Advice to Faculty Candidates: Be Wary of Advice from Your References

A wildly disproportionate percentage of law school faculty graduate from a very few top law schools, especially Harvard and Yale. Not surprisingly, graduates of these schools turn to their mentors and references for advice on how to navigate the teaching market.

Some of these professors give sound advice. But the very fact that these folks wound up at the very top schools means that their experiences were exceptional, and they may not have a great sense of the overall market. In addition, for obvious reasons professors at these schools are inclined to think that the market is much more of a meritocracy than it actually is (which isn’t to say that merit doesn’t play a huge role in hiring, just that many other factors also play a role; it’s not that the top schools don’t hire meritorious candidates, it’s that meritorious candidates don’t always get hired by the top schools, or, in some cases, get any jobs at all).

Here are a few examples of terrible advice that I’ve heard students get from their references at top ten law schools:

(1) Go on the job market directly out of your clerkship, with no practical legal experience (and no Ph.D.) because it will signal how serious you are about academia. (This may have worked in the old days, but ONLY if you had a Supreme Court clerkship, which the individual in question did not.)

(2) Don’t bother going into the legal academy unless you can get a job at a top fifteen law school, otherwise you are better off working at a law firm; no one pays attention to what people at lower-ranked law schools have to say, so you will just get frustrated if you wind up at one of them. (Actually, being a law professor at any law school with a good academic environment is one of the best jobs in the world; people do move up; and people do pay attention to good scholarship emanating from outside the top 15).

(3) Prominently display your (otherwise irrelevant) ideological credentials (in this case, officership in a Federalist Society student chapter) on your teaching applications. (Why? Why? Why?)

(4) Sending out a law review article? Start with the top 20 law reviews, and see what happens. (That works if you’re teaching at Harvard or Yale, not if you aren’t even a professor yet.)

(5) Attended a lower-ranked school first year of law school, and then transferred? If anyone asks about it, be dismissive of your original school, to show that you always knew you were better than that. (Any committee you interview with will have at least one member who has friends at that school and will be insulted for them, plus word will get back to your original school where you will have now lost your friends.)

I could go on. But the basic point is, you should double-check any advice you get from your elite-law-school references with professors teaching at less lofty schools, especially ones who have served on appointments committees. Even if you only have a passing acquaintance with such individuals, they are usually quite willing to spend a few minutes to help out future academics.