If Not Scholarship, What?

Bill Henderson has a tremendous post up on the Conglomerate which follows up on Dan’s post of earlier this week on the relationship between time and US News reputation ranking scores. As Bill and Dan have now shown, a law school’s academic reputation score is pretty sticky: even with increased, but varied, emphasis on scholarship in the last decade, few schools have moved much up or down. I guess this isn’t totally surprising, given the difficulty in transforming a faculty, the relative weakness of academic institutions at marketing, etc. But it is sobering.

As Bill asks: “Why does every law school strategic plan, formed in the crucible of USNWR rankings angst, emphasize a plan of more and better scholarship when, empirically, such a strategy is unlikely to produce substantial improvements relative to peer schools?”

This all raises, at least for me, two possibly interrelated questions.

1. Is this just an artifact of known US News data collection problems? That is, assume that Leiter’s rankings went back before 1999: would the resulting string evidence non-random movement of multiple schools over time? Will using less sophisticated, but very objective, systems like the SSRN top school ranking produce data that rewards and reflects pro-scholarship expenditures like an SSRN series, workshops, chaired lateral hiring, etc?

2. As I explored here, it is interesting to think about the application of Moneyball to law school hiring. Bill and Dan’s posts suggest that the comparative advantage of selecting for productive scholars as a rankings boost is waning. [Believe me, I don’t mean to suggest that this is nearly the only reason to select for scholarship, just a reason that rational schools might care about.] Billy Beane himself has remarked that the irrationalities he exploited in his early career (overvaluing the five tools, undervaluing walks and HRs) have largely been washed away, and he is finding it harder to exploit new advantages against well-managed peer teams. As I understand it, the new smart money in baseball is paying for defense and speed. I know this because the Phillies are paying for power and David Bell.

Are law schools in the same situation? And, if so, what should the smart money be spending cash on? Employment? Marketing? Facilities? Remember: the goal of this spending is to get as much relative peer-to-peer growth for your buck as possible. So, pretend you are a law school dean. What is in your next budget?

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9 Responses

  1. Dave, nice post!

    Regarding your query on where smart money should spend it cash, the recently appointed dean at Columbia, David Schizer, wants to place a big bet on curricular innovation: “Schizer envisions . . . creating special teaching chairs that faculty could apply for, allowing them to spend a year trying out new and, it is to be hoped, innovative, courses to teach. ‘It would allow members of the faculty to spend a semester developing something that doesn’t exist in the legal academy.’” Lindsay Fortado, David Schizer, 36, NAT’L L. J., May 2, 2005, at S15 (40 under 40 series).

    Sounds like an idea whose time has come. Many law schools forsake curriculum for scholarship, and alumni notice. Alumni will support bold educational initiatives that make future students better off.

  2. anon says:

    How much more expensive is a strategy focused on recruiting the best scholars? The cost is not the entire salary+benefits but only the incremental above what you would pay the alternative. So how much is this incremental? My sense is that the law professor salary range is fairly flat (e.g., the differential amount a school would be willing to pay a star v non-star is not that high — maybe $75,000 difference for the range of tenured professors). So the reference to the TOTAL faculty cost as being a large expense of the law school — while true — is not the appropriate comparison.

    On the other hand, many star professors would not go to a lower ranked school for just $75,000 increase in pay. Is there some constraint that limits the salary scale to being so flat? Put another way, I could not see a Yale prof going to a lower-ranked law school for $75,000 more salary. But maybe for $500,000 more salary — perhaps. But such situations are extremely rare (one did go from Harvard to Vanderbilt recently though). So maybe lower-ranked schools have already made a decision that star profs aren’t worth this much more.

    One other point (sorry for the rambling). Curricular innovation is fine (although questionable in effectiveness). But there are many many more good teachers than there are good scholars. A school is unlikely to distinguish itself based on teaching. Teaching is also much harder to observe and verify from the outside. So I doubt this will be a good strategy to increase a school’s reputational standing. (Although it makes for a nice press release).

  3. cynic says:

    “there are many many more good teachers than there are good scholars”

    Anon: What’s the evidence for this assertion? You concede that “[t]eaching is also much harder to observe and verify from the outside,” so how can you be so sure that there is a relative surplus of good teachers? My hunch (I admit it is a hunch) is that truly good and effective teachers are a pretty scarce commodity. It’s a common conceit of professors to think that they are good teachers, but most are not.

