Initial Symposium Proposal Stirs Up Student Leaders

By Jaime A. Welsh

Last semester, Dean Fisher created a Symposium Committee to look into student journal symposia at the Law School. The committee was comprised of Professor Alexandra Lahav and Professor Peter Siegelman.

Fisher explained that his goals are “to achieve symposia of the highest quality, to conduct them in a way that will bolster the reputation of the journal and the law school, to give students the opportunity to work with scholars and thought leaders of the highest caliber, and to give journals the ability to choose the topic on which they want to conduct a symposium.” The current discussion’s focus is on how to best accomplish those goals, Fisher continued.

On January 16, 2015, the Editors-in-Chief (EICs or individually, EIC) of the Connecticut Law Review, the Connecticut Public Interest Law Journal, and the Connecticut Journal of International Law received an email from Professor Alexandra Lahav outlining the recommendations of that committee. The Symposium Committee also distributed a more detailed memorandum of its recommendations to the faculty that same day.

The Symposium Committee recommended “that law journals choose symposium topics proposed by the faculty for the next three years” and that the faculty member whose idea was chosen would “select and invite all participants,” leaving the students to “handle the logistics” and publication. If there were not sufficient topics proposed by the faculty, or if the law journals did not select one of the proposed topics, then there would be no symposia that year, continued the Symposium Committee. The Symposium Committee’s memorandum also provided that, due to the time and commitment that would be required, the faculty member making the proposal would be awarded a small stipend for his or her work on the symposium.

These recommendations were in addition to a change in procedure that occurred in March of 2014. Last year, the Dean issued a new symposia procedure where every symposia had to have a faculty sponsor, and every symposia topic had to be approved by his office. That procedure was universally accepted among all the journals, Fisher noted. “Looking at our history of symposium, the very best symposia succeed because there is a faculty member who is personally invested in . . . recruiting the very best speakers,” explained Fisher.

The Symposium Committee’s memorandum to the faculty noted that its recommendations were based on meetings with members of two of the student journals, faculty polling, independent research on the symposia of the last ten years, and an investigation of symposium practices at other law schools. The Symposium Committee described the benefit of its proposal as “reduc[ing] problems of low quality invitations and publications, while still allowing students to have some autonomy and buy-in as to the choice of topic.”

The Symposium Committee’s proposal would not apply to the Connecticut Insurance Law Journal symposia, which “are scheduled and organized by the Insurance Law Center acting in conjunction with other Law School faculty,” explained its EIC Jeff Mastrianni.

The remaining student law journals each expressed concern over the impact that the Symposium Committee’s proposal would have if adopted by the faculty.

“We agree that there needs to be some oversight and that the goal is to produce the best product and that the faculty can be intricate in improving the quality of the symposia. However, there is educational value in the students putting these events on and that goal would be best served if faculty assisted the student leaders rather than supplanting them,” said CJ Schoenherr, the EIC of the Public Interest Law Journal.

“Placing responsibility for topic selection with the faculty deprives students of ownership over the symposium; it strips away creative control to leave us the grunt work. While the assistance of faculty is greatly appreciated and we look forward to working with them on symposiums going forward, it must remain assistance and no more,” said Spencer Hill, the EIC of the Connecticut Journal of International Law.

Connecticut Law Review has been the most involved in discussions surrounding the Symposium Committee’s proposal. Editor-in-Chief Drew Hillier emphasized that the Connecticut Law Review has been an entirely student-run organization since it published its first issue fifty years ago—a symposium issue. He said, “The Connecticut Law Review was founded by students who edited a portion of the Connecticut Bar Journal. They wanted the autonomy to select the content that they edited. That student autonomy has led to success, as we are ranked twenty-sixth among hundreds of law reviews according to Google Metrics. Our rank shows that our members are perfectly capable of selecting quality topics and authors without the committee’s proposed restrictions.”

