Over the last twenty-five years, the criteria for hiring law professors have changed dramatically. Traditionally, law schools were looking for applicants who:
- Had attended an elite school
- Had been an officer on the law review
- Received exceedingly high grades
- Clerked for an elite circuit judge and preferably the Supreme Court
While these accomplishments are still a plus at most schools, the last three have become significantly less important in the top third of the market (the top 100 law schools). In their place, three other accomplishments are increasingly valued. The most important one is having produced some scholarly work. The second is having a Ph.D. or other advanced degree in an allied field of study. Third, many successful job applicants have completed a lab-teaching fellowship or served as a Visiting Assistant Professor at a law school.
As an example, in the past few hiring seasons, the majority of our grads who secured tenure-track jobs were not in the top 10 percent of their class (some were not even in the top 25%), but almost all of them had published articles. Indeed, some of the advantages of coming onto the market with a Ph.D. may have less to do with the degree itself than with the fact that graduate school provided the candidate with an opportunity to produce a substantial piece of scholarship (the dissertation) and to formulate a promising research agenda going forward. (For further discussion of the choice whether or not to pursue a joint degree, see our Joint Degrees section.) Law teaching fellowship too can furnish candidates with time to publish scholarship. According to the self-reported job market data compiled a PrawfsBlog, over 80% of entry-level hiree had completed a lab teaching fellowship and around 50% held advanced degrees during the past two hiring seasons.
Increasingly, law schools want to hire entry-level professors who can articulate a fairly well-developed and interesting scholarly agenda that will carry them through the first few years of teaching, and who will hit the ground running on their scholarly projects as soon as they begin their teaching careers. Schools have slowly come to recognize that the traditional criteria for hiring—good grades and prestigious clerkships—may not be good predictors of a person’s ability to produce good scholarship. In contrast, the best predictor of future scholarly performance is past scholarly performance. As a result, many law schools now will not hire entry-level candidates, even those who were first in their class with a Supreme Court clerkship, if they have no substantial written work.
As suggested above, the higher-ranked a law school is, the more weight it is likely to give to a candidate’s scholarly record and scholarly potential relative to traditional hiring criteria (grades, fancy clerkships, law review), and the more likely it is to value an advanced degree in an allied field. Because schools’ missions and student populations differ in different segments of the academic market, we expect this discrepancy to persist. But the general trend has clearly been in the direction of greater emphasis on scholarly achievement and promise. If you are serious about an academic career, you should be prepared to demonstrate both, by the time you go on the market.
A note of caution, however, is in order here. Recent downturns in the legal market have hit law schools hard. Many schools have cut back on faculty hiring, some lower-ranked schools are in danger of closing, and many others have focused their attention on increasing bar passage rates and job placements for their graduates. This has meant that the absolute number of hires declined from over 150 in 2011 to around 70 in 2015. It has also meant that law schools increasingly value practice experience, curricular fit, and teaching experience in their hires. This doesn’t mean you should give up on serious scholarship. It does, however, counsel in favor of building up an academic record in law school and experience following law school that demonstrate that, in addition to being a fine scholar, you will be a strong contributor to law school’s core teaching mission.
Law schools, like most other professional schools, are not set up primarily to educate future academics in the scholarly side of the enterprise. For this reason, Stanford has made a concerted effort in recent years to create structured opportunities for students interested in an academic career to get exposure to legal scholarship and to produce it themselves. For those of you who have already graduated and are having trouble carving out time from a busy practice schedule to devote to writing, there are a vast number of post-J.D. opportunities to spend a year or two in a law school, many of which will give you significant time to write. We have described the alternatives here.