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.