Legal Scholarship

Is It Too Easy to Get Tenure at Law Schools?

A new study raises the question of whether law school tenure standards are sufficiently strict.


Are tenure standards at American law schools sufficiently strict? A new paper in the Journal of Legal Studies, "Rethinking Law School Tenure Standards," by Adam Chilton, Jonathan S. Masur, and Kyle Rozema raises the question.

Here is the abstract:

We study the implications of stricter tenure standards in law schools, an environment in which 95 percent of all tenure-track hires receive tenure. To do so, we construct a novel data set of the articles and citation counts of 1,712 law professors who were granted tenure at top-100 law schools between 1970 and 2007. We first show that pretenure research records are highly predictive of future academic impact. We then simulate the effects of applying stricter tenure standards using predictions of law professors' future academic impact at the time of their tenure decisions. We find that increasing tenure denial rates to the same level as hard-science departments—which would require increasing denial rates by 30 percentage points—could more than double the median posttenure academic impact of the faculty that law schools initially tenure.

This is an interesting finding, but I doubt many law schools are likely to alter their tenure standards as dramatically as the paper suggests.

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  1. This assumes that the measure of a successful law professor is publications. But the purpose of a law school is to train lawyers, so shouldn’t the measure of a successful law professor be whether they are a good practicing lawyer?

    1. It should – just like the measure of a successful engineering professor should be students who build bridges that don’t fall down. But how do you measure that? And how do you do it in a timeline that’s meaningful to employment decisions about the professor?

      1. The sincerest form of valuation by society is money. Money is people’s opinion of how you are solving their problems. Collect the salaries of the alums for each year out of school.

        1. Seriously, it’s not a bad proposal but their would need to be conditions made in return. To avoid getting shafted, we (professors) would want the right to fail or reject students not just for poor academic performance, but also for being the kind of person with a lower probability of taking or holding down a job. Examples: (1) overestimate their own importance and value; (2) whimsical artistic approach to life and career; (3) obsessed with the idea that there’s injustice everywhere and it’s all directed at themselves; (3) inability to accept responsibility for their own actions; confrontational defiant personality; (4) make foolish statements on the Internet that will haunt them at every job interview; (5) for STEM, believing they will be engaged in pursuing their own innovations rather than mostly working for customers ad bosses; etc.

          1. Would there be any lawyers left if you could exclude those categories???

            1. Of course. But would any students of “education” be left?

              1. If you only knew…

                Google “Doctress Neutopia”….

            2. Not sure, Doctor. Duckie is describing the future good litigators in a law school class, perhaps, not in his field.

              The cliché is that the A students will be academics and judges with that low salary. It may be too high, since they are worthless or damaging. The C students are bored, and into the investment pages of the paper, in the back of the class. They are there to get credentialed, not to learn. Then the B students will end up working for the C students.

              Then there is me. Every page of every law book was like the shower scene from Psycho, with zinging music, and surprising, shocking, nauseating, sickening content. Each page gave the same feeling as that movie. You even have a mummified dead mother stored in your attic, the catechism of 1275 AD. You lawyers are fucking psychos and must be stopped.

              1. “Then the B students will end up working for the C students. ”
                I fear that is all too true

                1. I wonder how many more lawyers will be eliminated by automation.

                  1. All judges should be replaced by algorithms, written and owned by the legislatures. If one is defective, for example, convicts an innocent defendant, let the legislature be subject to product liability. Technology has always been the solution.

                  2. Won’t happen.
                    Legislatures are filled with lawyers to assure that it doesn’t

          2. “the kind of person with a lower probability of taking or holding down a job”

            Professors who can’t count?

      2. JFTR, at schools whose reputations rest on their undergraduate programs rather than their research expenditures, engineering faculty often do get denied tenure (or are just flat fired) for substandard teaching. I personally know multiple guys who lost their jobs, some due to consistently low evaluations, some due to a pattern of student complaints, and some due to evidence of incompetence in their lectures.

        1. That replaces ‘students who learn successfully’ with ‘students who don’t complain’ as the metric. That’s not an inherently bad measure (and it’s arguably a lot better than mere publication counts) but it’s not quite what TutorFrank was proposing.

          1. “arguably a lot better than mere publication counts”
            At top-tier university “hard-science” departments do much more than count publications. The identity of the journals, the degree to which publications are cited by peers weighs heavily. As such universities are almost invariably major research universities, the mentoring of graduate students and post-docs is also a considerable factor. Undergraduate teaching is also important but usually weighs less that the research and graduate education components.

