Breaking into Legal Academia with a Non-Top-5 J.D.

I get a variation of this e-mail at least once a year, from friends or acquaintances in law practice. It always starts out the same way. Basically, “I didn’t go to law school at Yale or Columbia, and I’m wondering whether that means I can never become a law professor.”

The short answer is “No, your non-Yale J.D. does not absolutely doom you. It does lengthen your odds, and it increases the importance of other factors, but it absolutely does not shut you out of the process.”

Really? Yes. Let’s go over it.

First, let’s start with the good news. Would you like some empirical proof that a Yale J.D. is not required? Just look at Larry Solum’s latest hiring numbers. Don’t stop at the first line (Yale 26, Harvard 26). Or the second, or third. (Cal, Michigan, Columbia, NYU, Chicago.) Skip down to the two’s. And you’ll see something interesting.

Two hires each in 2009 came from UCLA, Duke, GW, Georgia, McGill, Penn, Texas, and Tulane. Now, not to knock on those schools — they’re a solid group of schools. But many of them are also less represented, statistically, in academia.  The point is that if you got your degree at GW or Georgia or Tulane or some other not-traditional-feeder school, you need not give up right now. There’s a chance that you’ll break into the market. It’s not a great chance — for every GW hire last year, there were 13 Yale hires — but you’re not completely shut out, either.

(The 2009 numbers don’t seem to be particularly anomalous. 2008 saw two hires each from multiple less-traditionally-represented schools as well. The two-placements list from 2008 is Duke, Emory, Hastings, Tulane, Illinois, Minnesota, Georgia, and Vandy. And of course, the one-hire list includes a whole lot more schools: BU, Case Western, Florida, Cincinnati, Iowa, Kansas, Washington, Notre Dame, Loyola, UNC, and so on.)

Okay, you’re up to speed on the good news. You know (1) that you’re not completely shut out, but (2) that the odds are against you. How do you beat those odds?

Of course, one way of beating those odds is to “sanitize” your J.D. by getting an LLM from NYU, or by getting a Ph.D. in economics or the like. But let’s say that’s not on the table — then what’s next?

I’d advise a multi-prong strategy.

First, read and become familiar with all of the material that’s out there.

Start with Eric Goldman’s resource page. Make sure to read Dan Burk’s excellent advice. Read Dan Solove’s Top 10 tips.  And continue from there.  Scour the internet. Keep regular tabs on blogs that discuss law hiring (at the very least, let’s see — us, Prawfs, Legal Theory Blog, Leiter, Caron, LawProfession, and Faculty Lounge). Know your goal, and what it will take to get you there.

Second, write write write. And then write some more. The odds are against you already, you’re going to need publications to beat them. Make sure that you have a handle on the submission process. Go buy Volokh’s book Academic Legal Writing. And write.

(If you’ve graduated and are working and Westlaw is a problem, check with your institution. The top schools have a streamlined process for getting research support to alumni who are aspiring academics; your school may not have a system set up, but your mentor at your school can probably help you.)

Third, use every other advantage you can find. Network wherever you can — through your undergrad alumni association, church connections, local bar associations, whatever you can get.  (Asking bloggers for advice is a good start, but don’t stop there — talk to everyone you can find.)  Try to connect with mentors at your school. Ask for feedback from people in your area. Keep up to date on the SSRN. Look for opportunities to present a work in progress. Investigate the various types of fellowships (Bigelow, Clemenko, and so on).  And when you do go on the market, aim for the easier areas to break into, subject wise. Do not try to break into tougher areas like con law or fed courts.

Your candidacy is going to be a longshot, but not an impossibility. Don’t despair, but do take every step you can to better your odds. Remember that statistically speaking, it’s all but certain that dozens of non-top-10-JD candidates will be hired this very winter, and again next winter. One of them could be you.

Finally, don’t quit your day job. Remember, breaking into legal academia is to some extent a toss of the dice, no matter who you are.

Good luck!

