Sarah Lawsky on Law School Faculty Entry-Level Hiring

The health of the legal market has been the subject of much discussion and UCI Law’s Sarah Lawsky is a leading aggregator and analyst of entry-level hires of law school faculty in the U.S. Sarah Lawsky unpacks exactly what has happened in the law teaching market and identifies characteristics associated with obtaining an entry-level job in this increasingly uncertain part of the academy.

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Podcast Transcript

[Narrator] Welcome to UCI Law Talks, presenting bold perspectives on law from the University of California, Irvine School of Law. Join the conversation on Twitter @UCILaw, #UCILawTalks.

[JG] Welcome to UCI Law Talks. Today we're talking about law schools as institutions. In case you missed it, there's been considerable turmoil in the world of law schools. The number of applicants has fallen for four years in a row. Last year, there were fewer than 56,000 applicants compared to almost 96,000 law school applicants in 2005. These declines in applicant volume of affected law schools, in particular they seem to have affected law school hiring of academic faculty, and today we're going to learn a bit about how. Our guest is Sarah Lawsky, Professor of Law and Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs here at UCI and Visiting Professor of Law at Northwestern University School of Law. So we're glad you're in the neighborhood and able to join us. 

[SL] Thank you Jonathan.

[JG] You have tracked law school hiring for a few years now. Can you tell us a little bit about some of the trends you've seen?

[SL] Sure. I've been tracking law school hiring since 2011 on a blog, PrawfsBlawg, but prior to that Larry Solum tracked law school hiring at least as far back as 2006, and actually he may have tracked it before that. So, and I took the information that he gathered and also compiled that. So while I've been collecting it since 2011, I actually have information going back to 2006. Just to be clear when we say law school hiring, what we're talking about is law schools hiring entry level tenure track faculty members. I gather some other information as well, but that's what we're that's what we're talking about today. So, entry level tenure track hiring as gathered first by Larry Solum on his blog and then starting in 2011 as gathered by me. And this is self-reported information that basically I solicit, and Larry Solum did this is well. People should write in and give me the information. So before we start talking, I also want to stress this isn't complete information and the numbers that I talk about are not the real number of hires in some sense. But what I do have is information across years so even if I can't say this number of people was actually hired in 2015, I can compare that number to the numbers that I gathered in the same way over the previous years.

[JG] So we can see trends, in other words.

[SL] Exactly, where we can see trends from these numbers even if we don't see actual numbers.

[JG] You've invited a question about law school hiring. Just how does it work? Because we should explain that to people. How do law schools hire what you're calling entry level, so new law professors?

[SL] The main way that most law schools hire entry levels is through a system that's coordinated by the AALS which I actually realize – I don't know what it stands for. Maybe it stands for American Association of Law Schools? There's two A's and the LS is definitely law school so it's something. And they coordinate the hiring by the Faculty Recruiting Conference the FRC which some people informally refer to as the meat market. I actually don't think that's – no I don’t even think it's that funny, it's kind of gross, so I’m just going to refer to it as the hiring conference. So the way that it works is over the summer, anyone who's interested in being hired as an entry level law professor sends in information to the AALS. This includes a form that they fill out which is known as the FAR form. It's called the far form because it's turns out I don't know what FAR stands for either. Faculty something register? I don't know, but it stands for something, so it's the FAR form and they send in their CV. They send in, maybe they want to they send in a research agenda and the AALS… Faculty Appointments Register. That's what I'm going to go with for FAR. Faculty Appointment Register.

[JG] Sounds good.

[SL] Is that what it actually stands for? I don't know but it could stand for that. That would be totally legit for it to stand for. So I’m going to a Faculty Appointment Register. So you send in your FAR form and then the AALS compiles all of these forms and releases it to law schools that are in – releases this compilation to law schools that are interested in hiring. There are three distributions of the FAR forms, but the first distribution is overwhelmingly, where most of the applicants are. So then, law schools go through these. They then reach out to the people whose materials in the FAR look interesting to them, and they invite them to come interview in the fall. Usually at this point, I think, conferences are always in mid-October in Washington D.C. at the FRC, Faculty Recruitment Conference. Probably, that's what it stands for; it's definitely the FRC though. So this is in Washington D.C. and law schools send their appointments committees and they go and they – the appointments committees sit in a room in a hotel in Washington D.C. for two days and do a series of interviews that are 20 minutes to half an hour long. And, candidates just go from one interview to the other. And then if the law schools might decide to call back a few of those people to campus so the most interviews the law school can do in these two days is around 30, and then they call back some subset of those interviews to campus, on campus interviews and then this results, you know, in a couple of offers at the end. So that's the general process. Yes, and I’ll just stop there for now. Actually there are some interesting things about both – when we talk about the contraction of the market, we can see reflections of that, not only in the number of law professors hired but in the number of candidates whose forms are in the FAR faculty points register, as we're calling it in this podcast. And also the number of schools that actually even send committees to the hiring conference. So we can actually see the contraction in lots of different places.

