The Long Road to Being a Law Professor:
An interesting discussion has been bouncing around the blogosphere recently about what law schools students should attend if they want to become law professors. To get up to speed on the discussion, check out these posts by Chris Geidner
, Brian Leiter
, Christine Hurt
, and Larry Solum
(and Larry again here
). This is a very good discussion, and I agree with much of what has been posted. I have a few additional thoughts that I hope will be useful.
Much of the discussion has focused on how much easier or harder it is to be a law professor based on what school you attend for your J.D. I think it's worth adding that, no matter what law school you go to, the road to becoming a law professor tends to be long and difficult. Rare exceptions exist, but most successful candidates get a law teaching job only after putting in a tremendous amount of work over a period of several years to prepare themselves for the teaching market. It probably starts with applying to schools; then turns to getting high grades; getting to know professors; applying for clerkships; and then — and this probably is the hardest part — writing, placing, and publishing multiple scholarly articles. The law school you attend is part of the picture, but only part of the picture.
Second, almost all candidates encounter lots of uncertainty along the way. Persistence in the face of that uncertainty is key regardless of whether you went to law school at Yale
, or Capital University
. You might not get into the school you want, or may not get the clerkship you want; you may not place your article in a journal you want, or make law review. A few lucky souls encounter fantastic success at each and every one of these stages. But most don't; most people succeed at some of these stages and flop at others. The uncertainty continues to the very end: I know a number of very well-qualified candidates who didn't get a teaching position the first time they applied, and had to go on the market a second time to get a job.
Finally, my relatively limited experience suggests that there is a wide gap between the success rates of candidates who are committed to getting a teaching job and those who are less committed to it. Some people express a wish to teach tempered by a number of caveats: they'll do it only if they can get a job at a top school, or only if they can be in a particular city or region. Most people who impose these sorts of restrictions give up along the way. At the same time, those who are willing to work really hard, write up a storm, and are flexible about what jobs they'll take usually end up with something eventually. Of course, it's hard to generalize on a point like this. I don't want to make it seem like anyone can be a law professor if they try hard enough; that's not true. But in my admittedly limited experience, my sense is that those who keep knocking on the door have a pretty good chance of having someone let them in.
Getting a Law Teaching Job:
Lots has been posted lately about getting a law teaching job and I won’t try to link to it all. (For a starter set of links click here (Orin)
and here (Chris Geidner)
and here (Brian Leiter)
and here (Christine Hurt)
and here (Larry Solum)
.) I thought I would add my 2 cents. First as to credentials. These consist of law school, law review, grades and honors, clerkships, and practice experience. As someone who may be interested in teaching, you should think of these as “pluses” rather than absolute requirements. The more of these pluses you have, the better your chances. Why? Each is a different form of vetting. Put yourself in the position of an appointments committee member charged with filling 20 interview slots from the 700-900 one page resumes you leaf through. How do you choose? Each of these qualifications is an indication that other people have vetted the candidate already. After the law school admissions process vets you, there comes grades by each professor, law review competition (grades and, in some schools, writing), vetting by judges hiring clerks, vetting by law firms. The more competitive is each vetting and the more vettings a candidate passes, the more attractive he or she looks to a committee member with very limited information about each applicant. And at each stage of vetting, you develop references who can vouch for your character and your talents.
What is being vetted? Good question. Largely smarts and willingness to apply one’s smarts to demanding tasks. The ambition and ability to pursue a scholarly agenda is largely gleaned from publications. (see below)
Can someone be an excellent professor without some or all of these credentials? Of course. I lacked most of the items on this list myself, which partially explains why I went through the AALS job market twice before getting any job offers (from Chicago-Kent and the University of Florida – I chose Kent). In my case, the vetting process almost led to my exclusion from academia. Nevertheless, I think, while highly imperfect, it is rational given very limited information. For example, how many other legal scholars have emerged from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office? None that I know of.
To some extent you can compensate for the absence of some of these pluses by publishing. I had an article published in Ethics–a premier peer-reviewed philosophy journal that I wrote while in law school. (To read it click here
.) This undoubtedly contributed to my being hired but it was not enough to get me many interviews the first time around. The only difference between my first time through the AALS and my second was my move from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office to the University of Chicago as a research fellow. And I had yet to do any research.
The downside of publishing is that it may reveal vulnerabilities in your candidacy. In my case, my article revealed my libertarian inclinations which could have hurt me with some appointments committee members. I will never know. Others may simply not think well of your article. The pitfall for appointments committees is to judge pre-appointment writings by tenure standards. On the other hand, since tenure is so easily obtained at most schools, it may make sense to screen for tenure quality work before hiring an entry level candidate.
