We don’t interview many professors at Bitter Lawyer. Period. They’re generally rather dry and not really our bag.
UCLA Law professor and former Supreme Court clerk Eugene Volokh seems an obvious exception. In addition to his commanding presence in legal academia, Volokh is also the founder and co-author of The Volokh Conspiracy, a blog that covers law and public policy with a conservative/libertarian bent.
But there are tons of those types of blogs, you say? What makes this one so special? To that, we answer: Volokh has daily traffic of 25,000 unique visitors each weekday. (Booya.) His love of guns also piqued our interest—as well as his background as a twelve-year-old computer prodigy and his unique brand of humor.
We recently caught up with the USSR-born Volokh to find out his favorite Glock, whether political partisanship is really a factor in SCOTUS clerkships, and what professors really think of gunners.
So, is it true that you’ve organized field trips to a Los Angeles area shooting range for some of your students?
Yes, as part of my Firearms Regulation Policy seminar, which I’ve taught five times (four times at UCLA and once at George Mason University). Some of the students in that class knew a lot about guns, but others didn’t, and I thought they needed to know the basics. I also sometimes donated a trip with me to the shooting range (and always some accompanying gun safety instruction) for our school’s Public Interest Law Foundation auction.
Are you a good shot?
I’m a pretty decent shot, when shooting at stationary targets that aren’t too far away. Moving targets? Too hard for me, sorry to say.
What are you packing?
In Los Angeles, concealed carry licenses are nearly impossible to pack, so I don’t “pack” in the sense of carrying. But I like Glocks, especially the Glock 17.
We talk to a lot of law students, and if there’s one universally shared sentiment, it’s that they despise gunners. How do professors really feel about gunners?
Imagine you’re a professor. You ask the class a question. The response: Dead silence.
You wait. Still silence. Then you wait some more.
Someone raises his hand and gives an answer. You feel happy. You feel some respect towards the person who offers the answer. (You feel some respect even if the answer is wrong since the person was brave enough to try; you feel even more if the answer is right.) You also feel annoyed by the silent students. Did they not do their reading? Are they not paying attention? Or if they do know the answer, are they deliberately free-riding on the effort (and willingness to risk public embarrassment) of their classmates?
Law school classes are deliberately aimed to be interactive, and not just lectures. They only work if students are willing to interact. Those who do that are pulling their share of the load.
Then along come the class evaluations, and inevitably some students write as one of the criticisms of the class, “Some students dominated the class discussion.” Well, duh. If only 10 students out of 80 are willing to talk, then those 10 students will “dominate the class discussion.” But the only way to solve that is by having the other 70 students be willing to talk. But they aren’t—and then they complain about a problem that they themselves caused, by their silence.
Now of course I’d prefer it if more students talked. If I have several raised hands to choose from, I’ll choose first the students who have talked less than the others. But if only one hand is raised, that’s the person I’ll call on.
And of course some student participation can be counterproductive… For instance, if it digresses unduly from the topic. If you want to limit the term “gunner” to such counterproductive class participation, then, by definition, it’s bad. But if you’re asking more broadly about students who frequently participate in class discussions, then I just wish more students were like them.
Also, my sense is that most students learn better when they actively participate, so I think that participating is actually good for those who participate, as well as being good for class discussion.
The Volokh Conspiracy has got to be one of the more ominous-sounding legal blogs out there. In fact, it kind of sounds like a Robert Ludlum title. Why did you decide to pair your surname with “conspiracy”?
Well, when Sasha [my brother] and I decided to add more co-bloggers to the Volokh Brothers [our blog’s original name], we needed a good group title. I first thought of “Volokh Group,” but then I realized I was likely borrowing from the “McLaughlin Group.” Then I thought of “Volokh Gang,” but realized that was probably influenced by “The Capital Gang.” Then I hit on Conspiracy. It seemed original. It was amusingly absurd (in my view), since who publicly advertises that they are a conspiracy? And it indirectly echoed the “Jewish Conspiracy” (Sasha and I are Jewish, as are many of our co-bloggers) and the “Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy” (remember that label?).
