Q&A with Annual Meeting Organizers

Q&A: Annual Meeting Developments, New Programs, and the Push for Higher Quality

Law faculty who have not attended an Annual Meeting in several years would be surprised to find how much it has changed. AALS spoke with the chairs of two committees who are leading the charge toward increased speaker participation, higher session quality, and greater depth and breadth of subject material.

Donna Nagy, 2017 Annual Meeting Program Chair

Donna M. Nagy, Indiana University Maurer School of Law

(Photo Courtesy of Indiana University Maurer School of Law)

Tell us a little bit about the Program Committee and your work leading up to the AALS Annual Meeting.
This is the committee that solicits and selects proposals for what we call “open submission” programs for the Annual Meeting. Open submission programs are programs not sponsored by AALS Sections, and all meeting attendees are eligible to submit proposals and participate as speakers. I chaired the Program Committee for the 2017 AALS Annual Meeting in San Francisco. Our work began at the tail end of 2016 Annual Meeting in New York City, almost a year in advance. The lead time is long because the process is very involved.
Benjamin Barros (now dean of Toledo Law) chaired the first-ever program committee for the 2016 meeting. The tradition has been to keep the chair from the year before on the committee as a member, and Ben played that role for 2017. Rachel Moran (UCLA Law), Hillary Sale (Washington University Law), and George Dent (Case Western) were the other committee members.
I am staying on for the 2018 Annual Meeting, and Steve Mulroy (Memphis Law) is the new chair. The program committee for the 2018 AALS Annual Meeting has already begun its work, and we are currently soliciting open session proposals.
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen to the format of AALS Annual Meeting as a result of your committee?
Looking back to a few years ago, with the exception of hot topic programs and a few additional programs that were sponsored by the Executive Committee or the AALS President, all sessions in the Annual Meeting were provided by the AALS Sections. Opportunities for faculty, especially junior faculty, to get involved were rather limited: most of the 101 sections have a program with four or five speakers and that is essentially the participant ceiling for those sessions. One feature of the open submission programs is that it facilitates participation by more than one hundred additional attendees and thus more junior faculty members can be included. Professors who are interested in specific subject matter topics can put a proposal together for a small discussion group. There are now substantially more opportunities for scholarly interchange.
What are the new types of Annual Meeting sessions? What has been the reception to these changes?
There are four different types of open submission programs for which the program committee for the Annual Meeting is responsible:
First are the symposium programs. These are extended sessions, typically a half-day, focusing on an in-depth scholarly exploration of a topic with an identified group of scholars. We typically choose one or two symposia—the aim here is not only to produce interesting presentations, but also to combine the presentations for publication. Part of why we choose just one or two is that it is quite a time commitment onsite at the meeting.
The second type of open submission program is discussion groups. These programs provide a setting for a discussion among a group of pre-determined participants. We aim for about a dozen discussants, but the committee also has some of flexibility. These programs range tremendously in both format and scope. Discussion groups provide a way for faculty, including very junior faculty, to participate as a speaker at the Annual Meeting. It’s a nice way of involving many people, when we combine the total number of discussants from all the groups.
Then there are hot topic programs, which, as the name implies, focus on topics that emerge too late to be included in other types of submissions. The deadline for proposals for the discussion groups and symposia are in the spring time. Proposals for hot topic programs are not due until October, which means that new topics that arise because of events unfolding in the summer and early fall can make for particularly interesting, exciting, and timely proposals.
Finally, there are open source programs (previously called academy programs). These are more traditional programs, not sponsored by an AALS Section, that don’t fit into one of the other categories. We consider any interesting ideas, some of which may be cross-cutting and interdisciplinary and others of which are directed to a particular field of study. But open source programs should not duplicate whatever a Section is already planning.
Tell me a little more about discussion groups and how those came about. How are they structured, and why did the committee choose that structure?
