The Micro-Economics of Law Faculty Prestige

I recently finished reading Michael Madison’s pre-print article Legal Scholarship and the Economy of Prestige and it was very enlightening, but I had the thought that I have never seen a ranking of law faculty whereas I have seen law school rankings and read discussions, papers and diatribes in the hundreds.

In all of the conversations I have had with faculty about prestige and identifying prestigiious faculty, there is a certain amount of "everybody knows" and not much empirical fact, so I wondered what sample survey questions would look like to get at how to measure individual faculty prestige.

The first step, though, was to look up the word ‘prestige’ and I learned that it has a French root for the word illusion. How ironic!

I am not sure how truly valuable the results of such a survey would be and I would rather not step into the tar pit of law school rankings AND have half the law faculty population screaming for my head, but sometimes us amateur ethnologists have to go where others fear to tread.

To find out who is prestigious and how much, we could survey law faculty and ask them who they think is prestigious. This is a little like picking the top ten movies of the year, so maybe that’s the way to do this…

Who do YOU think are the top ten most prestigious living law faculty?

Perhaps it would be informative to also ask why.

This survey might yield a somewhat predictable collection of names that would doubltless have a relationship to the amount of publicity that some faculty get via their books, government service, political leanings, blogs, etc. This would especially be true as survey respondents get to the second half of the list. I tried to mentally create a similar list for law librarians (of whom many I know) or technology leaders (of whom I read about every day) and it gets darn hard when you get to 7, 8, 9 and 10.

A better survey might be to break this down by legal subject area.

Who do YOU think are the top three most prestigious living law faculty in <subject area>?

This seems pretty straightforward and in fact, I can parse this a little bit because the number of ways to be prestigious in a particular legal subject area is limited.

  • Writes the best articles and gets them published in the most prestigious law journals (yes, I realize that this is a little circular here, but go read Madison’s article)
  • Authored a popular casebook on the topic
  • Wrote a treatise on the topic
  • Co-authored the law on the subject (thinking here of legislative drafting and participation in the Uniform Code process)
  • Has authored well-received books (think Lessig here)
  • Personal knowledge
  • and lately, perhaps, has a popular or well-regarded (much visited) blog on the subject (think LawProfessorBlogs here)

So the survey question might look like this instead…

Who do YOU think are the top ten most prestigious living lawfaculty due to<fill in the blank here like journal articles,casebook authorship, blog, government service, etc. etc. ?

There are other prestigious things like being a judge or running for office, but I have to discount these because they are prestige economics in a different economy and I want to stay focused on the legal education academy.

There is also a second order prestige for some of the items mentioned above. Law faculty get prestige by being at the top tier schools vs. lower-tiered law schools. Casebook publishers have some kind of prestige ranking I am sure, but in saying that I realize that I really don’t know more than that other than how long they have been publishing, so I guess the number of years of being in business has a prestige of sorts. This obviously explains the lack of creditbility that many startups have or new players in a market – will they last?

Where you get your articles published affects their prestige more than what the article is about (at least at first). High prestige law journals are more widely read and so there is a simple prestige of exposure of your ideas.

The whole "Is Blogging = Scholarship" question seems to me to be an attempt to create new micro-prestige beta products where people are trying to say something interesting, citable, valuable, noticable and prestigious. You can’t say something prestigious. Prestige comes from others saying that what you said is important or interesting.

Can something be known to be prestigious before it is widely regarded as prestigious absent such signals as the school the person teaches at or the journal it is published in? I think not. It’s a competitive marketplace of ideas – almost Darwinian.

Some of the above are somewhat objectively measurable. It is possible to know who has written a book or an article and to use SSRN‘s or other surveys to see whose articles are most-cited or downloaded. Popularity of books can be measured by survey or book sales, though accurate sales numbers are difficult to obtain for niche markets like this.

So, why would I be interested in this? I am not a law professor, but I deal with them every day and law faculty prestige comes up in all kinds of discussions about CALI, choosing authors for Fellowships, getting support for new projects, etc. I want to use prestige as a proxy for wide exposure. Prestigious faculty command more attention.

But, prestige seems very subjective and very contextual except when it is used in the grossest (or least granular) sense like when deciding to extend tenure or a promotion, picking a speaker for a conference, etc. You don’t just pick the most popular, you judge that person’s impact on the situation (the law school’s prestige as a sum of its faculty prestige) or the audience they will attract (like for a conference).

I am very tempted to try to run this survey just to see what happens, but to provide cover, I should probably find a prestigious faculty member to get the word out.

Ironic, isn’t it?

Well, maybe the French are right and prestige is just an illusion.

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