I hesitated to post anything on this subject because there is so much to say. Far more than I have said here. But I wanted to make the point that, while no one credential is essential, the more you have the better are your chances (though there are still no guarantees). The best ways to increase your odds is (a) do very well in your first year and then try to graduate with honors (b) consider transferring to a higher status law school, (c) compete for law review and if you don’t make it join an alternative journal, (d) write a publishable piece while on the journal (the failure to do so is taken as a negative sign), (e) apply for a federal clerkship, (f) take a more prestigious job after graduation, (g) specialize in a field that is always in demand and is considered less political–like corporations or tax (h) WRITE A PUBLISHED SCHOLARLY ARTICLE in your field [CORRECTION: MAKE IT TWO ARTICLES], (i) consider getting an SJD or LLM from a higher status school than your JD, (j) consider applying for Visiting Assistant Professor programs that give you the opportunity to teach and write.
Oh yes, you should TALK IN CLASS and see your professors outside of class so they get to know you and can be knowledgeable references for you. Strongly consider identifying the more successful scholars on your law school’s faculty and apply to be their research assistant for the summer between your first and second year. This will enable them to advise you and go to bat for you when the time comes. And you will get to observe first hand how a productive scholar works, which will give you something to emulate. If you really want a teaching job, then you should be willing to extend yourself to get it.
Last words of advice. I really enjoy teaching. Given that teaching occupies so much of our energies as professors, you should love teaching and try hard to be good at it. But if you do not also have a passion for writing and publishing, then you are dooming yourself to a frustrating teaching career. For better or worse, most of the external rewards of academia go to those who are successful scholars. The job has two parts, teaching and scholarship (plus committee work), so if you do not love and excel at both, you should strongly consider becoming a clinical professor, a highly valuable and rewarding career for those who enjoy teaching without the pressure to publish. And the credentials to get this type of position are often less demanding given that scholarship is not ordinarily expected of clinical professors–though you can always write and publish if you want to. Finally, if you are interested in legal education but do not want either to write OR teach, you should consider a career in legal administration. Being a dean of students or admissions or placement can be a terrific job–and it is a career path that is largely overlooked by law students.
Getting a Law Teaching Job II:
In response to my Getting a Law Teaching Job
in which I suggest that candidates aim to have published two articles before going on the market, Larry Solum posts on Legal Theory Blog
Right on the money--except that the magic number for publications is THREE not two. "Why three?" you ask. Because the AALS form that you will need to fill out leaves room for exactly three articles & you want to have a post-graduation article for each of the three spaces. The hardest part of the process is getting past the initial screen--when members of faculty appointments committees read hundreds and hundreds of AALS forms. Increasingly, their eyes seek out the part of the form with the three publications--so you want to make your best impression right at that moment!
Good advice. Another piece of advice is READ LEGAL THEORY BLOG regularly. It is a uniquely valuable way to get up to speed on current legal scholarship. It is widely read by law students with teaching aspirations.
I also neglected to mention the value of PhD's. If your academic record after law school is not sufficient on its own to land a teaching job, a PhD in economics, philosophy or history, especially from a well-respeced program will GREATLY enhance your chances no matter where you graduated from law school. Brian Leiter has long provided guidance to philosophy programs with his Philosophical Gourmet. (I cannot get the link to Philosophical Gourmet
to open, but you can find a summary here
.) He offers guidance to academic job seekers here
Update: I just saw this post by the Federalist Society:
The John M. Olin Fellows in Law program will offer top young legal thinkers the opportunity to spend a year writing and developing their scholarship with the goal of entering the legal academy. Up to three fellowships will be offered for the 2005-2006 academic year.
A distinguished group of academics will select the Fellows. Criteria include:
* Dedication to teaching and scholarship
* A J.D. and extremely strong academic qualifications (such as significant clerkship or law review experience)
* Commitment to the rule of law and intellectual diversity in legal academia
* The promise of a distinguished career as a legal scholar and teacher
Stipends will include $50,000 plus benefits. While details will be worked out with the specific host school for the Fellow, in general the Fellow will be provided with an office and will be included in the life of the school.
For application information click here
. The deadline for applications is March 15!
Getting a Law Teaching Job III:
I received the following thoughtful email from a lawyer reader:
I have been reading with interest your and others' blogging on getting a position as a law professor. One point that I have not yet seen made, and that I think is important, is that no one should be going that route unless he has a passionate interest in his field. Choosing to go into teaching is different from choosing between litigation and corporate, or between private practice and government. Because law professors must publish, the professor with nothing to say is forced to make himself heard through unneeded articles that "shed pseudo-light on non-problems" (if I recall correctly from Lucky Jim).
I tend to agree with this sentiment. You will be much happier as a law professor if you are a successful scholar, and much more successful as a scholar if you have something to say. You must love the subject you choose to specialize in and it is much better if you teach in the same subject you write about.