We debuted Discussion Groups in New York City, and San Francisco was the second time we ran that type of program. Each year, we tweak the format in response to feedback we receive. The format is not all that different from AALS Section programs in the sense that participation is either chosen by the organizers or through calls for proposals.
The organizers of a discussion group identify about a half to two-thirds of the participants based on their own invitations, and after their proposal is accepted, the rest of the discussants are invited from an open call that the AALS staff disseminates. The discussion group that results is a combination of both invitations: the organizers have control and make suggestions in terms of to who, the initial invitation should go, but we leave enough room for open call participants to identify themselves. It’s another way of ensuring a wide section of law professors who are doing interesting work and self-identify as individuals wishing to participate. That’s a very important part of the discussion group format.
However, some people hear the term “discussion group” and they think it’s more like a town hall meeting where anybody who shows up can have a speaking role. That is not the case. The discussion group has previously identified a dozen or more participants and they are the individuals who have exchanged work in advance. Those are the individuals who will be called upon to summarize their views in a short presentation. But any discussion group should leave some time at the end for participation from the audience. So even though it’s not a town hall format, audience members should have some time to interact with the invited participants.
If you were talking to a faculty member who hadn’t attended an AALS Annual Meeting in the last five years, what is one thing you would want them to know?
I would want them to know there is now a multitude of opportunities for individual participation, and that a faculty member with a good idea now has the vehicle to advance that idea for the purpose of bringing people together at the Annual Meeting.
In the past, your only vehicle was to lobby and convince a section to do a particular program that appealed to you and intersected with your work. Now individual faculty members, simply by responding to a call for proposals, can organize a program. It provides faculty members with the ability to be an organizer without necessarily having to go through a section or a section’s executive committee. It allows individual faculty members to be creative and take on leadership opportunities.
The other aspect of the Annual Meeting that I think has changed is the professional development committee, which now solicits ideas for the arc of career programs. That’s another very positive change for AALS.
Do you have any reflections on your time on the Program Committee?
Including the past chair of the program committee is a wonderful way of establishing some continuity, learning what works successfully and where some additional innovating can be done. I very much appreciated Ben Barros’ input and I hope that I’m able to provide some of that insight for Steve Mulroy as well. I was privileged to chair a wonderful committee. Rachel Moran, Hillary Sale, and George Dent along with Ben each contributed great ideas and much enthusiasm. The AALS staff, Tracie Thomas and her staff, worked incredibly hard on the operation side of things. Judy Areen provides a lot of inspiration as the Executive Director.
One other thing we haven’t mentioned is that the AALS President sets the theme for the Annual Meeting. We were incredibly fortunate in San Francisco to have Kelly Testy as the AALS President setting the theme, a whole year in advance, of “Why Law Matters.” We tried to consider that in our decisions, and we encouraged program organizers to consider that as well in framing their proposals. “Why Law Matters” for an annual meeting of law professors was an important theme and a unifying one, as we were on the cusp of a new presidential administration. That was a wonderful aspect of our 2017 meeting.
What would you like to see at future Annual Meetings and what advice would you give to future committee members?
The discussion groups were clearly very popular. I think part of the reason is because it provides the opportunity for so many individual participants who are doing exciting work to get together. In terms of my own takeaways as program chair, it seemed that discussion groups were considered one of the high points for many attendees, both those who participated in discussion groups and those who attended in the audience. I would like to see that not only replicated in future years, but built upon as well.
To future committee members, I would say attend as many programs as possible. That’s a very effective way of gathering feedback. It enables one to bring to the Program Committee meeting some specific instances of things that worked very well and other aspects that need additional adjustments. There’s a lot going on, and that’s one of the exciting things about the Annual Meeting.

