Follow-up on Law Teaching Careers and Credentials

Last week I wrote a series of postings about law teaching as a career. (You can find the series, and some other topics, here). This, along with an independent post by David Bernstein, led to a small blawgswarm on the topic, with Brian Leiter, Larry Solum, Christine Hurt and several students (including Law Dork) chiming in.

Mostly the students reacted negatively to the unanimous position of law professors that getting a JD from a school outside the top X (where X = 3, 5, 15 or 20, take your pick) will make the job search very hard. Unfortunately, there isn’t much to debate on this point. The statistical evidence compiled by Leiter and Solum makes a compelling case.

Despite this, I was sympathetic to the students’ frustration. The premium placed on JD credentialing is questionable. I’m not aware of any social science validating that a candidate’s alma mater is an accurate predictor of the candidate’s propensity to be a “good” law professor (whatever that means). Instead, the JD credential acts as a heuristic for other predictors, although I’m not sure it’s a particularly good heuristic. There’s a little bit of a network effect operating here—because everyone else uses JD credentialing to select candidates, everyone else has to use it to communicate the hiring school’s prestige and reputation, irrespective of the standard’s usefulness.

I was also sympathetic because I remember my own reactions when I was diligencing my chances of having a successful law teaching candidacy in Summer 2001. Some advisors were optimistic, but several advisors were less sanguine. One advisor told me that I shouldn’t be surprised if I had to go through the AALS process several times to get a job. Other advisors strongly recommended that I get additional credentialing, such as a fellowship, if I wanted to have a chance. Getting the negative feedback on my candidacy was brutal.

Also brutal was this partially-reconstructed interview with an advisor evaluating my candidacy:

Advisor: Where did you go to law school?


Advisor. Hmm. Were you Order of the Coif?

Me: No.

Advisor: Were you on Law Review?

Me: Yes.

Advisor: Good. What position did you hold?

Me: Just an editor.

Advisor: Did you do a clerkship?

Me: No.

This was a sobering interview. My decade-old choices were playing a large role in shaping my candidacy. But having seen the competition from the “other side,” I realize now that the bearish advice was entirely justifiable. Knowing what I know now, I would have given myself the same advice. For law students (or other potential law teaching candidates) frustrated with this advice, the question is—knowing the challenges, are you willing to overcome it?