Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Pedigree-Sensitivity of Law Schools in Faculty Hiring

This is an interesting post about the extraordinary pedigree-sensitivity of legal academic hiring, in which a handful of schools (Yale, Harvard, Chicago, Stanford, Columbia, Michigan) account for a huge percentage of all the law teachers hired.  As the author notes, this is not as common in other disciplines:  his example is political science, but the same would be true of philosophy, where some top programs (Princeton, NYU, Rutgers, Pittsburgh, among others) account for a large share of the top placements, but graduates of lower-ranked departments that excel in particular specialties also place quite well. 

So why is law school hiring so pedigree-sensitive?  It surely has to do partly with the fact that law school hiring is done on the basis of less information than most other academic hiring:  i.e., most candidates don't have dissertations and don't have letters from faculty advisors who have worked closely with the candidate for years.  Under those circumstances, proxies (even dubious ones) for scholarly ability tend to loom large.  What do readers think?  Signed comments will be quite strongly preferred:  full name and valid e-mail address.

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I think you are correct that the lack of information (i.e. lack of a dissertation) plays a role, but the preference for "elite" credentials persists even when there are candidates with extensive publication records, making it less necessary to rely upon proxies. It is almost as if some schools either won't take the time to utilize such information or are not sufficiently confident in their own evaluation of published material, and therefore continue to focus on the academic pedigree to the exclusion of a candidate's published record. This was certainly true when I was on the market, and appears to still be true today.

Jonathan H. Adler

Posted by: Jonathan H. Adler | Jul 14, 2011 7:28:34 AM

Seems like this is old news. I think it's hard to draw any kind of conclusions without knowing:
1. Percentage success rate (people who get hired v. people on the market) and
2. Self-selection rate - people who choose Yale are probably more likely to want to enter academia.

The self-selection aspect not only affects the ending numbers, but is also probably a self-reinforcing proxy/signal.

Posted by: Michael Risch | Jul 14, 2011 7:55:13 AM

I also wonder about self-selection, both with respect to people who choose to attend the handful of schools that tend to produce legal academics and with respect to whether the academy is presented students as a viable and desirable career. I also wonder whether it is fair to compare law - where the vast majority of graduates do not and could not enter the academy given the number of available faculty positions - with disciplines where most or at least many graduate students obtain academic positions.

Posted by: Lloyd H. Mayer | Jul 14, 2011 8:52:56 AM

Maybe, but this is not even necessarily about elite credentials.

Suppose law school admissions are screening on the same thing as hiring -- some concept of smarts. One would expect the top law schools to dominate hiring, just because they have screened in the best hiring candidates. Moreover, top law schools bring in hundreds of students a year, which counteracts screening errors. A Ph.D student at a lesser school might have been perceived to be the 20th best candidate. A law student at a lesser school might be the 1000th best candidate. Surely it is more likely that the 20th best candidate turns out to be a diamond in the rough than the 1000th best candidate.

Posted by: frankcross | Jul 14, 2011 9:07:05 AM

I must agree with Jonathan that although some of this has to do with the lack of information, some of it is just about a freestanding form of elite credentialism. I would add that if this were not so, one would expect that, with applicants more and more having a publication record and some experience in fellowships, more schools (including good schools) would have more information about candidates and therefore make fewer choices relying strictly on elite credentials. It would be hard to measure that, since the hiring schools might say the ones they hire happen to have both elite credentials and the best publications; still, one would think that the presence of additional information would reduce the need to rely on elite credentials as a proxy. I don't think this will happen as much as is warranted. (Self-serving note: I'm starting work on a book project on social class/status and the American legal academy, so I'm deeply interested in these issues and appreciate your linking to this post.)

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jul 14, 2011 9:10:28 AM

The information issue is a smoke screen since there is no known correlation between elite school and productivity as a law professor. Instead, people with elite credentials prefer to avoid comparisons in productivity with non elites if non elites are hired. They are also more comfortable with other elites because of a shared experience. There is more but it's all been said.

Posted by: Jeff | Jul 14, 2011 9:37:14 AM

The relative success of graduates of the elite schools (which, for this purpose, I would define more broadly to include NYU, Berkeley, Texas, Duke, among others) also reflects in part the nature of the academic programs at those schools. Those schools are more likely to expose their law students to inter-disciplinary or highly theoretical analyses of the law. As a consequence, those students' law review notes and early publications are therefore more likely to view legal issues in a fashion that appeals to current members of the academy. The preference for elite schools may therefore be more an effect than the cause of their graduates' success.

