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Monday, September 25, 2006

Credentials and Hiring: First of a Series

There's been a lot of good discussion on the usual suspect blogs in the last week or two concerning what I would broadly describe as the endless anxiety about credentials and merit in the legal academy.  Part of this is sparked, I'm sure, by the looming meat market; a good deal of it has been sparked by Jim Chen et al.'s superb new blog, Moneylaw.  (Although Shubha and others on Prawfs have offered some very honorable contributions to this discussion.)  And much of it has to do with the broader fact that the members of the legal academy, in which reliable standards of judgment are so hard to come by and which faces a continual crisis about its place within the university, are just constantly insecure about who we are and what it means to be good.  In any event, the discussion has been very interesting, and this week I plan to discuss these issues over the course of several posts. 

Let me start by noting a very interesting post by Brian Leiter today, asking whether students choose law schools with an eye toward teaching.  Brian is reacting to a Moneylaw post by Nancy Rapoport, in which she says she thinks few students do so, and in which she adds, "Don't punish the candidate for his choice of law school. Look beyond the group membership (choice of law school) to the candidate's talent."  Leiter says he agrees generally with Rapoport's views on what law schools should look for (I'm not clear on whether this agreement encompasses Rapoport's "don't punish candidates for their choice of school" advice or not), but says his anecdotal sense is that many students do, in fact, think about the possibility of a teaching career when choosing schools.  He concludes, "That schools like Yale, Harvard, Chicago, and Stanford dominate the market for new law teachers surely has a great deal to do with self-selection."

Since it's Monday morning, let me begin easily enough by cribbing my comment on Leiter's site, with thanks to him for sparking these thoughts:

You may be right that a substantial number of prospective law students think about their teaching prospects in choosing a law school. That's still a small number relative to the whole, however, so Rapoport's claim may still be accurate if read as follows: of the entire mass of students selecting law schools, I don't know too many who do so on the basis of its potential to lead to teaching jobs.

One could reasonably argue that this is a selective group in the first place, and that of those who are real teaching prospects, an increasing number are selecting their school with an eye toward teaching. But I still think Rapoport's advice -- don't punish candidates for their choice of school -- is a good one, if reasonably applied. Of course, students have lots of different reasons to choose different schools, money and geography being among them; a talented student with family obligations, a sick relative, and so on may choose to stay in a particular place, and accept a full ride at a less highly ranked school, rather than move across the country to accept an admission offer at a prestigious but expensive school. If law schools are serious about seeking genuine diversity in faculty ranks, including socio-economic diversity -- and I'm not saying they are serious about this! -- they might well want to take this into account.

Moreover, even if many students who want to teach, and know it from the get-go, select their school on this basis, many other students, including many who are highly talented, only discover their interest in teaching after they've already selected a school and begun their legal education. This is one possible reading, for instance, of your datum concerning UT students seeking to transfer elsewhere.

I'm not saying the top schools aren't excellent sources of teaching talent, or that there are absolutely no qualitative differences between schools that hiring committees might want to consider. I am suggesting that, just because schools institutionalize a bias in favor of hiring potential faculty from a limited number of schools, and just because some number of prospective teachers respond by selecting those schools, that does not make the system entirely rational, at least if the hiring committee is seeking quality rather than merely looking for a way to minimize its search costs.

For a variety of reasons, including economic factors and the simple fact that some students discover their vocation later than others, full many a superb hiring prospect may wither on the vine at a non-top 10 school, while the clerkships, teaching interviews, and other fruits go to someone from a top school who is superficially attractive but not ultimately the best prospect. That's too bad. At the very least, we should acknowledge that the very fact that judges, firms, and hiring committees are more likely to encourage and select those who resemble them, rather than engage in a more laborious search for talented people elsewhere, ought to undermine any confidence in the view that the winners in this process are literally the "best" people.


Posted by Paul Horwitz on September 25, 2006 at 11:46 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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As someone who picked a non-top 15 school--but could have--and who had an interest in law teaching when applying to law school (and still does, now, post-graduation), I'd like to second Paul's reaction.

When choosing a school I had read all the pertinent materials on the benefits of going to a "national" school, but it was always in the context of getting a good job as a lawyer. For whatever reason, partly, perhaps, because the blogsphere (and lists like Larry Solum's now annual review) did not exist yet, I did not know that 80% (or whatever the number is) of legal academics come from the top 5 or 6 schools, and that not being in the top 15-or-so is quite a mark against you.

In the end I chose my school for cost and location reasons. Now, I must admit that I was not "absolutely sure" I wanted to go into law teaching at the time, but who is, save for those who already have 2 PhDs? Even so, had I known what I know now about the way the system works I may have chosen a higher-ranked school. But, my reason for doing so would be because of the bias that Nancy Rapaport and others identify, not because I thought that I would be a better academic if I had gone to a higher-ranked school.

Posted by: Wanabe Lawprof | Sep 25, 2006 4:45:21 PM

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