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Junked mail: Law schools pledge to curb marketing waste

Jessica Shumaker//November 11, 2019//

Junked mail: Law schools pledge to curb marketing waste

Jessica Shumaker//November 11, 2019//

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Each year, law school faculty and administrators nationwide are inundated with “law porn” — marketing materials from other law schools sent to them for reasons ranging from sharing law school news to efforts to boost the school’s rankings.

The materials largely go unread and often go directly into the trash or to recycling, according to a professor at the University of Missouri School of Law.

mailbox-webIn an effort to stem the overall tide of academic marketing waste, that professor, S.I. Strong, is asking law schools and professors across the country to sign onto a pledge to reduce the use of such marketing materials in their institutions.

Strong said the idea for the pledge came from being inundated by a variety of marketing materials — newsletters, postcards and glossy publications included — produced and sent by other law schools to promote their programs.

“Basically it was just the continual receipt of extra information that I had no idea how I was getting on mailing lists and not actually reading the materials,” she said.

She recalls asking her fellow professors in the mailroom whether they read the materials they all were receiving. She learned that the materials were largely discarded, unread, in the mailroom’s recycling bin.

Mizzou, too, has created its share of printed marketing materials, but the university has pivoted to using electronic communications and reducing the amount of paper it sends out.

Aurora Meyer, spokeswoman for the law school, said the law school clinics and centers now send out electronic newsletters. The school also sends postcards promoting its books to targeted individuals in specific fields of study, she said.

“There are just so many other ways to tell our story,” she said, rather than sending out paper.

Mizzou and another law school known for its environmental law program, the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University in New York, also teamed up to launch the Pledge to Reduce Academic Marketing Waste on Oct. 24 in honor of the International Day of Climate Action. Pace hosts the pledge’s website.

They’ve already been joined by seven other universities and more than 70 individual professors. Mizzou is the only Missouri school to sign on to date. In neighboring Kansas, Washburn University also has joined the pledge.

Schools and professors who join the pledge agree to reduce academic marketing waste on an individual and institutional basis by limiting or eliminating the production and transmission of paper-based marketing materials. They also agree to encourage their institutions’ decision-makers to adopt actions and policies in line with that goal.

The pledge outlines four ways to reduce such waste:

  • Reducing the size of materials (such as replacing newsletters with postcards)
  • Reducing the frequency of sending materials
  • Adopting recipients to opt-in to receiving materials versus requiring an opt-out approach
  • Replacing some or all paper-based marketing with electronic or other forms of marketing

‘A wobbly Jenga tower’

While the mailings serve a variety of purposes, law porn is closely associated with law school rankings in U.S. News & World Report.

Strong said she and her peers receive marketing materials year-round, but the flow is especially heavy during the fall, when law schools are preparing for reputational surveys for the rankings and faculty and administrators are asked to assess those in peer institutions.

Their responses carry a higher weight in law school rankings in comparison to the survey responses of attorneys and judges, who also are asked to assess law school programs.

Although the phenomenon of law porn is well-documented within legal academia, few studies have attempted to quantify just how many mailings are sent out and received each year on a national scale.

In one study, Larry Cunningham, now associate dean for St. John’s University in Queens, New York, found that he and his colleagues collected 427 unique pieces of marketing from June to December 2011. The materials came from 125 different law schools.

Becky L. Jacobs, a law professor at the University of Tennessee College of Law, said she and her colleagues attempted to collect all of the materials they received during a span of a few months, but they abandoned the effort after seeing another professor’s report on the issue.

She pointed to an essay by Jay M. Feinman, a Rutgers law professor, in which he documented collecting 26 pieces of promotional materials during a month in 2003.

Of those pieces, he received “three alumni magazines, three programs of speaker series, nine more announcements of individual speakers or conferences, two brochures of specialty programs and nine flyers on new faculty, distinguished faculty or faculty accomplishments,” Feinman wrote.

“The material ranged from simple postcards to a 168-page, full-color magazine with production values that rival those of House Beautiful,” he wrote. “In addition, I received numerous reprints of law review articles, including several from people I do not know, writing in fields in which I have no identified interest.”

Jacobs said she and her colleagues reported similar experiences.

“I had a wobbly Jenga tower of material in my office that menaced visitors,” she said.

Jacobs added that while many in academia associate the mailings with rankings, she’s not claiming that all materials sent to her and her peers are aimed at influencing rankings — “alumni relations, hiring and other considerations certainly factor into a school’s marketing strategy,” she said.

“However, regardless of intended purpose, these types of promotional materials likely could take another form, such as electronic, and be just as or even more effective,” she said.

Raising consciousness

Strong emphasized she is not saying schools should not use any paper.

“I’m just saying we should be more conscious about what we’re doing,” she said. “Merely recycling doesn’t cut down on the problem.”

She noted the effects of carbon emissions in cutting down trees, transporting paper and in the recycling process.

In addition to institutional marketing materials, Strong said professors also can do their part to limit their use of paper. She noted that professors who submit law review articles can request offprints, or bound hard copies of their work, and send them to their peers across the country.

“We don’t have to do that,” she said. “We can send those electronically.”

While she’d like to get buy-in for the pledge from every law school in the country, she said if she could even get half of them on board, the initiative would be a success in reducing waste.

“I think it is something we need to deal with collectively as opposed to individually,” she said. “Fifty percent would be a critical mass, and we’d see a significant reduction [in academic marketing waste].”

Those interested in joining the pledge can email Strong at [email protected].

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