Report of the Executive Director to the AALS House of Representatives

By Judy Areen

Welcome to the 2024 Annual Meeting of the AALS. As we continued our work this past year on what will be the first comprehensive history of the Association, we uncovered the reasons behind some AALS traditions. I remember that when I first became the Executive Director ten years ago, I struggled to figure out what was supposed to be included in my report to the House of Representatives at the Annual Meeting. Our history review revealed that when Michael Cardozo, the first Executive Director, was appointed in 1963, the Executive Committee decided that because the Executive Director was also the recording secretary for the group, Cardozo should report to the delegates on what the Executive Committee had accomplished during the year. 

Now that I finally understand the purpose of this report, I will start today by thanking President Alexander for his remarkably well-chosen theme for the year and this meeting: “Defending Democracy.” It has certainly been a year of challenges for democratic nations around the world. 

Indeed, democracy has been under attack in the United States for several years now. As we gather, former President Donald Trump is well ahead in the polls so looks likely to be the Republican nominee for President in 2024 despite having been indicted on 91 felony charges in four separate criminal cases. Several of the charges concern his alleged efforts to overturn the outcome of the 2020 election. 

The last time our nation was this bitterly divided on such a fundamental matter was during the Civil War when battles were fought around the nation by soldiers. This time battles are again being fought around the nation, but primarily in courtrooms and they are being fought by lawyers. 

One of the most interesting aspects of looking into the history of AALS has been learning more about the motivation of the law professors and deans who founded this organization in 1900. It turns out they were very much in the American tradition first described by Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s of coming together to resolve a problem that in most other countries would be left to the government to resolve. 

The founding generation of AALS made clear in their statements that they understood that legal education is particularly important in the United States because of the crucial role lawyers play in maintaining our democracy and the rule of law. 

The founders were also in agreement that the government should not run law schools nor should it tell them what or how to teach. And they followed those same principles in their own organization. Since 1900, AALS has never told its member schools what courses they must teach, although a few speakers in the early years favored the idea. Instead, AALS from the beginning has used the annual meeting as the place for sharing good ideas about courses, research, and pedagogy. AALS has always recognized the importance of respecting the autonomy of member schools, believing that a marketplace of ideas was the best way to strengthen legal education. 

Here are representative statements from two early leaders: 

President Charles Gregory Noble, AALS President in 1908, hoped “ That the associated law schools of America and their faculties . . . may prove potent, not merely for . . . legal education but for the wider and higher service of justice according to law.” 

President William Vance, AALS President in 1910, added “The teacher of law is no true teacher unless he lays before his students those great principles of right and justice that underlie all of our rules of law, and sends forth his students . . . with a zeal to advance . . . society by making laws as administered the law that is needed.” 

That same commitment to improving legal education guided this year’s Executive Committee as it oversaw the development of five new programs that were offered during 2023. They were all offered virtually and without charge. On April 4, the first webinar on “How to Become a Law Professor” was made available to law students and alumni of law schools around the nation. It was arranged by then Deputy Director of AALS Alena Allen who is now Dean of Louisiana State University, Paul M. Hebert Law Center. The goal was to provide advice about the faculty hiring process by organizing a panel of Appointment Committee chairs from diverse schools around the country. 

On May 4, President Mark Alexander organized an online Conference on Defending Democracy. On July 10, an Affirmative Action Webinar was made available online. Organized by President Alexander and Immediate Past President Erwin Chemerinsky, it provided much appreciated commentary on the two Supreme Court decisions concerning affirmative action in higher education. 

In addition, two advanced seminars were offered for deans in partnership with LSAC. The first, offered last January, was for experienced deans, and the second, held in June was for newer deans finishing their first year or two. 

Finally, the AALS bylaws were revised. Beginning in 1900, the Articles of Association provided that the purpose of AALS was “the improvement of legal education.” In 1947, however, for reasons that are unclear, the Association changed the language of the Articles to read “the improvement of the legal profession through legal education.” Although contemporaneous speakers stated no change in meaning was intended, the initial language seems a much more appropriate description of our mission. With that in mind, the Executive Committee asked the representatives of this House to vote on returning to the original language. I am pleased to report that 97 of 98 schools voted to approve the bylaw revision. That number meets the requirement that a quorum of member schools must vote, as well as the requirement that two-thirds of the schools voting must support the bylaw change, and that they also constitute at least one-third of the membership. Accordingly, the bylaws will be revised to return to the original language on purpose. They will further be revised to add language affirming the AALS has the dual mission of being both the association for law schools, and the learned society for law faculty. 

As you know, this is my last semester serving as Executive Director. I hasten to add there is still a lot to complete between now and June 30 so it will not be a slow spring. We hope that the Executive Committee will announce soon who will be the next Executive Director. The goal of this schedule is to provide the next Executive Director with enough time to finish their work at their current position, as well as time to participate in any AALS decisions this spring that will affect AALS after June 30. 

I would like to finish today by thanking all members of the 2023 Executive Committee, and indeed, all members of every Executive Committee I have had the privilege to serve with since February, 2014. I also want to thank our extraordinary staff, particularly Tracie Thomas, Mary Cullen, Hannah Hershfield, Erick Brown, and Shannon Leonard who organized this memorable Annual Meeting. 

We were not sure a year ago if COVID or other matters would reduce attendance but I am delighted to report that more than 2,300 faculty, deans, and staff are attending this year—which is even more than last year in San Diego. That number bodes well for future Annual Meetings—and indeed for the future of AALS. 

It has been my honor and privilege to serve as your executive director for ten years, and I thank you for it. I know that the Association remains in the very good hands of an extraordinary Executive Committee and full-time staff as well as our members schools who are so well represented in this House of Representatives 

Thank you all.