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December 28, 2008

Success and the narrow path to professorhood

In my last post, I reflected a bit on Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers and the formation of law professors.  Having finished the book, I have a few more thoughts, which suggest that the way we select law professors is to the disadvantage of those who may provide the most innovation.

Most law professors (myself included) have the following things in common:  (1)  They did well as children at standardized tests;  (2)  Because of their prowess at standardized tests, they did well on the SAT and LSAT tests;  (3)  Their strong LSAT scores led to their admission at an elite law school; and  (4)  They then succeeded in law school, and were qualified to begin pursuing academic jobs.

If you doubt that attending one of the most elite law schools makes a difference in hiring, consider the finding that among untenured but tenure-track professors at the top 50 schools, 92 went to Yale Law while only 2 went to Cornell (which is an excellent school).  Similarly, there can be little doubt that a very high LSAT score is the primary qualification to get into one of the most elite schools.

Thus, we are for the most part narrowing our pool of professors to those who did extremely well on the LSAT.  However, as Gladwell points out, multiple-choice tests like the LSAT (and the SAT) are convergence tests-- that is, those in which the test-taker considers a limited number of possible answers and then converges her attention on the right one.   Convergence tests are good at determining the presence of a certain talent:  the ability to eliminate wrong answers to arrive at a correct answer. 

While this ability to converge on the right answer is useful at times, it is rarely a major part of innovative legal scholarship (or teaching, for that matter).  That's because the best scholarship is doing something more than eliminating choices from an already-established list.  Rather, the best work offers up a new way of looking at things, advocating for why one solution is right, or proposing an answer that thus far has not been dreamed up.  That is, the best work, the most innovative work, very often goes beyond simply criticizing the proposals or work of others (legislators, academics, or judges). 

However, at the primary sorting phase on the road to becoming a professor (admission into an elite school), we emphasize almost exclusively this talent of convergence.  The LSAT does not test the skill of divergence-- that is, the ability to come up with possibilities from a given reality.  For example (Gladwell's), one might ask "what uses are there for a brick?"  There are no set answers, but there will be good, creative ones and poor, limited ones.  If we cared about divergence somewhere on the path to professorhood, we would be much farther along on the task of fostering innovation in our fields. 

In short, the way we pick professors rewards most a skill which has nearly nothing to do with innovative scholarship and teaching.  Perhaps it should not be surprising that our journals are full of criticism, but resound too rarely with ideas that can change viewpoints, transform society, create justice broadly, or stir the souls of students and scholars.

-- Mark Osler

December 28, 2008 | Permalink


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Of course law schools hire faculty who went to top schools.
If you don't like how top schools admit students, you're really taking issue with the law school application process.
If you want law professors to have skill in divergence, perhaps this could be tested for during the application process for faculty positions. Or if you believe this is a valuable skill for any lawyers and law students, perhaps you should also be advocating that this should be included in the pre law school testing.

Posted by: some guy | Dec 29, 2008 3:07:04 PM

Although a megawatt LSAT might be necessary to get into Yale Law School, it certainly isn't sufficient. A megawatt undergrad GPA (preferably from an elite college) is also usually necessary. Maybe this second sorting mechanism better selects for those skilled at divergence?

So you're probably right that the process unfortunately excludes some of the high-undergrad-GPA/low-LSAT people (or for that matter, the low-GPA/low-LSAT people) who would otherwise be talented professors, but it just isn't true that "at the primary sorting phase on the road to becoming a professor . . . we emphasize almost exclusively this talent of convergence."

Posted by: Necessary not Sufficient | Dec 30, 2008 2:20:50 PM

Nice post, mark -- a related one is the connection between #3 and #4 -- explained well by Bill Henderson here -- http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=465381.

That is, because of the way we grade in law school, we select people for access to the most desirable jobs who are speedy -- who do well on time-pressured exams like the LSAT and issue-spotters -- which has little to do with being a creative and successful lawyer.

Posted by: Jason Solomon | Jan 2, 2009 5:08:48 PM

It seems to me there are two causal problems with the argument put forth.

First, testing at elite law schools does not rely on multiple choice or convergence tests, which the author recognizes. Therefore, success at an elite school (commonality (prerequisite?) #4) requires a different skill set than getting admitted to an elite school, and perhaps, one more appropriate for law school teaching. In any event, at least two sets of skills are seemingly required to become a law professor, taking the rest of the post as true: skill on convergence tests to gain admission to an elite law school, and skill on divergence and other forms of testing to succeed at an elite law school.

Second, the number of law professor hires from Yale may be a product of its curriculum and focus on producing academics (didn't Yale used to pride itself on a low bar passage rate?), rather than its position in the rankings.

Posted by: Erik Bluemel | Jan 2, 2009 7:49:41 PM

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