Saturday, September 16, 2006

All potential with no credentials

Whip-SmartI don't know what scientific significance to extract from the evident delight that critics (Hodnicki, Leiter, Markel) are taking in Chapman University's claim to SSRN glory. MoneyLaw contributor Tom Bell's defense and rejoinder make intuitively sound observations about the uses and misuses of SSRN downloads. What is striking to me, on a strictly emotional level, is how thoroughly the legal professoriate remains enthralled by academic rank.

How dare Chapman, tier four school that it is, claim to outperform Harvard? How terribly uppity of those folks from Orange County. And how dare these people with 75th percentile finishes at tier two schools clutter the AALS recruiting conference! Send them back to East Dakota State. Newly arrived MoneyLaw contributors Nancy Rapoport and Jeff Harrison have skewered these offensive expressions of elitist privilege. As MoneyLaw's founder and administrator, I am proud that Tom, Nancy, and Jeff are writing for this forum.

The time has come, I think, to begin developing a truly meritocratic agenda that gives the right amount of weight to the perceived prestige of a law school, whether the question arises in connection with the value of that school's scholarly output or the desirability of that school's graduates. Here is the short version:
Credentials don't matter. Performance does.
Somebody's miracleAs one of my favorite rock stars, Liz Phair, might say, you just need to be whip-smart. Like Liz, I'll take anyone who is "all potential with no credentials." Put your words down on paper and get them published, and I'll take you any time, any place ahead of a top graduate of a top law school who prefers basking in elite glory over getting the job done.

To be sure, there are people who have overcome the handicap of three, seven, sometimes even ten years of education at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Oxford. Among them rank some -- but by no means all -- of the real stars of this business. Whatever our own academic credentials, we as law professors should strive toward making our business more meritocratic. Will true meritocracy ever come to pass? Now that would be somebody's miracle.


Blogger Alfred Brophy said...

Great post, as always Jim--and, of course, I agree with everything you say.

Is there any research on how law review editorship (or clerkships or other typical indicia of quality) correlate with scholarly performance? I know that Caron deals with the correlation between pre-hiring publications and post-hiring publications and I'm intrigued by Harrison's study of timing of pre-tenure publications and post-tenure output. But what about where people went to school or clerked (or law review editorship) and scholarly output?

9/16/2006 6:40 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Great question--and so far, at three law schools (soon to be four!) and with two deanships under my belt, I can say that, of the law faculty members I've observed, the SINGLE best predictor of scholarly performance is (drum roll, please . . . .) past scholarly performance. Scholars from schools that are NOT in the self-identified-as-elite stratosphere are as likely as those from the elite schools to produce a lot of high-quality scholarship. It's the drive of the individual scholar, not his pedigree, and not even his role on law review, that appears to be the best predictor--in my experience to date.

9/16/2006 8:39 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

And another thing.... I just clicked onto the Leiter blog about "Sextonism" and I am actually a little sick to my stomach reading about how allegedly horrible law school puffery is. I like Brian Leiter, and I applaud his willingness to provide ANY competition to USNWR's rankings. (Even though I disagree a bit with his choices for schools to include in his survey....) But can people really be serious about a standard for PR statements akin to truth in advertising?

This is one of the things about academia that amazes me. People can't seriously expect deans to go out to raise money by saying, "Well, we basically do what every other law school in the country does. We have some really good scholars and some really good teachers, and we have some professors who should have chosen other careers. The only thing that distinguishes our school from almost every other school is that I need money from you, and you have a tangential connection to this school." And if deans don't raise money, faculty members don't get the funds they need to do their jobs well. As my favorite movie says, "No bucks, no Buck Rogers." [Apollo 13, in case you can't place the quote.]

I marvel at a world in which every legitimate lesson taught in the "real world" gets thrown out for its lack of "purity" in academia. Deans HAVE to distinguish their schools from the myriad other law schools, and there are a million different ways to slice what makes any particular school special. (And, FWIW, John Sexton's way of distinguishing NYU Law from other top law schools was singularly successful.) Frankly, I'm more than a bit appalled by the naivete shown by the contributors to the "Sextonism watch"--and I'm not a darn bit surprised by how many of them choose to comment to that watch anonymously.

9/16/2006 9:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeez, this blog is going to become the poster child for corrupt law professors! Jim Chen fails to notice that Chapman simply misrepresented its scholarly output in SSRN, since what allowed them to be #1 in "new papers" was not that they, like all those they bested, produced the most new papers in the last year or two, but rather that they *uploaded* the most papers written over a 20-year period. To present that as signalling greater productivity than any other law faculty is a fraud on the public, pure and simple.

Nancy Rapoport, meanwhile, pretends that there is no middle ground between ludicrous hyperbole and "truth in advertising." Folks who want to insult the intelligence of their professional peers by making absurd claims about their faculties deserve to be called on it. The hallmark of Sextonism, by the way, was not that he aimed his ludicrous hyperbole at alumni--that's par for the course, and hardly notable--but that he aimed it at people who know better, namely, other academics.