So it amused me and had some small, but nonzero, chance of amusing others—generally the test I use for on-blog humor. Plus, it was memorable.
There are now about twenty contributors to the blog. How do you find them?
That is a Head Conspirator top secret. I could tell you, but then I’d have to distributed-denial-of-service you.
You’re very well known as legal scholar specializing in the First Amendment, but you’re also a publisher. Put your publisher cap on for a second. Suppose someone sues you for a media tort. Who’s on your short list to represent you and The Volokh Conspiracy? Why them?
Is it an easy case that’s a sure winner for me? If so, I’d do it myself—not just to save money, but for the fun [of it] and for the blog fodder. Plus, if it heads to the Supreme Court, I’d get a Supreme Court argument. (Unlikely, but, hey, a man can dream.) On the other hand, if it’s likely to head to the Supreme Court, it’s probably not such a sure winner for me. (Uh-oh.)
So if I need a real lawyer, I’d approach my colleagues at Mayer Brown, where I’m a part-part-part-part-time Academic Affiliate. The Mayer people are first-rate, as many impartial sources agree. Plus, I’d hope they’d consider poor little academic me as a worthy pro bono candidate.
There was a recent article in The New York Times about growing partisanship among former Supreme Court Clerks. As a former Supreme Court Clerk, what are your feelings?
I’m always hesitant of claimed trends: One can’t find a trend unless one, first, has a good sense of what’s happening now, and, second, has a good sense of what was happening in the past. Figuring out what’s actually happening among the clerks—and among their likely employers—is hard enough today, but harder still in retrospect.
My sense is that there has always been both non-ideological professionalism and ideological preference in Justices selecting clerks, in clerks selecting post-clerkship jobs, and in hiring decisions by some post-clerkship employers (chiefly government offices, but also in some measure universities; probably not so much for law firms).
I doubt that it has changed much over time. But maybe I’m mistaken. As I said, one would have to have a good deal of good data to figure that out, and I don’t have it—I’m just skeptical that others do as well.
You started working as computer programmer at age 12. What were you working on? Do you still write code in your spare time?
That’s right; I started by writing some financial applications software for an L.A. real estate company, and then I worked for six years at various other companies, mostly writing systems software. But at the same time, I wrote systems software for the HP 3000 (a large business minicomputer), and my father and I started a small software company to sell that software. It’s still in business, though I haven’t written much code in the last few years.
Lawyers, as a whole, are not the most tech-savvy bunch. Why?
Well, they say that lawyers are college graduates who didn’t like blood and didn’t like numbers. Technology isn’t mostly about numbers, but it does call for more of a scientific temperament than most lawyers have.
Given your early aptitude for writing computer code, you probably could have been a Silicon Valley tycoon by now. Why did you decide to become a lawyer?
I decided that I wanted to lead a semi-public life: Write op-eds, write amicus briefs, argue on talk shows, testify before legislatures, and so on. And who gets to do that? Lawyers. Fortunately for me, I managed to get precisely what I wanted.
We found a 1993 note in the Yale Law Review that you authored with Judge Alex Kozinski, where you wrote, “Yiddish is quickly supplanting Latin as the spice in American legal argot.” Why do you think that is?
Yiddish terms are kind of funny. Don’t ask me why—maybe it’s the sound, maybe it’s the connection to generations of comedians, maybe we Jews and things connected with us are just a funny topic. Not very funny, but a little funny; and that’s often enough to get them used when someone is trying to spice things up.
It’s obviously a very tough job market out there for young lawyers. What do you tell your students who seek career advice?
1) Get good grades. 2) Try for law review, and for a clerkship. 3) Beyond that, ask someone who actually knows the way law firm hiring works.