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13 Responses

  1. Good advice. Also, two great resources (wherever the JD school of origin) are Brad Wendel’s classic “Big Rock Candy Mountain” essay and — for those entering teaching after substantial experience in law practice — Jeff Lipshaw’s “How Not To Retire And Teach.” Both are linked at this Legal Profession Blog post:

  2. For those interested, I consolidate a lot of these sources on my web site:

  3. Doug says:

    One other avenue of teaching law that often goes overlooked on the law prof blogs (for understandable reasons) is teaching legal courses at business schools. These positions are often much less competitive than positions at law schools, and are populated by a number of people with degrees outside the “Top 14”. Ads are frequently posted on both the Chronicle’s website, as well as

  4. This is great, clear-eyed advice.

    I’d add mention of VAPs and similar fellowships, which may be more realistic than LLMs, SJDs, and other graduate degrees, if only because they pay you (admittedly not too much) instead of you paying them. Solum’s list also shows how significant these credentials have become in hiring, and of course they dovetail with your most important advice, which is to “write write write.” And they give you a taste of academic life and habits, which makes it easier to “talk the talk” in the interview process.

  5. Kaimipono D. Wenger says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. The links that Alan and Michael provide are very useful resources, and anyone trying to break into academia — especially with an added challenge — should absolutely look at them.

    Doug’s suggestion is a good one too, and a reminder that there are many paths into teaching, if one is willing to look for them.

    Also, I should note that Marc DeGirolami at Prawfs is posting about the hiring process right now (and as he notes in his latest post, he is himself a BU grad). His take — breaking into academia with a less-common JD is not hell, but it is a kind of purgatory. Possibly not in the way you’re thinking, though.

  6. Kaimipono D. Wenger says:

    Thanks, Bill. I think that the VAP route can be a very good way for someone with a less-traditional JD to break into the academy.

    Also, while listing blog discussions, I should cite to Gordon Smith’s multi-post series on So you want to be a law professor.

  7. Dave Glazier says:

    I think this post and others of its ilk overstate the difficulties of candidates from lesser schools to the point of unhelpfully discouraging them, and the idea of widespread networking is potentially counterproductive as well.

    Sure, the majority of successful teaching applicants come from a small group of schools, but so do the greatest number of the applicants, period. So it would probably be just as accurate to say that most (certainly a substantial plurality if not actual majority) of the unsuccessful applicants come from Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Chicago, etc.

    Success requires (1) credentials, and (2) packaging. We should be honest that the lower ranked the school, the higher the class standing that is likely required to be a competitive candidate. And the unfortunate reality is that some “elite” schools may judge candidates by the perceived pedigree of their J.D. and those from less prestigious institutions may find it almost impossible to get in the front door. But the majority of teaching jobs are not at “elite” schools, and the majority of successful candidates, including those from elite schools, do not end up getting jobs in that category anyway.

    It’s my opinion that candidates from lower ranked schools have two potential advantages — because there are fewer credible candidates from such schools, it should be much easier for the faculty of those schools to provide individual attention to the periodic credible candidate, both in terms of helping them prepare for the market and in proactively advocating on their behalf. I frankly have thought that hiring committees, given multiple resumes from Harvard or Yale that list the same profs as references, ought to call those profs and ask point blank how they’d rank the x number of candidates they’re recommending simultaneously. (Unfortunately I could not get my fellow committee members to agree to try this!) But this is much less likely to be an issue at a lower ranked school — if a candidate is truly credible, their faculty ought to be able to unreservedly endorse them, and have time to work with and for them.

    The second advantage is that faculty at lower ranked schools, which represent the majority of jobs, may have a better idea of how a candidate should package themselves for non-elite schools. Plenty of candidates from high-ranked schools effectively take themselves out of real contention through poor packaging or inability to relate to the needs and wants of potential employers.

    I think that the real networking that an aspiring prof needs to do is first and foremost with members of their J.D. granting faculty, focused on (1) those who serve on the hiring committee and are thus particularly well suited to offer advice on packaging and the aspirant’s credibility as a candidate, (2) those who are recognized scholars and can offer meaningful advice on improving the quality of your writing, and (3) those who you have had the opportunity to impress with your performance who can serve as enthusiastic references. (The more of those in category 3 that are also in category 2 the better). Moving beyond your own faculty, I’d approach people who write in the field you do, asking for critiques of your work, discussing issues of mutual interest, etc. Presuming you have good substantive ideas and promising work, such individuals are likely to at least be good sources of outside advice, and might potentially be in a position to advocate on your behalf. But I think time spent networking at church, the local bar association, etc. is not only wasted, but likely to be harmful. Advice and references from outside the academy are likely to be unhelpful at best, and potentially counterproductive.

