09/19/2012 04:39 pm ET Updated Nov 19, 2012

The Role of Faculty Hiring in Law School Change


Law faculties change with time. Professors retire or move away and have to be replaced. New positions are created as the school or program grows. Hiring must be an ongoing activity. Because the character of a law school is largely defined by its faculty, hiring is also a strategic activity. Through it, schools typically pursue a few basic goals.

The Three Goals of Hiring

The most common goal is filling a function in the law school. Schools are service organizations and faculty members provide core services, in particular teaching. At many schools, scholarship is also considered a function provided by faculty members (see my earlier post on the purposes of investing in scholarship). In general, teaching and scholarship are the only functional goals for which faculty members are hired (unless a faculty member has an additional status, such as dean). This is not to say that a faculty member will never take on some additional function, such as student recruiting or website development. It is only to say that those other functions ordinarily are not why a person is hired as a faculty member in the first place.

A second possible goal is supporting or changing the culture at the law school. Law schools have distinctive cultures and a school's culture depends, inter alia, on the character and outlook of its faculty members. For example, a law school with a strong religious mission might seek faculty members who will contribute to the mission-related environment. A school that prides itself on strong faculty-student bonds will seek faculty members who can strengthen that dynamic. Or, for a case of change in culture, a law school might hire faculty members to promote a culture that better sustains racial and ethnic diversity, or makes it a central element of the educational environment.

The third possible goal is adding to the reputation or marketing potential of the law school. This goal typically involves academic reputation, which is mainly dependent on the faculty and their work. And so a law school might hire an established scholar in international business law, or a recent United States Supreme Court clerk, in order to use that individual's prominence, prestige or affiliations to advance the law school's own academic reputation.

The Need for Change

In principle, there are many additional functions, cultural characteristics, and reputational considerations a school could advance through faculty hiring. In practice, however, the goals pursued tend to be limited to functional goals relating to teaching and scholarship, cultural goals relating to religion, diversity, and student friendliness, and reputational goals relating to academic reputation. This limited range helps explain the substantial similarity among law schools and their faculties. And because the goals tend to be self-perpetuating -- faculties tend to hire people like themselves in material respects -- it also helps explain the difficulty in bringing about law school change.

Yet, the need for change is not much contested. Law schools today are under great economic stress, and longstanding approaches to law school organization and operation no longer work well. Entrenched practices are heavily criticized, and the argument is that schools do not give students sufficient value for tuition dollars paid. Schools agree that they have to think and act in new and fundamentally different ways. Yet, it has been difficult for both law schools and their critics to go much beyond recognizing the need for change, and succeed in spelling out realistic paths to new attitudes and new ways of providing value.

Enduring change in an organization is not easy to achieve. An entire management field deals with the challenge of organizational change, and the field is replete with scholars, journals, consultants, degree programs and more. Change generally cannot be brought about by fiat, especially in decentralized organizations like law schools. Nor can it be achieved by waiting for members of an organization to spontaneously see the light and alter well-established behaviors and outlooks. There are no shortcuts. But in some cases change can be promoted by changing the characteristics of the people in the organization. One way to change those characteristics is to add new members who have a different -- and desired -- expertise or outlook. For law schools, this can occur by redirecting the goals of faculty hiring, particularly those relating to function and culture.

Achieving Change Through Hiring

Goals regarding function are easier to implement. For example, law schools today use relatively simple methods for student assessment (mainly final exams), and there are reasons to believe schools need more robust systems. However, law schools generally lack the expertise to develop these systems. Hence, a school might adjust its hiring goals to bring in faculty members who are both teachers and persons with the needed new expertise. The benefits of adding this expertise through the faculty--rather than through a staff member or a consultant--are greater credibility and influence with the faculty, and better opportunity to change institutional attitudes.

Changing culture is more difficult, because culture is by nature entrenched and because law schools (like many organizations) are conservative. Yet cultural change through hiring is possible, as can be seen by the example of the culture of diversity at some schools, which has been brought about in part through conscious hiring strategies. Today, many, if not most, law schools wish to change their culture to become more innovative, in the area of curriculum or otherwise. If a law school strategically seeks out and hires faculty members who have a demonstrated orientation toward innovation, those individuals can serve not only as sources of new ideas but also as catalysts for the development of a new culture. Having the right people is not a sufficient condition for culture change but it is unquestionably a necessary one.

As I contended in a prior post, the problems in legal education cannot be solved by actions of law schools alone. But law schools still are the key. The targeted changes suggested here are narrow, yet important, steps law schools can take to catalyze larger changes and larger solutions.