Brian Leiter's Law School Reports

Brian Leiter
University of Chicago Law School

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Monday, November 21, 2005

Transfer to "Top Five" Law School to Get Into Teaching?

A law student writes:

I am currently a 1L at [a top ten law school by just about all measures], and I think that I'm interested in pursuing a career in teaching.  The blogs I've read on seeking a job in academics suggest that it's preferable to go to a top 5 school. If I'm capable of performing well enough, do you think it would be a smart move to try and transfer to a higher ranked school like Harvard or Stanford?

Everything else being equal, of course, if you want to get into law teaching it is best to go to Yale, Harvard, Stanford, or Chicago in roughly that order (and not some mythical "top 5").  But everything else is rarely equal, and there are reasons to choose other schools with top faculties if their strengths better mirror a student's interests. 

But the precise question here is different. What if you're already at one of the 15 or so schools that produce a decent number of law teachers?  Is it worth it to transfer to one of the top four?

In general, it probably is not worth it to transfer, for the following simple reason:  to get into law teaching, you have to have reputable faculty in your corner, which means you have to get to know them well enough during your time in law school that they can offer meaningful and enthusiastic support for your academic ambitions.  As it is, law school is relatively short as far as this objective is concerned; if you transfer, you have even less time to make the relevant impressions and connections (only two years) and, moreoever, if you've transferred to a school that produces a lot of law teachers, you'll have lots of competition for the attention of the relevant faculty.  So my general advice would be:  stay where you are, and begin cultivating the professional and intellectual relationships that are so important for getting into law teaching.

That's my general advice, but there are exceptions.  One possible exception pertains to Yale, which has such a disproportionate lock on the law teaching market, that it may be worth exploring the transfer option for Yale, notwithstanding all the preceding problems.  Again, though, it will depend on factors like whether Yale will meet your particular intellectual and academic needs (in many areas, other top schools are as strong as or better than Yale), and also on what kinds of relationships you establish with faculty during your first year of law school.  A student who is in a position to transfer to Yale from, say, Michigan or Texas or Penn has also likely made a powerful impression on his or her teachers, the kind of impression that may be more important in terms of academic opportunities down the line than the "Yale name."

Another exception would be relevant for students with very particular intellectual interests which their home school can't meet as well as one of the top four.  A first-year student at Texas or Georgetown or Michigan with a strong interest in law and economics and academic ambitions probably should think about transferring to one of the top four, each of which are much stronger in that area.  Conversely, a first-year law student mostly interested in law and philosophy would have no reason to transfer from Texas or Michigan, since in most respects these schools offer as much or more for philosophically-minded students than the top four.   We could, of course, multiple examples of this kind.

I invite additional comments on this general question; non-anonymous postings will be very strongly preferred.

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Comments

I would add that at many schools it is impossible to get onto the main law journal as a transfer student. While law review membership is not essential to teaching, it is desirable. In addition, some judges will look for law review membership when winnowing clerkship applications, and this too is a factor in the teaching market. My own view is that studying with the top scholars and writing copiously and well are far better indicators than law review or clerkship of one's ultimate scholarly success, but it must be said that plenty of members of hiring committees think otherwise.

Posted by: Larry Garvin | Nov 21, 2005 6:51:15 AM

Yale has (very) recently implemented a two year fellowship program for those who want to go into legal academia and desire the "Yale brand." I have no idea how effective it is as the first fellow has (I believe) not yet finished the program / gone on the market. But having professors from your school writing / calling on your behalf could make it easier to get into the fellowship program, which could very well help achieve your career goals without having to go through the ordeal of transferring.

Posted by: Otis | Nov 21, 2005 7:53:43 AM

If Leiter is right that one ought not transfer from a top ten school to a top five school merely for purposes of entering teaching because of lost opportunity to get to know their professors then Leiter is also right to believe in Yale exceptionalism. Exhibit A is me. I transferred to Yale from Wash U in St Louis in the early 90s. While it is true that I did not get to know as many Yale professors or get to know some of them as intimately as if I had been there as a 1L, my Yale classmates were almost as helpful as my Yale professors in helping me into teaching. When I entered teaching, I had YLS classmates who held tenure-track positions at Columbia, Harvard, Michigan, UCLA, Vanderbilt and Virginia and they offered me terrific guidance. I ended up at Minnesota. Exhibit B is another transfer student classmate who is now teaching at Penn. Unlike many schools where transferring is a ticket to obscurity and alienation, Yale coddled its transfer students and facilitated their easy integration into the life of the school. I recognize that neither Exhibit A nor Exhibit B directly answers the question for a student at a top-ten school, but I would note that some of my fellow transfer students transferred from other top 5 schools (Columbia, Harvard, NYU) or top 10-ish schools (Cornell, Texas, Georgetown) -- though none of these has, as yet, entered teaching.

Posted by: Kevin Washburn | Nov 22, 2005 12:58:56 PM

I was recently in the writer's situation and stayed at my top 10 school. In my own experience, I got a huge amount of encouragement and support from faculty at my school, without even being particularly aggressive about trying to cultivate faculty relationships. I haven't gone on the academic market yet, so I can't say how big an advantage this will be in getting teaching jobs, but I've already had clerkship and fellowship opportunities come my way that wouldn't have happened without faculty going to bat for me. I do think that there are tradeoffs and that my degree and experience require a certain amount of "packaging" that isn't necessary for a Yale graduate; however, I've had a pretty good experience so far.

Posted by: AJ | Nov 22, 2005 1:25:46 PM

On the whole, I would probably stay where you are. You might get some boost for graduating from the higher-ranked school, but you lose faculty connections, clerkship recommendations, opportunities to be a research assistant, etc. It all depends on the particular case, of course.

Posted by: lawprofguy | Nov 23, 2005 12:28:39 PM

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