Brian Leiter's Law School Reports

Brian Leiter
University of Chicago Law School

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Monday, September 25, 2006

Do Students Choose Law Schools with an Eye to Law Teaching?

Nancy Rapoport, former Dean of the law schools at the University of Houston and the University of Nebraska, writes with advice to law school Appointments Committees:

People choose to attend particular law schools for all sorts of reasons, but I don't know too many who choose a law school based on whether or not that school is a good "feeder" school for budding law professors. 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.

This is not consistent with my anecdotal evidence over the last dozen years or so.  I talk frequently with prospective students at Texas who are interested in law teaching, what we do to help aspiring law teachers, and how their prospects for law teaching coming from UT would compare with opportunities from other top schools; we sometimes lose students as transfers to Yale or Stanford after the first year, precisely because they want to maximize their chances for law teaching; and I've heard from hundreds of students over the years about my data on which schools produce the most law teachers, suggesting a high level of student interest in selecting a school with an eye to entering law teaching.  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. 

I would be interested to hear what students and other academics think about Professor
Rapoport's claim.  (As a sidenote, I agree with her more general points about what to look for in hiring new law teachers.)  Comments may take awhile to appear; post only once.  Non-anonymous comments are, as usual, more likely to be approved.

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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 | Sep 25, 2006 8:22:33 AM

Paul Horwitz wrote

"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."

Actually, I believe that law schools are very interested in socio-economic diversity - as in "not having any". ;-)

Posted by: anon | Sep 25, 2006 10:08:58 AM

I chose to attend Columbia Law School specifically based on its placement of former students in the academia combined with its strength in the area which I hope to focus my attention, international law.

Posted by: Nick | Sep 25, 2006 10:09:43 AM

I agree wholeheartedly with Nancy Rapoport's sentiment: law schools should judge candidates for teaching jobs based on the candidates' talent, not their choice of law schools. I also agree, somewhat disappointedly, that the law school from which a candidate graduates appears to play a major role in deciding whether to interview and, ultimately, hire that candidate. It seems to me that hiring schools that use a candidate's school of graduation as the, or even a significant, proxy for deciding who to interview are cumulatively stacking the deck in favor of "super-elite" and "elite" law school graduates and are punishing those who, like me, came to law school from another academic discipline and did not understand the massive gaps in employability between a very small number of outstanding schools.

First, hiring schools assume that super-elite and elite graduates are better prepared to become law professors because, ceteris paribus, super-elite and elite graduates took classes, studied, and worked on law reviews with soon-to-be other super-elite and elite graduates, and were most likely challenged daily in class by super-elite and elite graduates who now stalk the podium. Is the person who graduates 200th in her class at Harvard inherently more likely to make a better law professor than the person who graduates 20th in her class at Texas or the person who graduates 2nd in her class at Baylor? Almost certainly not; and, if so, more likely due to an eccentricity in the grade distribution at one or more of the schools than due to any institutional inferiority that dumbs-down even the otherwise-most-worthy teaching candidate. However, when hiring schools use the school from which a candidate graduated as a litmus test, or even a more innocuous-sounding "plus-factor," they are double-counting. If the assumption that graduates of elite and super-elite schools receive an education that better prepares them to become law professors is true; then adding a plus-factor to the talent they bring to the interview room (in part because of the education they received) rewards them again for the exceptional educational opportunities they were presented when law students.

Second, on a more personal note, Master's in hand, two-plus years of experience teaching at an outstanding undergraduate-teaching-oriented university under my belt, and a handful of publications in economics and policy journals to my credit, I was torn between pursuing a Ph.D. in economics and a J.D. (I did not have the wherewithal, despite the extraordinarily lucrative stipend one Ph.D. program offered me, to pursue both degrees simultaneously; and besides, the law school at the same university as the top-20 economics program that ponied up the very generous fellowship was not then "elite," much less "super-elite.") Looking at the various top-20 economics Ph.D. programs that had admitted me, it seemed clear that, if I excelled in the program and wrote a strong dissertation, I would be able to land a very good teaching job without much difficulty. Against that backdrop, it never occurred to me that, when I chose instead a top-15 (or better) J.D. program, in which any number of that very school's graduates taught, that the same basic types of opportunities would be available to me as the top-20 economics program afforded. Wanting to get my legal education started rather than wait for one of the super-elite schools to decide whether to admit me off its waitlist, I started at Texas and did not take a spot that later opened for me at Super-Elite (Top 5) Law School X. Would I have received a palpably better legal education at SELS X than I did at Texas? I doubt it, and I would have been deprived of taking classes from and, over time, developing relationships with Charles Alan Wright, Douglas Laycock, Jay Westbrook, and others who proved invaluable in my post-clerkship, post-practice academic job searches.

Posted by: Keith Rowley | Sep 25, 2006 11:24:53 AM

Placement in academia was a factor for me in choosing Minnesota over similarly "ranked" schools such as Notre Dame, Emory, and Iowa -- albeit not as significant a factor as if I'd had the good fortune of choosing between Yale and Harvard, or Chicago and Penn. Similarly, if I do well academically this year (1L), the consideration of whether I should attempt to transfer "up" would work in the favor of Yale, Chicago, Harvard, and Stanford, and work against a Penn or Duke.

