Who’s Your Daddy?

family.jpgNepotism is at work in the legal academy. The next time you wonder how a professor with an unremarkable resume landed a job, check the family tree. You’re likely to find—sometimes even in the very same school—a professor parent.

Or spouse. Husband and wife professors complain about the burdens of finding work as an academic couple, but being married to a high-profile professor can be a significant career booster. Schools that badly want a professor will lower their standards and hire that professor’s spouse—or work things out so that the spouse can teach at another school in the vicinity. (The practice seems to be a benefit of heterosexual marriage: I’ve never heard of a same-sex couple being treated so favorably.)

Judicial clerkships are a route to teaching but here too nepotism is common. Judges are prohibited from hiring their own family members but the rule doesn’t extend to the family of a current or former law clerk. Husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, sometimes even parent and child, clerk for the same judge or justice—passing around the clerkship like it’s the family silver.


Is nepotism in the legal academy a bad thing? Perhaps not. Nobody has a right to be a professor and personal connections help in almost any field of employment. It’s probably less risky for a school to hire a junior academic who is the offspring of an established professor than it is to hire an unknown. Using Junior to cultivate ties with a famous parent might also be good for the school. Hiring a mediocre spouse might be the price of getting a superstar. Maybe academic couples contribute disproportionately to the life of an institution

On the other hand, universities uniquely cultivate a strong culture of merit. (Lots of law professors look down on George W. Bush for this reason.) Do good work, we tell ourselves and we tell our students, and you will go far. There are special reasons to question nepotism in the legal academy.

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3 Responses

  1. crum says:

    Academic nepotism is broader than Mazzone’s posting suggests. The academy’s tendency to hire only those who share the incumbents’ orthodoxy is well-known, as is the use of paper credentials as a substitute for critical analysis of a candidate’s work, character, ambitions, energy, and willingness to give to students. These things may not be nepotism, strictly speaking, but they certainly undermine the supposed culture of merit.

  2. Ethan Leib says:

    I’ve heard of many cases where same-sex couples get just the same special treatment; it may be less common but then so are same-sex couples.

  3. anon says:

    I know of only one same-sex couple that is even teaching at the same law school (Iowa). There may be a few more same-sex couples teaching at the same law school, but are there really “many cases” in which a law school has hired the (perhaps second-rate) same-sex partner of a much-sought-after hire?

    For that matter, are there really many gay faculty members? Perhaps two or three at most law schools…

    (I have certainly heard of many cases where a law school helps a new faculty member’s same-sex partner find appropriate employment in the area. But certainly helping a professor’s family get situated in the area isn’t the kind of thing Jason is suggesting we should be concerned about.)