Law professor applications plummet as law schools raise their sights

REUTERS/Annegret Hilse
  • Number of entry-level law professor applicants hit a new low in August
  • Law schools increasingly looking for candidates with advanced degrees, fellowships, and clerkships

(Reuters) - Has the bloom fallen off the rose of law professor life?

The number of people vying for entry-level, tenure track U.S. law professor positions has plummeted 59% since 2010, according to data compiled by Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law Vice Dean Sarah Lawsky.

Legal educators say the mounting credentials needed to land law school teaching jobs are discouraging many would-be professors from even trying.

As of August, just 272 aspiring professors had submitted applications to the Association of American Law School’s Faculty Appointments Register (FAR) — an online database of new faculty candidates. That’s down from a high of 662 in 2010 and 328 in 2021, according to Lawsky’s numbers, which she publishes annually on the law school-focused PrawfsBlawg. The AALS will distribute a smaller round of applications in September, but the August cohort is widely viewed as the barometer for the entry-level hiring market.

“This year's number really is astonishingly low,” wrote University of Chicago law professor Brian Leiter on his legal blog, calling it an all-tme low and noting that it was not unusual for the first distribution of the FAR to contain about 1,000 candidates when he began teaching in the 1990s.

Leiter wrote that increased requirements to land a professor job coupled with more information about the process of getting hired has reduced the number of casual applicants entering the market with very little chance of success. Lawsky’s data supports that theory, showing that the percentage of candidates who land a teaching position has generally increased since 2017 as the job applicant pool has shrunk.

The numbers also suggest that law schools are getting pickier about who they hire. Among last year’s 117 new tenure-track professors, 43% have a Ph.D. — a percentage that fluctuated between 15 and 27 from 2012 to 2016, according to Lawsky's data. And 79% of last year’s new hires had at least one teaching fellowship. Half of 2021’s crop had completed a clerkship, while a quarter had all three key credentials — a clerkship, a fellowship, and an advanced degree.

It looks to be a good time to be in the entry-level market, with the number of hires increasing 54% during the latest cycle. But candidates cannot quickly jump into a favorable hiring market because obtaining the credentials law schools now prefer is a years-long process, Lawsky said.

"Even with the information that there was a lot of hiring last year, the market can't respond to that quickly," she said.

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Karen Sloan reports on law firms, law schools, and the business of law. Reach her at karen.sloan@thomsonreuters.com