I think that students do self-select on this issue, and that they know which schools tend to produce law professors, just like they know which schools are geared towards public interest work, or government work, or producing associates at at the big Chicago firms (how else do people choose between, say, NYU and Columbia? or even NYU, Georgetown, and Northwestern?).

Posted by: Joe | Sep 25, 2006 11:30:35 AM

A few of my friends and I discussed this a little bit when applying to law schools. No one I knew did any serious research into it, but the few I knew who considered teaching thought of a school's reputation for success in churning out academics as something of a tiebreaker (e.g. Michigan over Duke or Chicago over NYU).... (similar to "Joe's" comment, and perhaps Paul Horwitz's, to the effect that there is a relatively small number of students who think about this).

Posted by: B. Burgess | Sep 25, 2006 6:50:13 PM

I think Nancy is partly right and partly wrong.

First, the wrong part. I went to Harvard for law school, and I remember from my first year that a number of classmates expressed interest in legal academia and had chosen to go to Harvard because Harvard produced a lot of law professors. I would guess that a good chunk (perhapos even a majority) of Yale students would also say that they went to Yale in part because they were interested in teaching. So to the extent Nancy is suggesting that few law students pick a school with that in mind, my sense is that this isn't accurate.

On the other hand, Nancy is right that many excellent prof-wannabees did *not* attend elite law schools, and are undervalued in the current market. This raises an interesting question: Are lateral appointments more likely to select candidates with less elite educational backgrounds? I wonder if the lateral appointments process corrects (at least in part) for some of the biases in entry-level hiring.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Sep 25, 2006 7:21:30 PM

I am a philosopher who has worked over the past dozen years with a large number of pre-law students at Notre Dame. We send many students to a wide range of law schools, including many to the top schools. Especially from the best students, I frequently get questions about what schools maximize student chances of some day teaching law at a respected law school and what schools at least keep this possibility "realistically open".

Posted by: Fritz Warfield | Sep 25, 2006 9:22:19 PM

I attended a very good regional law school because the university's financial package essentially allowed me to go to school (and to live while doing so) free. I then joined a great law firm where I was able to try many large cases early in my career. By the time I realized I would like to teach, I was doomed--no elite education and no federal clerkship. Now, despite having written roughly 40 law review articles, I am not a viable candidate for a teaching position. I wish that faculty search committees would heed Nancy Rapoport's advice, but the fact is they won't.

Posted by: Doug Richmond | Sep 26, 2006 8:18:13 AM

Even though I knew I wanted to be a professor when I started law school, my law school choice was also driven by family and financial situations; I thus attended a school that's decent for placement in law teaching, but not among the very top few. I will say, however, that at least within the top 10-15 schools, it's hard to know in advance which one will best serve your needs. My school's placement record can't compare to Yale's, but on the other hand, I've probably gotten more personal attention from faculty in my academic job search than I might have gotten at Yale.

My own experience aside, I've often thought it would be nice if some well-regarded law school developed either a fellowship or LLM program designed specifically for students who were very successful at lower-ranked law schools and want to go into law teaching. It would be a good way to give a second chance to students who, for one reason or another, weren't able to attend a top school to begin with. (I think the money vs. academic placement tradeoff is a particularly difficult one, by the way, because even at a top school, academia is a longshot for students who don't excel academically. $100K or so in tuition is a lot to gamble on the chance that you'll do well enough to make it in academia.)

Posted by: prof hopeful | Sep 26, 2006 1:39:58 PM

Prof. hopeful, a fair number of the top flight schools offer such programs. Columbia has an Associates in Law program; Chicago has the Bigelow Fellows program; Harvard has the Climenko Fellows program; Northwestern has the Visisting Assistant Professor program; Texas has an Aspiring Law Teachers program; and Georgetown has a Future Law Professors program. There may be others, but those are the ones that I am aware of.

Posted by: nick | Sep 27, 2006 6:40:15 AM

I teach a small group in constitutional law at the Yale Law School (all 1Ls are enrolled in a small group in one of the four obligatory first semester courses at Yale). My first question is: how many of you have, as one of the professional options you are considering, an academic career. Virtually everyone raises their hand. Then I ask: how many of you chose Yale at least partly for this reason. Virtually everyone raises their hand.

By the end of the semester, more than half no longer have such ambitions.

Alec Stone Sweet
YLS

Posted by: Alec Stone Sweet | Sep 27, 2006 3:56:41 PM

Well, I'm still an undergraduate student at a less-than-prestigeous institution. I'm in the process of applying to law schools as I write this, and the reason I'm even reading your site is because I /am/ looking for a law school with an academic career in mind. I would love to go to UVa: the town, the campus, the people, and the state appeal to me in ways that Connecticut simply doesn't. But I'll probably go to Yale over UVa, assuming I get accepted to both, because of their better placement in academia, and not necessarily because I think it's a better school. It's so hard to know from this perspective, though.

To the previous poster, I would love to hear more about why these students change their minds. Do they find something else they'd rather do, or simply decide an academic career is a bad option?