The fact that most who submit Sextonism watch items want to remain anonymous has a simple explanation: people, academics especially, are cowards, and they are afraid of offending anyone, especially if they entertain hopes of moving up the academic food chain. I don't begrudge these folks their anonymity; the examples of Sextonism stand on their own merits, independent of the source.

But seriously, Nancy, do you want to become known as the apologist for ludicrous hyperbole in law school self-promotion? I'm sure you didn't bill that as what you'd bring to any of your Deanships, and your concrete decanal accomplishments had nothing to do with this kind of embarrassing behavior.

9/19/2006 11:17 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hi, Brian--what I'm saying is that it's important to understand the purpose behind these claims and not to micromanage the deans' PR efforts. Deans get a lot of grief for the USNWR rankings--even though deans really can't do a lot to affect most of the components of those rankings.

Let's take a look at those components, starting w/academic reputation. I suppose that deans can encourage their colleagues to write more (and write better) scholarship, but it's up to the professors to do the research well and to publish it. Academic rep is by far the biggest component of USNWR's rankings, and all that the PR is trying to do is to say, "look at me."

The rest of the rep component--rankings by judges and lawyers--has such a small n that no one really can influence it.

Then there's UGPA and LSAT. The Indiana symposium does a great job of hashing out the issues surrounding those two components in USNWR's rankings. Having served on LSAC's board, I'm comfortable with what the LSAT does and doesn't measure--and I worry a great deal about its misuse (overuse?) in the admissions process at many schools. And don't get me started about grade inflation w/UGPAs. :)

Then there's bar passage (about which law students SHOULD care) and placement (ditto)--the latter component being, unfortunately, relatively easy to "manage" a la Enron's management of its financials--by lying. I just wasn't willing to lie about Houston's statistics on any measure--USNWR, ABA, etc. To the extent that the placement component forces a law school to think creatively about placing its graduates in jobs, that's good. To the extent that the placement component provides an easy opportunity to lie about the numbers, that's bad.

How SHOULD law students choose a school? Probably by reading the joint ABA/LSAC publication w/the "real," unweighted figures right out there for them to see. But will they really use that? At least your ranking system gives USNWR some competition, and I applaud you for that. I also like, for the same reason.

Where I see your ranking system being more useful is in the faculty hiring area, where candidates are trying to get a feel for faculty productivity and fame. For a pre-tenured person, that kind of info is useful to have as he or she sorts through multiple factors to decide which offer to choose. In contrast, I think that, for a more senior person, the choice of a lateral move is more nuanced. Senior folks have already proven themselves, so they can concentrate on other aspects of the offer--collegiality, resources, quality of life, opportunities for loved ones, etc.--and less on whether the faculty is well-known as a whole.

What bothers me about the Sextonism stuff--besides the fact that I know John and truly, TRULY like and admire him--is that (1) it seems pretty mean-spirited, even though I'm sure you didn't intend it as such; (2) it conflates form and substance by assuming that these PR pieces do anything more than call the academy's (and potential donors') attention to the best things happening at any given school; and (3) it gives the PR pieces more attention than it gives the underlying scholarship that the schools are referencing.

I don't condone lying or intentional misrepresentation in PR pieces--but a dean's job is hard enough without making the dean look over his or her shoulder to ask, "am I going to be vilified for trying to get my community excited about a new development here?" I'm sure that there's a difference between hyperbole and "regular" PR, but I don't want to be part of the line-drawing police.

I'm wondering if there's another way to tease schools--GENTLY--about exaggeration w/o slighting John Sexton in the process?


9/19/2006 7:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wish this blog entry reflected a more common attitude among hiring committee members.

I'm on the market for the first time and haven't gotten a single interview offer. I have advanced degrees beyond my J.D., several publications, including one with a journal from a top five law school, a substantial, diverse and interesting background including litigation and legislative work...

... BUT. I only received my J.D. and advanced degrees from top 50, not top 10 law schools, I graduated top 30% from my law school class, not cum laude (largely because I had to work my way through law school, putting in 15-20 hours a week at a civil rights firm on top of full-time classwork, and didn't know at the time that my G.P.A. would some day be more important than my practical experience, not yet having decided to become an academic), and I volunteered for a law journal as a law student rather than being a highly ranked editor with a law review. Oh, and my appellate clerkship is only with a state, not federal, court.

I don't know whether to give up or not. Although my phone could still ring with an AALS interview in the next week, I have a feeling it won't. And if it doesn't, I could, I suppose, continue this quixotic quest to try to join the legal academia (which truly feels like my calling) by expanding my publication list even further and trying to get a federal circuit clerkship.

But will that be enough? It seems hopeless right now, that no matter how much more I accomplish, it will never trump my lack of pedigree, as much as I hear the occasional prawf comment that s/he is trying to encourage his or her law school to be less elitist about pedigree in the hiring process.

Quickly losing hope,
A candidate without interviews.

10/01/2006 1:48 PM  

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