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February 04, 2014

What has changed over 10 years? What hasn't?

Ten years ago, when I was asked about joining a blog dedicated to Catholic legal theory, I confess that I wasn’t entirely sure what a blog was.  And while I had some ideas about Catholic legal theory, even those were a bit murky.  I’ve learned a lot about both in the past decade thanks to the merry band of bloggers and readers who have gathered here regularly.

Today I spend a lot more time thinking about Catholic legal education than Catholic legal theory.  Ten years ago may seem like it was a high-water mark for law schools’ interest in Catholic legal theory – lots of well-attended conferences, new journals sprouting up, two new Catholic law schools that were intentional about building mission-centered programs, faculty hiring  at several schools that suggested a high value on Catholic legal scholarship, etc.  This burst of activity has plateaued over the past several years, but I do not think it represents diminished interest in Catholic legal theory as much as a recognition that legal education in general is in a period of profound challenge and change.  The pressures that Catholic legal theory faces today in terms of maintaining traction and momentum in the U.S. legal academy are more about the pressures that U.S. legal education faces in general.  Three come to mind. 

1. It’s all about employment.  Law schools have always cared about their graduates’ employment outcomes, but greater transparency and more granular data have now increased pressure to marshal all the assets of the law school in an effort to improve employment prospects.  This often affects faculty hiring and the priorities of existing faculty.   Teaching and writing in areas where there are jobs have become more of a focus.  Hiring the candidate who wants to write on subsidiarity (e.g., me) may not be as attractive in the current environment.

2. Marketing Catholic identity to prospective law school applicants is insufficient, standing alone, to draw students.  To be clear, Catholic identity is still a strong draw for some applicants, but they also need to know how that identity enhances their professional preparation.

3. Tighter budgets mean less money for travel, conferences, and journals.

These pressures are not necessarily bad things; they simply require Catholic law schools – and faculty at non-Catholic law schools who teach and write about Catholic legal theory – to be more intentional and creative in showing students (and administrators) why they should care about our shared project. 

It will be fascinating to watch how this unfolds over the next ten years.  A few very tentative predictions:

1. Faculty scholarship, including scholarship related to Catholic legal theory, will become more student-centered.  Teaming up with interested students to work on research, including students in advocacy projects that flow out of research, and articulating the impact of research will become more prevalent.  I know that all of this already happens at law schools, but I think the trend will accelerate.  (Most) law schools cannot afford to devote significant resources to activities that are not noticed or appreciated by students.  It is possible to include students more proactively in the Catholic legal theory project, and we will work on finding new ways to do so over the coming years.  (At St. Thomas, our Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy has been doing a great job on this front.)

2. Catholic legal education will become more international.  Catholic identity remains a strong draw in other parts of the world, especially Latin America.

3. There will be much more focus on whole-person formation.  With the rise of MOOCs and more “accessible” methods of legal education, there will be a powerful story to tell about the distinction between formation and information transfer.  Catholic legal education needs to lead on formation.

While there will be changes, the core of the Catholic legal theory project will, I hope, remain centered on the same question – what is the nature of the human person, and what does that mean for law?  It is a conversation that we are privileged to engage, and I appreciate Rick’s stewardship of this unique venue over the past decade.

Posted by Rob Vischer on February 4, 2014 at 12:42 PM in Vischer, Rob | Permalink