            1. Eh, I think most of my department “cares” about teaching but that doesn’t mean that they invest all that much into it. For all but one I’m absolutely sure it’s a distant second compared to research, maybe even lower for those with other duties. Many of our classes are taught out of a plan from decades ago and the new classes are designed more for grad students than undergrad.

              Not that there’s anything wrong with that. When they combined two essential classes into one class and added a new “essential” class (that we could’ve outsourced to another department) it fucked everything up and I’m sure that it lessened the quality of our grads.

    2. No, it should be the measure of how many good practicing lawyers they produce. There’s a difference. “Those that can, do. Those that can’t, teach.” Same thing applies to all teachers, including the hard sciences.

      1. Your comment might apply to undergraduate institutions, but it certainly is NOT the case in hard-science departments in research universities.
        Professors in those institutions are not just teaches, they are the practitioners who develop and shape their fields. They develop the next generation of high quality scientists and engineers.

        1. I said “teachers”, in response to “the purpose of a law school is to train lawyers”. Your comment concerning “researchers” is irrelevant.

          1. irrelevant in what way?
            Let remind you what you said, “Same thing applies to all teachers, including the hard sciences.” If you are speaking of modern research universities. You’re just wrong concerning the faculty in hard sciences.
            I did NOT say researchers at universities. I said professors. There is a difference that anyone really familiar with the modern research university knows.

            1. There is also a difference between a “college” and a “school”, and these are “schools” of law.

              Higher Ed 101…

              1. Ed,
                At many university the distinction is mere nomenclature and nothing else. Don’t read anything into it.
                For example, MIT has a School of Engineering, a School of Architecture, a School of Science, as well as the Sloan School of Business. All are major research graduate training , and for most undergraduate education.
                I could run through the structure of Harvard, but you can look it up.

  2. The relative lack of post-tenure research is because there’s already too many law review articles and many law professors don’t have anything novel to say. Which is fine, there’s already enough professor and law review editor torture where they toil for hundreds of cumulative hours on an article that nobody, not even they, actually care about. I’d be more interested in tracking teaching effectiveness, but that would be difficult to do objectively.

    1. The problem seems to be not just that too many get tenure, it’s that way too much useless stuff is published.

      It’s hard to take legal scholarship very seriously when there are about a million law reviews, edited by students, and the standards seem quite low.

  3. In my day, when Latin was the language of instruction, I heard of the “tenure piece,” a single, dense article that was sufficient, if the faculty otherwise liked you, to earn tenure. I saw one my my professors publish his “tenure piece” and get tenure. The piece was, in my judgment, actually good and possibly even useful. In a long and distinguished career that landed him on the federal bench, where he still sits, he wrote only occasional reviews and small pieces thereafter. I always suspected that his practical side was unimpressed by much of what counts as legal scholarship, a view I largely share.

    So if much of legal scholarship (except for the boring, dry, doctrinal stuff) is hardly worth doing, and the students care nothing about it, who cares what scholarly output the law schools deem appropriate for tenure?

    1. So much of scholarship in general is truly worthless…

      1. As if you would know. Your talking through the hole in your hat again.

  4. Honestly, law school Professors are a lot more like High School Teachers than they are like Physics Professors. Physics professors do cutting-edge research in physics, and teach classes because their deans tell them they have to. Law school professors teach classes, and do research that is published by students with no expertise in the field, because they and their administrators want to pretend that they are “scholars”.

    1. Someone with that perspective must be enraged and perplexed to learn than lawyers run the world and in particular tell physics professors what to do while largely ignoring the preferences and opinions of physics professors.

      1. I wasn’t saying one is better than the other — just that they are different. Good HS teachers can be some of the most influential people in one’s life. My HS teachers had a lot more influence on me than my law school profs.

        My unwritten conclusion was that tenure decisions for LS professors should be based on criteria more akin to those used for HS teachers, than for Physics professors. It is a lot easier and more meaningful to judge a Physics prof on the quality of his (her) research and publications than to do so for a LS prof.

        1. How are they different? Are law school professors better teachers than are physics professors? Vice versa?

          1. Are you Socratic Method-ing me? 😉

            My thoughts on this are based on my own experiences in school (undergrad and law school), as well as conversations with others over the years. They do not amount to a rigorous analysis of a mountain of raw data.

            My argument is that the fundamental point of being a law school professor is to teach and train new lawyers. Scholarship is secondary. For university professors, original scholarship and research are paramount, and training young scholars/scientists is secondary.

