Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Disciplinary Diversity & Pedigree Consciousness: A Few Thoughts

Disclaimer: I’m not an academic and this analysis is based on my own impressions, which are certainly open to revision. Comments, corrections and clarifications are quite welcome. Thanks to Prof. Brian Leiter for linking to this post. Thanks also to Prof. Caron, Law Librarian blog and everyone else for doing the same.

Count me among those who think there is a significant pipeline problem in the legal academia.

In 2005, the Yale Daily News reported that 57% of the Yale Law faculty had attended Yale College or Yale Law School (which has a relatively small student body). The numbers suggest that the law school hiring committees are even more pedigree-sensitive than they were 20-30 years ago, so that percentage may have increased as senior faculty have retired. In any case, I would be surprised if more than 25% of this year’s permanent, tenure-track faculty attended law school somewhere besides New Haven or Cambridge. And of that remaining quarter, I bet you could count (or almost count) the number of law school alma maters on one hand.
At other top schools, the pedigree diversity seems to be a bit better, but most new faculty still come from a relatively small number of schools.

Now, I don’t doubt the abilities of those candidates, but I think the assumption that the brightest minds go to four or so law schools is retrograde, ineffective, bad for the discipline, and demonstrably unjust on several counts.

Demonstrably unjust, you might ask? Among its many problems, this status quo in hiring is biased against those who came to law school from regions, cultures and/or classes where academic pedigree carries less significance. Take bankruptcy whiz Elizabeth Warren for instance. This daughter of an Oklahoma janitor had much less incentive (economic and social) to take on more debt for a more prestigious degree, than say, an upper-middle class Ivy League graduate who would prefer to practice (if only for a few years) in a large East Coast city. Professional interests matter also. If a well-credentialed student entered law school with the idea of becoming a public defender or entering family practice, I imagine there would be little incentive to pass up a scholarship at a local or regional school.

Moreover, as Professors William Henderson and Paul Caron have shown with their "Moneyball" analysis of entry-level legal hiring (see here), pedigree is far from the best predictor of future scholarly success. I’m not saying it’s meaningless, but it’s almost certainly not what hiring committees seem to act like it is.

To see this point, consider the difference in legal teaching outcomes between Yale and Chicago, two schools with similar class sizes. The difference in their mean LSAT scores amounts to maybe 1-3 questions on a long test (so, in other words, probably not a highly reliable differentiation). GPA -wise, it’s a rounding error. In fact, the difference between mean credentials at the top 20 or so schools is remarkably small when you really break them down.

However, in academic placement outcomes, there are pretty substantive differences. Now, with Yale and Chicago, there’s probably some selection effects  in play, but since 1995, Yale has sent 130 grads to tenure-track positions at 43 leading law school faculties while Chicago has sent 35 grads that way. Columbia, which is twice as large and certainly no slouch, has sent 19 graduates to those schools.  At the top 18 schools, the difference is even more pronounced. Do Yale graduates really, on average, have that much more scholarly potential or academic inclination than their peers at Chicago and Columbia?

Or, is there another explanation for the extreme pedigree consciousness?

Comparative Perspective
One way to look at this issue is to compares pedigree diversity in law to other topically and methodologically diverse fields in the humanities and social sciences. Of these fields, economics and law stand out as particularly pedigree-conscious. In the case of economics, this makes more sense: there has been a general neoclassical, quantitative consensus among the mainstream organs of the profession for some time. By and large, heterodoxy is somewhat stigmatized, and so there is less incentive for a strong student to pick a lower-ranked department. The pedigree preoccupation still seems regrettable in my view, but at least the logic is more evident.

Legal scholarship, on the other hand, seems much more varied, at least in terms of topics and methods enthusiastically embraced by the mainstream of the profession. Accordingly, I would it expect it to be more similar to a discipline like political science, where some departments place well in a particularly sub-field (Johns Hopkins places particularly well in IR, Rochester and Wash.U. in Methods and Rat. Choice stuff, Syracuse in Public Policy, etc.) and a few are pretty strong across the board (Yale, Berkeley, Harvard, etc.). This is obviously not the case.  To get an idea of the contrast I’m talking about, consider the doctoral/terminal degree programs represented on Yale’s political science faculty (which totals about 55, excluding courtesy appointments):

Yale : 9 (includes 2 Yale Law)
Harvard: 6
Berkeley: 5
Stanford: 5
MIT: 4
U. Chicago: 4
Cornell: 3
Ohio State: 2
Michigan: 2
Rochester: 2
UC-San Diego: 2
Princeton: 2
Humboldt U.: 1
Oxford: 1
Wisconsin: 1
Johns Hopkins: 1
Northwestern: 1
Columbia: 1
NYU: 1
U. of Washington: 1
Duke: 1

Granted this is not a perfect comparison for a number of reasons. Still, it’s enough to make me wonder, what is motivating the pedigree consciousness of legal hiring committees?

Naivete? Perhaps self-interest comes into play (on a subconscious level): after all, if you have invested a ton in an exclusive legal education, you have a considerable incentive to justify and maintain the value of that investment. Or maybe this pedigree preoccupation is a vestige of the desire to treat the law as an objective discipline like physics. Who knows?

Updated 7/11/11


  1. Thanks to Professor Brian Leiter for calling attention to this post.

  2. Law schools traditionally tenure their junior faculty much sooner, and on slighter publication evidence, than in other fields. Thus, they have to rely on other data. Pretty much the only other data is pedigree. Yale Law is the hardest to get into (it is much smaller than Harvard), Harvard second, and then there is a big gap. Also, Yale Law has a tradition of training for academia and for judicial clerkships (a common preliminary to academia).

    A way to test this explanation would be to look at lateral hires by top law schools. Laterals are hired because of their publications, generally because of post-tenure publications. Thus, pedigree should matter much less as a direct input. If I am wrong, and pedigree is most important because it is the cause of publication and publicatoin is the direct cause of getting a position in a top school, then laterals and new hires will be equally pedigree'ed.