Posted by: Norman Williams | Jul 14, 2011 9:53:11 AM

Once the faculties are packed with graduates of these few elite schools, I suspect that a lot of them simply self-replicate. They value younger scholars who went to the same school, took the same professors, have similar life experiences, etc.

I would not call that a lack of information; instead, individual faculty members are overly valuing their own experiences above all others. Because most candidates on the market today need to have publications in order to get entry-level positions, "lack of information" has become a less persuasive excuse. Furthermore, because we could probably observe the same patterns with laterals, I am very suspicious of the information line.

Posted by: DARREN HUTCHINSON | Jul 14, 2011 10:25:07 AM

Volume is part of it, I think. Law schools are bigger than academic departments in universities; they typically have more slots and applicants. So buyers like a proxy to save the time they spend sorting. This proxy may or may not be accurate in predicting anything ... and that brings us to Jeff's point about buyer comfort with particular brands.

Posted by: Anita Bernstein | Jul 14, 2011 10:35:58 AM

Paul: Sounds like an interesting book project.

Posted by: DARREN HUTCHINSON | Jul 14, 2011 10:53:25 AM

I was fortunate to attend HLS but have never felt more or less comfortable with people based upon where they attended law school. If anything, I kind of like the ones who went to non-elite law schools. But I wouldn't put "place attended law school" very high on my list of things that were important

Posted by: frankcross | Jul 14, 2011 11:04:39 AM

Interesting question. I suspect there are three main reasons.

First, the large size of law school classes and the U.S. News-fueled national market for JD admissions helps create more of a belief that the best students are likely to be at the top-ranked law schools than would be the case in Ph.D. programs. (See Frank Cross's comment above, as well.)

Second, because the J.D. is a professional degree, there is a perception (rightly or wrongly) that the nature of the education is different at different schools. The idea is that a graduate from the #1 law school has been exposed to a set of ideas, principles, and arguments that a graduate from the #100 law school perhaps has not. Maybe I'm wrong, but my sense is that this impression exists more about law school education than it does about doctoral programs.

Third, law schools are part of the legal profession, which itself has a history of pedigree-sensitivity.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jul 14, 2011 11:37:09 AM

While the URL below does constitute self promotion -- it does have the has benefit of being squarely on point with most of this discussion.

Reproduction of Hierarchy? A Social Network Analysis of the American Law Professoriate, 61 J. of Leg. Educ. August 2011

Available at

We are now working on the follow up with longitudinal data and while the institutions change somewhat the physical pattern is relatively similar. In other words, a description of this system as "self replicating" is entirely appropriate.

Posted by: Dan Katz | Jul 14, 2011 11:46:11 AM

Very interesting discussion so far. From personal experience, I can tell you that when it comes to hiring for tenure-track positions in political science departments, pedigree isn't unimportant. After all, certain graduate programs have much better reputations than others do. That said, my impression is that an article or two in a good journal or a book with a good academic press can "compensate" for a less impressive pedigree... but how much less impressive?

Also, just to clarify, when we're talking about law school hiring and pedigree, we're talking about a law school that is ranked, say, in the top five or ten versus a law school school that is ranked between 11 and 20 or so, right? I mean, does anyone who graduated from a law school ranked below 20 ever get a tenure-track job at any law school these days? That's not a rhetorical question...

A few of you who have posted so far are law professors. Can you share w/ the rest of us your impressions about how candidates for tenure-track jobs are evaluated?

Posted by: Ronald C. Den Otter | Jul 14, 2011 12:01:09 PM

I would suggest two factors that help explain the degree of pedrigee-sensitivity in law school hiring.

The first is that we lack shared standards regarding what constitutes good scholarship. This is true in other disciplines as well, but I would think it is more acute in the legal academy. More candidates nowadays have scholarly records, but we can’t agree if their work is any good. This means that credentials inevitably play a larger role.

The second reason is that law schools make fewer admissions “mistakes” than top graduate programs, due to the larger class sizes and the way admissions works. An elite PhD program may accept 10-20 students, but they might get hundreds of applicants with outstanding grades and test scores and glowing recommendations. The identity of the recommender matters a lot (at least it does in economics), which gives an advantage to graduates of elite colleges and those state universities with top departments.

My impression (from economics) is that the graduates of lower-ranked PhD programs who place really well are often admissions “mistakes” who went to obscure colleges and couldn’t be adequately evaluated on the basis of their college record. Those same candidates would have a much easier time getting into a top law school, since admission depends much more on GPA and LSAT.

