How to Find and Build a Scholarly Community

Eugene Mazo, with Ronald Wright

So imagine this: You are new to the legal academy, and you are trying to find a scholarly community. Or perhaps you are already part of one but want to make it stronger. Where do you begin? What steps do you take? This past week I spoke to a few of you who are experts in buildings scholarly communities. And I would like to share some of your ideas and advice with our readers here.

Scholarly communities are different from many of the communities that exist in the world. When we think of the word “community,” we often think of something local. A policeman patrols a local community. He knows other policemen in his city, but a policeman who lives in Boston will not necessarily consider a different policeman who works the streets of Seattle to be his colleague. Lawyers tend to be part of local communities too. A few work for large firms with multiples offices and are staffed on deals with colleagues from other offices, but this is an exception, not the norm. More often, legal practice is a local affair, with courts following local rules, firms servicing local clients, and bar associations networking with local lawyers.

But the legal academy is different. The whole point of the enterprise is to seek out companionship and camaraderie beyond the walls of your institution, the confines of your city and state, and the borders of your country. The whole point is for a scholar who might live in Boston to interact and collaborate with other scholars who happen to be working on the same topic, regardless of whether they live in Seattle, in San Francisco, or in Sao Paulo. Still, how should you go about finding these like-minded individuals who may share your same interests but live in far-flung places? And once you find them, how do you become a part of their community or bring them into yours?

If you are new to the legal academy, or aspire to enter it, or have been in it for a long time but simply want to expand your network, here is a short how-to guide for finding and building a genuine scholarly community. This guide is not exhaustive, and additions to it are welcome. Here it goes.

(1)   Decide What You Are Interested In: People often claim not to know what they are interested in (or not to know what to do with their lives, which is a version of the same thing). In fact, we all know what our interests are, but sometimes we have a hard time articulating them. A person’s interests come from his or her personal experiences. And since all of us have experienced different things, we all have different interests. It is fine to have multiple interests, but the best advice is to pick one, or two, or three. Then stick with them, develop and refine them, and try to figure out how to explain them to others in a thoughtful elevator pitch.

(2)   Publish on Your Areas of Interest: Read what other scholars have written about your areas of interest. You might agree with some of the literature, but hopefully you will disagree with a lot of it too. Here is the key: always read with a critical eye, and be certain to disagree on matters of principle with someone who does not share your views. Next, write up your disagreements in a way that explains why your take is better than the analysis that came before it.

(3)   Go to Conferences and Meet People: There is a lot of ranting on the internet knocking down academic conferences. (I really shouldn’t even link to it.) I tend to ignore it because I personally love attending these things. Conferences come in all shapes and sizes, from big tent gatherings to small subject-specific workshops. Every time I go, no matter the type, I come away feeling inspired and renewed. Going to conferences should give you the feeling that you are part of a profession and part of a larger community. Conferences should provide you with new ideas about scholarship and teaching. Conferences also provide an opportunity to meet people. Some of these people will eventually become a part of your community.

(4)   Run for Leadership Positions in Scholarly Associations. Here the trick is often simply to show up and raise your hand. I’m serious. This year at AALS, I showed up and raised my hand at three different section meetings. And there I was, placed on some committee for three different scholarly sections. Most people in the legal academy will meet you and say, “Welcome!” People love new faces, new ideas, and new scholars who are willing to make genuine contributions to communities that already exist. Think of a contribution you can make and speak up for your ideas. This is why you joined this profession in the first place.

(5)   Make an Effort to Identify Mentors: This advice is often easier said than done. And it applies to all work settings, not just to the legal academy. But where the academy is unique is that it allows you to have mentors both within and outside your building. You can have them at other schools, as well as in other fields. However, it can take work to find real mentors. In fact, as you read my post here, stop for a second and take a deep breath. Now take out a piece of paper and write down the names of three scholars who are your mentors. If you can list three, great. Send each an email right now, just to check in. If you cannot list three such people, do not fret. Instead, write down the names of three people whom you would like to have as your mentors. Now send each of these individuals an email. Send each person on your list your latest article or work-in-progress, or whatever half-baked idea you may have had today. Ask each for one piece of advice. Or ask each out to coffee. Do it before you get to the end of my post. If they happen to be at different institutions, call them up. Just do it. People often tell me that they don’t know how to find a mentor. If you’re an extrovert, it’s as easy as saying to someone senior in your field, “I am looking for a mentor. Would you be that person for me?” I promise that no one will ever turn you down. And if you’re an introvert, here’s my advice: Find the person you want to have as your mentor and say, “I read this blog post about how to find and build a scholarly community. I’m not sure where to find a mentor. Can you give me some advice?’ I promise you will have a new mentor before you know it.

(6)   Ask For Help When You Need It: I admittedly find this piece of advice the most difficult to follow myself. It’s also probably the most important. Community building is a community effort. No one can be a community of one. Asking someone for help is the same thing as asking to join that person’s community, and offering help to others is equivalent to inviting them into your own.

(7)   Be Generous With Your Time: Collegiality can be very time-consuming, but it is also immensely rewarding. And those who are generous with their time ultimately reap large rewards. Ask people to join your community. Take the time to recommend other communities when you know of one that a colleague may enjoy. And always, always be generous to those who are coming up the ranks. At Danny’s memorial service at SEALS, I’ll never forget the stories that so many of you told about how Danny always brought new people into his community. You don’t have to be well-known to be part of a scholarly community. You just have to have a few new ideas and to show some enthusiasm.

That’s at least how you find a scholarly community. But then how do you maintain it? Here, the key is to have with a vision, to create a structure to support that vision, and to pour substance into that structure. Your structure should be an institution. It could be any institution, such as your law school or a scholarly association in your area of expertise. It can even be an online institution, such as a blog. There is a school of thought in the social sciences called new institutionalism. Its adherents believe that social and political outcomes result from the institutional settings in which they take place. In other words, if you build a structure and invite people to join it, you will be pleasantly surprised by the community that results.

This material was originally published on PrawfsBlawg, a blog by Professor Howard Wasserman. The article was written by Eugene Mazo, a professor at George Mason University School of Law, with contributions made by Professor Ronald Wright of Wake Forest Law School. Republished here under a CCBY license with permission.