Brian Leiter's Law School Reports

Brian Leiter
University of Chicago Law School

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Friday, August 15, 2008

Which Specialties are in Demand on the Teaching Market?

A law professor writes:

I am a regular and enthusiastic reader of your blog. One topic I would welcome your addressing at some point, if you have the opportunity, is the relative demand for various specialties on the academic job market. My sense is that quite a few promising students and recent graduates have multiple serious interests and get little helpful advice about which would offer them the best prospects of landing a teaching job. By the time they learn that a field is glutted, their sunk costs are substantial.

I fear that the hiring being done at the top schools and that in the rest of the market, where most entry-level applicants end up, differs quite substantially. Students at top schools, for example, see their faculty adding several international law specialists and assume that is a growing field in the academy. Yet for the great majority of schools, who send few if any graduates to the firms practicing international law, I am not at all sure that is the case. Conversely, I think students at top schools may not give much thought to specializing in areas where scholarship is so weak that their faculty may not have a single exemplar (e.g., health).

My informal sense is that tax and health are in unusually strong demand, relative to the supply of candidates, and that constitutional law, international law, and federal courts are quite glutted, but that is based on a very limited supply of information. (I suppose a third category would be fields in which schools may not have specialists but also often do not feel a strong need to have them.) Apart from con law and tax, however, I am not sure how much of this is widely known or conveyed to potential academic candidates early enough to help them. It would be great if you had the chance to kick off a serious discussion of this.

My own sense is that the following areas are almost always in demand:  tax, trusts & estates, commercial law, and corporate law.  The demand for intellectual property and Cyberlaw is still substantial, though perhaps not as great as it was a few years ago.  I do not have the sense that health law is "in demand," but I may have just missed this. 

Bear in mind that while the top 15-20 law schools, plus a few others (e.g., George Mason, San Diego etc.), generally do "best athlete" hiring (sometimes with an eye, of course, to curricular needs), the vast majority of law schools do curricular-driven hiring.  And that means, of course, that in any given year, a school you're particularly interested in may have zero needs in tax or corporate, but be desperate for environmental law or criminal procedure. 

Comments are open; signed comments only.  It would be interesting to hear the perspective of others with experience in the hiring process in recent years.  Post only once; comments may take awhile to appear.

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Dear Brian:

If last year is any indication, law schools -- perhaps in reaction to the Carnegie Report -- are looking for professors who can not just teach corporate law, corporate finance, securities regulation, etc., but who can also teach "deal" courses or at least incorporate various practical skills into those corporate law classes.

Also, I'd be willing to bet that environmental law and natural resources law are due for a big comeback, with international environmental law likely to be in demand as a specialty.


Brannon P. Denning

Posted by: Brannon P. Denning | Aug 15, 2008 9:35:15 AM

My guess is that you're overstating the extent of best athlete available hiring. At the schools were I've taught, I'd say about 70% of hiring is driven by need and about 30% by the old boy and new boy/girl networks. True best athlete available hiring, such as Oakland's selection of Darren McFadden in the 2008 NFL draft, is probably rare.

Posted by: Steve Bainbridge | Aug 15, 2008 11:45:02 AM

I think commercial courses, whether or not they are taught from a transactional perspective, always seem to be in demand. Our hiring committee at Wash. U. this year (of which I'm a member) is looking especially for corporate and securities law scholars, though like many other schools as Brian suggests, we're certainly always in the market for "best athletes" regardless of speciality.

Before I went on the market about six years ago, I was told to avoid pitching myself as a conlaw or legal history scholar because of a glut of people in those areas. But one thing I learned is that there are a large number of baby boomer public law types at most law schools who are approaching retirement age.

That said, I think it's important to be honest about one's scholarly interests and likely trajectory while on the market (and during the tenure process). It's one thing to elect to write about and teach commercial law courses if one has an interest in it, even if it means foregoing other interests in (for example) equality law, civil liberties, or IP. But since one's choice of specialities deeply affects what one spends most of the day reading, I'd counsel those on the fence about choosing their specialities to make sure they choose something they enjoy rather than something that's in demand, even if it means jumping into a more congested and less marketable field. Five years (or more) is a long time to be invested in a field if you're not really that interested in it.

