Are Law Professors Miserable, and if so Why?

Paul Caron of TaxProfblog claims that law professors tend to be unhappy and tries to explain why. He argues that legal academia is a "miserable" job because it is characterized by 1) anonymity, 2) irrelevance (inability to see any impact your job has on the lives of others), and 3) "immeasurement," (inability to measure whether you are succeeding at the job or not). UCLA lawprof Steve Bainbridge takes issue with Caron's assessment, pointing out that there is no proof that law professors are, on average, more unhappy than professionals in other fields. He also notes that professors do not in fact generally suffer from anonymity, irrelevance, and immeasurement. I think Bainbridge generally has the better of this argument. In particular, he is absolutely right to note that academics don't lack for measures of their success (or lack thereof). Our achievements and failures are measured by citation rates, conference invitations, offers of visiting positions, promotion to tenure, pay increases (which at many schools are at least partly merit-based, and of course student evaluations. None of these measures are perfect. But collectively they should give most professors a reasonably good indication of their professional standing.

In addition to the points Bainbridge makes, I would note that it's hard to believe that being a lawprof is an unusually "miserable" job in light of the fact that there are so many more people who want get into legal academia than there are jobs available. According to AALS data, in most years, less than 15% of applicants for entry level law professor jobs succeed in getting a position. That is a very high demand for a "miserable" job, especially when we consider the fact that most of these applicants could earn higher salaries as private sector lawyers. It's possible that all these sophisticated graduates of top law schools (and sometimes of PhD programs as well) are misinformed, though I tend to doubt it. In any event, very few people leave legal academia to go into the private sector, even though people who already have lawprof jobs are presumably well-informed about how "miserable" such positions are.

There are also important advantages of being a professor relative to most other professional jobs. They include opportunities to travel to interesting locations, an unusually high degree of control over your schedule, and spending most of your time working on issues that interest you.

Obviously, some professors really are "miserable." And the job certainly isn't right for everybody. I know people who are happy working at law firms who would hate the academic life. However, it's unlikely that the life of the average lawprof is more miserable than that of the average professional in most other fields.

Point of Fact (mail):
I think Caron was joking.
12.29.2007 4:25pm
Gary Anderson (mail):
I don't know that you have convinced me, Orin. Something about protesting too much, trying too hard.

At some point, you have to realize that all the invites, the travel, the articles nobody ready... probably y'all are smart and really could have done something with your lives -- contributed somewhere. A judge, a lawyer working on cases. One day you wake up and realize that when you're gone, really it doesn't matter because you didn't do much one way or the other -- except for youselves, that is.

That's why the Family becomes more and more important as you age, and the external badges of success -- to you -- start to seem shallow. How else do you explain the giddiness at writing on a blog, or appearing alongside movie stars? Surely you had a chance to contribute, but y'all sold out, so to speak and made it more about yourself. Eh-- the new crop of profs will come along, when they've planted these ones good and deep. Remember, it's not to late to contribute something for the inherent value of it, not just for the show.
12.29.2007 4:25pm
Gary Anderson (mail):
Lol @ student evaluations.
Captive crowd, not much experience to compare with.
12.29.2007 4:26pm
Law professors who are miserable in their job are like 16 year old prep school kids who are miserable because daddy gave them a Boxster instead of a 911 for their birthday: The fact that they are miserable tells you a lot about their high expectations but not a lot about whether their circumstances justify misery.
12.29.2007 4:27pm
Gary Anderson writes:
I don't know that you have convinced me, Orin. Something about protesting too much, trying too hard.
Given that I didn't write the post, I'm pretty sure I didn't protest too much.
12.29.2007 4:29pm
Gary Anderson (mail):
In the end, can you build a house? Have many non-work friends? Talents that matter? Free to get away not on somebody else's dime? Do dogs and children warm to you, not counting the law students? How's your health? Any chance your ego is bigger than your ... ?

I'm not saying it's everybody. But the usefulness of professors in the academy is well past its heyday in contributing to the country, surely you can agree on that? But here's a prize to make you feel better about your choices. And a lovely banquet, of course. Maybe a bigger cell office would help? Outside of the academy, you're really not held in all that much esteem; you get the picture. Something about public trough, and the piggies lining up.
12.29.2007 4:30pm
Gary Anderson (mail):
Given that I didn't write the post, I'm pretty sure I didn't protest too much.