Susan Carle on the AALS Professional Development Committee and the “Arc of Career”

Susan Carle, American University Washington College of Law

(Photo Courtesy of American University Washington College of Law)

Can you tell me about the Professional Development committee and your work leading up to the AALS Annual Meeting?
I joined the AALS Professional Development Committee in January 2012 and became committee chair in January 2013.
At that time, the Professional Development Committee handled programming for the AALS mid-year meetings. As travel and hotel costs rose and school travel budgets decreased, however, the mid-year meeting model became unsustainable. In 2014, our committee was charged with rethinking the concept of professional development for AALS.
The next year, we became the AALS Task Force on Professional Development, with a mandate from the AALS Executive Committee to recommend new approaches to sustaining the association’s commitment to professional development. We had a great synergy among our committee members, which included a wide variety of perspectives and a huge wealth of creativity and experience.
We ended up sketching out the idea of expanding programming at the Annual Meetings to embrace aspects of professional development that went beyond the substantive fields of law teaching and/or administration in which we all are engaged. We put out a request for proposals and waited to see what would happen.
To our great delight, we received many proposals that explored precisely the expanded areas of professional development concern that we thought would be of interest to meeting attendees, and identified many other areas as well. This year will be our fourth time requesting proposals for this project. We are finding that momentum is snowballing as people attend sessions and are inspired to propose new ideas.
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen to the format of the AALS Annual Meeting as a result of your committee?
One of our committee’s main goals has been to introduce new approaches at the Annual Meeting, not only in the content of sessions but also in presentation styles and methods. We’ve encouraged proposals that include some sort of creative or hands-on method, whether through small group break outs, reflective writing, two-person exchanges, or other formats. Last year, a group of highly regarded deans performed a skit that had the whole audience laughing, along with learning about what dean search committees really look for in candidates.
Tell me about the arc of career sessions and how they came about.
We started calling it “arc of career” after our first experimental year in 2015. The theme kept coming up in our discussions and in the proposals we received, and we gradually adopted it as an organizing principle.
The underlying idea is that our careers in legal education have distinct stages, and that during each of these stages it is important to reflect and consider options and alternatives. We try to have programming that covers the entire arc of career. We give value to being relatively new to the academy, the special opportunities and challenges of mid-career choices, and the different emotions and considerations (including joys and challenges) of leaving or scaling down one’s academic career.
Some sessions have challenged the concept, pointing out, for example, that this neat and tidy “arc” we were envisioning doesn’t necessarily apply to all. That’s exactly the kind of discussion we wanted to get going so we were quite happy to receive this criticism and have tried hard to be inclusive of the variety of experiences people have working in institutions that provide legal education.
If you were talking to a faculty member who has not attended an AALS Annual Meeting in the last five years, what is one thing you would want them to know?
I would want them to know that a lot has evolved over the past five years. Not only are the arc of career programs a popular new type of program, but a whole set of other new programming ideas have contributed to making the Annual Meeting more vital and more up-to-date than it was in the more-distant past they may be remembering.
Do you have any reflections on your time on the Professional Development Committee as you prepare to transition off the team?
I’ve really enjoyed working with a group of such creative and thoughtful people. I think the process of continuing to experiment and bring fresh ideas to the table needs to continue. Maybe in another five years the committee will have generated a new set of ideas about how to keep Annual Meetings fresh and interesting, and a new name for the kinds of proposals it is looking for.
What would you like to see at future Annual Meetings and what advice would you give to future committee members?
I would like to see more importation of ideas from other disciplines and perspectives. For example, I hope that in 2018 we might offer a session on design thinking and what it can offer law professors. I hope AALS continues to be a place that tolerates dissent, criticism, and lots of divergent viewpoints. It should be a safe place for uncomfortable conversations along with the very special joy of being able to encounter very similar peers. I hope AALS continues to find ways to discuss the profound changes and challenges facing legal education today, and I hope AALS continues to find ways to be particularly relevant and vital to new generations of law teachers and administrators.
The advice I would give to future committee members is to experiment a bit. The first generation of committee members experienced the change from mid-year meetings to Arc of Career. As a result of all of our interactions, we implicitly reached consensus about the new experiences we were hoping to introduce for AALS Annual Meeting attendees. Many of the incoming members to the committee didn’t sit through all that discussion. These new members will have to have their own fresh encounters and build their own shared ideas about how to push AALS to remain vital and interesting to the very wide range of attendees coming from member schools. In short, I’d tell them to keep trying to push the envelope.