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Monday, October 19, 2009

More on Choosing Among "Lower-Tier" Schools

A commenter on Jack's first post on when and whether to accept offers from lower-ranked schools wrote that this is a question of some importance that he or she has not seen discussed elsewhere.  I suspect there are other discussions out there, and that I have even contributed to them from time to time, but I agree that too little is said about this.  Jack has helpfully contributed another post on the subject, and let me also add some more thoughts.

First, let me give the usual disclaimer, which, as a friend said to me last night, is often delivered with such fervor as to approach hypocrisy: I am not speaking up for the US News rankings, or for that matter for other and better ranking systems.  They all have a heuristic value, some much more so than others, but they are all also just an approximation and will necessarily not reflect many important aspects of both the schools under examination and your own preferences.  It is one thing to use rankings as a proxy absent other information, or to save time.  But if you have more time and can accumulate more information, it makes sense to do so given the importance of the decision where to spend your personal and professional life.  I think some lower-tier schools are highly underrated, that others are not, and that some higher-tier schools are either underrated or overrated.  And even if all the US News rankings were right, again, they might not reflect your own preferences.  But we all use them to some extent and I will take that as a given in this discussion.

Second, as a commenter on Jack's post notes, there is often, and to a greater extent than at the top schools, something of a generational divide -- not necessarily one of pure chronological age, but rather one of time of hiring -- between junior and senior professors at lower-ranked law schools.  This should not be overstated, and a new prof coming into such a school should not make the snobbish assumption that he or she has nothing to learn from these senior professors, many of whom make all kinds of non-scholarly contributions to the school, have superb teaching chops, or at some point have been productive scholars.  And, of course, numbers notwithstanding some of these folks are fine scholars who continue to produce.  So don't come in with a chip on your shoulder.  Not only will this be noticed by your colleagues, but you will also lose valuable opportunities to learn from senior colleagues and make friends, sometimes in surprising places.

At the same time, the quality of the juniors being hired is of immense importance for a variety of reasons.  First, not every lower-ranked school is in fact hiring what we might think of as energetic young scholars, although I think the numbers of schools across the board that are doing so have increased greatly; so it makes sense to find out who has been hired and find out whether they are happy there.  This cohort is the future of your school and a prime determinant of its culture, and at many lower-ranked schools one can feel the energy pushing upward from the junior ranks and pervading the entire institution.  Make sure juniors are well-supported, and inquire into whether they have or would support a junior faculty workshop.  If there isn't one, start it yourself.  I have taught at a "lower-ranked school" (unfairly so, in my view), and the life of the junior faculty was a distinct part (although not the only part -- see "don't ignore senior faculty," above) of what made that place a fantastic environment.

The nature of the junior faculty hired also says much about the energy level and direction of the school.  Having been through a dean search and several hiring seasons, I am struck by the extent to which these decisions are not only about signaling to other schools, but about a school, most definitely including its senior faculty, signaling to itself.  It is a way for the faculty of a school to send a message to itself about its expectations for all faculty.  If the senior faculty of a lower-ranked school are nevertheless hiring and encouraging promising junior scholars, then even if they are not themselves terribly productive at the moment, they may be saying that they believe this should be the future direction of the school, that they believe more scholarly energy and engagement is needed and should be a part of the school's ongoing culture.  That's an important cue for people deciding where to go, and you should try to get a deeper sense of this.  Moreover, since it is a way of sending a message about expectations, I believe it sometimes indicates a faculty where the senior members are themselves ready to start writing more, and often follow up superbly on this commitment.  So, once more, do not count out either the talents or the intentions of the senior faculty; treat them as presumptive allies, not enemies.  Also, this kind of hiring mission may indicate that there is someone in command -- a dean or associate dean -- who has an energetic vision for the school's future.  This should be an encouraging factor.

Let me end with two aspects of the educational mission you may need to undertake if you accept a position at a "lower-ranked" school.  First, as I said, if you want your institution to be the kind of place you would be happy teaching and spending an indefinite amount of time, you must be an institution-builder.  Your goal may be to write your way to a higher-ranked school, and I think that is a perfectly appropriate incentive and desire.  But in the meantime, there you are, and of course your future success is not guaranteed.  So don't treat your institution as an embarrassment or a handicap, even if you think you might end up somewhere "better."  Champion your institution.  Become a part of its life, and work to make sure the culture of the place is what you think it should be, keeping in mind that different institutions have different needs, talents, and weaknesses and, given the variety among students, should have different goals; don't just try to remake your school into the elite institution you studied at, but think about how to make it a productive, energetic scholarly institution that is also responsive to its own needs and situation.  Don't "hide your nametag" or act apologetic about where you teach.  This sends the wrong signal, both to your own colleagues and to others, both about the institution and about the likelihood that you will be a good institutional player at some other school.  I am all in favor of self-advancement, and, heck, I myself wrote up.  But you should treat every institution you are at, no matter how long or short your stay there, as your terminal institution and set about advancing its cause and building its culture.  Indeed, this is one way that such institutions slowly improve their reputations -- by seeding the faculties of other law schools with faculty alumni who speak well of their former institution and thus enhance the way their old school is thought of, which in turn helps juniors still at that school in both their scholarly efforts and their own efforts to lateral.  

