November 07, 2005
Law School Reputation: The X Factor
Posted by Victor Fleischer

Gordon asks whether publication in elite peer-reviewed and student-edited journals is the only path to pre-eminence.  Perhaps.  But there is another factor at play, one that is difficult to measure: culture.  If you could measure it, of course, a culture of engagement and productivity would be closely correlated with scholarly output.  But I'm saying more than that.  Schools can recruit productive scholars laterally without creating a culture of productivity, and my prediction is that such hires won't lead to long-term success.  I'm also suggesting that with a strong culture in place, one could have some productive scholars recruited away without losing the culture.  All of which is to say that there's an X-factor that makes the sum of a school's scholars worth more than the individual parts.

The study of corporate culture is getting serious; in my research on deal design and internal branding I've read interesting papers by Kranton & Akerlof, Langevoort, Van den Steen and others.  One lesson is that strong corporate cultures are more likely to develop in firms in competitive markets (unlike, say, government or a local utility company). 

Extending this idea to the academic context, the prediction is that as law schools become more competitive with each other, faculties develop stronger norms that will lead to better output from faculty members even where that output is difficult to observe. (The quantity of scholarly output is easy to observe, but quality is not.) 

Faculties that fail to develop strong cultures will fade away.  A related prediction is that schools that face less fierce competition for students (e.g. schools lazily cashing in on past success, or state schools with big tuition advantages) will tend to have weaker cultures. 

Even if I'm right that culture matters, I haven't quite answered Gordon's question.  It's not self-evident that culture nurtures scholarly productivity; one could also image a strong culture of student-mentoring, or public service.  But it does suggest, assuming that scholarship is the most reliable measure of success, that law schools seeking pre-eminence should nurture culture and not just buy scholarly output on the lateral market.  I'm not saying that lateral hiring is a bad strategy.  Not at all.  What I'm saying is that some, but not all, productive laterals will add to the culture; others may just keep their door closed and plug away.  Presumably, this distinction is part of what's being investigated in a lookover visit or through the interview process.

How else does one encourage a culture of productivity?  Some obvious ways: 

  • Frequent scholarly workshops with speakers from both inside and outside the school;
  • Providing faculty members with ample funds to attend conferences, including those at which they do not present;
  • Hiring juniors as well as tenured faculty, and encouraging formal and informal mentoring of junior scholars;
  • Finding ways for faculty to establish a network of weak ties that can move their work forward in innovative, often interdisciplinary ways;
  • Providing the dean with pools of funds to reward productive scholars. 

It's easy for schools to say, "We have a great collegial culture at Ames Law School."  But not every school has the financial resources or the inclination to encourage scholarly productivity.  For those of you heading to AALS this weekend, you might ask schools about the things I've listed above.  You may find a surprising amount of variation in the answers.

Another lesson from the corporate culture literature seems to be that culture cannot be force-fed from the top down.  Deans should not be pressing Total Quality Management.  Instead, schools might think more about emulating start-ups.  Blogs are revealing lawprofs to be surprisingly entrepreneurial, and institutional practices like Google's "20 percent time" might work well.  Since Thursday is the new Friday, we could make Fridays official "research days" -- no committee meetings, no faculty meetings, no classes, no speakers.  In a world that's already full of slack like academia, it seems counter-intuitive to suggest that more slack will lead to higher productivity rather than shirking.  But I think it's right.

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Comments (43)

1. Posted by Paul M. Secunda on November 7, 2005 @ 11:10 | Permalink


I think you really hit upon something here. When a school is attempting to make the move to preeminent status, law school culture is everything. Especially when that school is seeking to overcome preconceived notions about its merits.

I can tell you from my own personal experiences here at the University of Mississipi that the cultural is indeed shifting in significant ways. More specifically, the Dean has implemented a faculty incentive award for publications in the top 25 law reviews, we have become more involved as a faculty in interdisciplinary work, there is much informal and formal mentoring between facutly, the Dean has made a strong commitment to allow the faculty to present and attend all sorts of conferences, and we have had frequent (at least in house) scholarly workshops.

Don't look now, but Mississippi is becoming a rising star because of its culture of productivity. In the last five years alone, our junior faculty has published over 30 student-edited law review pieces in Top 100 law reviews, including 7 in Geoff's top 32 list.


2. Posted by David Zaring on November 7, 2005 @ 11:29 | Permalink

Nice post. The question with culture is: how to create it? I think your suggestions are good ones, and Jim Lundgren has some others, but what about the possible value of uncollegiality? Some say that Black and Frankfurter benefited from hating one another. I ask, only semi-seriously, because I don't know of an institution like this (or indeed of one where no one can get along): should a dean foster faculty rivalries and dissension to build up productivity?

