Life as an AALS Section Chair
In 2009, I had the privilege of serving as the chair of the AALS Law & Computers section. Doing so was quite an honor, and I was flattered to be asked.
Although I’m glad I had the experience, perhaps it’s not surprising that being a section chair is not as romantic as one initially imagines. This post provides a rare inside look into life as an AALS section chair.
What Does a Section Chair Do?
Some sections undertake projects throughout the year, like publishing a section newsletter. However, other sections’ only output for the year is a program at the section’s annual meeting. In these sections, a section chair has three main responsibilities:
1) Organize the program for the annual meeting, which also effectively necessitates attending that annual meeting (but chairs don’t get free admission or any red-carpet treatment).
2) Self-propagate (i.e., select successor leadership).
3) Deal with AALS bureaucracy, such as filling out numerous burdensome forms.
As you can see, this is not an especially demanding list of responsibilities. I probably spent 20-30 hours in 2009 performing my chair duties. I could have spent less.
There are few perks of being a section chair. I can only think of two. The annual meeting has a section officer’s breakfast that provides attendees a free continental breakfast; but this breakfast isn’t exactly free, as attendees have to listen to the AALS brass hype AALS. I also got the power to send emails to AALS’ new section email list. As you can see, being chair is not exactly a glamour gig.
Organizing the Annual Meeting Program
Because the annual meeting program is typically the chair’s main responsibility, let’s take a closer look at it. Each program slot is 105 minutes, of which AALS expects that 15 minutes will be devoted to a section business meeting. So the main opportunity/obligation of being section chair is putting on a 90 minute substantive program at the AALS annual meeting. AALS allocates $900/year to each section for all section expenses; often, that is spent solely on the annual meeting program.
To motivate section chairs to do a good job with their programs, AALS uses some carrots and sticks. The main stick is that if the section meeting does not consistently draw at least 40 people, after a couple of years, AALS can kibosh the section. Further, meeting times can affect attendance. Expected attendance at the Sunday 8:30 am program is going to be lower than a 10:30 am program on Thursday or Friday. And no section chair wants to be responsible for causing the section’s demise.
To improve the section meeting’s time slot, AALS offers various incentives. One incentive is for the section to give up its slot altogether for the year (which nets premium slotting for the next year) or combine its annual meeting slot with another section. Realistically, these options aren’t very attractive because the section chair may end up doing nothing during his/her entire tenure.
AALS also gives a better time slot if the section does a Call for Papers (CFP). If the section doesn’t use a CFP, section chairs typically choose a program topic and invites his/her friends to be on the panel—friends are more likely to say yes, so the chair saves time organizing the panel, and as a bonus the chair gets to hang out with these friends at the conference.
Needless to say, a chair inviting his/her friends creates a clubby/closed-door environment that does not favor newcomers. Further, friends may agree to speak only as a personal favor and not because they are truly excited about the speaking opportunity. As a result, their presentations may not be especially inspired. I believe this is a principal reason why AALS section presentations have gotten such a bad rap over the years.
A CFP solves a number of these problems. First, it opens the doors to newcomers. Second, people who submit their papers generally are excited about the opportunity. Third, because speakers write a paper in connection with their presentation instead of just winging it, the presentations may be higher quality and better prepared.
However, CFPs have other downsides. First, there may not be enough good submissions. We were lucky to get 4 quality submissions to our CFP, but success was not guaranteed. Second, CFPs require more work. It’s easy to send an email to a few friends. It’s harder to write the CFP, disseminate it, compile the submissions, have a committee review them, get the committee’s feedback and communicate the decisions to all of the submitters (including, necessarily, telling some eager folks “no thanks”). I am glad our section went with a CFP process this year, but I understand why many chairs don’t bother.
AALS also gives better times for pre-placing the papers presented at the section meeting. This also requires additional work and can be tricky if the papers aren’t available for students to review. The students either must be convinced the papers will be good, or they will delay confirmation until they see the actual papers (thereby precluding the extra credit AALS gives).
All told, AALS’ incentive system seeks to motivate the chair to do additional work but all of that work results in minimal payoffs—better timing for the section meeting, which reduces the odds of drawing insufficient attendance, which eventually might jeopardize the section’s status. There are other good reasons to do CFPs or pre-place papers, but the AALS incentives themselves typically are not enough to spur additional work from the chair.
The Challenges of Organizing a Good Panel at AALS
If we distill the section chair role into session organizer a/k/a event planner, we should recognize the institutional barriers to putting on a good program at AALS. First, AALS asks for a program topic in March or April for next January’s meeting, i.e., 9 months in advance, and after the chair has been in the role only a couple of months. It’s hard to put on a cutting edge program, at least in areas like Internet or IP law, with such a long lead-time.
