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September 01, 2010


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judging from your penultimate paragraph, you may have already over-promised. . .

Tim Zinnecker


First -- welcome to the Lounge. Great to have you!

Second -- thanks for your timely, informative, and encouraging post. As one who has reviewed countless FAR forms over the years, I'll confess to moments of joy (giddiness?) when I come across a candidate who graduated in the top 10% from a school outside the "top twenty." I truly wish there were more! We need you!

(From one who graduated from BYU's law school, not a traditional feeder into the academy.)

John Nelson

Here's a question:

How much does/should class rank count in the process?

Much is said about elite JDs, but less is spoken about class rank.

One of my mentors likes to equate each of the various "pluses" a candidate might have as "merit badges."

As someone who doesn't have many traditional merit badges, at what point can their absence be "rebutted?"

For example, can published articles overcome this? Can practice experience (after a certain time) overcome this?

It seems many (most?) of the merit badges function as proxies for scholarly potential. Even so, reputation appears to be important as well and many merit badges also serve to establish a candidates reputation.

So, in the conflict between reputation and ability, can actual evidence of scholarship overcome lack of merit badge proxies when those merit badges also serve to distinguish reputation?

I guess the answer is that one needs to build a reputation independent of your CV stats, which may be where the "Getting Known In Your Field" post might go.


I'm glad you are doing these posts, Greg. I was on the market last year as a VAP candidate with the requisite 3 publications, and though I did end up getting a tenure-track position in the end (which I love and I think is a perfect fit for me), I was shocked and bewildered at how many people "advising" me about my chances on the market dismissed me out-of-hand because of my "non-elite" (top 20 but not top 10) JD. My 5+ years of practice experience was also flagged as fatal to my academic aspirations. In sum, the conventional wisdom was that I could not compete with Harvard/Yale JDs, even those with less publications than I because, well... I was not a Harvard/Yale JD, and therefore presumptively not fit to join the club. I'm glad that like you, I was able to rebut this presumption, but a year later and now a tenure-track faculty member myself, I find myself no less baffled by this extremely narrow mindset.

Of course, not all faculty who advised me were of this mind - in fact, I agree with you that this attitude was more common at regional, aspirational law schools who are intensely (and detrimentally?) focused on the USNWR rankings and believe that they should only be interviewing super-elite candidates to join their faculty and thus, increase their ranking. If that is what a school is looking for, clearly a candidate such as myself is not what they are looking for - however, my biggest issue with this school of thought is how often the advice given to "non-elite" candidates by faculty is that they can't play ball at any ABA school, not just their own, so there is no use in trying. I think that is patently false, as you and I and countless others who are now full-time law professors at ABA schools can attest.

I look forward to the rest of your posts! My appreciation for analytical post-mortems on the AALS hiring process seems to have no end... :)

Jeff Lipshaw

I'm coming on board shortly, but let me put in a plug for our forthcoming (getting proofs soon - and I hope out so that it's still useful this recruiting season) book, Becoming a Law Professor: A Candidate's Guide (ABA, 2010), by Brannon Denning, Marcia McCormick and me (as the designated kibitzer). The book began as a project of Brannon and Marcia on precisely this topic: what they called at the time "Becoming a Law Professor the Hard Way," which had to do primarily with not having an elite school J.D. (When I joined the author team, I was a different kind of "hard way;" that being with what nowadays is called an elite school J.D., but having practiced so long most academics would think the scholarly synapses had long since turned sclerotic). The book morphed into a general tutorial on the process.

Brannon will be speaking at the Arizona State "aspiring prof" conference in October, so that ought not to be missed.

I'm hoping the book comes out in time for Greg to give us his take on some of the recommendations we've made.

Jeff Lipshaw

UPDATE: I just learned that you will be able to pre-order the book at the Arizona State conference.

John Kang

Very good post. I applaud your efforts and congratulate you on landing a terrific job.

Orin Kerr

"It seems that no matter what your background, there is something about our profession that makes us all very good at making ourselves feel as though we aren't good enough."

It's the anxiety of ambition, I think: If you feel you've all set, you've lost it.

David Case

I think that people who share the "conventional wisdom" with you are, in general, trying to be kind. The odds of landing a tenure track spot in the hiring market are long for everyone. Relatively few open slots from year to year and an astronomically larger number of wonderfully qualified and talented people vying to fill those slots every year. It is certainly not incorrect to warn people that the odds are longer (though not at all quantifiable) for those with "non-elite" JDs, no matter how one might define the elusive concept of "eliteness." Although some people's bedside manner could be far better in delivering the news, I think for the most part the warnings being delivered are well intentioned.

But, two messages definitely should get through. First, the odds are long for everyone and longer for some than others. Second, the "eliteness" or not of any individual's JD is only one of scores of factors that go into what a(n impossible to actually perform) calculation might be of that specific individual's odds. Any individual graduate from any individual law school can improve their own personal odds immensely in any number of ways, if they have the drive and desire. Knowing both of those general precepts can only help, not hurt, in my opinion.

For those who may have not come across it, I wrote a personal account of a story about a non-elite JD and long odds in the market. "The Pedagogical Don Quixote de la Mississippi," 33 U. Mem. L. Rev. 529 (2003). I wrote the piece for just this sort of discussion. My odds wouldn't have been correctly calculated at absolute zero -- although I had many people actually advise me that they were -- but you could certainly see absolute zero from where I was standing when I started out. I never hesitate to be painfully honest with people in the market about how long the odds are, but I also never hesitate to encourage them by giving my view that effort and quality work in the quest to improve your odds can be rewarded with success in the market no matter the relative rankings influenced perception of your JD granting school.

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