by Jeff Sovern
After attending the last three AALS conferences, I wanted to voice a consumer protection perspective. Professors attend the AALS conferences for three reasons that I know of: to learn from the programs; to network; and to travel somewhere else, typically someplace warm in the winter (that last, of course, is not a reason for law schools to pay for the travel, but it is an inducement for some). Of these, the conference is probably weakest on the first. Unlike conferences devoted to a single subject, like the National Consumer Law Center's terrific Consumer Litigation Conference, attendees are likely to encounter only a few panels on the subjects on which they teach and write about. Accordingly, attendees are less likely to learn something that they find of value than at single-subject conferences. In addition, if a few panels at a single-subject conference turn out not to be useful, attendees can still learn helpful information from the other panels. But that is less likely at the AALS because other panels will cover other subjects. To make matters worse, it is often difficult to tell in advance whether a particular panel will be useful. Many of the program descriptions are written in very general terms, often to connect to a conference theme that may have nothing to do with what is worth discussing in a particular area of legal doctrine. As a result, it can be hard to determine what the panelists will talk about. From a consumer protection perspective, it would be much more helpful if the panel descriptions available at the time attendees must decide whether to attend the conference (say, two weeks before the early bird registration period expires), included at least a one-sentence description of what every speaker plans to discuss. That would permit people to get a better sense of whether they will learn something useful from the conference, which would help them make a more-informed decision about whether to attend. Unfortunately, it almost seems as if the AALS has a short-term incentive to be vague in the program descriptions, because that permits the illusion that the panels will cover more ground than they actually will, perhaps prompting more people to attend on the mistaken theory that more panels will touch something useful to them than is in fact the case. Over the long term, as professors learn that the program descriptions are of limited predictive value, some may eschew attendance, including at conferences at which they would have learned something useful to them if they had attended.
There's also the issue of price. Brian Leiter has expressed the view that the AALS registration fee is "quite a bit higher than the norm," and has posted a poll seeking comment. Beyond that, the cost of the breakfast session at which Pat McCoy and I spoke was $40; for that, we received some mediocre scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns, rolls, coffee, and juice. I can only hope that the discussion merited the $40, for the food certainly did not.