I attended a conference last weekend in New York, hosted by Bob Hockett and Saule Omarova at Cornell Law School. It was an uncommonly good one, one of the best I have attended. The quality made me wonder what was so good about it, so I share some thoughts here that might be of interest.
First, the format. The conference was organized around a series of papers, mostly by junior scholars. Each paper was given a full hour for discussion, starting with 15 minutes of presentation by the author. A more senior respondent would then provide 10 minutes of comments, followed by a queue of questions/comments from the other participants. Instead of the usual faculty workshop ping-pong between question and answer, the person keeping the queue took three questions at a time. For many papers, given how many comments were offered, the author wouldn’t respond at all, spending the time instead taking notes on how to improve the paper.
The result was that authors and participants got to spend an hour hearing from a dozen scholars providing reactions not only to the paper as it was written, but on ways to extend the analysis in any number of different directions. One of my weaknesses in scholarly presentations is that I can take too long to answer questions; in the usual Q&A format, this means that I won’t hear as many questions as I want. Fortunately, in this approach that kind of filibustering wasn’t really possible.
Second, the stage of presentation. This aspect was less in conference design than what was, for me, a fortuitous accident. The original idea of the conference was to present early-stage drafts that could benefit from the constructive criticisms. I had intended to present a manuscript of an article thinking about the adjudicative nature of central banking, as opposed to the technocratic/econometric vision that dominates most public and private discussions. Life intervened and I ended up, with the organizers’ patient indulgence, presenting a chapter of my forthcoming book that briefly discusses the concept of central banking as adjudication, and then spent my 15 minutes talking about the article as I see it at a very early stage. I can’t even correct typos at this stage of the book’s production, though, so I slipped past the conference requirement of “early stage drafts” by averaging a published chapter and a very, very early-stage article outline.
The serendipitous result makes me think this two-stage approach might be worth emulating. The participants’ comments in response to the article idea were the best I have ever received, and radically reshaped my approach to these questions. The article I will write will be very different from the article I discussed in the conference, largely because of these comments, but also because there was no inertia behind a draft to which I had already devoted a lot of time and effort.
Of course, that previous preparation was a sunk cost. One would hope that I would have taken the same critiques on a more polished draft with dispassion, regardless of how much time has been devoted to the previous idea. But academics are subject like anyone to the fallacy of sunk costs, and I at least found it easier to have a rolling conversation through these ideas with colleagues I admired at this early stage, mostly because I hadn’t really committed to much beyond the topic itself. The amount of work ahead of me was the same going into the conference as it was coming out of it, so I didn’t feel particularly wedded to the framing devices I used to organize my thinking.
This leads me to think that this rather untraditional approach—presenting a published chapter/article in writing, followed by a presentation that focuses on the next project—could be key for those conferences that want to maximize the intellectual benefits for presenters and participants alike.
That said, I acknowledge that the question of when to present a working paper is a tricky one, especially for junior faculty. One of my senior colleagues in finance told me to treat every conference as a job talk, since tenure letters are going to come from people in the room. Presenting half-baked ideas to senior colleagues in a quasi-public place could be very dangerous indeed. This is why an upfront announcement by conference organizers that participants should expect both published work and a discussion of future ideas would be a way to get some of the benefits that I saw last weekend. The key here, I suppose, is for presenters to have a coherent research agenda that builds across multiple papers. Otherwise, we’d all just be shooting the breeze, a valuable activity but maybe not for 20-30 people around a conference table.
(Side note: There is, however, the opposite risk in presenting germs of ideas. The academy is a competitive place, and most work done by most scholars is at best incremental. Really good ideas shared in a conference space could lead some to beg, borrow, or steal in their own efforts to pursue their own research agendas. I know many of our readers will have had experiences where colleagues behave in this way. It’s lamentable, but a reality that conference organizers and participants should keep in mind.)
A third aspect of the conference that made it exceptional was squarely in its design and ambition: to bring together scholars who mostly place their scholarly identity in the field of “financial regulation.” A curious quirk of law school curricula is that banking/finance scholars have been lumped with scholars of Delaware corporate governance under the generic title “business law.” This is legally and intellectually unfortunate: financial regulation has almost nothing to do with corporate/company law. Indeed, I think of banking regulation as a subset of administrative law rather than corporate law. Seehere for an interesting argument from Columbia’s Gillian Meztger along the same lines. To pause on how strange this conflation is, consider the institutional design of major law firms: no Delaware corporate law practice would assume they were also experts in federal banking/financial regulation law, and vice versa. These are different practice groups altogether.
I’m a business school professor, so take these observations as an informed outsider’s view. But the curricular and institutional collapse of financial regulation and the much larger field of corporate law seems to me to crowd out what makes financial regulation so distinct, and so distinctly important.
To give you a sense of these distinctions, here are the papers Saule and Bob brought together: legal definitions of “safe assets” in banking, finance, and politics; the intrinsically public nature of the financial and payment systems; the structure of money and financial stability; the legal issues around Bitcoin; financial innovation and regulation; the epistemologies of central banking; high-frequency trading and market structure; mechanisms of market efficiency in derivatives; and gatekeepers in bank secrecy/anti-money laundering. Few if any of these have anything to do with corporate/company law. Instead, each one is part of an entirely separate field that is growing in number, scope, and importance: financial regulation.
Finally, and related to solidifying financial regulation as a distinct intellectual enterprise, the people themselves were fun to be around. I’ll assume that Chatham House rules governed some of the most quotable tidbits, but suffice it to say that some scholars of financial regulation are also quite hilarious, as impossible as that might sound to an outsider wondering what is funny about, say, high-frequency trading and market structure.
I left the conference feeling energized and eager to see an even greater institutional framework develop around this growing field. My congratulations to Bob and Saule for the event, and my invitation to others—whether in financial regulation or elsewhere—to follow their lead if some of these unusual features look useful for future conferences.