[JG] Let's talk about the hiring numbers first then. Can you tell us where you've seen the contraction?

[SL] Sure. So in 2006, when I was looking at – this is now pulling the information from Larry Solum’s data. In 2006 there were around 160 entry level hires reported to Larry Solum. And between 2006 to 2009 there were – the lowest number was one 151 the highest number was 167. So in 2010, nobody collected the data. We pick it up again in 2011 when I started collecting; 155, OK. The next year there were 143, so this is in 2012, 143 reported hires. Alright, I mean, you know that's kind of a lot smaller than a 167, but compared to 151 maybe doesn't look so bad. In 2013, there were 106 reported hires. In 2014, 73. And last year, 70. So that does look pretty bad. That's a pretty huge contraction between around 150 to 70.

[JG] Have you seen as well then, you mentioned fewer schools perhaps are sending their committees to conduct interviews in Washington.

[SL] So I should stress that I am not particularly good at predicting. And I don't want to make any predictions about what's going to happen. There are people who are really good at predicting. Brian Leiter is really good at predicting. Brian Leiter has been watching law schools for a long time. He is actually really good at sort of guessing what's going to happen next. Sometimes disturbingly – his numbers are disturbingly close. I am not particularly good at that. The thing that I'm better at is – I just like to collect the information and make sure that the numbers are right. So I can tell you that in 2012, at the Faculty Recruitment Committee there were 142 AALS member approved schools. So it's basically there were 142 law schools. In 2013 there were 94, and in 2014 there were 81. So this is a pretty large decrease. Over the course of two years it went from 142 to 81. I don't know how many there will be this year though I look forward to finding out. So again, this is different.

[JG] When will we know at some point how many schools are sending committees, at least that data point that will become available at some point?

[SL] Well it'll become available to me when I go to the recruitment conference and I get this sheet that they give out every one that lists all the schools. And then I count the number of schools on the sheet and then I'll know.

[JG] This is sophisticated fact investigation is what you’re saying.

[SL] And then I'll put up my own graph with another year added.

[JG] Got it, got it, got it. So we may get a sense in as soon as a couple of weeks whether there's you know the possibility of an uptick, right?

[SL] I really hesitate to say that. I don't have enough information about how the number of schools at the hiring conference relates to number of hires. I can actually think of too many different stories about that. And as people have pointed out, particular people at the AALS have I think said this, I've heard this secondhand, well hey it could be that schools aren't sending committees to the conference, but they're still hiring. That's true and I guess what I would have to believe is that there's some reason that more schools would be taking that approach now. And significantly large numbers of schools would be doing hiring without going to the conference at all. And that's not impossible, I mean, I can tell stories about that. I mean it's a possibility.

[JG] Why would a school want to do that? Is there a competitive advantage or…?

[SL] It's cheaper, I mean going to the conference is kind of expensive. You have to fly everybody there. You have to get everyone to stay in hotels. If you think you can do the same thing by Skype why wouldn't you, right, in some sense. I mean there are arguments as to why you wouldn't, but I think the argument as to why you wouldn't go is, it's a somewhat inefficient way to do the hiring. I'm not saying that it is a somewhat inefficient way; I'm saying that would be the argument, that we can do this more efficiently by Skype being with people.

[JG] I imagine maybe there's also a timing advantage, right? You could reach out to people before the Faculty Recruitment Conference?

[SL] Right. You could do that. And I should add that I think much of the hiring happens through the process that I indicated, but certainly schools also reach out to people outside of the conference. So sometimes it's just local people. You would interview people who are local on campus instead of meeting them at the conference. Sometimes it's people who are sort of superstars and they're going to get swept off the market beforehand so I shouldn't – I don't want to leave the impression that all of the hiring happens through the conference. There's certainly some hiring that happens outside of that process.

