Charlie Nesson on Empirical Legal Studies: “Just Boring” and “Irrelevant”

June 14th, 2014

The Harvard Crimson has a great article on how the hiring of law professors has evolved from the 1960s till the present. HLS Professor Charlie Nesson was offered a teaching job, which he did not apply for, after graduating Summa Cum Laude, and ready to embark on a clerkship with Justice Harlan. Today, not so much.

Though, Nesson has these hilarious comments about the emerging trend towards more scholarship featuring empirical work:

When brought into the classroom, some professors find these new frameworks to be impractical and overly abstract. But others counter that interdisciplinary approaches enhance legal training by helping students view the law in a broader context.

For Nesson, some of the empirical approaches of today’s law professors are often  “just boring” and “irrelevant.”

“Now they argue from data and think that this is going to be interesting,” said Nesson. “You go to a workshop where someone is delivering a paper, and you wonder, why would you spend your time working at this level of detail on this topic and who can you get to listen to it…It tends to lose me.”

Alan Dershowitz offered a somewhat more tempered approach towards the recent trend in multi-disciplinary scholarship:

For Alan M. Dershowitz, who taught at the Law School for 50 years before retiring last December,  both types of professors are necessary to give students the best possible experience.

“We have to have a balance of people who can teach future lawyers to do what they will be doing as well as philosophers and people with academic backgrounds,” he said. “I think the best teachers are those who have both practical experience and a good base in theory, but I think we need to strike a balance between the Ph.D.s and the practitioners.”

To focus on the practical aspects of law, Dershowitz himself refrained from using hypothetical examples in his own classrooms, instead electing to only use real cases.

“In my own life, I’ve tried to bring my theory into the courtroom and my practice into the classroom, and that’s a combination that’s necessary at the Law School,” said Dershowitz, who defended a number of high profile cases during his career, including the murder trial of football star O.J. Simpson.

As law schools continue to search for this balance, they must remain true to their mission of preparing students to practice law, Dershowitz said.

“We are after all a professional school, and we perform a service to the profession and to the country by turning out superb lawyers, and superb lawyers have to be able to integrate theory and practice,” he said.

Harvard Law School? A Professional school?