  4. CDP says:

    I also thought this was an excellent post (and I have the added credibility of not being lavishly praised in the post in question). One possibility would be for a law school to become much smarter about making sure that (i) they do a better job recruiting and selecting students more likely to be successful lawyers (judging students by GPA and LSATs is like judging pitchers based on wins); (ii) they really make an effort to help students figure out what they want to do with their degree; and (iii) develop career networks with alumni, others so that once students figure out what they want to do, they can pursue these ambitions.

    Looking at the US News report, this would probably lead to a higher % of students employed at and nine months after graduation. It would also lead (one would think) to more satisfied and motivated students and alumni. A lot of positive consequences could flow from this – increased annual giving from satisfied alums, uptick in applications based on positive word of mouth, etc.

    This intuitively seems a lot more difficult than hiring smarter professors, but as you point out, identifying and exploiting advantages in an established field becomes more difficult over time. That is, unless you’re competing with the Phillies. What would be the law school equivalent to signing an aging 3rd baseman with a bad back to a 4-year, $20 million contract?

  5. anon says:

    To Cynic:

    Well I just disagree. I think there are a lot of good to excellent teachers (and bad ones too… but the point here is that there’s a mix). And most importantly, significant numbers of good teachers at ALL law schools. So my hunch is different from yours. And that’s really the point. These are all hunches. And it’s extremely hard to verify, quantify, what makes a good teacher. So from an outside observers perspective, a law school will be really hard pressed to distinguish itself based on teaching. (No competing law school will help out by issuing a press release stating we have the WORST teachers).

    Incidentally, the very best teachers, in my opinion, are also productive and engaged scholars. These teachers not only are good at teaching existing doctrine, research, etc, but help introduce students to knew ways of approaching the law, etc.

  6. Anon2 says:

    If I’m a law school dean I’m now attempting to hire law bloggers!

    But seriously, while scholarship may get a professor or school noticed by other professors or academics, law blogs have the unique ability to get noticed by and raise awareness in prospective law students and other non-specific law types. Getting noticed by prospective students can get “better” students to go to your school and raise your national profile beyond its regular reputation.

    This especially follows for schools which do not currently have national awareness. Having a popular blog for regional school X will raise the profile so that a administrator or professor at regional school Y will have some sort of new knowledge about the school other than their previous rankings. (See George Mason’s blogathon for example.)

  7. anon says:

    I agree with anon2. I’ve learned a lot about various law professors who I normally never would have noticed through blogs. I don’t think blogs are scholarship per se …. but they sure help law professors at lower ranked schools (and the law schools themselves) achieve a degree of visibility.

    Of course, hiring committees at other schools may then look at that person’s scholarship and, if they thought the scholarship was any good, might attempt to hire away the blogger. Not such a good result for the original law school (but great for the blogger).

  8. Mike S. says:

    Why does this discussion sound so much like the way law firms say the AMLaw100 has changed the way they do business, in essence, forcing them into a business model in order to compete and save face. …

    To the discerning school shopper (i.e. a ‘smart’ prospective student) rankings are not the end-all to picking which law school to attend. That is, should I go back to school for a J.D. and I wanted to study under Prof. Daniel Solove in the interest of learning more about legal issues he is an expert in, why would I opt to attend Yale or Stanford?

    The comparison being that if I wanted to hire a SCOTUS lawyer, why go to Skadden when I could get Tom Goldstein to represent me?

  9. CDP’s point (ii) in paragraph 1 is interesting to me. What kind of expenditures are law schools making in their career services offices? Based on my experience in school, it’s not enough – sure, there are counselors, and they have contacts and can help me with interview tips, but all of them have the same backgrounds: private law practice (with a little bit of government work sprinkled in).

    As someone who went to law school not necessarily to be a “lawyer,” I’m continually frustrated by the lack of perspective in that office. Where are the links to the policy institutes, for instance?

    Developing great professional diversity in career offices might be something that can really help a school in the alumni satisfaction department – not having to change jobs three or four times before you find what you want can do wonders for your happiness. We shouldn’t be leading students to believe that our three options are (1) big firm; (2) small firm; (3) government.