Posted by: law & econ prof | Jul 14, 2011 12:52:03 PM

I wonder if part of the issue is the move to hiring people with JD's and Ph.D's. Assume, for the sake of argument, that law school quality is correlated with the quality of the Ph.D. programs in the main areas that Law candidates work in (Economics, Philosophy, etc.) and that getting a Law degree and a Ph.D. at the same school is more efficient than getting the two degrees sequentially at different schools. That would induce concentrated hiring in the Law/Ph.D market.

Posted by: Mark Weinsteni | Jul 14, 2011 1:19:18 PM

I'd echo Anita Bernstein's point about sorting. Let's say that you want to fill an opening in Asian history with an entry-level candidate; well, fewer than fifty people got PhDs in Asian history that year. You can actually look at them as individuals, and read their work. But law schools aren't so discipline-specific in their hiring. When appointments committee members pick up a first FRC distribution with 1300 or so names in it, they look for proxies to guide their choices. And "law school attended," though not in fact usefully predictive, is emotionally reassuring and easy to apply.

Posted by: Jon Weinberg | Jul 14, 2011 1:28:57 PM

I suspect a lot of it has to do with the perception that all law schools teach more or less the same things, so why not go for the "best?" My instinct is that there is a much bigger difference between (say) the Pitt and Rutgers philosophy departments, or Cornell and Wisconsin programs in political science, than their respective law schools. There may also be a leftover from the days when only fifteen or so "national" law schools taught more than local bar exams: but shouldn't that have faded by now?

Posted by: Michael Livingston | Jul 14, 2011 2:26:29 PM

A lot of sharp insights in this comments section.

It seems there's something to the point that's been made about class sizes, but it's easy to give too much credit to the sorting process. If the admissions process was highly reliable way of sorting effective scholars, I would have expected Mr. Henderson to find a stronger correlation between pedigree and scholarly potential. Maybe some schools just foster a culture that is more accommodating to scholarly development. Generally though, don’t see evidence that warrants such sharp distinctions in academic hiring between schools with roughly comparable student bodies.

Also, to loop back to something touched on in the original post, prospective law students seem to have incentives to pick lower-ranked programs for reasons that are not as relevant to prospective graduate students in other academic disciplines. For one thing, the majority of students at the top 15 or so law schools are mostly self-financed, whereas most of the top 15 or so graduate political science and economics programs offer full tuition support and stipends. Given that the legal academy is very hard to break into, one could easily imagine a bright, academically-inclined student looking at the odds and choosing to at attend UT or UCLA (probably with some scholarship or in-state tuition) over, say Berkeley or Columbia. Likewise, there is a fairly strong geographical bias in non-academic legal hiring.

Now certainly, law schools have larger class sizes than graduate social science programs. However, what about comparing law to other fields that have both pre-professional and academic components? I do not know much about academic medicine, but I am under the impression that it is significantly less pedigree-conscious than the legal academy (although the residency process may complicate the comparison). I would be interested to see if the same is true for education, psychology and engineering graduate programs, where I imagine people frequently discover/commit to an academic vocation during their graduate training, as opposed to beforehand.

Posted by: Kevin | Jul 14, 2011 3:29:08 PM

The linked article's assessment of political science hiring as being noticeably less pedigree-driven than law school hiring is surely correct. (Not saying it doesn't matter; just saying it matters noticeably less.) I would also have to agree that at least some of this has to do with the way in which the structure of legal education renders law faculties less willing and/or able to rely on quality of scholarship as opposed to pedigree.
First, compared to political science, the relevant field of expertise for purposes of law school hiring is often defined either too broadly (the myth that law professors are "generalists") or too narrowly (this is a "torts person" or a "corps person") for purposes of meaningful peer review within the faculty. In political science, by contrast, you are almost invariably dealing with hiring for a slot earmarked for one of four or five substantive fields, which means that other members of the field, who make up a meaningful proportion of the faculty, will be both able and willing to assess the candidate's work on the merits instead of relying on doctoral institution as a proxy for quality. (Of course, there is deference to in-house expertise in law schools too. But there is a difference in authoritativeness between having, say, one or two members of a large law school faculty sign off on a second or third criminal law hire, and having one-quarter of a political science department sign off on an international relations hire.)
Second, to the extent that political science departments *do* consider pedigree (and I think they are more inhibited/self-conscious about doing so than law schools are), they are likely to do so in a more nuanced way that reflects their knowledge as to the discipline- and even field-specific strength of specific schools. In part because their field-specific expertise gives them a working knowledge of the strength of specific fields at other institutions, they need not operate on unspoken assumptions or biases about the generic value of a Harvard Ph.D. What Professor Leiter says of philosophy hiring is true of entry-level hiring in political science as well: a political science department is much more likely to focus on "who did this person work with/who was on this person's committee" - i.e., talking to trusted sources who have worked closely with the candidate in a scholarly way. Whereas law students do not apprentice as scholars in the same way. (Of course, well-respected advisors are more likely to be at "top departments," but that is not an iron-clad rule, and "top department" is more broadly defined anyway.)
Third, unlike political science faculties, legal academia doesn't rely primarily on blind peer-reviewed journals when it comes to the publication and assessment of scholarship. Like journals in most disciplines, political science journals rely on peer review and withhold the name and identity of the author, which means that an author from East Springfield State Polytechnic has a fairer shot (not completely fair, but fairer) at a top political science journal than at a top law review. Many law reviews request or require authors to include their CV as part of the submission, and student editors may not read the submission seriously (or at all) once they get a good look at the CV. As a result, it's easier in political science (and indeed in all academic fields other than law) to get ahead on the basis of one's actual scholarship than in law, where pedigree is effectively double-counted - once for its own sake, and again via its impact on placements. Because law review editors are influenced by pedigree and letterhead, which is a function of placements, which is a function of letterhead, which is ... either a virtuous or vicious circle, depending on where you are sitting.
Needless to say, the fact that legal education is structured this way begs the question of *why* it is structured this way. It does seem, though, that those with the greatest power to change the system are also those who benefit most from the system. And it's difficult to believe there is anything inherent about law as a discipline that requires this "credentials > merit" setup. The whole "law is a professional school and therefore different" argument doesn't hold water: no self-respecting business school or medical school would hitch its wagon to journals edited by their students.

