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Monday, December 14, 2009

Whither Law Professor Salaries: Let's Talk Money

As so many lament the sky-rocketing cost of a legal education (tuition has increased far ahead of inflation), the debt students have to incur to obtain their law degree, and the pressure that the tanking economy has placed upon financial aid and public interest support, is this the dirty little secret no one is talking about: law professor salaries are largely responsible for this state of affairs?

Recently, headlines like this one screamed that law school tuition has run amok for a very bad reason:  due in major part to the U.S. News & World Report law school rankings. These stories were based on a recent GAO report, which did indeed place blame on the rankings. According to the GAO, law school officials believe that "the move to a more hands-on, resource-intensive approach to legal education and competition among schools for higher rankings appear to be the main factors driving law school cost." The key is that last part about "competition among school for higher rankings" because, according to the GAO, "[t]o attract the best faculty, school officials reported that they may offer higher salaries." What that seems to boil down to is that law schools have been jacking up law professor salaries to get the best and the brightest and thus increase their reputational score in the rankings. Not an irrational strategy because reputational scores are by far the most influential criteria for the rankings (25%, when the next highest factor is 15%).

But is this strategy sustainable? Presumably, one justification for high law professor salaries is that law professors could make more (sometimes much more) on the private legal market as practitioners. It's a common law professor lament (especially for junior professors) that they make less (often MUCH less) than a just-graduated student in the first year of practice at a major national law firm. Traditionally, those firms have paid in lockstep (every member of any particular class makes the same salary), and first-year associates right out of law school have been paid $160,000.  Not including bonuses, which could be in the tens of thousands of dollars. A quick perusal of a recent law professor salary survey shows that few law professors can match such earnings.

Can law professors continue to justify their high salaries (at least as compared to most other academic disciplines)? That seems less than clear given that national law firm salaries are going down. So says the ABA Journal and esteemed colleague Bill Henderson, who believes that law firm models--and salary scales--are in the midst of a sea change. Without the potential of a ridiculously high starting salary, many potential law students will be unwilling to attend and pay for law school.

Shouldn't the result be downward pressure on law professor salaries?

And, if so, what options are most available to law professors to keep the dollars coming in?  A move into law school administration?  I've recently been told that an industry standard is to provide a 22.5% salary supplement for law professors who move into an associate dean position. But I have no idea whether that's correct.

Posted by Fabio Arcila on December 14, 2009 at 10:00 AM in Current Affairs, Getting a Job on the Law Teaching Market, Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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Time has come for professors to demand a lot more $$. Fact is, a lot of talented young lawyers "could" do the entry-level professor thing. Can they replace a 10-year in law professor? No way, not these days--easy case in point--much less judgment in terms of who to hire or tenure. Fact is, tenured law profs should agitate for doubled pay!

Posted by: desi | Dec 18, 2009 2:39:47 AM

I don't think the problem is what most law profs make. It's the salaries of the superstars. Schools try to recruit and retain them by offering unusual sums of money -- even though they would keep doing great work without that extra money. So it seems to me that John Sexton is to blame, for offering more pay to recruit faculty, and thus breaking the implicit code of lockstep that existed before his tenure.

Posted by: Scrooge | Dec 15, 2009 6:06:47 PM


That's a fair point. I guess I was thinking about the stereotype that "teachers" generally only actually work nine months. But you're right, at my school (and from what I know, many others), there's a nine-month salary and then a grant/stipend/more money for writing and researching over the summer. The salary + summer money is still way lower than first year associates make at big firms, although again, I'm not arguing I'm grossly underpaid.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Dec 15, 2009 10:44:51 AM

Can we think about this logically for a second?

Lets say a school with a faculty of 60 decides to cut professor pay by 15% because of this "downward pressure." Lets also say there are 1000 students at this school. Based on average salary, that would be about a $20,000 pay cut for each professor. That is $1.2mm per year in savings for the school. Divided by the number of students, that is $1200 per student. Considering what tuition is these days, that is very little.

Now, my math may be off (which is why I am a lawyer) but before we start banging the populist, neo-conservative, anti-intellectual drum here, can we at least think about the "savings" to the student that may or may not be significant in line with a significant pay cut to the professor?

Posted by: Anon | Dec 15, 2009 8:19:18 AM

Although law firm salaries have stopped increasing, there aren't massive pay cuts. Of the junior people I know in the academy, many of us worked at large firms, and took huge (60% in my case) pay cuts to take jobs as law faculty. The reality is that with less pay, the profession would attract a different kind of professor, one who perhaps had great exposure in the public interest sector but not lawyers who worked in commercial law.

Posted by: former associate | Dec 14, 2009 11:22:09 PM

But Joseph, isn't summer researching/writing/publishing typically covered by summer research grants (a discrete amount that is typically not insignificant), in which case the salary does truly cover a 9-month period of time.

Posted by: anon | Dec 14, 2009 5:31:53 PM

Rick: I'm not going to argue that law profs are underpaid, but the 9-month comment seems a tad unfair. These days, most faculty (and certainly all non-tenured faculty) should be researching/writing/publishing in the summer, no? Don't get me wrong, that's nice work, but it's still work.

The point you make about job security is, IMHO, right on the, um, money.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Dec 14, 2009 4:23:55 PM

Boo hoo. As noted, law professors get paid often much more what other academics get paid, and many of them have very little formal training in academic research. Though the bar to entry is high (at least, in terms of grades, clerkships, etc.), the requirements to get tenure are also minimal in comparison

Like other scholarly fields faced with budget crunches, law professors may have to suck it up and start applying for external funding like their peers in other fields. Decisions from funders aren't always fair, and they don't always fund worthwhile research. But at least there will be some sort of external review to an academic field that is notoriously insular and often perceived to be of little practical value.

In the end, this kind of pressure may actually help legal scholarship gain some legitimacy in other scholarly communities.

Posted by: Anon | Dec 14, 2009 4:03:54 PM

The law professor lament about "low" salaries fails to account for a couple of major parts of the job description -- the salary is for nine months of work rather than twelve, and job security is pretty darned good. The job security trade-off may not have been meant a lot when times were great, but now that the economy has tanked and firms are shedding jobs, it looks much better.

Posted by: Rick Bales | Dec 14, 2009 12:39:32 PM

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