3. Posted by Anonymous Observer on November 7, 2005 @ 12:10 | Permalink

David -- a good pot-stirring question, but I can't imagine that the benefits would outweigh the rewards. This is in part because it is virtually impossible to keep law school "uncollegiality" confined to the sorts of argument-sharpening debates Black and Frankfurter may have had.

In my limited experience, that uncollegiality invariably morphs into faction, which in turn can paralyze the institution. It seems to me that we can enjoy the same benefits by promoting viewpoint diversity within an institution. In the context of the legal academy, the conflict created by clashing worldviews (whether legal scholarship-specific, such as a CLS/Law & Economics tension, or whether more generally liberal/conservative) can serve the sharpening function without crossing the line into factionalization of the faculty.

In the Supreme Court, the Black/Frankfurter hatred would necessarily have been confined primarily to the words written on the page. It would have made life in chambers less pleasant, perhaps, but it could not affect the fundamentals of the institution. Thankfully, Hugo and Felix could not have deadlocked over whether to add a tenth promising justice to the Court. Petty conflicts among law faculties are not so constrained.

4. Posted by William Henderson on November 7, 2005 @ 14:09 | Permalink


This is a provocative post. You make a compelling theoretical case for the existence of an X factor in legal academia. But examples of faculties that have leveraged this asset to produce measurable gains in rankings don't readily come to mind. (Indeed, there does not appear to be much movement in the preeminennce category.) Of course, an X factor is certainly worth striving for if we believe it is possible that can be brought into being ... there has to be a first time. I'd be willing to try. The corporate culture analogy is certainly worth considering.

5. Posted by Gordon Smith on November 7, 2005 @ 15:26 | Permalink

Vic, This all rings true to me. Nice post.

6. Posted by Kate Litvak on November 7, 2005 @ 18:04 | Permalink

I like the idea of turning Fridays into no-teaching “official research days” to increase scholarly productivity. My scholarly productivity would increase even further if teaching was also banned on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.

7. Posted by Jeff Yates on November 8, 2005 @ 5:01 | Permalink

... or, perhaps more in the realm of the feasible, a one course reduction the semester following a top 25 law review article, book, or analogous peer review article. I guess one problem with this would be that some of your top researchers might hardly ever teach. However, is this really a problem? Should a law school be willing to provide a "1-0" load for an outstanding research professor? The implicit cost would be that the school's law profs with low productivity might teach a "3-2" or more.

8. Posted by Kate Litvak on November 8, 2005 @ 8:26 | Permalink

Jeff: Anything involving top 25 law reviews is always a big hit with me. Ignorant children at Notre Dame and Iowa will now determine the distribution of teaching loads at Yale, Harvard, and Chicago.

If any non-law-school academics are reading this, they probably think we are hallucinating.

9. Posted by geoff manne on November 8, 2005 @ 12:15 | Permalink

Vic -- Relating this to your comment to my subsequent post: Kate is exactly right (I guess that goes without saying, though). There is a trade-off between what's best for the students and what's best for the profs along some margins. This is one. I agree that increasing scholarly productivity can be beneficial to a school, but is it the best use of resources for the students, in whose interest the school is purportedly run? Could be, but I must say that the coincidental fact that this expenditure happens to play directly to a faculty's preferences is suspicious. Look at your list of ways to enhance culture: Hand out cash to faculty members, lighten their teaching loads, send them to exotic locales to hobknob with pals on the school's dime, invite their friends to come visit, and, when it comes to fulfilling teaching needs, higher cheaper labor to do it. A scholarly culture is itself a perk that inures to the profs' benefit. My publication success does help the students some, but it helps me a lot more. So is this an example of good business or organizational failure from the students' point of view?

(NB: Not to pull back the curtain, too much. For anyone reading this with any say in my compensation or teaching load: I'm on drugs and I don't know what I'm saying).

10. Posted by Vic Fleischer on November 8, 2005 @ 16:36 | Permalink

You'll notice I didn't say anything about teaching loads. I actually think an active intellectual culture makes people better teachers, not worse, and it is probably a better use of resources than many student-oriented reforms (which are sometimes, I think, professor-oriented/political reforms dressed up as student-oriented reforms). There's a lot you can do to support scholarship without eliminating or ghettoizing teaching.

I also think, in the long run, students care more about the prestige of the school than the classroom experience. So it's not clear that allocating resources away from scholarship into the classroom is necessarily the right move, even assuming the students are the only principals in this principal-agent model.

You are certainly right that I derive personal utility from these perks. Whether that makes the whole thing suspect ... I'm not so sure.

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