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The Legal Academy’s Ideological Uniformity
Heterodox Academy member Nick Rosenkranz has discussed the lack of intellectual diversity in the legal academy, suggesting that an overwhelmingly homogenous professorate does not adequately prepare law students to craft persuasive legal arguments. Langbert et al. reported that in 30 states the ratio of law professors registered as Democrats compared to those registered as Republicans was 8.6 to 1 (see also here). Recent research by Adam Bonica, Adam Chilton, Kyle Rozema, and Maya Sen has further explored the ideological makeup of the legal academy and compares it to the legal profession outside academia. Consistent with Rosenkranz and Langbert et al., Bonica and colleagues report that the legal academy possesses an ideological uniformity and that law professors are typically more liberal than other legal professionals.
In the current sample of law professors, law schools, and lawyers outside the academy:
- 15% of law professors were conservative.
- Approximately one out of every twenty law schools had more conservative professors than liberal professors.
- 35% of lawyers outside of academia were conservative.
- Law professors are more liberal than graduates of the top 14 law schools, lawyers working at the largest firms, former law clerks, and federal judges.
- Law professors are more liberal than the alumni at the majority of law schools.
- Some of the differences between the legal academy and the legal profession can be explained by which law school was attended, area of specialization, and geographic location, yet the legal academy remains more liberal than the legal profession even when controlling for these individual characteristics.
Summary of Research
The Legal Academy
To compare the ideological balance of the legal academy to the ideological balance of the legal profession, Bonica et al. used the 2012 Directory of Law Teachers published by the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) to identify their sample of law professors. Next, the 10,040 law professors identified were matched to entries in the Database on Ideology, Money and Politics, and Elections (DIME). DIME was used to assess professor ideology, on the basis of their financial contributions to political candidates, causes, and committees from 1979 to 2014. Of the 10,040 law professors identified in the 2012 AALS Directory, 6,411 made at least one donation between 1979 and 2014.
The DIME offers a measure of ideology referred to as Campaign Finance scores (CFscores). These scores are calculated by placing candidates for office on a unidimensional left-right scale. An individual donor is then placed on this scale based on a weighted share of their donations. CFscores are normalized so that the mean is 0 and the standard deviation is 1 with respect to the population of US political donors. For reference purposes, Bernie Sanders has a CFscore of -1.89, Barack Obama has a CFscore of -1.16, Mitt Romney has a CFscore of 0.90, and Donald Trump has a CFscore of 1.29. If an individual donor only contributed to Mitt Romney, their CFscore would be 0.90. However, if an individual donor contributed one third of their donations to Mitt Romney and two thirds of their donations to Donald Trump, their CFscore would be: (0.90 x 1/3) + (1.29 x 2/3) = 1.15.
Bonica et al. report that that the average CFscore, of the 6,411 law professors who made political donations between 1979 and 2014, is -0.86. This falls roughly between Bill Clinton’s CFscore (-0.56) and Barack Obama’s CFscore (-1.16). To determine the percentage of conservative law professors the average CFscore for Americans (0) was used as a cutoff for conservative. Using this cutoff revealed that a total of 15% of law professors are conservative. Furthermore, if one defines moderate conservative law professors as having a CFscore between 0 and 1, 54% of conservative law professors are moderate. If one defines moderate liberal law professors as having a CFscore between 0 and -1, only 27% of liberal law professors are moderate.
The CFscores were also used to identify the most liberal and most conservative subjects of law, based on the ideologies of the law professors teaching them:
Importantly, the key difference between the ideologies of law professors by subject was not the result of a noticeable shift by liberal professors to more moderate positions, but the presence of any conservative law professors within the subject area. In other words, the mere presence of conservatives in a subject area is sufficient to differentiate subject areas by mean CFscores.
