The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Sarah Lawsky's valuable report about this year's entry-level law professor hires is out. And I was interested to see a trend: Both this year and last year, about half of the entry-level law professor hires have doctorate degrees. The shift toward candidates with doctorates is not new, of course. And it has been written about before, most memorably in Lynn LoPucki's article Dawn of the Discipline-Based Law Faculty.
Reading over Sarah's report, it occurred to me that someone should study a question that I don't think has yet been answered: Is the scholarly trajectory of U.S. law professors with doctorates different from that of U.S. law professors without doctorates? And if so, how?
Here's my thinking. In the current entry-level market, having a doctorate gives candidates a significant advantage. Among the reasons for this, I think, is that law schools tend to have high tenure rates. This makes hiring committees relatively risk-averse. When hiring an entry-level candidate, schools want clear and objective evidence that the candidate is going to become and stay a productive scholar. They want evidence that a candidate has scholarly discipline, an interest in ideas, and a methodology that seems likely to bear scholarly fruit.
A doctorate degree can help make that case. Imagine you're an appointments committee chair going through a large pile of entry-level resumes. You see a lot of smart and accomplished junior lawyers. But who is going to be a committed scholar? A candidate with a doctorate will seem more likely to have the qualities you're looking for than one without. Getting the degree shows scholarly discipline. The subject-matter training teaches a methodology. And the candidate's dissertation shows the interest in ideas and (hopefully) produces the fruit. If you're looking for a proxy that plausibly tracks future scholarly productivity and impact, a doctorate degree can seem like a decent bet. And I think that's a significant part of the reason why the entry-level market favors candidates with doctorates.
The particularly interesting part of this, in my view, is that I think we now have enough professors both with and without doctorates to test whether our intuitions are correct. The question is, has the market accurately assessed the value of doctorates? Does having a doctorate signal what we think it signals about future productivity and impact? And more broadly, is the scholarly trajectory of U.S. law professors with doctorates different from that of U.S. law professors without doctorates?
There would be various ways to try to measure this, of course. Perhaps you could try to measure scholarly impact, such as by counting citations on Westlaw or on HeinOnline. Or maybe instead you could compare scholarly output, such as by counting publications of various kinds. I don't have any particular ideas about what approach (or combination of approaches) is the least flawed. But it seems like something that could be a really interesting empirical study that could also shed light on a very important trend in legal academia.