Neil Richards

Posted by: Neil Richards | Aug 15, 2008 12:04:39 PM

As someone who was on the other end of the market last year, I do think your commentator is right to identify health law as a field that is high in demand. Bearing in mind the aphorism that the plural of anecdote is not data, I will say that both myself and Ben Roin, the other fellow on the entry-level market from Harvard's Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics, found a lot of schools were quite serious in building their faculty in health law. Both of us ended up staying put at Harvard, and in my own case (Ben would have done very well in any field I am sure) I think writing in this under-manned area had a lot to do with the good outcome. That said, I think health law is also an area with greater than usual start-up costs in order to produce good scholarship. Budding academics who are thinking of making their career in this area may want to take a look at our 2-year fellowship at Harvard's Petrie-Flom center. I believe that a few other schools have begun fellowships specifically geared towards health law as well.

Posted by: I. Glenn Cohen | Aug 15, 2008 1:59:31 PM

I'm surprised by Steve's comment, which I have no reason to doubt, of course, is an accurate report of his experiences at Illinois and UCLA. At least at Texas, I'd say less than a third of the hiring was curricular driven, and I don't think that's atypical, but I'd be interested to hear from others on this point. Obviously how schools judge "best athlete" varies, and some may, indeed, rely too much on old boy/girl networks, but that's still different than curricular-driven hiring for purposes of my original claim.

Posted by: Brian Leiter | Aug 15, 2008 2:01:18 PM

Brian --

Timely topic (as usual). I share Neil's cautionary advice about avoiding trying to cobble together a completely disingenuous academic profile. At the same time, if one were truly indifferent (or close to indifferent) between a high-demand course and some other course, it's not a crazy thing to enter into the former area. Quite frankly, these days if you want to teach tax, and have a pulse in excess of 50 bpm (resting, or even not), you're very much in the ballpark.

I completely agree that in addition to tax, health law, corporate, and corporate finance (with practical applications) appear to be in high demand, and the moves at many law schools to merge curriculum with business schools likely contributes to the perceived business law need.

Query for the group -- in prior years, I have counseled candidates to shy away from indicating constitutional law as a primary field of interest. I get the sense that this advice, while probably spot on a decade ago, may be less so today as a significant number of constitutional law scholars move toward retirement. Thoughts?

Posted by: Eric Talley | Aug 15, 2008 2:11:07 PM

Having served on the apppointments committees at Illinois and San Diego for the last five years consequtively (and chaired at each), my impression is that "best athelete" hiring dominates at both of these institutes. At Illinois, subject-matter is sometimes raised if there is a perception that we are already "overbooked" in a given field, but even then the rule of thumb is that we would make room for an extraordinary candidate. At both institutions, a very strong need in a particular area has been considered as one factor in the mix.

Posted by: Lawrence Solum | Aug 15, 2008 2:41:03 PM

At South Carolina we generally do curricular-driven hiring, as you might expect. But packages are fluid. Right now, after numerous retirements, we are looking for Antitrust, Bankruptcy, Criminal Law, Con Law, Contracts, Evidence, and Professional Responsibility. We are going to attempt 5 or 6 hires this year. (And if I may turn this into a brief advert: We aren't "elite" maybe but we get a lot of smart students and it's affordable and pleasant here in Columbia SC. This year's Appts Comm chair is Martin McWilliams.)

Posted by: Ann Bartow | Aug 15, 2008 7:04:10 PM

I wouldn't say we have any "official" strategy at FSU. Like many law schools, we often have discussions of "curricular need." (I personally find the reference to "need" a little misleading, as we are more than able to adequately cover most courses with visitors if "need" be, and I'd rather use a visitor than rush to hire the wrong person just to cover a course.) Our current identified "needs" are in most first year and required courses, including torts, criminal law, property, contracts and constitutional law, but I think we probably have some curricular openings in areas such as corporate, criminal procedure, federal courts and IP too.