See what I mean? Y'all start to blend together: this one posts, that one's quick to comment... Sadly indistinguishable really. It's a good thing those egos are supersized; it's just hard the day they start to deflate and you start to take a more honest accounting is all.

OK enough of the reality view. Your wives and kids still need you around, I suspect.
12.29.2007 4:33pm
andy (mail) (www):
Surely there is some merit to the "irrelevance" contention. Although professors are free to pursue their own interests, those interests often do not coincide with the outside world's. Obviously, there is some fraction of scholarship that influences practicing lawyers/the bench, but that fraction is fairly small. I could easily see how writing about "transformative politics" or "critical gender theory" can lead to a sense of irrelevance, even if those subjects may be interesting to the author -- no one outside a dozen or so professors cares about those things.

Having written three articles, I've come to this conclusion about much legal scholarship: nobody really cares about it. No matter how strong I think my arguments are in my articles, I don't think anyone is paying attention. Yet, in the context of law firm practice, I get to face actual client problems, think and write about the law, and help provide a conclusion that someone actually relies on.

I think the sweetest job would involve being a full-time professor, but also being of counsel to a law firm (or otherwise engaged in practice such that one's academic interests/theories can actually be applied). But, just trudging away and writing articles that only other academics might read would seem to make one irrelevant. That's my biggest fear about ever entering the meat market, anyway.
12.29.2007 4:40pm
John Fee (mail):
It is obvious why we are a miserable and wacky profession. It is grading season. After reading a zillion semi-incoherent essays answering the same silly essay question, my head starts to spin. Then I remember my first professional dream of being a lounge singer in Mesquite, Nevada and wonder why I didn't go for it. Hopefully the sanity and job satisfaction of law professors will rebound soon enough.
12.29.2007 4:43pm
Ilya Somin:
just trudging away and writing articles that only other academics might read would seem to make one irrelevant. That's my biggest fear about ever entering the meat market, anyway.

This is a common, but misplaced assumption. Even if a given article is only read by other academics, it can still influence the direction of a field of study, which in turn influences debates in the "real" world, and often the development of law and public policy as well. To be sure, only a very small percentage of articles have a truly significant influence. But the same can be said of most activities undertaken by other professionals. Only a very small percentage of work done by "real" lawyers impacts the lives of more than a handful of people, for example.
12.29.2007 4:50pm

There's an important caveat to your perspective: As a professor, you decide how relevant your writing will be. If you want to write on a topic that will be relevant to the world, you can do that; if you want to write on a topic that you (or some small group) find really interesting but no one else does, you're free to do that, too.

True, there may be some professors who are frustrated that the Supreme Court does not care about their latest article, "Towards an Epistemological Theory of Foucault's Navel." But as I suggested in my 4:27 comment, that's really just about expectations; frustration that the universe does not revolve around you may be common, but in my view it's hard to have much sympathy for it.
12.29.2007 4:50pm
Vinnie (mail):
I expected Karma to come up much earlier.
12.29.2007 4:54pm
JosephSlater (mail):
Gosh, I think being a law prof is a great job. First, regarding "irrelevance," it's sad that in the posts and comments on the three blogs where this is being discussed, only one comment so far has mentioned STUDENTS. Students telling me that I've helped them find good jobs, especially those in my areas of specialty, is extremely satisfying.

True, I don't think my book and my articles have Changed the World, but I still get satisfaction from scholarship. And yes, I sometimes miss practice and the "real world" -- although I was lucky in practice to have clients whom I liked personally and whose cause I believed in, and many lawyers don't get that. Finally, sure, there are some law profs who are annoyingly hypercompetitive and therefore probably somewhat unhappy. But I think most of us think we have great jobs.

Except for that grading part. . . .
12.29.2007 4:55pm
Anonymouseducator (mail) (www):

Only a very small percentage of work done by "real" lawyers impacts the lives of more than a handful of people, for example.

Exactly. Besides, most jobs, and certainly all the best jobs, are pretty much "irrelevant." Rock star, actor, professional athlete, etc.
12.29.2007 4:57pm
Cornellian (mail):
That is a very high demand for a "miserable" job, especially when we consider the fact that most of these applicants could earn higher salaries as private sector lawyers.