A central and historical component of serving on the Connecticut Law Review is the ability to select the journal’s content, especially crafting the symposium issue, Hillier explained. “Employers want more from students than the ability to handle the ‘logistics’ of a symposium, like ordering flowers or hiring a caterer. The research, judgment, and writing skills that students gain by selecting symposium topics and authors make our editors more useful to future employers and clients. It would eliminate our character as a student-run journal and impair the educational opportunity that membership on the Connecticut Law Review provides if we were to delegate the tasks of researching topics and selecting our authors,” Hillier stated.

Connecticut Law Review’s position remains “interested in ensuring that if we have a symposium, that [the] panelists are top quality writers. Our primary concern is the written work, which represents one-fifth of our work product for the year,” said Wesley Cain, EIC-Elect of Connecticut Law Review.

The leadership of Connecticut Law Review met with Fisher, Lahav, and Siegelman to discuss the initial proposal on February 6, 2014, which was the “the soonest available date after [the Connecticut Law Review’s] elections so that [its] new symposium editors could be included in the conversation,” explained its Co-Symposium Editor Laura Ann Keller.

At that meeting, “Professor Lahav explained that there was faculty dissatisfaction with past symposia at the Law School, as well as unaccountability of professors that provide topic ideas,” said Keller. Lahav noted that the Symposium Committee’s recommendations were based on “an appendix of evidence that showed a history of bad past symposia,” continued Keller. Unfortunately that appendix has not been made available to journals or students.

Prior to that meeting, the leadership of the Connecticut Law Review also attended a Student Bar Association (SBA) meeting to express its concerns about the proposal. “Members of the SBA General Body took an interest in the issue as many believed that preserving journals as student run is an important component to the academic experience,” stated SBA President Jim Anderson. On February 3, 2015, the Student Bar Association (SBA) unanimously voted to adopt a statement of position regarding the proposed changes to student-run academic journal symposia.

The SBA’s statement recognized that “the members of the SBA ha[d] received negative feedback from student constituents regarding proposed changes,” and affirmatively supported the position of student journal leadership. The SBA’s statement then “urge[d] the administration and faculty of the School of Law to reconsider the proposed changes and to maintain the student-run nature of the academic journals’ symposia, thereby preserving a source of great value for students and the institution alike.”

The strong student support on behalf of law journal symposia remaining student-run extended to the 1L class, as well. One hundred and six members of the 1L Day Division at the Law School signed a February 5, 2015 letter to the faculty that detailed the educational benefits for law journal members who pursue and research various symposia topics. The letter then called for an open dialogue between the faculty and students, so that they “can work closely together, while allowing future journal members the academic freedom previous years have enjoyed.”

Cain met with Fisher on February 9, 2015 to discuss “ways that we could tweak that proposal to alleviate the journals’ concerns,” Cain said. The Connecticut Law Review’s primary concern was that it wanted language added to the proposal stating that the journals would listen to the faculty’s proposals but that each journal would retain the opportunity to pick a student proposal, explained Cain.

Subsequent to these events, Fisher attended the February 10, 2015 SBA meeting to discuss the potential changes and allow all students the opportunity to ask questions. In a subsequent meeting that Keller and Co-Symposium Editor Liz O’Donnell had with Fisher, Fisher explained that he was “trying to make a system in which faculty were held more accountable,” but that nothing could be decided until the faculty’s next meeting on March 6, 2015.

As of the date this article went to press, the journals have “not yet received an updated proposal in writing in response to our concerns,” said Keller.

Fisher has stated that “nothing formal and written is being adopted yet” and that “we will see how the discussion goes.” Currently, the student law journals have a green light to choose any topic, but they must obtain a faculty sponsor for that topic and there must be agreement between the journal and the faculty sponsor on the panelists who are invited.

The Law School Foundation Board of Trustees allots $10,000 per year for each law journal’s symposium. However, Fisher noted that there are certain symposia that are of such a quality that $10,000 is not sufficient, and that “we [as a Law School] may decide that we need to concentrate our money on fewer and better quality events.” Fisher added that last year the journals became aware that “it is not guaranteed that every journal will do a symposia every year.”