CFscores were then used to assess the ideologies of law professors across schools. Universities with reputations for liberalism (e.g., Harvard University, University of California – Berkeley, Yale University) have on average the most liberal professors. Likewise, universities with reputations for conservatism (e.g., Brigham Young University, George Mason University, Pepperdine University) have on average the most conservative professors:
A quick perusal of the above table reveals that seven of the top ten conservative law schools (by average law professor CFscore) can be considered moderately conservative since their CFscore is between 0 and 1. Only 5 of these 7 law schools are actually right of center as two of them possess a CFscore of 0. The remaining 3 “most conservative” law schools have CFscores that suggest they are moderately liberal. In contrast, of the ten liberal law schools listed in the table above, all appear to be staunchly liberal as none of them have CFscores that range from 0 to -1.
The Legal Academy Compared to the Legal Profession
Bonica et al. obtained the identities of lawyers within the legal profession from the Martindale-Hubbell directory. As with the law professors obtained from the 2012 AALS Directory, names of lawyers obtained from the Martindale-Hubbell directory were then matched to entries in the DIME. Comparisons of the legal academy with the legal profession were made by comparing the CFscores of law professors to the alumni of the Top 14 law schools, attorneys in “Biglaw” (the largest 100 law firms by number of attorneys), federal law clerks, and federal judges. The CFscores of law professors and other academics in non-law disciplines were also compared.
These comparisons between the legal academy and the legal profession revealed the following:
- The average CFscore for law professors (-0.84) was significantly more liberal than the average CFscore for lawyers overall (-0.31).
- There are relatively fewer conservative law professors than there are conservative lawyers.
- Law professors, based on their CFscores, are more extreme than lawyers.
- 61% of liberal lawyers are moderates, compared to 27% of liberal law professors.
- 76% of conservative lawyers are moderates, compared to 54% of conservative law professors.
- Alumni of the Top 14 law schools (average CFscore = -0.55) and attorneys who work in Biglaw (average CFscore = -0.42) are more liberal than lawyers overall, but law professors remain more liberal.
- Federal district clerks (average CFscore = -0.63) and Supreme Court Clerks (average CFscore = -0.49) are more liberal than lawyers overall, but again law professors remain more liberal on average.
- District court judges (average CFscore = -0.07) and appeals court judges (average CFscore = 0.05) are more conservative than law professors and lawyers overall. There CFscores are close to the midpoint, suggesting they are typically moderate in the ideological outlook.
- Other academics (N from DIME = 322,434; average CFscore = -0.92) are slightly more liberal than law professors.
- 16% of other academics are conservative.
- 19% of other academics are moderately liberal.
Thus, overall the typical law professor, on average, appears to be more liberal than the typical lawyer who does not work within academia.
Potential Consequences of the Legal Academy’s Ideological Uniformity
As noted above, one criticism of the legal academy is that the ideological uniformity of its professorate does not adequately prepare law students to make persuasive arguments. Bonica et al. offer the widespread opposition of the legal academy to the nomination of Jeff Sessions to the position of Attorney General of the United States. In early January of 2017, almost 1,500 law professors signed a statement opposing the nomination. Yet, the statement was dismissed by conservatives and Republicans “because it was written by law professors.” Senator Lindsey Graham even remarked to Jeff Sessions during his hearings that:
“We’re about to get an answer to the age-old question: Can you get confirmed attorney general of the United States over the objection of 1,400 law professors? I don’t know what the betting line is in Vegas, but I like your chances.”
Sessions was confirmed as the attorney general by a vote of 52-47.
Bonica et al. were able to match 754 signatories of the Sessions letter to names in their sample. Only 4% of the 754 signatories were conservative. The average CFscore for professors who signed the Sessions letter was -1.20. The average CFscore for professors who did not sign the Sessions letter was -0.82. Thus, the law professors who signed the Sessions letter were more liberal on average than the law professors who did not sign the letter.
The findings of Bonica et al. suggest the legal academy is, for the most part, ideologically uniform and homogenous. The most conservative schools are at best moderately conservative while the most liberal schools are staunchly liberal. While lawyers, both within and outside the academy, are on average more liberal than the typical American, law professors are even more liberal than their counterparts in the legal profession. This uniformity may not adequately law students, particularly liberal law students, to make persuasive legal arguments or predict legal outcomes when more conservative judges deliver rulings.
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