The ABA is coming out with a new book entitled Becoming A Law Professor: A Candidates Guide. Brannon Denning, Marcia McCormick, and Jeff Lipshaw authored it. According to an abstract of the book:
The authors provide detailed advice and resources for aspiring law professors, including a description of the categories of law faculty (and what they do), possible paths to careers in the legal academy, and "how to" guides for filling out the AALS's Faculty Appointments Register, interviewing at the Faculty Recruitment Conference (the "meat market"), issues for non-traditional candidates, dealing with callbacks and job offers, and getting ready for the first semester on the job.
Effective next June, John Douglass will end his term as dean at the University of Richmond School of Law. He took over as interim dean in April 2007 and as dean in 2008. He followed Rod Smolla who left after four years to lead Washington & Lee. Douglass has been at Richmond since 1996.
"Liberal" and "conservative" are highly context-dependent labels. The "liberals" on the present Supreme Court would have been moderately conservative centrists in most respects just thirty years ago, and I dare say that the average "liberal" in the legal academy today would react with hesitation or even hostility to programs for the remediation of racial and economic inequality that were an entirely mainstream part of public discourse in the 1960s and 70s.
If one is actually interested in studying this question -- and I agree with you that the usefulness of doing so has yet to be demonstrated -- then it would seem that one should pose more targeted questions about the positions of faculty members on particular issues of social, economic, political and legal disputation, and then ask how the results measure against certain norms or principles in the legal profession and academy that have remained relatively stable through shifting popular definitions of what is "liberal" and "conservative."
For example, while this is not my field, I think that one could demonstrate without difficulty that the legal profession -- both lawyers and courts who practice in the area and scholars who write in the field -- has exhibited a broad and stable consensus for some time on certain principles regarding the treatment of detainees during times of war and the status and applicability of the protections of the Geneva Conventions. Recent events, largely centered on the policies and actions of the Bush administration, have led to a debate that has disrupted that consensus. For that reason, a set of principles about which there was probably little disagreement (and hence little political polarization) fifteen years ago are now the subject of active dispute. In that highly specific context, those seeking to preserve the prior consensus are termed "liberal" while those seeking to replace that prior consensus with a more aggressive view of executive power are termed "conservative." (The labels are inapt here, of course, since it is the "liberal" position that seeks to preserve the old arrangement.)
In such a case, it should come as no surprise that the "liberal" position on this issue is the dominant one, for it is the position that conforms most closely to a set of principles and practices within the profession as to which there has been broad consensus for a long time. The breakdown of "liberal" and "conservative" on this issue would seem to be less a statement about the biases and personal commitment of those who make hiring decisions and more an illustration of how the positions currently defined as "liberal" and "conservative" on this issue are differently situated with respect to established norms in the profession and previous areas of consensus.
It might be interesting -- with a stress on the qualifier "might" -- to ask some careful questions about the views of law professors on a range of such issues, and to try to make some disciplined observations about how different positions on the issues in question measure up against the norms of the profession and previous areas of consensus. If there are particular viewpoints on particular issues as to which there is both (1) a significant skew in the proportion of hires who hold the position currently defined as "liberal" vs. the position current defined as "conservative," or vice versa; and (2) an inconsistency between that skewed result and the extent to which the favored position represents a departure from, rather than a continuation of, established norms in the profession and previous areas of consensus, then that might be an interesting result.
It is certainly true that today's "conservatives" are largely what would have been called in the 1970s reactionaries, on the one hand, and libertarian radicals on the other.
At least once every year or two it seems, we have to have an outburst of this sob story, often wrapped in some pseudo-science, as it is this time. (An earlier case here.) The giveaway fact in this latest study is that 60% of the new faculty hires had no discernible political ideology. This might have given the authors some pause, especially given the small sample size they started with. But perhaps 60% had no discernible political ideology because political ideology just isn't relevant to most of what law teachers and scholars do? Here is my colleague Richard Epstein:
Law is a profession, and you have to know such things as the civil rules of procedure and corporations. The subject matter requires technical knowledge. There are right and wrong answers. The gap therefore among law professors may be large on such questions as do we believe in constitutional originalism. But by the same token, the technical and professional anchor tends to bring the two sides closer together, for the great benefit of the profession. That is perhaps why it is often hard to figure out where academics stand on the political spectrum from reading their legal writings.
"[P]olitical orientation" isn't what matters for viewpoint diversity in legal scholarship and legal education, except, perhaps, on a very small number of topics. For the bulk of the legal curriculum, viewpoint diversity means differing views about what you call the "technical" questions—causation in tort law, default rules in contract, the foundations of the hearsay exceptions, and so on—but which I am inclined to describe as the bread and butter of a legal education.
(And let me add that in an era of "globalization," the striking thing about American law faculties is how far to the right they are, but that's a topic for a different day.)
Now the real story, it seems to me, is about the massive advantage job seekers on the political right have in virtue of the coordinated activities of the Federalist Society, which funds multi-day academic "boot camps" to educate those on the right seeking teaching jobs in all aspects of the process, including job talks, interviews, and self-presentation, both in person and in writing. There is simply nothing like this available to a "liberal" academic job seeker who doesn't happen to graduate from a law school (like Chicago) that provides similar support to its alumni on the teaching market.
And then, of course, once Federalist academics are in teaching, they benefit from a continuous stream of invitations to speak at Federalist Society events at law schools across the country, which gives them an exposure not available to young legal academics not on the right. (Federalist Society events, to their credit, generally involve speakers with opposing views, but the 'opposition' is usually drawn from the local faculty, not outsiders.) Watching this parade of events at Chicago and before that at Texas, I am struck by the fact that the majority of conservative academics brought through would probably not be invited to a workshop at the school on the intellectual or scholarly merits, in any case, certainly not with the frequency with which they get brought through courtesy of the Federalist Society. So the Federalist Society network is a powerful leg up in terms of visibility for young legal academics on the right.
So perhaps it is time to retire this sob story. Political ideology doesn't really figure in scholarship outside of fields with little law, like constitutional law, and the advantages available to young legal scholars and aspiring academics on the right dwarf those available to anyone else.
There's a short article on the new report in the ABA Journal; its conclusions are pretty tepid and uninteresting. More interesting is the chart (in the appendix after p. 53) showing changes in the ranking methodology over time. (There is a typo in the weight of academic reputation for 2003 and 2004, however--it was 25% during that whole period, not 15%.) In the early-to-mid-1990s, there were a lot of changes, which one would expect from an amateur enterprise. Some of the changes were constructive: e.g., dropping average starting salaries which, unadjusted for differences in cost-of-living, were an utterly worthless measure. The report, however, fails to note the single most significant methodological change in the last dozen years, namely, the decision in 1999 to adjust instructional expenditures (the tail the wags the ranking dog) for differences in cost-of-living. That was also the year U.S. News stopped printing the "faculty resources rank," since it would have made it obvious how much that one criterion was determining the overall result.