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May 10, 2018


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Daniel S. Goldberg

These kinds of problems steered me away from a career in the legal academy (I attended a regional public law school). No regrest -- it's worked out fine for me, and I suppose for the law schools, too, but I still think it would have been to the mutual benefit of both parties if I had been able to scrape out a place as a legal academic. *shrug*

Early Career Prof

I don't think that clerkships are meaningful very often any more. They certainly aren't at my school, even if it's a SCOTUS clerkship.


I think this is a very important issue for us, so thanks for raising it Steve. Letterhead bias almost certainly plays a role. I think is especially true in the lateral market, because profs at lower ranked schools may have a harder time placing well even if they are producing high quality work. You are prompting me to post something that I have been mulling for a few days now on this same topic.

Another issue I see is that entry level hiring is now dominated by fellows and VAPs. I would not be surprised if schools offering these programs choose in-house candidates or candidates from top schools. These candidates then get the benefit of letterhead bias, so they likely have a much easier time getting top publications.

Like you say, it is not impossible to buck the system, but the deck seems to be heavily stacked against it.

On clerkships, I would agree that a clerkship is no longer sufficient to getting a teaching job, if that was ever true. But, very few people go straight from a clerkship to academia. The more telling question would be whether the schools hiring VAPs and fellows consider clerkships. I honestly have no idea.


Not to mention the fact that the credential-creep to PhDs, fellowships, VAPS, and so forth, tends to narrow the pool even further. As the sole breadwinner for a family with children, I struggle a bit with balancing everything - it works, and obviously we are comfortable compared to the average American - but it is striking to me that more than half of my colleagues/friends with whom I am close enough to have a real "how do you manage your mortgage, how are you saving for retirement" question -- MORE THAN HALF -- end up mumbling up the fact that, oh, they don't have law school debt and cough, cough, inherited some money when one person or another died.

Anon Prof

Michael Higdon at Tennessee wrote a great piece on this topic:


I think there are a number of different things at play. For one, rankings in the social science do not mimic USNWR college rankings so that at least based on one ranking Univ Wisconsin is ranked #1 in Sociology, and UNC is a top 5 program, well ahead of schools like Yale and Columbia, neither of which are in the top 10. My sense is that this is true in many disciplines, so while the schools at the top may vary it is also possible that top schools are still selecting primarily from other top schools. But it is also much easier, I would think, to assess the capabilities of PhD scholars, since the dissertation will give one a better sense than a publication in a student-edited journal, and most PhD students will have a closer working relationship with their advisors than is true of most law students or even VAPs. and so recommendations might matter more outside of law too (and it is also quite possible that students might have chosen a lower ranked PhD program to work specifically with a professor at that institution). PhD programs also work as a kind of filer for the application process whereas there is no such filter for law schools as anyone who has reviewed the hundreds of nondescript applications for law school positions can attest since there does seem to be this view that anyone can be law professor (and every professor at a lower ranked school could thrive at a higher ranked one). There is also more specialization within PhD programs so that if a school is looking for a labor economist, it might look to a particular program that is perhaps not ranked so high but very strong in labor economics. There is just not the same for law schhools, either at the top or further down. As a result, law schools are forced to retreat to proxies more than I think is necessary in other disciplines, which are going to typically be statused based more often than not. It does seem that the clerkship proxy has faded, though oddly enough not grades and the two represent basically the same proxy. As others have noted, the shift to VAPS does not seem to have changed things much as VAPS seem to be the newest proxy but they also reflect bias in JD schools, grades and then often class since it is often the case that people have to take a financial sacrifice to do a VAP (which is also true for PhD students though the VAP seems like more a temporary one since Law Professors are typically paid higher than other disciplines). It has never been clear to me why law schools have not developed more PhD programs (I know Vanderbilt has a successful one in Law and Econ.) but that has so far not happened much.

Deep State Special Legal Counsel

Isn't this the same question we ask in Illinois about judgeships or many other high profile legal positions?


MLS is correct. One senior Sociology friend tells me all the program you list - despite not being Ivies - are considered “stellar.” Perhaps you are guilty of seeing the social sciences through the lens of law school culture. I think in the PhD world who you study with can be every bit as important as where you study.


I would guess that your third reason -- graduate school cohorts are much smaller than entering law school classes, so that talent is more widely dispersed -- pretty much explains most of the variation. The top six law schools enroll the best 2000 students each year (with some exceptions, of course). The top six sociology programs probably enroll 100 students each year, maybe even fewer. For law schools searching for faculty, there's almost no need to look beyond graduates of the top six schools.

Marcus M.

Nonsense. Law school students are picked almost purely based on proxy metrics, and very few, even at Yale, as a percentage go into academia. Success in law school is not equivalent to success in grad school. However imperfect, grad students are picked based on proxy metrics as a baseline, and with common exceptions, and substantive academic criteria subsequently to arrive at low single digit acceptance rates. And they all want to be academics. This is why the entry level and lateral hiring markets in all other departments (and law departments in the rest of the world) are also fundamentally different from those in law. And their tenure processes are again then different. However imperfect academic markets are in a meritocratic sense, and from a class background sense they are likely incredibly so, everything related to becoming a law professor is egregiously worse.

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