Where Have All the (Aspiring) Law Profs Gone?

Posted in: Education

It’s law professor hiring season again, the time of year when (most of) the nation’s 200 or so ABA-accredited law schools begin the search to add to their full-time tenured/tenure-track ranks. (The hiring cycle for non-tenure-stream and adjunct faculty members tends to be a bit longer, a bit later, and somewhat less formalized.) Before COVID-19, the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) each year sponsored an in-person conference in Washington, DC, where (nearly) all the new, entry-level faculty candidates (and a small number of experienced law professors looking to make lateral moves) would come to meet (for 30- or 45-minute screening interviews) with representatives of the appointments/hiring committees of the law schools in the market in a given year. Candidates were selected for interviews primarily based on their submissions to the AALS-facilitated Faculty Appointments Register (FAR), a binder in which each candidate fills out a one-page entry listing educational background, legal employment experience, preferred subject-matter fields for teaching and research, published scholarship, works-in-progress, professional references and the like. (Not all law-prof hiring is done through use of the FAR. Some law schools, especially smaller schools and schools that are more regional than national, may hire faculty candidates through more informal processes that involve word of mouth and particular connections between the successful candidates and the schools themselves.)

Even though the in-person recruitment conference has been scrapped since the pandemic began, candidates still fill out FAR forms, and hiring committees still comb through the entries in order to set up screening interviews (often virtual) to help schools decide which candidates to invite (and candidates to decide which invitations to accept) for full-blown multi-day on-campus visits that include “job talks” (formal presentations of academic works in front of the whole faculty), small-group faculty interviews, meetings with deans and perhaps other administrators, campus tours, and social events.

Both of us serve on the hiring committee at the University of Illinois College of Law this year. One of us, Mazzone, has been on the Illinois hiring committee a number of times in the last decade. And the other, Amar, has, as Dean, been on the hiring committee at Illinois for each of the past eight years, and for the several years prior to that on the hiring committee at the UC Davis Law School, a peer institution, as its Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. So both of us have seen a lot of FAR binders and sifted through a lot of entries.

One trend is striking: the relatively small (and decreasing) number of FAR entries the last few years. Whereas a decade or so ago it was not uncommon to see between 1,000 and 2,000 FAR entries, this year the number will likely be (the tally isn’t yet final since there are a few separate installments over the August-October timeframe) between 300 and 400.

To be sure, the total number of applicants is less important (to the hiring law schools or the system as a whole) than the number of credible applicants. One explanation for the decline in the overall pool is that many long-shot candidates, having seen who cleared the market in past years, may have simply decided not to apply. Their absence from the denominator has very little aggregate effect on the process because their likelihood of being interviewed, much less being hired, was always very small. But it is our sense (although we have not tried to precisely quantify it) that the number of very strong candidates—those with stellar academic backgrounds, clear scholarly promise and established research track records, other qualities that add demographic and professional diversity, and so on—is also down significantly over the past half decade. Of course, when a school is hiring only one or two entry-level faculty, and when only 100 or fewer schools are hiring at all in a given year, many if not most schools will still be able to fill their positions just as they did when the pool was larger. After all, if at the end of the day there are at least a few good choices and one candidate is selected and accepts the job, it doesn’t much matter how many equally strong (or nearly so) candidates were or were not in the mix. But we are far from sure that all schools, or even all very strong law schools, will be able to fill their slots to their satisfaction in the current climate, especially when many schools are bidding for the services of the same high-flying candidates. And in any event, if the current trends continue, entry-level hiring is going to be frustrating for all but the very most attractive of the 200 ABA schools. For these reasons, it behooves all of us to think (and even speculate) a bit about what accounts for the decline. Here are a handful of possibilities:

  1. This is a COVID and post-COVID blip; in a few years the numbers will increase. Perhaps COVID has played a role. Many folks have had to readjust their professional plans around family-care needs, and so candidates may be less flexible about applying to schools far away from where they have currently been living. COVID also has opened people’s eyes to the benefits of remote work, and law teaching still tends to require significant in-person presence (both because of ABA limitations on distance learning and because, especially pre-tenure, getting to know one’s faculty colleagues is a must at most law schools). But COVID can’t explain too much, because the downward trend was clearly in place in 2017, 2018, and 2019. And even after COVID is behind us (will it ever be?), the preference for remote work is unlikely to go away entirely, so we might be in the midst of a long-term change that makes in-person teaching jobs relatively less attractive.
  2. The path to securing a good teaching job has seemingly become costly and risky. This is especially true because today many folks have been advised that to teach at a law school, especially a highly regarded one, a candidate needs to have a PhD as well as a law degree. We think that belief isn’t entirely true—many law-teaching aspirants without PhDs could present strong candidacies based on a JD combined with strong law school, professional, and research track records. But we acknowledge that a growing share of the plausible law-teaching pool is made up of people who do have advanced degrees, either in law or (more often) in other fields, and that many hiring law schools award a plus to people with these degrees. And so the perception that a PhD is indicated for those with an interest in law teaching is understandable. Yet the time and opportunity costs of pursuing a PhD can be high. If one enters onto that path and doesn’t end up clearing the law-teaching market at an acceptable place, the fallback options may not be great: the prospects for landing a decent-paying tenure-track teaching job in non-law university departments are not particularly bright. (Not a lot of lucrative and rewarding history or sociology tenure-track jobs at strong and stable universities and colleges out there, folks.) As a result, individuals who might otherwise be interested in law teaching may find it hard to pursue the uncertain path of a JD/PhD that they see as required. To be sure, if these folks get the JD/PhD and don’t end up teaching they can always practice law and make money, but they’ve given up a lot of earning years, and law firms may question their commitment to the profession.
  3. Teaching jobs pay much less than BigLaw jobs. This might be a big factor. The overwhelming majority of the competitive teaching candidates attended top 30 law schools and can easily get plum jobs in BigLaw. Consider this: starting annual salaries at many big firms in NYC, Chicago, DC, SF, etc. are now $215,000 or more (exclusive of bonus). That’s starting salaries, for newly minted law graduates as young as 24 or 25. By contrast, the 2019-2020 law professor salary survey conducted by the Society of American Law Teachers (SALT) revealed that, at the 80 or so law schools who responded (40ish percent of the nation’s total number of law schools), the median annual salary of tenured law professors (and we are guessing that the median tenured law professor has been teaching for 15+ years and is between 45 and 50 years old) seemed to be about $150,000. (While the median salary for each school was reported, it’s hard to glean a perfectly exact overall median salary since the number of tenured profs at each school varied.) And only five of the reporting schools paid a median tenured salary (barely) over $200,000. Entry-level tenure-track assistant professor salary medians ranged between about $80,000 and $150,000 or so, with the vast majority of the reporting schools paying their tenure-track assistant professors under $125,000.

