As I come to the end of a busy few weeks meeting with American law academics I have been struck by many things I never noticed when I was a US law academic. Perhaps the first thing which I have noticed again and again on this trip is that when meeting American law academics, whether at an elite or local US law school, their first question of a professional nature has so far always been “what do you teach?” Not what are you working on at the moment (as in research or writing). Indeed, the whole conversation may never raise research or writing. In contrast, my experience when meeting European or Australian law academics is that they ask about research and writing first and may not even ask about teaching.
No doubt there are many explanations for the above (assuming it is an accurate reflection of the legal academic cultures). Though, I tend to think that it is is less about enthusiasm (or not) for teaching or research but rather reflects the focus of law school missions. In the US law schools exist primarily to train lawyers. Outside the US it is certainly the case that a law faculty must teach students about the law, even perhaps with the idea that some (perhaps most) may practice. But, the role of the non-American academic may be much more orientated towards research and writing than may be the case in the US where the academic may be more oriented towards their students’ development. (an orientation reinforced by performance metrics).
Of course, the above is a generalization. Many law schools outside the US, such as UNSW’s law school, focus heavily on legal training. And in some American law schools one may be forgiven for thinking that the students are just an annoyance in the way of their professors’ careers (I certainly felt that at times as a law student). Also, we may be seeing non-American schools slowly moving towards the student-focused US approach. Nonetheless, I think the difference in how we greet each other reflects some real and deep-seated differences. This is not to say one approach is better than the other, just that they are different and may reflect different contexts. Accordingly, transnational legal academic projects and relationships need to keep these sorts of differences in mind.