by Laura Kleinberg and Dennie Zastrow; edited by John Basenfelder
Professor Alice Abreu joined the faculty of Temple Law in 1985. She teaches a variety of tax courses, including corporate taxation and international tax. Her scholarship largely focuses on the formulation of federal tax policy. She recently sat down with Temple Law Review to discuss how to pursue scholarly research.
Read the full interview here.
TLR: Just generally, what have you learned about the process of scholarly writing and research that you would think might help law review students writing their first-ever massive research paper?
AA: It’s really hard.
TLR: It is!
AA: I think the biggest challenge for me still is having a focused enough topic that I don’t end up going all over the place. There’s just so much interesting law and so many interesting issues that it’s just, it’s hard to know where to stop and how to keep things focused and be efficient and produce a piece of writing that really makes one point and makes that point thoroughly and well. And I think part of that for me, and I think in academia generally, is getting feedback from colleagues. And not just colleagues in your field, but some of the most useful comments I’ve gotten on drafts of papers have come from people who are not tax people, and I think this probably applies in all areas, not just because tax is the weirdo exceptional. But it’s fresh eyes and a fresh perspective.
TLR: Do you really think about how to make something unique, or do you find that that’s something that just happens as you go along? In certain areas, there are just so many things that have been written for years by brilliant professors, especially as a student coming to this, one wonders, “how can I possibly make some kind of relatively unique contribution to this?”
AA: I think every scholar worries about that. Sometimes I think for many of us it’s having an intuition and then following it. The uniqueness or the import of the idea doesn’t, I mean, for some people it may be a thunderbolt of lightning, and then they have the idea, but that’s not the way it’s worked for me. For me, it’s kind of like, I’m puzzled by something and I think about it. And I also find I don’t really know what I think until I write it.
I find that writing, that coming up with a title and writing an introduction are, for me, vital. The title really forces you to [think]: what is it that you really want to say? What is the point of this? And it’s really hard.
TLR: Have you always written your scholarship about tax or have you ever went out of your comfort zone a little bit?
AA: Actually yes. For a couple of years, I was doing a lot of writing in a sort of part of jurisprudence that is referred to as Lat Crit—Latino Critical Studies. So that was sort of a movement of bringing a critical perspective from the Latino side, from those of us who have Latino roots. I’m Cuban. In fact, one of the articles I wrote when I was doing a lot of Lat Crit stuff I titled, “Cubans Without Borders.”  And I did another piece that I titled, “Bringing Money Law to Lat Crit,” and that tried to make the point that critical scholars ought to be thinking about not just civil rights, which are obviously really important, but that economic rights and the parts of the law that deal not with civil rights but with economic transactions ought to be important .
TLR: That’s what money law is? The idea that there are other, maybe not as important, but almost as important things . . .
AA: Yeah, because economic well-being is important to be able to assert your civil rights. And there are connections between poverty and denial of rights, and economics matters. Those areas of law sometimes seem to have less representation from people who are progressive and have progressive values and I think we ought to be at the table. And if you don’t have that knowledge and that expertise, you can’t be at the table.
TLR: Do you think that’s just because there’s less guttural reaction, like when someone’s civil rights are violated, and you have that feeling, and then there’s also monetary and economic injustice, but there’s not [that same emotional reaction].
AA: It’s not as visceral.
TLR: I’m sure you’ve helped a lot of students writing their law review pieces over the years. Do you have any advice? Are there any pitfalls that you see that students should avoid when they’re researching, or just any words of wisdom?
AA: A fascinating and I think terrific dividend from teaching your class is that I’m now supervising three law review students writing their pieces. Which is great, because there’s all this tax law in the Law Review! I think definitely keeping the subject narrow enough and focused enough that at this stage in your careers you have something meaningful to say. And cabining it to where it’s within your ability. You shouldn’t be trying to reform the entire legal system and the world.
TLR: We’re very idealistic.
AA: Not that it may not need reformation, but yeah, I think that’s the hardest thing, just keeping it focused. And, of course, writing well. I think one of the great things that comes from working on any journal is that the level of attention to detail that you get will stand you in good stead no matter what you do.
TLR: Even just doing these cite checks, the level of detail involved in that—most students would not have thought it would take twenty hours to go through thirty different footnotes.
AA: And I will confess that I hated that. And I even thought about quitting law review because, who wants to spend the time? But my first summer at Dechert after the whole second-year law review experience, I realized that what I had learned as a result of this, as much as I had to be dragged to it kicking and screaming, really made me a much better lawyer. I think it’s an experience that as many people as possible should have. You also have the advantage of having several people take your writing and take it seriously and engage with it and really push you to clarify and to make it as clear and as concise as you can, and then eventually you internalize that, and you learn how to become a better editor yourself.