So law professors start much at much lower salaries than do BigLaw associates, and enjoy relatively modest salary increases over their careers. Many lawyers in biglaw receive very large bonuses after a handful of years in the associate ranks (for example, eighth-year associates at large law firms in NYC and Chicago can easily make well over $400K, even before accounting for bonuses), and partners (even many non-equity partners) earn well in excess of $1 million annually. No law professor approaches that. For graduates with large debt loads, or those just running lifetime earning numbers, BigLaw could well seem more attractive.

A few caveats about this comparison. First, SALT’s survey was in 2019-2020; the BigLaw starting salaries we mentioned above reflect 2022 pay, and we all know about inflationary pressures the last few years. Second, the law prof salary data did not include additional funding for summer research, which could be anywhere from $5,000-$25,000 for the schools that reported data. But the BigLaw salaries quoted also did not include year-end bonuses, which beginning in the second and third years can be sizeable. Third, the 40% of law schools that reported salaries may have tended to be somewhat on the lower-paying side. Virtually none of the schools ranked in the top 10 or 20 in any prominent law-school ranking reported salaries, and salaries at those places are (based on our own knowledge) considerably higher (up to 50% or more higher) than the numbers reported in the SALT survey. Having said that, the number of law schools whose median tenured faculty member makes more than a third- or fourth-year BigLaw associate can’t be more than a couple dozen or so. And remember, we’re comparing academics who’ve been out of law school 20+ years with junior associates who’ve been out a handful of years.

To be sure, people have never gone into law teaching for the money, but the disparity between professorial and practitioner pay has grown to levels that may be more seriously harming the talent flow into law school faculties. This might be especially true as debt loads, a factor mentioned earlier, of graduates of many top law schools (not all of which provide a ton of financial aid grants) have skyrocketed.

  1. Law schools, like most units within the modern academy, have become more fractious places. There is no doubt that law schools confront much more internal conflict now than in past decades—conflict between individual faculty members, between groups within each faculty, between faculty and administrators, and between faculty, administrators and students or student groups. If you need proof of any of this, just check Fox News app (at one end of the ideological spectrum) or AboveTheLaw’s website (at the other). To be sure, nearly all major American institutions, including law firms, have become more fraught. But the academy is distinctively less harmonious than it used to be. And this may be a particular problem for conservative-minded would-be academics, who (with some justification) fear that the academy in general is not a terribly comfortable place for those with right-of-center points of view; hiring committees around the country confirm that strong candidates with conservative leanings are increasingly rare. And whether someone is progressive or conservative, choosing to spend 40 years locked into an environment of ideological conflict may be a scary prospect, especially when talented people have many options in a hot labor market. (We hasten to add that, in part because we work really hard at it, Illinois to date has remained a generally harmonious place😊.)
  2. That brings us to our last, related, and similarly depressing, possibility: that law students and other would-be legal academics think the scholarly work of law professors (which has always been the focus of top law schools and has over the past two decades increasingly become the focus of most law schools) is less valuable and less valued in the real world. As the line between law and politics has become more blurred and more frayed, and trust in our legal institutions –from legislatures to administrative officials to courts and beyond—has eroded, perhaps the unwavering pursuit of truth and knowledge, the noble mission to which great universities have been committed, just doesn’t seem possible, or at least doesn’t resonate as strongly with smart young lawyers today as it did a generation or so ago. (Or, on a happier note, perhaps some law students who in past years would be on a path to the academy have decided that the best way they can contribute to the vitality of our democratic institutions is to toil not in the ivory tower but in the trenches.)

Whether some combination of these factors (or other explanations) is at work, the apparent decline in the demand among talented new legal minds for law-teaching jobs should be a topic of discussion, and in our view a subject of concern, for the entire profession and, we would argue, for the entire nation.

Posted in: Education

Tags: Law School

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