[JG] Tell me if it's fair to ask you about trends in what kinds of people are hired. I mean, so one might imagine that with this contraction certain skill sets or backgrounds are now more valuable or less valuable. Anything you can say about that?

[SL] I haven't noticed that. I do ask when people report to indicate their areas that they work in and I haven't noticed any significant change. Certain things stay steady. So I am a tax professor so I can tell you that like about the same number of tax people get hired every year. It would be strange for a school to say well we're not going to hire as much so we're just not going to have anybody who can teach tax, right? There's sort of baseline hiring that needs to happen. Now what's the sort of core? What's the minimum baseline hiring that needs to happen? I don't know but I don't think tax people for example have had a significantly harder time getting jobs.

[JG] And credentials? There's you know the ongoing discussion about people of J.D.’s and Ph.D.'s or J.D.'s and some other degree possibly having an advantage.

[SL] Yes so this is the other massive change that is reflected in the hiring. In 2006 to 2009 between 40 and 55 percent of the people who were hired had fellowships. And by fellowship I mean it's a one or two-year program that you do at a law school that prepares you to go in the job market. It may or may not have teaching associated with it. They probably will help you moot your talk and so forth. So between 40 and 55 percent of successful candidates reported on those lists had fellowships. By 2011, remember we don't have numbers for 2010, in 2011 it was 69 percent so that's somewhat of a jump. In 2014, it was 84 percent; in 2015 it was 83 percent. This is almost to the point where it is very close to a de facto requirement. Most interesting to me I think is the combination of degrees, fellowships, and clerkships that people have. So it turns out that if you only have a fellowship, you only have an advanced degree other than a J.D. or you only have a clerkship, it's pretty hard to get a job. People who had only one of those things represented only 14 of the hires last year. People who had none of those things were only two of the hires. So people who had only zero or one of degree, clerkship, fellowship represented only 16 out of the 70 hires. Everybody else had at least two, and 14 of the hires had all three. So if somebody were going to ask me, “what should I do to get a law teaching job?” I would say it is certainly not sufficient to have the following qualifications, but it's pretty close to necessary. Right, so this isn't to say if you have an advanced degree and a fellowship, you'll get a job. One of the things about the contraction of the market is that I know many wonderful people, some of whom had all the credentials that you could possibly imagine, who didn't get jobs. Really, really fantastic candidates. So I'm not saying that this is sufficient to get a job, but we're creeping closer and closer to it being necessary. And of course there are always outliers. There will always be people who get jobs in a sort of anomalous way. But at this point when we’re at you know low 80 percent for fellowships and most people having actually two, fellowship and something else.

[JG] Do you have any sense of other changes qualitative changes, things that might be softer? But since you're hearing from candidates, other, I hesitate to call them even trends, but anything at all at the about the profile of candidates may have changed?

[SL] One thing that doesn't seem to be changing that much is how many years it has been since people graduated from law school. That seems to be pretty stable. So I don't have a way of tracking practice experience but the best proxy I have is years since graduation and it still seems to be about 6 to 10 years since for the plurality, not the majority, but for the plurality about 6 to 10 years since people graduated from law school. Now, if there's a rise in fellowships, I mean I don't have – I have not actually broken this down – but I at least wonder whether this means people have a little less practice experience but I don't know. So that's not a change, and that's interesting to me that that hasn't really changed. I think those are the main trends that I've noticed I think I've already mentioned.

[JG] And just so that people are – so that we're transparent here – you mention this is self-reported. Can you just explain how you get the insight?