I'm not sure this is accurate. Many of the profs I've met seem completely incapable of working in the private sector.
12.29.2007 5:05pm
One more response to Andy Grewal:

One thought to keep in mind is that publishing an article is kind of like planting a tree. When the article comes out, usually there is silence: the world goes on as before. But slowly over the course of time it starts to matter, as people will go over that ground and see your article and read it. Those in the area will remember it, and it can have influence (most likely quiet influence you never know of) years down the road.
12.29.2007 5:09pm
Law profs' putative 'influence' gets defenestrated when five justices tilt the court in a precedent-setting decision that entirely disregards the clear language and intent of the Constitution.

Then the law profs have to back 'n' fill, and figure out how to teach their next class -- while incorporating the latest constitutional outlier, and trying to explain why the decision isn't really unconstitutional.

And all the while, the students keep their mouths shut while thinking, "Who's he trying to fool??"

I'd be miserable, too.
12.29.2007 5:27pm
andy (mail) (www):

Yes, perhaps I am impatient (or perhaps my articles suck).

Another complaint though; what I like about being a tax attorney is that the people I work with actually care about tax *law*; people in this field write articles, speak at seminars about changes in the law, write many policy pieces for legislators, and so on.

But in the academic setting, actually focusing on the law -- even if doing so makes one relevant -- might make one the red-headed stepchild in the family. That is, it seems like most of the focus these days is on "Law and...", and there might not be much support (or respect) for academics who write to focus on the law. Writing a seminal treatise, for example, would be (in my view) an astounding accomplishment. Yet, I don't think treatise-writers are given the same respect that they used to.

The Judge Edwards piece has already been much-discussed, but this statement -- which he reproduces from a from a professor of law at a "well-regarded, midwestern law school" -- scares me:

Your article has restored dignity, self-esteem, and courage to those of us who have dedicated our lives to the daunting and lonely task of publishing authoritative treatises.

... Few in academia have cared ... whether my work is any good (a perfectly legitimate issue, of course); instead, the work has consistently been belittled as unworthy of a real scholar. What began in joy has been transformed into a process of increasingly isolated despair...

It seems like even if one goes for the relevance route (by writing about the actual law), then one is doomed for "isolated despair"; I don't want to be "belittled" and treated as "unworthy" by my peers. On the other hand, if one wants to be treated as a "real scholar," then one has to go the route of irrelevance.

These are of course overstatements, but I imagine for those of us who aren't super-humans (i.e., able to become legends in our fields), there is a very real possibility of being marginalized by other faculty if we focus on the law.

The trick, I suppose, is to find a faculty where one's interests and goals are not devalued. Surely there is some diversity among the faculties among the 180 or so law schools, and I could see how being a part of a faculty that is a good "fit" would be a great experience.

But, anyhow, my simpler point is that there are aspects of the academy that lend some merit to the "irrelevance" contention.
12.29.2007 5:28pm
Aegis of Blogistan (mail):
True, there may be some professors who are frustrated that the Supreme Court does not care about their latest article, "Towards an Epistemological Theory of Foucault's Navel." But as I suggested in my 4:27 comment, that's really just about expectations; frustration that the universe does not revolve around you may be common, but in my view it's hard to have much sympathy for it.

I think Caron has to be joking, because his statements more accurately describe working as a BigLaw associate, and many BigLaw associates wish to become law professors when they retire. The joke is "the grass is brown everywhere".
12.29.2007 6:12pm
Not a Prof:

I would note that it's hard to believe that being a lawprof is an unusually "miserable" job in light of the fact that there are so many more people who want get into legal academia than there are jobs available.

All that this proves is that being a law prof is less miserable than being in practice! And the miserableness of lawyers is well-documented. See, e.g., the WSJ Law &Family column of Dec. 13, 2007.
12.29.2007 6:16pm
I think there are an awful lot of unhappy people out there, so many that it's probably simplistic to assign blame to any one thing.