Posted by: law & poli sci prof | Jul 14, 2011 10:33:28 PM

A few years ago, I compiled data about the percentage of law professor applicants from various law schools that were hired in the AALS hiring process.

My posts are:

Law Professor Hiring: Statistics on JD Placement

More Statistics on Law Professor Hiring

Total Law Professor JD Applicant Statistics: 1997-2007

BL COMMENT: A very important cautionary note: the Solum data on entry-level hiring turns out to be quite incomplete, through no fault of Solum's of course, it's just that not everyone reported.

Posted by: Daniel J. Solove | Jul 15, 2011 12:59:49 AM

Interesting discussion. A quibble, though, with the idea of "self-selection": from my perspective as a pre-law advisor, I can tell you that students interested in legal academia are not so much choosing Yale or Harvard because those schools will provide the best intellectual preparation for the academy, but because they know how important pedigree is to hiring among law school faculty. So it's really only self-selection in the sense that these students are pursuing what they perceive (correctly) to be the necessary path toward their career goals.

I'll be interested to see if the pedigree-sensitivity is moderated at all in coming years as we see the results of a greater number of high LSAT/GPA students following the money offers from lower ranked schools rather than paying full price at the most selective ones. (Although honestly, in my own advising, I still recommend the elite schools to the academically oriented specifically because the pedigree-sensitivity is so extreme in this niche.)

BL COMMENT: I think this must surely be right, and especially with this data now all over the Internet--i.e., that students are choosing certain schools *because* they see that the pedigree helps their prospects in legal academia, and not because most of these schools actually do a better job training people to be law professors.

Posted by: Diane | Jul 15, 2011 3:37:19 AM

Thanks to Brian for initiating this much discussed topic. My impression is that most of us know pedigree-sensitivity is a problem. It's time to do something about it, especially when the new hiring season is about to begin.

Posted by: Scott Gerber | Jul 15, 2011 5:00:38 AM

I certainly agree with some of the posters above that self-selection plays a role. I know from my own experience that when I made my decision to attend George Mason, rather than to attend an "elite" school, I was not expecting to end up in the academy, and I assumed I was closing that door. [Fortunately, four years and six article placements later, that turned out not to be the case.] I think this is why it is useful to consider how law schools evaluate two sets of candidates, when compared to one another. Set A consists of those with elite credentials, but no meaningful publication record beyond a student note or two. Set B consists of those with non-elite credentials with substantial academic publication records. In my experience, most law schools prefer Set A over Set B, even though Set B have characteristics that are (on average) more predictive of future scholarly productivity. If this is so, then self-selection and the like are not adequate explanations, and elite credential bias is more likely to be playing a significant role.

Posted by: Jonathan H. Adler | Jul 15, 2011 5:15:21 PM

From my observations of the legal academy over the past ten years, it appears to me that pedigree-sensitivity exists even beyond the first hire. It seems that the legal academy is the one profession that looks at pedigree-first and accomplishments and experience later. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, but the rule persists. This practice is neither inclusive or smart.

Posted by: Sharon K. Sandeen | Jul 16, 2011 7:46:45 AM

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