[SL] Sure. This is now my 6th year that I've been doing this and Larry Solum did it for a number of years before. So the idea that there's some law professor out there collecting this information has been around for at least 10 years. I actually do a series of different types of information collection. Starting in the summer before the academic year, I collect and post on PrawfsBlawg, in the form of a spreadsheet, any hiring committee information that's reported to me. So the chairs of the hiring committee, the members of the hiring committee at that various law schools, the subjects that the committee is looking for, and how they would like to be contacted. This may seem like a strange thing to collect. Why would people need this information? Are they just going through the AALS, FAR? The reason I collect this information is because top schools, very top schools have been collecting this information and giving it to their graduates for a long time. And my feeling is that it's fine for this information to be collected, but everybody should have access to it. So this is why. It's not that I – there's a scenario, there's a world in which everybody goes through the Faculty Recruiting Conference and nobody needs this information. But, if people are getting this information at top schools and reaching out individually to these committees, I think it's information that everybody should have who goes on the market, not just people who happen to graduate from a particular school. So I start collecting that information the summer before. I then open up two threads. Now the value of these threads I feel can be debated. They’re not threads that I started. However, people seem to want them so I will keep doing them. They were started by Dan Markel, who started PrawfsBlawg, the blog that I belong on. Dan was an amazing, amazing person who had a wonderful understanding of how to create community. So Dan thought that these threads were a good idea and therefore I will always keep doing these threads until it is clear that they are not wanted by anybody anymore. So it kind of doesn't matter what I think about them. So I open up one thread where people can post information about requests for interviews they've gotten at the meat market and I open up another thread where people can post general questions. And I keep those threads going. And then there's a thread where people can post. By thread I just mean I put a post up on the blog and I open up comments. And then every year I get one person to volunteer, and somebody always volunteers, to aggregate the information onto a spreadsheet so it's more easily available. So I keep those threads going also so people can report hires and people, sorry, callbacks, and they can report hires. And then in February or March or April somewhere around there, I start putting out calls for information. And law schools have gotten better and better about making this information public. Some law schools, Columbia does a wonderful job where they just post all the information about their graduates on a web page that anyone can look at. So it's really easy to be super accurate about the Columbia graduates I think and fellows. So I think I'm getting all of them because Columbia makes this information public. Other situations, Brian Leiter does a wonderful job of making the information public for Chicago fellows and graduates. So anything like that where there's a public list, I pull it. Otherwise people email me, sometimes folks from particular schools contact me and say here is information about all of our graduates. Am I getting pretty close? I think I'm getting pretty close. A few years ago, Professor Alexander Tsesis from Loyola Chicago actually went through the year after I did the report and contacted every single school and to see how close we had gotten in the self-reported hiring and we're north of 80 percent of the hires. So we're getting a lot of the hires. But as I said, the most important thing is that this is a way that we can track trends because I don't have any reason to think that the hiring reporting is changing significantly, since I do exactly the same thing every year to try to collect the information.

[JG] So you hinted at an egalitarian impulse driving your interest in this case. Say a little bit about how and why you started collecting this data.

[SL] I think it's helpful for as much information as possible to be public, particularly about things like hiring or things that have traditionally favored people who have sort of inside knowledge, people who go to particularly fancy law schools. And I think another person who acts from that motivating impulse is Brian Leiter who has done an amazing job of collecting and making public information about you know, academia in various ways. And the idea that there's some inside group that gets the information and knows how things work and then there's some other group that didn't happen to go to that school, they don't have the information so they don't have as much of an ability to succeed. I don't like that system. I think there's lots of ways people can be excellent, really excellent, and they may not fit the exact profile of somebody who happens to be on the inside and they still might be excellent. And so, the more that information can be public and people can understand how things are actually working, the better I think.

[JG] So we were joking about this before we started recording, but how does this relate to your day job? This is not what you teach.

[SL] No it's not what I teach. I'm a tax professor and I also study logic. And just like spreadsheets; I think that's how it relates. I like spreadsheets a lot; this permits me to generate lots of spreadsheets, and from time to time a Venn diagram. So you know it's good. 

[JG] My general wrap up question in these sessions is: Are there other things I should be asking or points that we haven't covered that perhaps we should have?

[SL] I don't think so. I mean the one thing that I would say about the job market at this point is, it's really hard and there are wonderful, wonderful people who don't end up with jobs. And I think that is a real cost to the legal academy and I don't think there's anything to be done about it. It is what it is. I mean, the market has contract and maybe for the better. I mean, you know we didn't – I'm actually not sure I want to even take a position on whether more law professor should be hired. It may be for the reasons that you mentioned at the beginning. Maybe this is the right number, maybe the right number is smaller. So that's not at all what I'm saying, but I know that there are lots of – it's just a very, very tough market and there are lots of great people who don't get academic jobs who I'm sure could contribute to various conversations happening within the legal academy, and in some ways that's too bad.

[JG] Sarah, thank you so much for joining us.

[SL] It's my pleasure. Thank you, Jonathan.

[Narrator] Thank you for joining us for UCI Law Talks produced by the University of California Irvine, School of Law.