Second, AALS gives the section an annual budget of $900, but then they also charge up to $800 for a projector to show PowerPoint slides. (In practice, they split this charge among all of the sections sharing the same room who use PPT, so our actual charge worked out to less than $200 this year). AALS also gives only limited conference fee waivers. In practice, this means the speaker pool is (a) up to one non-professor speaker whose travel gets covered up to $900 if all of the speakers forego PowerPoint, (b) local experts willing to pay the conference admission fee, and (c) speakers (including law professors intending to attend AALS anyway) willing to pay their entire way to speak (including travel and the conference fee). In contrast, at SCU (like most other law schools), we typically reimburse all speaker travel expenses for the academic events we sponsor. So AALS’ budget restrictions make it difficult to put together a first-rate speaker roster.
So, boiling the responsibilities to their most basic form, an AALS section chair’s main responsibility is to organize an event, but AALS gives the chair inferior tools to put together an event comparable to a standard law school event.
AALS’ form bylaws (which, I am guessing, every section has adopted verbatim) require the chair to constitute a nominating committee. My guess is that most chairs skip this step and, at most, consult their executive committee as a de facto nominating committee. This year, I actually put together a nominating committee and used it to suggest candidates and to screen the proposed slate that the incoming chair and I put together.
I’ll talk in a moment about the ideal characteristics of a section chair, but what criteria should be used to nominate the other officer positions and the section’s executive committee? For many sections, I believe the chair and incoming chair do most of the work and the other officer and executive committee positions are largely ceremonial. This was the case for our officers and executive committee this year. Given that, the incoming chair and I followed a few principles for nominating candidates:
* The positions can serve as a incubator for future section leaders. It’s a way of getting to know them better and to get them invested in the section.
* We tried to designate people who would tangibly benefit from being formally identified as community leaders. Emerging scholars approaching tenure are one example.
The incoming chair decided to be inclusive, so we ended up nominating a large executive committee of a dozen members. We hope this will provide a solid foundation of future section leaders.
Attributes of an Ideal Section Chair
For sections that do not undertake more complex projects like a section newsletter, the chair is mainly an event planner. Therefore, the main selection criterion for the chair should be his/her ability to organize a good annual meeting program.
From my perspective, the best section chairs would be people who can’t easily put on their own programs at their home institutions. For example, in the Cyberlaw community, the directors of the major Law & Tech programs can easily sponsor events on their campus without having to navigate AALS’ bureaucracy or limited budget. Further, for those director-chairs, time spent planning an AALS event competes with time spent planning their own program’s events.
In contrast, some chair candidates might come from a school that normally would not organize events for the section’s community. A school might be in a remote geography or lack the budget to put on an event. These candidates might view the AALS chair position as their golden opportunity to put together an event of their design for our community.
Alternatively (or in addition), some event ideas could draw upon AALS’ strengths. I’m not exactly sure what an event like that would look like. However, it would be worth pursuing if someone envisioned an event that would be more successful because it’s held at AALS.
In some sections, I believe AALS section leadership is viewed as a capstone professional experience, and therefore generally a professor pays dues for years (decades?) before becoming a viable candidate for a leadership role. In contrast, in the Internet law area, many long-time professors are too busy to want the chair’s role, but some relative newcomers would view the opportunity as exciting (and not as the last item on their overly long to-do list).
Personally, I don’t have a problem with an untenured chair if he or she understands the responsibilities and pitfalls. A section chair has a big hand in allocating speaker slots and designating future officers/executive committee members. Invariably, this power also means that the chair must say no to some people, potentially including tenured faculty members. Some untenured chairs might find this position uncomfortable; others would value the early leadership experience.
Finally, some chair candidates might have ideas of new section activities that go beyond the annual meeting program. Someone who could identify a new community resource to provide through AALS, and was willing to undertake that project, might be an especially compelling chair candidate.
To recap, then, my specifications for an ideal section chair are:
* don’t already have a center or institute where they put on similar events
* has an idea for a program that could be best done under AALS’ auspices (and despite AALS’ limitations as an event venue)
* is comparatively junior enough that they won’t view the chair’s responsibilities as a nuisance that competes for their time
* has ideas about new initiatives for the section beyond the annual meeting program
If I could do it over again, I would ask prospective chair candidates to write a short blurb explaining what they would like to do with the section meeting and if they have any other initiative ideas.