How Lawprofs Outside the Top 15 Schools Can Still Have a Big Impact on their Fields

I agree with most of co-blogger David Bernstein’s advice to aspiring law professors. In particular, David is absolutely right to reject the view that you can’t have a major impact on the scholarly and public debate in your field unless you’re at a top 15 school. I had the same fear when I was on the job market. But I was wrong.

Today, it is more possible than ever for professors at lower-ranking schools to have a big influence. For example, 2009 data shows that even the then-untenured bloggers here at the VC had citation counts comparable to those of tenured law professors at top ten-ranked schools, (and none of us teach at schools ranked in the top 15). The same can be said for other VCers teaching outside the top fifteen, such as David Bernstein, David Post, and Todd Zywicki. And the VC itself is an example of how professors at lower-ranked schools can have an impact on public debate, as well as academic discourse.

Modern technology makes it easier for scholars at lesser-known schools to get their work noticed. Thanks to Westlaw, Lexis, and SSRN, well as good old e-mail, you can easily make your work available to interested colleagues even if you aren’t being invited to conferences and workshops at the top 15 schools. Four VCers who don’t teach at top 15 schools are among the top 150 lawprofs in the world in lifetime SSRN downloads, led by Orin Kerr (No. 13), and Todd Zywicki (No. 71). There are numerous non-VCers from non-top 15 schools who rank that high as well. And once you build up enough of a reputation by these other means, the conference and workshop invitations will start to come in too. The internet and the blogosphere also make it easier for non-top 15 professors to influence public debate, if they are so inclined.

There’s no denying that professors at the best-known schools have a real advantage. It’s certainly easier to attract attention to your work if you’re a professor at Yale than if you’re at Podunk U (or George Mason, for that matter). The big name school gives you instant credibility that a lower-ranked school doesn’t. But if you do enough good work and use modern technology to promote it, you can have an impact wherever you are.

UPDATE: Eric Muller writes that “Ilya Somin is of course right that those of us on law faculties below the “Top Fifteen” can do things that have a big impact. But he’s only half right, because he’s only talking about the impact we can have on each other (and on our citation practices).” That’s not entirely true. I also mentioned the impact lawprofs can have on public debate outside the academy. Eric goes on to note that professors at any level can also have an impact on their students and local communities. That’s clearly true. But I don’t think anyone doubts it, which is why I didn’t mention it. What is more debatable is whether professors at lower-ranked schools can influence academic and public debate in their fields.