Thursday, December 15, 2005

Professor William Bradford's Resignation Offers a Cautionary Tale

I have been thinking a lot in recent days about the resignation of Associate Professor William Bradford from the faculty of Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis. (This has been big news in law school circles.) On the one hand, it sounds a lot like the sort of academic infighting that is of limited relevance to the larger world. On the other hand, it’s a perfect cautionary tale for anyone planning or already embarked on a career in law teaching or practice. For more details on the matter, check out the December 6, 2005 posting on the Volokh Conspiracy (a great blog).

For starters, let me clearly state what this posting is NOT about. I am not bashing Professor Bradford. Nor am I defending him. Others are doing a fine job of that. I am just looking for the lessons to be learned.

By way of background, I met Bradford at a conference last year, where he spoke on national security law matters (his area of specialty). He was smart, well-spoken, and even more convinced of the rightness of his (somewhat extreme) views on national security law than most law professors are about their beliefs—which frankly is saying a lot. Bradford seemed like the kind of person who did not mind shaking things up a bit.

That is not a bad thing in law teaching, of course. It in fact can be a good thing, since it generates debate and discourse. And after all, the role of law professors is to advance knowledge, not just reach consensus and play nice. Yet the Bradford tale provides three lessons on ways to avoid trouble in your law career.

First, did Bradford ruffle feathers on the Indy faculty? I do not know, but clearly certain tenured faculty members there were opposed to him. Whether he justly deserved their opposition or not is wholly irrelevant for my purposes. Rather, the lesson for any professor seeking the holy grail of tenure or any law firm associate seeking the brass ring of partnership is to tread softly if possible and not antagonize people. The old saying is that “friends come and go, but enemies accumulate.” If someone has a vote over your future, they have a vote, and that is that. Whether that person is opposed to you for valid or invalid reasons is quite beside the point: you either win her over (either through the merit of your work, your interpersonal skills, or preferably both), neutralize his opposition by having other people in your corner, or find another job.

Second, Bradford padded his resume by exaggerating his military service record. The lesson is that you simply cannot lie or fudge about your professional and personal background. At all. Ever. The point is that we are lawyers, and lawyers are—and should be—held to a higher standard than the general public. Intentionally misrepresenting your background and credentials can derail your career. And in this digital age falsehoods are uncovered easier than ever.

Third, while the current ABA Model Rules for Professional Conduct do not use the phrase “Appearance of Professional Impropriety” (it appeared in the header for Canon 9 of the now-superseded Model Code of Professional Responsibility), this phrase should always be foremost in the mind of anyone considering a career in law. Bradford apparently posted “cheap shot” comments to a law school blog under names other than his own. He was caught by an Indy law student running the blog who noticed that different “commentators” on the blog had IP addresses matching Bradford’s. This just smells bad. Even if it did not technically violate any rules (which it may have), it just seems improper. The lesson in practice (and teaching) is that if something smells fishy it probably is, and just to be safe you shouldn’t do it. And any potential payoff does not match the fallout if caught.

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