Second, part of your educational mission will have to do with your friends and mentors at the higher- or highest-ranked schools.  I am always struck by the degree of informational deficit that many well-established professors, most certainly including juniors, at very high-ranked schools have about the schools further down the chain.  As my friend said last night, this may be "rational ignorance," since they may simply not need -- or believe they don't need, rightly or wrongly -- to know more about these schools.  This leads some of them, in advising their students about where to take teaching jobs, to treat the US News rankings in too coarse-grained a fashion, to assume that rankings are all there is and that if a school is lower-ranked one simply must not accept an offer there.  The rest of us do or should know better; we do or should know that some "lower-ranked" schools have productive scholarly environments, increasingly impressive juniors, and an excellent culture and/or resources.  So, first of all, don't take the advice of your highly-ranked professor mentor on these matters as gospel; make your own decisions and gather your own information.  Second, you should make sure that you let these people know about all the good work that is being done out there.  I can say from the accounts of others that professors at top-ten schools who initially believed that some particular school was beneath notice most definitely could be persuaded to change their minds, and approach that school with a very different spirit, when their proteges let them know what was going on at that institution -- who they had hired, what work they had been publishing, and so on.  Do what you can to lift that rational ignorance at the highest levels, both for the sake of your new, "lower-ranked" institution and for your own sake.

Posted by Paul Horwitz on October 19, 2009 at 11:09 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink

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Nice post, Paul.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Oct 19, 2009 12:49:46 PM

That's a wonderful post. Thanks.

Posted by: David Case | Oct 19, 2009 1:23:49 PM

Phenomenal post, Paul--thanks for saying all this. Along with Michael Risch's excellent comment on the thread about how to evaluate lower-tier schools as a faculty candidate, I've got only one substantive point to add.

When we're on the market, we use rankings as proxies for law schoiol quality, and I don't think this is a terrible idea, though it's far from perfect. But I do think it's a terrible idea to use rankings as proxies for how happy you'll be overall in a given job. There are countless things that go into the overall happiness calculus that aren't even considered in these rankings. Some of them include the faculty atmospheric and mood--how people treat each other, how much pressure there is to produce, etc. Another issue isn't even really about the law school, it's about whether you'll be happy in a given area. If you like rural spaces and need a big home for your family, that job in NYC may not be such a good fit. If you like urban areas and want a robust social life, that job in a rural area may not be a good fit either.

When I was on the market, my ultimate choice came down to a well-regarded lower first-tier school versus my current institution, which is ranked in the third tier by USNWR (unfairly in my opinion, but then I'm biased). Advisors at the institution where I did a fellowship were pretty clear about their opinion, though it lacked much knowledge of the lower-ranked school (example: "If you go there, you'll be throwing your career away."). But for reasons including geography, teaching package, and (most importantly) a good vibe about the dean and faculty (junior and senior alike), I opted to take a job at the lower-tier school, and since then I've been unremittingly happy with the choice, both personally and professionally.

These overall considerations about lifestyle and happiness are often treated as separate from professional concerns, but I've found that they are inextricable. It's possible to be at a highly ranked institution but produce mediocre work because you're unhappy about your life and with the atmosphere that pervades the faculty, and correllatively it's much more likely you'll produce good work if you're happy at your institution (even if it is a dreaded lower-tier school). This leads to the somewhat counterintuitive implication that you may well be more successful professionally at a lower-tier school where you're happy (and producing better work) than at a highly ranked school where you're unhappy (and not as productive). I've certainly found this to be the case.

Posted by: Dave | Oct 19, 2009 3:21:04 PM

2010 Peer Reputation: http://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2009/04/2010-us-news-peer-reputation.html

2010 Lawyer/Judge Reputation: http://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2009/04/2010-us-news-lawyerjudge.html

Posted by: Paul | Oct 19, 2009 6:45:41 PM

These are all good comments, and there are a lot of great suggestions about questions to ask and things to learn about schools before deciding where to go. I just want to emphasize something Dave touched on: go where you think you'll be happy. Life is too short to spend time at a place where you will be unhappy just because it will impress your teachers/better launch your career/(fill in the blank). Given changes in the legal-academic market, it may not be easy to move to another school once you've arrived, and these days you can build a very satisfactory scholarly career at a lower-ranked school. This advice may seem obvious, but I know enough people who've disregarded it that I think it deserves special mention.

Posted by: anonprof | Oct 19, 2009 7:54:44 PM

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