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The Principle, Politics, and Finances of Introducing Academic Merit as the Standard of Hiring for “the teaching of law as a career,” 1870–1900

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Compared to the practice in other professional schools and academic fields at universities, law professors are hired at a young age based primarily upon their academic merit determined through grades, class rank, and school rank. This emphasis upon narrowly defined academic merit—apart from achievement demonstrated through original scholarship or experience in professional practice—first emerged during “the professionalization of the American law professor” between 1870 and 1900 at Harvard Law School (HLS). Though normative today, this outcome was neither necessary nor uncontested. In the late nineteenth century the new standard of hiring faculty according to their academic merit was energetically opposed by those favoring the antecedent standard of professional experience and reputation. Only when financial considerations counterbalanced that traditional standard did hiring decisions tip in favor of the new principle. Not until the early 1900s, when the second generation of academic meritocrats dominated the HLS faculty, did the new hiring standard become unequivocally established as policy in the school and, by extension, in legal education.

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1747-4469.2006.00024.x

Affiliations: Spencer Foundation, the James Barr Ames Foundation, and the Law School Admissions Council

Publication date: September 1, 2006

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