Today is the first day of the AALS Midyear Conference on New Ideas for Law Teachers. Before commenting more substantively on the Conference itself, I want to ask this preliminary question: why are so few law professors from “elite” schools participating in the conference? There are approximately 150 professors registered for the Conference. By my count, only about 3 percent of those registered teach at law schools ranked within the “top 10″ according to US News & World Report (I am aware of the controversy associated with US News rankings, but have referenced them here for the sake of convenience.) Similarly, only about another 10 percent of the participants teach at law schools ranked within the “top 25″ according to the same US News ranking.
A causal observer might argue that the relative lack of participation by professors at “elite” law schools signals a lack of interest in teaching. Or an observer might say that professors at “elite” law schools already know how to teach well and therefore are unlikely to register for such a conference. But I think both of these arguments are far too facile. I believe that law professors at highly ranked law schools care deeply about teaching; and teachers at all levels can always benefit from sharing best practices. Instead, one arguent is that the difference in registration rates can be explained by the differing markets for law students. Arguably, schools in the “middle range” are incented to constantly improve and refine teaching methods because they compete against other schools in the same range directly on that basis. Upper tier schools, by contrast, are largely competing against each other in terms of branding and prestige of the institution.