Earlier this week someone emailed me the following from a fundamentalist Christian Web site, about how unhappy Christians are. So it would appear that unhappiness is the new national past-time:

>> The past few weeks I've have had a surprising number of conversations
>> men
>> (in their 20s and 30s) who have confessed that they have seriously asked
>> for, and
>> even prayed for, death. And it's all been for one reason: The "family
>> dream"
>> that they were sold as kids has not happened. On the surface things look
>> great,
>> but peel back one layer and you find excruciating pain. "Hey, bro,
>> it going?" "Fine," the liar says. "Just fine."
>> Families like the Keatons and the Cosbys (like the Cleavers and Nelsons
>> a previous
>> generation) were presented as the pinnacle and fullest expression of life
>> on earth.This
>> is what you want, fellas, a beautiful wife, a few kids, a nice house, a
>> good job.
>> . .then comes retirement, grandchildren and you die a fulfilled man. Ahh,
>> what a
>> life!
>> Guess what? Lots of guys are finding out the hard way that in the real
>> world having
>> the perfect "American family" image is the rare exception. Here's
>> the truth: lots of guys I know are in completely miserable marriages, many
>> (I mean
>> MANY) wives have committed adultery, kids have chronic illnesses, guys
>> hate their
>> jobs but are stuck because of debt, divorced (even though they swore they
>> were not
>> going to do what their parents did by splitting up), many wives want to
>> leave their
>> husbands because they don't make enough money, lots of "great
>> never marry, many can't get over addictions because after praying for
>> 12-15
>> years they've discovered that it "doesn't work," depression,
>> with their own sexual abuse at a late age, mulling over a very long list
>> of regrets,
>> wanting to pack it all up and go "into the wild," your daughter
has a
>> reputation for being a "slut," your son's already a pot head,
>> And for guys that I talk to who aren't Christians or part of any religious
>> tradition
>> some of the issues are worse than these.
>> Or even worse, you could be one of those guys whose wife just cuts him
>> down and
>> emasculates regularly (daily).
>> I don't always know how to respond to hearing "bro, I want to
>> knowing that the guy is serious. Very serious. How were men taught to
>> handle the
>> dreams and expectations that never come true. How much of it is envy, the
>> "grass
>> is greener syndrome, or mystery?
>> Few of us are growing in our ability to stomach being in the presence of
>> those men
>> who acquired the ideal existence as advertised--the anointed ones. It's
>> not
>> their fault they had it easy and continue to have it easy (or at least
>> they put
>> off like they do). This one guy recently talked about how easy it is for
>> the anointed
>> to believe that God loves them but it's very hard for those who
>> circumstances
>> are constantly hard and painful, "the cursed," walk in "grace."
>> What's ever worse is that the guys that do all the teaching in churches
>> are
>> the ones who appear to have the "ideal" as advertised and that
its working
>> out perfectly. So the "perfect" life guys are completely ignored
by the
>> rest. "Of course you can preach about God's love, look how easy
your life
>> is."
>> Another guy said once, "yeah it's really easy for me to see how
God loves
>> other guys, just look at his wife and kids, they're nearly perfect."
>> do you say to that? But easy riders will say, "No, I can relate, my
>> and
>> I get into fights all the time." And they guy who just caught his
>> cheating
>> (again) just rolls his eyes and says, "yeah, wow, whew that's
hard stuff
>> for ya."
>> So what the great American lie has produced is a profound cynicism. A
>> cynicism that
>> tempts men to end their life. Being a kid is so awesome because you're
>> often
>> oblivious to destruction that is guaranteed to visit most of us and will
>> completely
>> avoid others--a profound mystery.
>> I know one guy who says that he's trying to get over his refusal to
>> have
>> a conversation with one of the anointed. He hasn't had much respect
>> them
>> as men. I know this one guy who asked, "if you can't have kids,
>> the point of being alive?" Ahhhh, to spend the rest of life quarantined
>> the "40-plus" singles group at your church for local service
>> camping trips, and Bible studies."
>> What are we suppose to say to this? I guess the Christian cliches will
>> Fellas,
>> I wish I had more answers.
12.29.2007 6:54pm
DavidBernstein (mail):
Yale Law once had a survey in its alumni magazine. Don't recall exact figures, but approximately 75% of alumni in academia were happy with their careers, 55% in government, and 25% in private practice. Considering how much money the average Yale Law alum in private practice makes, those are pretty telling figures. Sure, that still leaves 25% unhappy law professors, but some people won't be happy no matter how great a job they have, especially if they are always comparing themselves to others (why can't I teach at Columbia instead of U. Akron?)
12.29.2007 7:47pm
anon former law student (mail):
I'd like to take issue with a few of the comments above. I'm a JD (and 'Esquire') and a regular reader of the VC.
I don't know whether most of the law professors are happy or not. The ones I knew seemed to be, but of course that can be misleading.
But I will say that the idea that law professors are somehow irrelevant or inconsequential is ridiculous. I had several law professors who had a dramatic impact on me when I was in school. Whether their articles are read or not, I don't know. But I benefitted from their work. It changed the way I think analytically, and the way I look at the world. They worked very hard, and imparted themselves to me. Law school for me was a transformative experience, and I owe it primarily to some excellent professors.
My impression is that the professors who impact the lives of their students know it, and it does make them happy. Winning a case is one thing, but shaping a whole class of students is another thing entirely.
So any unhappy law professors reading this, take pride in your work, especially your teaching. Ignore the moron commenters here who call you irrelevant. Enjoy the fact that many of your students are being helped by you and even provoked by you to think in a more profound way than they ever knew before. The gaining of a broader and deeper way of thinking is something that will stay with your students for the rest of their lives.
So be happy!
12.29.2007 8:07pm
Fat Man (mail):
He argues that legal academia is a "miserable" job