            I chose physics as an example because the practical value of physics research is pretty clear, and I have been reading The Making of the Atomic Bomb.

            That is not to say that there are not plenty of law professors that are lousy teachers, or physics professors who are fabulous teachers.

            My point was just to look at what facet of the job is viewed as most important.

            1. Thank you

          2. One way they are different is that physics professors have to do actual research to get published.

            IANAL, of course, but based on what I read here and elsewhere pretty much any bloviation by a LS professor will find a home.

            I spent a few years in a Ph. D. program in finance, though I never wrote a dissertation. What I learned about the process, among other things, was that getting something published was a major accomplishment, and that just getting a piece of research to the point of submitting it was a lengthy process.

        2. Physics professor is in a college, Law School professor is in a school.

          1. Ed,
            As I told above, you distinction is meaningless. The nomenclature changes from university to university and generally is meaningless.
            MIT has a School of Engineering, not a College of Engineering, a School of Science, not a College of Science.

          2. Seconding Don’s point.

            At the University of Virginia, where I got my JD, literally the only academic unit in the university that is called a “college” (and is therefor simply called “the college” by people at UVA) is the undergraduate college of arts and sciences. Everything else is a school – the School of Law, the School of Engineering, the School of Commerce, the School of Architecture, the Darden School (where the MBA program is). Yet the undergraduate college is the one where the least research happens.

            Or look just at the world of law schools. The most common practice seems to be to formally call them “schools”, but it is not university. Georgetown officially calls its law school a “center”, the universities of Florida, Arizona, Illinois, Iowa and Ohio all call theirs a “college”. I don’t think those institutes are more research focused than the “schools” of law at Harvard, Yale, or Stanford.

            1. Frank,
              Similary at the University of Chicago. They are all School except for The College.

        3. Ridgeway,
          You underestimate the importance of peer recognition especially in top and second tier universities. It is common for departments to ask for a dozen or more letters to justify a tenure case. The number of departmental colloquia at other top places also counts heavily.
          How do peers know? At the top levels, all these fields are small. Word gets around

    2. “teach classes because their deans tell them they have to”
      That is a gross misrepresentation. Class assignments are generally made at the departmental level. There is often competition to teach certain courses because those class are where one identifies the most promising members of the entering graduate student class. In addition many faculty enjoy teaching undergraduates and spend considerable time developing courses.

      1. I had my tongue partially in my cheek, but I don’t recall seeing many full professors teaching those intro-level undergrad lectures.

        1. At our university, they often do. Obviously this practice varies from place to place.

          1. Most intro-level undergrad courses are taught by grad students.

            1. Certainly not here. Grads teach no full classes in STEM here, they lead labs or recitation sessions. Full professors yeah the intro classes.

            2. Maybe at second or third rate places that you are familiar with.
              Never at the three top tier universities with which I have been affiliated

            3. Nope. Best you get is TAs doing lab and grading tests.

              1. Exactly. Ed is spouting stuff that he knows nothing about.

        2. “I had my tongue partially in my cheek, but I don’t recall seeing many full professors teaching those intro-level undergrad lectures.”

          My memories — rooted decades ago — include full professors teaching introductory courses in undergraduate and graduate school.

  5. Sorry, but what exactly does this have to do with the culture wars?

  6. Reality is that you’ve got to figure out what you are going to do with the professors who don’t get tenure.

    Stem professors can go into industry, in most fields the professor can teach in a high school, but where/what can the law professor teach outside of a law school.

    Now I despise incompetence and firmly believe that half of all tenured faculty (in all fields) ought to be fired, but reality is that you are not going to get good people making the high-stakes gamble of starting down a tenure-track path without either a fairly certain expectation of obtaining tenure *or* some fall-back position if they don’t.

    1. I recognize that the market for lawyers has cooled recently, but anyone able to teach (and be hired) at a solid law school should also be positioned to work at a reputable law firm and bill at $300 an hour or more after a few years of practice. Plenty of associates bill at that rate; many partners bill at $600 or more hourly. Those seem adequate consolation prizes.

    2. “firmly believe that half of all tenured faculty (in all fields) ought to be fired”
      More baseless nonsense.
      To sum it up, I despise incompetence.

    3. Lawyers would make insightful American History high school teachers.

      1. God no!!!

        Where do you think CRT came from?

        1. As with all social pathologies, and with all disparities in social pathology, lawyer shenanigans?

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