Despite the emphasis of "needs" that often frames abstract discussions of appointments my impression at FSU is that when it comes down to consideration of particular candidates among most of my colleagues (and the membership of most of the committees on which I have served) best athlete hiring consistently becomes the dominant strategy. A very strong "need" in a particular area is usually considered a plus factor in the mix (weighed against other factors, such as diversity, scholarship quality and method, etc.) and doesn't drive the agenda. Even in areas where we are well covered curriculum-wise, we are more than willing to consider extraordinary candidates in any field. For example, we have recently hired some excellent candidates in fields such as tax, international and environmental law even where no curricular-based "need" has been identified before vetting candidates.

Posted by: Jim Rossi | Aug 16, 2008 7:36:08 AM

Thanks for an informative post. I am a job-seeker this year and have a question prompted by the "best athlete" analogy. How do schools assign "best athlete" hires whose specialty is already fully staffed? For example, if a school hires a con law/federal courts specialist and already has all the faculty needed in those fields, what would the new hire teach--would the incumbents give up classes to the new hire, would new courses in the specialty be added for the new hire, would the new hire teach in other areas but write in his or her specialty?

Thanks all,


Posted by: Charlie Martel | Aug 16, 2008 8:55:40 AM

I agree with Eric's view that constitutional law is finally opening up. But IMO only the "structural," powers-of-government subcategory. I would advise entry-level candidates with an interest in con law to emphasize Articles and go easy on Amendments for now.

Posted by: Anita Bernstein | Aug 16, 2008 9:53:27 AM

Hi Brian. Tax is in demand, particularly at the top schools. But the reason is that there are very few people who combine an interesting analytical turn of mind with a background in practice. Add good technical skills in economics and finance, which are extraordinarily useful, and it may be a null set. Looking at recent entry level hires and junior people, there are a fair number of people who score high on one of these dimensions. There is a small handful that score high on two. People with the requisite abilities and skills can make a great deal of practice. And I expect people with the requisite abilities and tastes will do well in the academy whatever they choose to think and write about. Lynn Baker would have been an extraordinary tax lawyer and near the top of the field in the academy had she taken an interest in it. She has done well in any event.

I can say one thing about the field. I have never seen an entry-level tax person who I thought was able and promising who did not land a job at an attractive school. I have seen it happen to people in other fields, including international law last year.

Posted by: Mark Gergen | Aug 16, 2008 11:16:52 AM

Why is it assumed that an entry-level candidate must have his/her specialty matched with a curricular need? Suppose a candidate has a specialty in X. If a school is fully stocked with X teachers, then either the candidate should be prepared to drum up an interest in Y, or apply to some other school. The same calculation works for the school. If it is fully stocked with X teachers and a candidate shows up who is interested in X, why not give that candidate an offer (assuming he is the "best athlete")? If the candidate accepts, it's clear that he/she is willing to drum up an interest in a field like Y that is understaffed. In brief, aren't schools and candidates applying a perverse filter when they try to match entry-level specialties with curricular needs?

Posted by: Tony D'Amato | Aug 20, 2008 4:45:55 PM

In my capacity as a member of GMU's hiring committee last year and its chair this year: Brian describes our hiring strategy accurately. I think we tend to differentiate slightly between people who do econ or specialized statutory & regulatory work, on one hand, and "best available athletes" on the other. In both cases, we want strong analytical skills. For the former, we also want to make sure they have the technical knowledge they claim to have; for the latter, we like some evidence they can make connections across different genres of legal scholarship.

In my capacity as an interested bystander on the law scene: tax, commercial courses, and corporate courses are usually golden.

Posted by: Eric Claeys | Aug 20, 2008 6:04:47 PM

At the University of Florida, it appears as if we've shifted from a combined strategy (part best athlete/part curriculum-driven) to a stronger focus on curriculum-driven hiring. This shift is due to gaping holes in our curriculum that are becoming increasingly difficult to fill with existing faculty or adjuncts. We're predominantly looking for people to teach Corporations, International Business Transactions, Family Law, and Crim Law/Crim Pro, though we have other needs as well. To applicants, my advice would be that it quickly becomes obvious if you are faking an interest in the subject area. Also, try to make your teaching interests look like a coherent package. I am on the Appointments Committee (chaired by Berta Hernandez & Danaya Wright), and I am very suspicious when I see someone who claims to be willing to teach absolutely anything and everything.

Posted by: L.Lidsky | Aug 22, 2008 4:32:31 PM

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