Thursday, January 3, 2008

What explains the increase in lateral hiring? Not U.S. News!

Michael O'Hear (Marquette) asks what explains the apparent increase in lateral hiring in the last decade or so.  One possibility he considers is this:

[T]he importance of the U.S. News survey has made law schools more sensitive to their reputation within the national legal academy, and lateral hiring seems more likely to provide an immediate reputational bump than entry-level hiring.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence that responses to the U.S. News reputation survey track actual changes in faculty quality; indeed, there are several cases where the reputational score of a school declined when faculty quality quite clearly increased (NYU in the mid-to-late 1990s was a striking example of this phenomenon).  As Jeffrey Stake (Indiana/Bloomington) has persuasively documented, the academic reputation scores in U.S. News primarily track the overall U.S. News rank, i.e., the nonsense number that is primarily determined by unreliable and/or manipulable factors unrelated to academic quality.  The best way to improve your reputation scores, in other words, is not to improve your faculty, but to improve (or simply make up) the relevant "objective" numbers that go into the U.S. News formula.

Of course, it may be the increase in lateral hiring reflects the perception that improving the faculty improves one's U.S. News rank, but I suspect my pointing out that this isn't so is not going to slow down the pace of lateral hiring.   On the other hand, improving your faculty does improve a school's ranking in another well-known ranking service , but I am reasonably confident that doesn't explain the increased pace of lateral hiring either.

So questions fo readers:  (1) Do you think there has been an increasing in lateral hiring at all level of the market in the last decade?  (2) If the answer to the first question is affirmative, then what explains it?

Post only once; comments may take awhile to appear.  Non-anonymous comments strongly preferred, as always.

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If there has been an increase in lateral hiring, there is one way that U.S. News rankings could be a factor. One way to improve the rankings is to increase faculty size so as to improve some of the "objective" ranking criteria. If enough highly ranked schools have done this (and I don't know whether or not they have), it could have produced a cascade, causing lower ranked schools to either a) increase the size of their faculties as well, or simply b) make more lateral hires to fill in the holes left by faculty gobbled up by schools higher up in the food chain.

To see whether this is in fact occurring, I think one would want to look at a) whether there has been a trend of schools increasing their faculty size, and b) if so, whether this has been accomplished by hiring laterals as opposed to entry-level candidates.


Posted by: Jonathan H. Adler | Jan 3, 2008 8:22:08 AM

There has definitely been a large increase in lateral hiring, especially at the junior and mid-career level, since I began teaching 25 years ago. The increase has been especially sharp over the past 5-10 years. And I think Jonathan is exactly right: As a few top schools have decided to increase the size of their faculties by lateral hiring, the effects cascaded down the tiers of schools. I disagree, though, about the cause of the initial decision to increase faculty size. I think it's unrelated to rankings. Some of it is just the "more is better" phenomenon, and in at least one case I think it's a reaction to decades of politically-driven inability to hire at all.

Posted by: Suzanna Sherry | Jan 3, 2008 9:42:10 AM

Interesting question. If this shift has occurred -- I certainly think it has, but I can't say first-hand -- one likely explanation is the increased importance and prestige of scholarship within the culture of legal academics. My sense is that more and more lawprofs see themselves as academics who happen to have law degrees rather than lawyers who happen to be teaching.

The increasing importance of scholarship makes lateral hiring much more desirable. Unfortunately, scholarly promise in entry-level candidates pans out only part of the time: Some entry-level hires will prove outstanding, but others won't end up shining quite as brightly as hoped. Lateral hiring lets schools skim off the cream of the crop, hiring only the candidates elsewhere who proved themselves while at another school. On average, such lateral hiring should lead to faculties with greater scholarly accomplishments.

An alternative path to the same result would be to adopt very high tenure standards. Law schools could hire based on scholarly promise and then give tenure only to those who prove themselves top scholars. But most law schools don't want to do this for a range of reasons, among them the fear that multiple tenure denials can disrupt a school's faculty culture. Lateral hiring ends up having a similar effect: increased lateral hiring effectively screens candidates much like a stricter tenure standard would.

That's my sense, at least.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jan 3, 2008 10:40:07 PM

There is little doubt that lateral hiring has increased, especially at the relatively junior levels. Such hiring is a risk-averse and sensible strategy. Entry-level hiring always entails a certain amount of risk, while hiring a proven scholar and teacher who is beginning to make an impact is much less risky. Of course, not all of this lateral hiring at the junior levels is entirely driven by this factor.

Posted by: Calvin Massey | Jan 4, 2008 6:31:11 AM

It ought to be pretty easy (for Bill Henderson or Jeffrey Stake, at least) to page through the AALS directory and note the year of each lateral move for everyone and compare the total to AALS data on entry hires (I don't believe the AALS keeps track of lateral hiring). My own impression about the increase is ditto ditto, but I don't know when the uptick began (people here have mentioned varying numbers of years) or whether it has stayed commensurate with an increase in the number of people holding tenure-track positions in law schools, i.e. not an increase relative to entry hiring.

Just because announcements of new lateral hires can't improve faculty reputation scores doesn't mean that schools aren't trying the tactic, as Michael O'Hear suggests. There may be a dearth of imagination among deans, who have been known to lose their jobs after a steep fall down the US News chute. And no school wants to be one that always gets plundered and never plunders anyone else.

Posted by: Anita Bernstein | Jan 4, 2008 9:35:53 AM

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