How Does Chicago Law School Do It?

An ongoing trend in the law school world over the past few years is that the University of Chicago Law School has been losing top professors to rival schools at an alarming rate. And not just any old professors either – the attrition has included some of the most brilliant and famous legal minds in the country, as well as several other prominent subject matter experts and prolifically cited researchers.

Yet for all that, Chicago still ranks second in the country – behind only Yale – in terms of educational quality, according to the foremost authority on such things, Brian Leiter’s EQR (Educational Quality Ranking).

Which begs the question: how do they do it?

To start with, Chicago has made a decision (and stuck by it) to put the quality of the teaching at the law school on the top priority rung, even to the detriment of other aspects of the school. As other elite law schools made the cirriculum more flexible and created more “crossover” opportunities with other programs, Chicago cinched its belt and required even more classes be taken within the law school. When Internet access flooded classrooms and threatened the intense dialogue between professor and student, U of C yanked out Ethernet and wireless in every room. Students didn’t like it. Prospective students want flexible classes and wireless access, but frankly, Chicago doesn’t care. At least, they don’t care enough to risk diluting the quality of instruction that goes on within the law school.

Of course, making it all about priorities is a bit of a negative way to look at things. The other reason that Chicago’s educational quality stays elite in light of the mass exodus is that they keep finding and nurturing amazing new professors. This is done through careful planning, the work of a highly-engaged hiring committee (populated with elite professors in their own right), and also by giving young academics a chance to come and shine in a “think tank” atmosphere. Very few schools allow as many workshops, seminars, and other non-traditional courses – all taught by some of the brightest young professors. Furthermore, Chicago was one of the first law schools to implement a mandatory legal writing class – called the Bigelow Program – and they staff the teaching positions with aspiring academics who show great potential. One of Chicago’s best new professors – Adam Cox – came from the ranks of the Bigelow Program.

It’s certainly not easy to add professors of high quality at the same rate that other school’s are poaching them, but a quick glance at the highest profile names – both new and old – shows that the school is managing to keep pace. Gone are such luminaries as world-renowned legal scholars Richard Epstein (to NYU) and Cass Sunstein (to Harvard, and then to the Obama Administration), criminal law expert Tracy Meares (to Yale), beloved constitutional and legislative scholar Adrian Vermeule (Harvard), and law and econ guru Alan Sykes (Stanford). And I suppose you could add a former constitutional law lecturer by the name of Barack Obama to that list.

But just as the school features an unfortunate list of departed stars, Chicago is also compiling a roster of emerging legal minds that should keep them at the top of the academic heap for many years to come. In addition to the aforementioned Adam Cox, Chicago can also boast of young “rock star” professors like Kirkland Ellis appellate lawyer-turned McKinnsey consultant-turned corporate law guru Todd Henderson, property law scholar Lior Strahilevitz, crim law expert Bernard Harcourt, and student favorite Adam Samaha.

And of course, the school still boasts some of the stars of yesteryear, including the wildly popular contract expert Douglas Baird, constitutional law scholars such as Geoffrey Stone and David Strauss, policy and family law expert Emily Buss, and current dean Saul Levmore.

All told, the school looks to maintain its lofty perch at the top run of law schools when it comes to educational quality. The challenge for Chicago will be to keep up with the times and the changes in legal education while doing so.

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