However, the most common result of being a professor with nothing to say is that you stop writing after tenure. I would not be surprised to learn that less then 5% of tenured law professors still write regularly. Many (but far from all) who do not write resent the attention paid to those who do. Sometimes they will claim that they care more about teaching than those who write, as if these two activities are mutually exclusive. Indeed, I think most would agree that if you are a skillful classroom teacher, you would be even better if you are also a scholar in the field in which you teach. I know I do a better job in the classroom teaching subjects I write about than those I do not, and my teaching performance skills are the same in both courses.
Another sad fact generally unnoticed by law students is that the vast majority of professors who teach the first year subjects (Contracts, Property, Tort, Criminal Law and Civil Procedure) are not scholars in these fields. This is as true, if not truer, at the more elite schools as the dominant attitude there is that "anyone" smart can teach those subjects. Little effort is made to hire laterally established scholars in those fields, or entry level candidates with genuine interests in specializing in scholarship about first year subjects. Consequently, very few students at any
law school are taught in the first year by professors who are also scholars in the field. For that, students must wait until their upper class courses. (This disconnect between teaching and scholarship in the first year also explains why first-year courses have shrunk to one semester in length as those who teach them would rather teach them less, and certainly have no incentive to resist proposals for one-semester courses that are easier to staff.)
And because law professors must have students to earn a living, marginal professors help to support marginal law schools that accept students who will realize too late that they are unlikely to find jobs worth what they've paid in tuition and are even unlikely to pass a bar exam. There is a predatory aspect to the lowest stratum of law schools, just as there's a predatory aspect to the lowest stratum of lawyers.
Here I disagree. Of course, there may be some unaccredited law schools that fit this description, but all law schools, even lower status ones, turn out many graduates who are excellent lawyers and professionally successful, and all law schools turn out graduates who are bad lawyers or who fail in their legal careers. Lower status law schools give students with weaker credentials the opportunity to practice law. It is an open question whether one should be forced by law to attend law school to be admitted to the bar, but assuming this is a good idea, it is a good thing that if you want to go law school badly enough there is a law school somewhere for you to attend. What you do with that opportunity after admission is up to you.
And because the baby boomers are growing old in their jobs at the more elite schools where mandatory retirement policies are now illegal, very smart law professor-scholars are teaching at law schools with all levels of status. Indeed, it is no longer the case that you can safely judge the quality of a law professor--as either a teacher or a scholar--by his or her affiliation as once you could, especially if the professor is on the younger end of the spectrum.
This is yet another reason why one should not be snobbish about where one gets a job teaching law. While there are certainly advantages to teaching at an upper-tier school, one advantage that has greatly diminished is the ability to become known and respected as a scholar while teaching at a lower-status law school. It is not only possible these days, it is quite common. And as more of the elite law journals move towards blind review--and even policies of favoring submissions by young undiscovered authors--it is becoming more feasible than ever before to be a successful scholar no matter where you teach.
Getting a Law Teaching Job IV:
Eric Goldman of Marquette has some very insightful things to say on the topic of getting a teaching job in a series of blog posts that you can access here
. He and I agree about a whole lot, but there is one cliche he invokes that I resist: "Law professors," he writes, "say that we have the best job in the world and that we can't believe we get paid to do what we do." If you like to teach and publish then indeed we have do a wonderful job. I would rather be a law professor than anything else, including a judge. But being a law professor is lots of work
(or it is if you do the whole job) and I fully expect to get paid for it. Especially as I am hopefully making it possible for lots of students to get paid lots of money over the course of their careers, while bringing credit to the law school with which I am affiliated which, in turn, increases the value of the degree we are imparting on students. Moreover, since you can always do more reading and writing and speaking--and the more successful you are the more opportunities you have to write and speak--in a sense a law professor-scholar is never really off the clock. So lets leave the "I would do it for nothing" rhetoric to the movie actors (who demand millions in salary).
Second, and more seriously, a junior professor from a school ranked by US News in its Tier 4 (the lowest) writes:
Thanks for making the point about affiliation and faculty quality. . . . I’d also like to second your observation about scholarship. One of the worries I had about coming here concerned whether I’d be able to place articles in journals where they’d be likely to get noticed. . . . But I’ve submitted two articles since I’ve been here, and they’ve both ended up in “top 20” journals. In fact, with this most recent article I had the experience of my dreams: three offers from very good journals within the first week of sending it out (and, I subsequently learned, I was likely to have received offers from at least a couple others if I hadn’t shut the process down). So yes – it is very possible to place things well and, I’m hoping, to get noticed as a scholar.
I am pleased to hear this confirmation, but not surprised. This was not always the case, but thanks to the enlightened policies of many top law reviews, and the fact that smart intellectually-inclined law professors-scholars now teach at all tiers of legal education, it is certainly true today. Those who have the hardest time publishing well these days are scholars writing in specialized fields, or using technical methods, that law review student editors find hard to appreciate or evaluate. But that is another story.