    At my school we want profs who can (1) teach, (2) do scholarship, and (3) contribute to the faculty goverance and will be good colleagues. At best an LL.M or SJD is likely to be perceived as helping with (2). A VAP is potentially more useful, but to my thinking the practical reality is it ought to be a two-year program; one year to write and establish oneself as a teacher with a second year to go on the market.

    In sum, if you’ve got good grades, evidence you can teach, a track record of scholarship, enthusiastic recommenders, and ideally a federal clerkship and some (but not too much) work experience that you can relate to stuff you’d like to teach and/or write about, you ought to be a serious candidate regardless of where your J.D. is from. An elite J.D. will let you get away with a lower class standing, but won’t obviate the need for the other credentials. So if you’ve otherwise got the goods and lack only an elite degree, I say go for it!

  8. anonprof says:

    I want to second Dave Glazier’s comments, though with a couple of qualifications. He is certainly right that individuals with non-“elite” JDs are hired every year as law professors, and that one reason for Yale etc.’s predominance is that there are a lot of candidates from super-elite schools on the market every year — many of whom indeed wind up without a teaching job at the end of the day. SO the fact your degree isn’t from one of the “top five” law schools doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give legal academia a try.

    But that doesn’t mean that getting a teaching job with a non-elite JD is anything but a long shot. You have to have a superb record (Coif, probably), at least one publication post-Note, and a very clear scholarly agenda, ideally in a field not littered with Supreme Court clerks (constitutional law, anyone?). You also need good advice, and strong support, from your law school professors (Dave’s suggestions about who to talk to were all good; I’d add talk to the recent hires on the faculty about their experience). And a LLM or fellowship will allow you time to write a good piece of scholarship, and demonstrate to potential employers that you are serious about becoming a professor.

    I want to add one more point that I think is true even if it may be unwelcome. Not all “non-elite” schools are alike. Individuals who have JDs from schools in, say, the top 40 or so law schools will at least get a second glance from many schools — a Georgia or Wisconsin graduate with sterling credentials will get a serious look. But as the ranking of the school drops, more hiring schools will be disinclined to take a candidate seriously without some unusual further credential. This probably isn’t fair, but I think it’s a good description of the way many hiring committees will operate.

  9. Dan Markel says:

    The good news is that there is now in the works an outstandingly helpful book draft soon to be published by McCormick, Denning and Lipshaw (or some order thereof) that walks all candidates, but especially non-super elite candidates, through the process.

  10. CJR says:

    Thanks for this informative post. I’m graduating with an Economics Ph.D. from a moderately (not great) ranked program. I have a top ten law and economics journal publication, but I didn’t do a field in Law and Economics.

    I’m open to teaching in a law school. How do I find the schools that might be interested in a person with a CV like mine?

  11. “Not all “non-elite” schools are alike. Individuals who have JDs from schools in, say, the top 40 or so law schools will at least get a second glance from many schools — a Georgia or Wisconsin graduate with sterling credentials will get a serious look. But as the ranking of the school drops, more hiring schools will be disinclined to take a candidate seriously without some unusual further credential. This probably isn’t fair, but I think it’s a good description of the way many hiring committees will operate.”

    I think that’s right. I spoke to one GW grad about the market and he said, “well, I went to a shitty school, so I have no chance.” And I tried to tell him, GW is *not* a shitty school, and this grad (assuming he writes) will have a chance at cracking the market.

    But it’s also true that Yale hires outnumber GW hires 10 to 1.

    “The good news is that there is now in the works an outstandingly helpful book draft soon to be published by McCormick, Denning and Lipshaw (or some order thereof) that walks all candidates, but especially non-super elite candidates, through the process.”

    That’s very good news. But whatever will we blog about then?

  12. Jeff Lipshaw says:

    The other route is to sue your way in, about which I blogged this morning: