Brooke Willig, Class of 2014, shares her experience as the WLA Young Academics Fund recipient.
1. The People
People in law school are always talking about networking, usually in the context of business cards and cocktail parties. Academic conferences provide a fantastic, non-corporate opportunity to get to know both established and aspiring figures in the fields that matter to you. Whether you have a rousing conversation over lunch, stop by after a panel to ask questions and offer suggestions, or just take note of names you may want to get in touch with weeks (or years) down the line, you’ll be building relationships that can only help your academic career.
2. The Academic Experience
Law school, for better or worse, is in large part about research and writing. Understanding how to frame and develop a research project, to write cogently about a problem you are still in the process of answering, and to distill those thoughts into a short presentation for peer review and support are key skills for any legal career. It’s also important to start taking the initiative in creating and promoting your research, as well as to train yourself to be on the lookout for new scholarship and scholarly opportunities. Better yet, that sort of training—learning to find peers, mentors, and opportunities for academic conversation—can be developed even if you merely attend a conference and are not yet ready to present yourself.
In an age where women remain underrepresented in politics, law firms, legal scholarship, and even in classroom participation, it’s critical that women at HLS learn to stand up and speak out – a lesson made exponentially easier when that speech is applauded and encouraged. I was amazed by the number of people, both presenters and audience members, who came up to me after speaking to tell me how much they liked my presentation, to propose ways I could deepen or augment my analysis, and/or to ask if they could consider my paper’s ideas or insights in their work. While academic conferences may sound formal and intimidating, they can actually offer a critical ego boost, as people you respect and admire not only take the time to listen to your ideas, but come to gain insights from you and to help make your work as strong as possible so that you can succeed.
4. Something Different
Unfortunately, law school classes can get a little dry, as you try to take in all the requisite black letter law and traditional coursework. Academic conferences, by contrast, are all about scholarly innovation and diversification, finding new areas of study, new implications, and new voices. Attending a conference can be a wonderful way of combatting burnout and of discovering more avenues to get you excited about legal scholarship.
5. The Comparative Costs and Benefits
It’s surprisingly easy to become involved in, and present at, a conference. In essence, all you need is:
a) the initiative to root around the internet and scout out conferences of interest to you,
b) an idea or problem that interests you, and for which you can write a short (read: one page) proposal, and
c) the time and energy to research and write a short paper on the subject, which can often be done in conjunction with a class or academic credit.
In exchange, you’ll get:
a) a network of possible mentors and collaborators,
b) experience developing, crafting, and presenting original work,
c) invaluable support and feedback, and
d) a chance to do and consider something different from traditional law school classes, not to mention
e) a great resume addition and talking point.
So what are you waiting for?