First I think it is a fact that schools at the level of mine and lower only rarely attract candidates who graduated from top ranked schools at the top of their classes. Thus, the decision is between lower (and sometimes very low ranked) graduates from elite schools and the tip top graduates from other schools. By "other schools" I do not mean bad ones. No, I mean ones maybe just outside the top 10. Still, it continues -- the brand name trumps almost every other indicator of intellect and work ethic.
This is not a matter of relying on an accurate indicator of success. A little study I did last year indicated that grads from elite schools who end up at mid level schools are no more productive than the hand full of non elite grads. In addition, on average I think elite grads are less well educated than non elite grads who end up teaching at mid level schools. The elites (again, on average, not uniformly) seem to be narrowly educated. Very few seem to be able to talk about art, history, politics or any thing other than a very narrow range of topics. (They also seem relatively humorless -- not an irreverent bone to be found -- but that is another story.) They seem more technicianish.
I've tried to put aside my anti elite bias and identify why it is that non elites seem to have more going for them than elites. The only factor I have been able to come up with so far is that the non elites in legal education are very likely to have been, as children, and continue to be voracious readers. They are basically self-educated. (Don't misunderstand. Elites can be voracious readers and self-educated but they also have many other ways to become law professors the principal ones of which are branding and self-referential hiring tendencies.)
This means a number of things but the most important is that somewhere somehow, hard-wired or socialized (unlikely), the non elites were intellectual curious at an outlier level. Learning itself was a reward and not because it meant getting an A or performing well as a "trophy child."
So, if I were on a hiring committee, what I would ask, in addition to the lists I have posted before that were designed find to lower socioeconomic class people, would be:
1. What was your favorite book at age 15.
2. What were the last 10 books you read that had nothing to do with law.
3. Name your favorite opera, aria, sonata, symphony or any non pop, folk, alt music. (I mean one that gets you in the gut.)
4. What non law book is on the top of the stack on your night stand.
5a. What is your car book -- the one you keep in the car for waiting in lines or waiting rooms.
5b. What is your favorite pasta? (Opps, this question snuck in from the Italian cooking blog.)
6. Who was your favorite teacher before law school and why?
6. How would a Rawlsian design the faculty recruitment process?
There are no right answers but there should be answers that come quickly and with a sense of excitement.