Posted by: Karen | Sep 27, 2006 7:08:46 PM

Karen,

This raises a sensitive issue that overlaps with some of the discussion that has taken place above.

It seems to me that law schools are, on the whole, not good at mentoring potential academics. Mostly what seems to happen is that a group of grand professors notice and annoint the "best" students, through a process that can be arbitrary. Students compete for attention, but the rules of the game of this contest are obscure to many (and may not exist at all).

At Yale, there is another problem: all the students are brillant. Each has been told that they were the smartest kid in the class since they were 6, and they probably were. Then they arrive at Yale and ... everyone's smart. By the end of the first semester, most realize, perhaps for the first time in their life, that there are people who are REALLY smart, and that (rightly or wrongly) that there is little point in competing. One has, after all, other opportunities.

Last, at Yale, there is no student ranking system and there are no grades - so students are thrown back to the informal contest: to show the "right" professors (those who care about getting their students academic jobs, and have some capacity to do so) that they deserve attention. A certain percentage of success will be determined by chance - a student's exposure to the right professors in the right course.

Posted by: Alec Stone Sweet | Sep 28, 2006 2:59:22 PM

It seems obvious to me that Nancy is correct. I recently acquired an LL.M. at a top school and am currently doing a fellowship at the same, but I have had to teach myself the route to becoming a law professor. Along the way, I've made major mistakes--both because I had no one to advise me otherwise and because neither I nor anyone in my family knew any law professors. Teaching law simply never occurred to me as a possibility. I have middle class parents who are not professionals (setting my sights on a career in law was reaching far). My parents knew nothing about college rankings, and even discouraged me from being arrogant and applying to "snobby" (their words, not mine) schools. Six years after graduating from a small liberal arts college, frustrated by the limitations of grassroots social justice work I was doing and inspired by a friend who pursued a JD/MPA, I decided to apply to law and policy schools. Naively, I opted for a full fellowship & dual degree at a second tier law school over attending Columbia Law School. I simply did not understand the prestige hype and I did not want to drown in debt because I was committed to public interest work. However, at my second tier law school, there was basically one option on offer at the career center: firm work. My inquiries about public interest work and different alternatives fell on deaf ears. I tried to secure a clerkship, but had just one alum who could help me in NYC. Swept up in the prestige hype and encouraged by the career office, I accepted a position at the highest ranked firm in the country (only the second graduate of my school to do this)...and gradually learned about the route to academia. We'll see what happens to me, but the kids whose folks encourage them to apply to the best schools, understand the importance of these schools to powerful people who will hire them in the future are luckier--not smarter or even better prepared to teach law!

Posted by: anon | Sep 29, 2006 12:15:52 PM

At the risk of generalizing from a sample of one, I think Nancy is right on the money. Not all talented law professors spring Athena-like, fully formed, from their undergraduate careers. I did not figure out that I wanted to be an academic until my third year of law school. My parents shared one mediocre Baptist college B.A. between them, and I was under a good bit of family pressure to (1) go someplace cheap; and (2) get a "real job" after graduation. The same was true of my undergraduate education -- I was strongly discouraged from even applying to elite schools, and was essentially forced to go in-state to Virginia for financial reasons. Thankfully, neither Virginia undergrad nor Virginia Law completely closed the door on an academic career.

Implicit in many of the "self-selection" arguments is the assumption that the majority of legitimate potential law professors have the financial resources, social support, and intellectual maturity ex ante to choose a law school with an eye toward maximizing their academic hiring prospects. This is undoubtedly true of some candidates, but it is certainly not true of all. Similarly, it sometimes takes a while to discover academic passion -- mine developed only after a series of intense conversations/arguments with a favorite professor during my third year.

On the flip side, Virginia has been truly fantastic in helping me advance my academic career; I doubt I would have received the same attention from a higher-ranked school, especially after committing the cardinal sin of practicing law for ten years.


Posted by: Paul Stancil | Oct 3, 2006 7:56:16 AM

The common complaint of "it costs too much" really bothers me. The choice not to attend one of the top private law schools has nothing to do with financial resources, as everyone admitted can obtain some type of financial assistance, whether that be government or private loans. Instead, it seems to me to come down to an issue of choice not resources. Perhaps you chose not to attend Ivy League School X because you would prefer not to accumulate such high debt, which is certainly a legitimate reason to go to a different, perhaps less "prestigious" school (none of this is to criticize public schools, as there are some which are quite good at producing academics, and increasingly so, i.e. UVA, Boalt, and UT). However, I can comfortably say that very few of my classmates could themselves pay for Columbia, and, if I recall, the average indebtedness post-law school is almost 100k, and I am well above that mark. I made a choice, and despite the debt, I would make it again. It was the right choice for me. Others might make the opposite choice based on projected levels of debt. Neither choice, to my mind, has anything to do with resources; it only concerns what value you place on having little to enormous debt and what benefits result from each respective choice. Perhaps all of the benefits of choosing a certain school are not seen, but again, that has little to do with resources.

Posted by: Nick | Oct 4, 2006 6:37:56 AM

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