In the mid-20th century, Northwestern University School of Law was one of the handful of super elite law schools in the US; it clearly dominated its Hyde Park neighbor, the University of Chicago Law School. This was the era of Leon Green and John Henry Wigmore at Northwestern; Chicago couldn't compete, and only a few law schools nationally (Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Michigan) could. By the 1970s, that had changed: the rise of law-and-economics led Chicago to overtake Northwestern, though Northwestern still hung on as a major law school.
In 1995, David van Zandt took over as Dean at Northwestern. He's, by all accounts, been an excellent fundraiser and a leader with a definite vision: he's made their admissions process more like a business school's (all candidates are interviewed, work experience is strongly preferred); he's concentrated their merit aid not on the very best students, but on those slightly above their current numerical high end (their LSAT scores have gone way up, but plainly at the expense of GPAs, which are below average for a top law school); he's emphasized interdisciplinary faculty hiring, often of faculty doing highly theoretical work; and he's raised the tenure standards, making clear that there is no presumption of tenure, as there usually is at top law schools.
Van Zandt has also presided over the most extraordinary exodus of talent from a major law school in the last thirty years, maybe in the last century. (Michigan has given Northwestern a run for the money on senior faculty losses, but has fared better, I think, in new recruitment--a subject for a different day.) Since he took over, Northwestern has bid farewell to the following tenured faculty (i.e., these are faculty who left voluntarily):
Stephen Gardbaum, a leading young comparative constitutional and political theorist went to UCLA.
Michael Perry, a major figure in constitutional law, went to Wake Forest (then on to Emory).
Keith Hylton, a highly regarded lawyer/economist, went to Boston University.
Daniel Polsby, another highly regarded law-and-economics scholar with eclectic and wide-ranging interests, went to George Mason University.
Gary Lawson, a major figure in administrative and public law, went to Boston University.
Paul Robinson, one of the two or three leading figures in criminal law of his generation, went to the University of Pennsylvania.
Henry Smith, an exceptional young scholar working in numerous areas, went to Yale University.
Annelise Riles, a leading young scholar working at the intersection of law and anthropology, went to Cornell University.
Thomas Merrill, one of the major figures in administrative law in the country (who has also done seminal work in environmental law, property, and other areas), went to Columbia University.
On a small faculty, this is a remarkable set of losses: one could have quite a good law school with all these faculty! And what is striking is how many of them were lost to, at best, peer, and in several cases inferior schools. Particularly serious was this past year's loss of Tom Merrill, a scholar of the first rank by anyone's estimation, and someone who had held on through most of the exodus.
On top of all that, two of the major figures on the Northwestern faculty--Ian MacNeil and Richard Speidel, both in commercial law--have retired, while perhaps their most prominent young hotshot, Steven Calabresi, has moved to the Boston area (and has an offer from Boston University), while still teaching half the year at Northwestern. Other very good people at Northwestern are actively looking, including it appears untenured faculty worried about the new tenure regimen. (One productive, rising star at a law school usually ranked below Northwestern told me s/he was so spooked by the new tenure standards s/he withdrew from consideration the minute his/her current job was offered, despite the lesser prestige.) It doesn't look good.
Northwestern has, to be sure, made some lateral hires during the same time, some rather good, but by no one's estimation have they been adequate to offset the remarkable set of losses. And some of the lateral hires have been, shall we say, eccentric. (If there's a liberal bias in law school hiring at most schools, there's a conservative bias at Northwestern, except for the law-and-social-science types that the school favors. And as with any naked political bias in hiring, it tends to dumb down the hiring.)
So what happened? It appears, by all accounts (including from current and former insiders), that the van Zandt vision for the Northwestern University School of Law is not one embraced by all the faculty; that, together with its purportedly autocratic imposition on the school from the top, it has produced widespread faculty disaffection from the institution, which has become manifest in the exodus of the best and the brightest, often for less prestigious pastures, but presumably greener ones. (Caveat: not all who left during this time did so because they were pursuing greener pastures.)
In effect, what we've witnessed at Northwestern is a reverse NYU: while NYU Law over the last decade repeatedly hired faculty from peer and better institutions, to the point that it is now competitive with Columbia--something that would have seemed unthinkable a generation ago--Northwestern has repeatedly lost its best faculty to peer and inferior institutions (as well as a handful to better institutions).
In last year's survey of leading legal scholars, Northwestern came in at 14th for faculty quality. But that was before Thomas Merrill announced he was leaving, before Richard Speidel retired, and before a hotshot assistant professor, Richard Brooks, jumped ship for Yale. Northwestern made some solid appointments, junior and senior, since then as well, but they seem unlikely to offset these weighty losses.
My assessment: there is now a real risk that Northwestern's law school--which does, indeed, have the best facilities of any urban law school in the country--may be about to slip out of the ranks of elite law school faculties. (I doubt it will slip lower than Duke, though Duke itself seems likely to lose their most famous faculty member, William van Alstyne, this year...but more on that later.) A crucial issue will be whether the remaining faculty stars--Ronald Allen, David Dana, Andrew Koppelman, Fred McChesney, Albert Yoon, etc. (all of whom are being or will be recruited elsewhere)--stay put. Time will tell.