Law professors blogging about their misery. Even your mother thinks you are a whiny little baby.

Face it. Nobody cares. Suck it up. Life is tough. Wear a cup, and STFU.
12.29.2007 10:56pm
I guess this only shows that the academy is not for everybody. The biggest criticism I've seen of the academy is the thread so far is that people don't read academic articles.

To respond to Andy Grewal, there is no denying that the modern legal academy prizes theoretical and interdisciplinary research more than non-academics would like. Having an article on your resume like "The Alienability and Devisability of Possibilities of Reverter and Rights of Entry" will probably hurt you at the meatmarket. This is despite the article perhaps being extremely useful to a biglaw associate burning the midnight oil on a real estate transaction.

But this should be the benefit of being a law professor. Unlike law firm associates who must tell the partner: "I've read through every case on the timing for routine discovery motions, and they all say the same thing," law professors get to do research on what they find interesting. The fact that other people will find it entirely useless is, within broad limits, beside the point. The fact that very few law professors find so-called "real law" interesting is a reflection of the fact that (1) real law is, 99% of the time, intellectually unchallenging and designed to be that way (commercial transactions should be routine and monotonous)--which explains why law firm associates are miserable; and (2) those rare people who find real law interesting can have much more lucrative careers as biglaw partners, and would never self-select into academia.

There is the darker side that, because of the existing population of academics and worldview, along with the fact that existing academics are the gatekeepers to new academics, the lawyer who has no wish to write about theoretical subjects at all--and instead just wants spend his life writing the most comprehensive tax treatise--will face an uphill slope if he want to become an academic. But that is not a problem of "anonymity," nor a problem of quality of life for existing law professors. If existing law professors wanted to write a tax treatise to become more "relevant" and less "anonymous," there is nothing stopping them from doing so.
12.30.2007 2:14am
Federal Dog:
The plus of teaching: It's the easiest job I've ever had.

The minus: In the law school context, it's irrelevant. No one needs to attend law school in order to become a lawyer. The only reason people do attend is that tha ABA convinced states to require guild-protecting requirements to enter the profession.
12.30.2007 7:46am
Rick Esenberg (mail) (www):
I am currently working full time as a legal academic after 26 years in practice - both as a big firm litigation partner and as corporate counsel.

I am not sure that law teaching is intrinsically more or less significant than "real" law. If you are interested in the intellectual foundations of the law and how it ought to be adopted to serve selected policies, then most of us will certainly get to think more about those things in academia than in practice. If you like students, it has more of a "helping" feel to it. Because both of those things describe me, I regard my work at Marquette as more significant than most of what I did in private practice and the corporate world.

As I work on scholarship, I get that it helps to be at least a little interdisciplinary and display an intellectual erudition that people in the "real" world would find foggy. I know that there is a limited market for that. I have always been a nerd and I know that there are not many of us.

But I don't see it as irrelevant. Thinking about something at that level can, if kept in its place, help to teach it and, at least if you can remember that all that fancy theory should have some kind of a point that matters to someone somewhere, you may move the law a little - whether individually or as part of a group of like minded scholars.

