if you are led to represent a client pro bono by agreement with his cause, your duty of loyalty may lead you to take positions on his behalf with which you do not fully agree---and those positions can then affect your scholarly work in exactly the same way that positions taken on behalf of paying clients can. One can avoid these problems by not representing any clients, whether or not for a fee, but only at the cost of distancing oneself from the advantages of continued experience.
Moreover, to the extent that the problem is real (and I acknowledge that it can be), the proper remedy should be full disclosure. Whenever I have written about a subject that came out of or was even slightly related to my representation of a client, whether pro bono or for a fee, I have disclosed that fact in the relevant work, thus putting the reader on notice that she should be only as persuaded as my argument warrants (not that readers should ever be persuaded for any other reasons).
I think it unlikely that a scholar will often disingenuously advance an argument just so it can serve the interests of a client. More often, the risk will be of a kind of chilling effect: the scholar will avoid some subjects altogether because her duty of loyalty to the client prevents her from stating, in an academic article, positions adverse to the client's interests. I think this probably happens from time to time, and it is a cost of representing clients, but one I judge worth absorbing for the benefits of engagement described above.
As I am not one easily subject to chilling effects, I should say now for the record that the views expressed by me on this blog and in all my work under my own name are entirely my own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Dewey & LeBoeuf or its clients, or Columbia, or Cornell, or anybody else.
Posted by Mike Dorf