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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

"Hot" Candidates and "Hot" Schools -- The Self-Replication Problem: Third in a Series

Thanks to Bill Araiza for a very interesting post about hiring.  I want to tie Bill's post together with Mark Fenster's earlier post about meat market ethics, in a continuing exploration of the thoughts on credentials, gatekeepers, hierarchies, and so on that I've already started offering here. 

Bill writes about a particular kind of replication problem: not that faculties try to hire younger clones of themselves, but that schools typically hire "non-risky candidates," by which he means candidates "that have all the right standard credentials."  The Moneylaw folks, and others, have argued that these are not necessarily the most non-risky candidates, in that there are better proxies for future scholarly productivity.  But the broad point is that schools favor a fairly standard set of credentials when looking at hiring candidates.  (This ultimately is a replication problem, I think, because even if faculties try to hire better versions of themselves, they are still trying to hire better versions along dimensions that are roughly similar, if glitzier.  See also Shubha's comment to Bill's post.)  And in his post, Mark writes about the responsibilities that "hot" candidates -- meaning those who have the "'right credentials'" -- have to their suitors.  That is, if you're a top 20-looking candidate, do you have an obligation not to mislead "Law School #75" about your actual willingness to take a job there. 

Mark's question carries with it the implication, one that he neither agrees nor disagrees with but that is entirely common-sensical, that Top-20 Candidate is unlikely to be seriously interested in "Law School #75."  Let's use this to think about Bill's discussion, but from the prospect's view rather than the hiring committee's perspective.  Viewed in this light, candidates' own choices, their own assumptions that they ought to prefer school #20 to school #75, create a self-replication problem: candidates with strong conventional credentials are likely to flock to schools that have correspondingly strongly credentialed faculties, and avoid schools that are either just plain lower-ranked or that, in some cases, are lower ranked not because they are weak schools but because their credentials are less conventional.

In one sense, we might look at this as not being a "problem" at all.  If you're a hotshot candidate, why not go to a hotshot school?  This is all just the market sorting itself out.  I think that's often enough true, and that there are many strongly credentialed schools and candidates whose performances, and not just their resumes, are very strong, so that the bargain looks like a good one from either side of the divide.  But all this assumes that both the candidates and the schools are actually making informed choices. 

I think there are good reasons to question this assumption.  The law schools' fixation with credentials is not just a matter of prudence or efficiency, or of a carefully considered view that the conventional credentials really are good proxies for future potential.  It is also a confession that many faculties and faculty members find it painfully difficult to make qualitative judgments about quality in the legal academy; a symptom of the broader insecurity of the legal academy about its status and legitimacy; and, not least, a capitulation to a variety of market forces, including but not limited to US News.  And many faculty applicants are even more incapable of making any qualitative judgments about various faculties, even more insecure, and thus even more likely to rely on rankings and other conventional credentials when choosing among potential employers.  This is doubly true because law schools tend to hire only graduates of a very few select law schools, and these individuals are already both fully acculturated into the credentialist worldview, and unlikely to know much, or think much, of schools outside the list of usual suspects.   

This leads me to suggest two things.  First, in thinking about the degree to which law faculties are unduly credentialist in their outlook when hiring -- and, more to the point, clumsily credentialist -- we should not put all the blame on the law schools.  It takes two to tango, and faculty candidates also contribute to these issues.  Second, we should question the assumption that Top 20 Candidate ought to want to teach at School #20, and certainly ought not want to teach at School #75.  Faculty candidates who are making a genuinely qualitiative judgment, not only about the quality of a law school but about what kinds of qualities they are looking for in a law school, should not be so quick to assume that the US News rankings tell them all they need to know in evaluating those schools that come calling for them.  There are a variety of ways in which a school far lower down the chain might actually offer strengths that are well-suited to that particular candidate: not only geographic location, but strong junior faculty members, strong focuses in particular subject areas, good links to strong faculties elsewhere in the university, particular teaching packages or financial inducements, and particular kinds of students. 

I think the highly competitive nature of the teaching market is already teaching this particular lesson.  Full many a "hot" candidate limits his or her serious consideration to the top 30 or so schools, only to fail to receive an offer from any of them -- or, on some occasions I'm sure, he or she winds up at a prestigious school, but unhappy.  And full many a school below the top 30 has attracted some superbly credentialed people, who have been very happy with their choice.  But these lessons don't sink home all that easily, and are worth emphasizing.  If we are to move beyond replication and self-replication, we should recognize that Top 20 Candidate might not just be unethical to string School #75 along; he or she might also be foolishly ignoring what might actually be a far better choice of law school.         

Posted by Paul Horwitz on September 27, 2006 at 12:00 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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I agree with this post, but I'd like to broaden the discussion a little by asking about other factors that would lead a candidate to choose school #50 over school #20--namely, what if the candidate would just be overall happier at school 50 rather than school 20? Even if school 20 has a "better" faculty, more resources, and students with higher GPAs and LSATs, what if school 50 is located in a nicer part of the country, or what if school 20 has a riven faculty and school 50's faculty is cheerful and collegial? And all this, of course, doesn't even address whether the candidate's spouse and children (if any) would be happier in town 50 as opposed to town 20. I bring this up because rankings do distort some candidates' job decisions; I have known individuals who decided to accept an offer from the highest-ranked school that came calling, period, without regard to other factors. I expect other candidates have more sensible approaches to the job market (and I know many don't have the luxury of multiple offers), but it's worth emphasizing that for many individuals the right decision may be to choose the lower-ranked school just because that's where the candidate will be happiest, even if another school would have been better for purely professional reasons.

Posted by: anonprof | Sep 28, 2006 9:43:26 AM

Kudos to Paul for an excellent and important post. I want to briefly address his comment that "we should question the assumption that Top 20 Candidate ought to want to teach at School #20, and certainly ought not want to teach at School #75." I think the best example of why a candidate might question the 20-20 equation is that, given her particular area of expertise and interest, a "lower" law school may have a much stronger faculty than a "higher" one, in which case being a part of that faculty may well bring her more respect among her peers in that area (because professors with the same specialization will know she's on an excellent faculty, regardless of the US News); more opportunities to publish in significant books, symposia and the like (they will be edited by her colleagues at the "lower" school, because they are the leading scholars in her area); more room to teach specialized courses (because the faculty will be committed to that kind of course); and -- perhaps most important -- more job satisfaction in general (because she will be surrounded by smart, interesting people who care about what she's doing).

Take, for example, an AALS candidate who is interested in postmodern legal theory (broadly and messily construed). Should she take Duke or Virgina or Cornell over a much lower school? Probably. But should she take Vanderbilt (#17) or GW (#19)or Washington U. (#19) over Cardozo (#53), Brooklyn (#58), Kent (#60), Miami (#65), or Buffalo (#80)? I'm not so sure the answer to that question is self-evidence. When I was on the market, for example, I would have accepted an offer from Cardozo over GW in a heartbeat, especially with my preference for NY over DC.

I'm sure there are innumerable other specializations for which a "lower" school may make more sense than a "higher" one. Conservative constitutional law comes to mind, with George Mason (#37) and San Diego (#65), as does international law, with Temple (#58).

These considerations also, of course, suggest a worthwhile strategy for “lower” schools to attract the best-credentialed (however defined) candidates: concentrate on building a strong faculty in an underrepresented specialization, give faculty in those areas significant research support, expand the number of specialized courses students can take and faculty can teach, and so on. San Diego for con-law seems to be a model in that regard.

I'd be interested to hear other's thoughts.

Posted by: Kevin Heller | Sep 27, 2006 6:35:10 PM

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