The latter possibility might be a bit more salient if the legal academy was more interested in speaking to the public. Because I work at a law school in the community where I practiced (and still do on a limited basis), I already was writing and commenting on law and policy stuff. It is possible to take all that euridition down from thirty thousand feet to a level where others can see it.

This doesn't necessarily mean doing the nuts and bolts stuff that we see in bar journals, but engaging in a type of public scholarship where ideas and their implications are explained for a larger (although probably still small) audience.

There are lots of good lawprofs who do this, but it may be that the dominant attitude toward this kind of scholarship is indifference or derision. But if we can get beyond that, law schools will matter more and more law schools that, given inertia in the pecking order will never be elite, will have more opportunities to find a distinctive voice and mission.

(A distinct, but related, issue is the indifference of many schools to issues arising in the communities in which they are located.)

But, so far, I really enjoy it and hope that I can continue to do it.
12.30.2007 9:41am
I find it interesting that Caron's post focuses a bit more on the scholarship and Bainbridge's focuses a bit more on the teaching.
12.30.2007 12:06pm
Accepting that not all legal academics are unhappy, could it be at least a possible reason that the actual job they do, and the job they get evaluated on have nothing whatsoever to do with one another?
Law Professors are hired (at leat theoretically) to teach students. But they are almost universally evaluated not according to their teaching ability, but rather according to their publications. That would be pretty depressing to me.
12.30.2007 4:29pm
Ilya Somin:
Law Professors are hired (at leat theoretically) to teach students. But they are almost universally evaluated not according to their teaching ability, but rather according to their publications. That would be pretty depressing to me.

Whatever "Theory" suggests, scholarship plays a much bigger role in hiring at most schools than teaching does. Teaching does count, but usually only as a secondary factor. Most candidates are well aware of this when they go in. Those who find it depressing probably either 1) don't try to enter the field in the first place, or 2) don't succeed in getting a job.
12.30.2007 5:47pm
Loyola 2L (mail):
Can I ask you guys a question?
While you sit on your tush, in one of the most cush jobs ever, where you earn well over six figures for a few hours of work a week, and one paper a year . . . do you ever wonder why no one else in society gets such an easy life? Do you know of anyone else who does jack all day and makes six figures?
do you ever ask who has to sacrifice to pay for this largesse?
I'm in $150,000 of debt, and after three years of hard work all I have to look forward to is the job below. All that stuff you "taught" me - preparing motions, interrogatories and so on - is worth a whopping $14 an hour. I paid a fortune in tuition to learn a skill no one wants to pay for. So while you're depressed about your anonymity and immeasurement, know that the people you taught are depressed because they don't know how they're going to eat.

Employer Name:
Contact Name: x
Address: x
Telephone: x
Facsimile: x
E-Mail: x
Description: HOURS: Part-time (20hrs/week) SALARY: $11-$14 per hour. STUDENT LEVEL: 2L, 3L JOB DESCRIPTION: Small Monrovia automobile accident defense law firm looking for part-time law clerk to primarily assist in preparation of discovery responses. Responsibilities will include communicating with clients, preparing draft interrogatory and document request responses, and limited research and motion preparation work. HOW TO APPLY: Please fax resume to 626-471-1094.
Date Entered: 12/20/07
Job ID: 421929
12.31.2007 12:33pm
Recent JD:
We don't need any more law professors or law schools, the legal market is over saturated beyond belief. You see an increasing number of law students and even unlicensed JDs taking "unpaid internships" with firms just to get experience. Your salary is the value the market places on you, your training and your education. When the market determines your salary is worth zero, the market has also determined that your degree is worth zero. Academia is a safe refuge. I don't see how any professors, much less law professors, can be miserable. You guys have it better than ninety nine percent of those who work in the legal industry.
12.31.2007 12:48pm
david friedlander (mail):
How about the perspective of the student. How about the thousands of graduates with 150,000 dollars in student loan debt who have to struggle to work enough to make a reasonable return. How about the lack of focus on PRACTICAL SKILLS (admittedly most professors deal in theoretics) instead of writing exotice law review articles on Mongolian Buddhist Legalism or the Law of chocolate manufacturing.
12.31.2007 3:22pm