Just Imagine if You Were Trying to Get a Job as a Law School Teacher . . .

How would you prepare: 1) for the hiring process; and 2) for performing the job if hired?

Imagine, too, that your training and professional experience was as a lawyer: a professional problem-solver who depends on comprehensive, up-to-date research to become thoroughly familiar with the doctrinal and conceptual framework of any legal question you confront.

It’s that time of year again.  A succession of brilliant, credentialed, eager and charming faculty candidates, mostly young, are making their way through the process, culminating in the full day of small group interviews and the all-important “job talk,” rich with graphic slides and witty asides.  An enormous amount of time, on the part of both faculty and candidates, and not a small amount of money, are dedicated to this exercise.  And of course, the results matter profoundly to the schools’ future students and those students’ future clients.

Every candidate is poised and ready for the inevitable inquiry about his or her “scholarly agenda.”  All are well-versed about the “best” journals, how to entice student editors to bite, and which are the most strategically advantageous conferences and symposia to appear at.  They have assembled posses of high-profile mentors to whom they can direct the acknowledgments on their first pages.  As many have noted, it has become all but impossible for a mere lawyer, however accomplished and insightful, to be taken seriously as a faculty candidate unless s/he has already published a few major law review articles, and can convincingly describe a planned research trajectory of unremitting erudition and sophistication, emphatically not focused on problems in legal practice.  Especially in this market of shrinking firms, starving government, and defunded public interest, it is no wonder that law schools seem able to raise the bar for admission to the august ranks of academe higher, higher, and ever higher.

But exclusively, it seems, in terms of demonstrated capacity and hunger for the scholarly side of the professorial role.

How many of these candidates have significant teaching experience?  If they do, how many – unless being considered for a “special” slot — have taught anything other than a nonexperiential “podium” course or a specialized seminar as part of an LL.M.?

It’s one thing if a candidate has tried but never managed to land an opportunity to teach in any context, but does anyone on the Appointments Committee even ask whether, when, and how the candidate has decided that s/he wants to teach law students and prepare them for the effective and responsible practice of law?  Whether s/he has ever developed and submitted a course proposal or applied to work as an adjunct – and if not, why?  Ever been invited or sought to participate in a CLE program or a program for would-be pro bono lawyers?  Sure, rarely a candidate is asked to articulate his or her “teaching philosophy,” but no eyebrow is raised when the response is a vague or frankly vapid bromide about “varying the Socratic method with a few problems” or “I try to reach everyone in the class.” No specifics about the techniques to achieve these goals is proffered or expected.  The best-received answer often seems to be, “Well, I really try to involve students in my scholarship as much as I can.”

Certainly the candidates are right on top of “hot topics” in legal scholarship – many have already attended Law and Society conferences, frequent the most esoteric blogs, and can’t wait to start trading downloads and citations so they can ascend to an SSRN Top 10.  Wouldn’t you think, if you were being recruited for a position that ostensibly involves spending something like half your work-week as a teacher, that you’d also read some background material about the enterprise of legal/professional education?  Its history, its structure, its current issues?  And if you had, wouldn’t you want to demonstrate your solid grasp of these “hot topics”?  I have yet to hear a candidate express any familiarity with Best Practices for Legal Education (either the book or this blog), the Carnegie Report [Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law], The Law Teacher or its publisher the Institute for Law Teaching and Learning, the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE), or even the MacCrate Report, let alone more esoteric subjects such as the ABA Curriculum Survey, now in the midst of update, or the proposed ABA standard on  outcomes assessment.  If a candidate is asked about some aspect of educational affairs during a group interview, faculty colleagues tend to react with dismay, casting displeased glances at the disruptive interrogator.

Yes, it’s true that the Appointments Committee will generally request the candidate’s teaching evaluations (the limitations of which deserve and have elsewhere received ample attention), syllabi, and classroom PowerPoints if available, but how often do those become the focus of discussion with the candidate or within the Committee?  Every publication of a candidate is scrutinized, but virtually never does a Committee seek arguably more illuminating embodiments of teaching prowess, such as examples of feedback on student essays and papers, grading rubrics, sample exams and “model answers”, evaluation or critique of student performance of lawyering tasks, or other assessment tools and supplemental course materials.  I have not yet had a chance to check out any of the official handbooks for candidates, such as Becoming a Law Professor: A Candidate’s Guide, by Brannon P. Denning, Marcia L. McCormick and Jeff M. Lipshaw, but I will be happily surprised if they suggest that candidates need assemble teaching portfolios of any significance.

Years ago, as an appointments committee chair, I added a step to the process: each called-back candidate not only gave a job talk, but taught a “class” the same day.  (No doubt others have made similar forays, I just don’t know of them).  To standardize, the assigned material was the same for all: a PR casebook excerpt on Jones v. Barnes, 463 U.S. 745 (1983) and related items on the allocation of decision-making authority between lawyer and client.  Any member of a law faculty should be equipped to teach a class in basic, non-technical legal ethics, right?  And while it lasted, no candidate ever complained or protested and most managed to deliver a respectable class that was at least as instructive to the observing faculty (who could also watch a video) and to the student volunteers, who had prepared just as they would for any class.  The students also provided verbal and written feedback to the Committee –- and, if the candidate asked, to the candidate too.  Most impressive to me, naturally, were the candidates who not only solicited comments about their teaching from students and faculty, but wanted a copy of the video.

Limited in scope as it was, there is much one could say about the value of incorporating such an element into the appointments process: the message it conveyed to our students, who felt they were contributing a unique and useful perspective and having a meaningful say; the message conveyed to candidates about the importance attached to quality teaching at this institution, which helped establish whether there was a “good fit”; the substantive discussions about what constitutes good, better or best teaching practices that were precipitated among our faculty as we debated candidates; and the fact that many a candidate became entranced with our students, candidly confessing that they were far more impressive than anticipated -– a strong selling point for the Law School.  (No, the students were not randomly chosen).

But, this experiment, which I guess is what it was, did not long survive changes in committee membership, the faculty, dean, president, and zeitgeist. I mention it, I guess, only to say: it is possible.

Clearly, this post will be labeled the lament of a malcontent.  I am not deluded that it will spark changes in the operation of either side of the meat market.  Candidates, like all evolutionarily successful species, whatever their private predilections, will continue to display aggressively the characteristics most attractive to their quarry, law school appointments committees — up to and including bound feet and peacock tails.  Those committees, in turn, will continue to do the bidding of faculty and administrators starved for the validation and other benefits associated with scrambling even a step or two up the almighty USNWR ranking.  Law school faculties will include ever fewer members expert in and enthusiastic about the professional art, science, and literature of teaching.

In related news, Stanford Law School has jubilantly announced that it has secured something under a million dollars to spend on a massive, long-term, multifaceted research study “to describe and understand the state of the profession, including trends and emerging developments.” “The study will seek to develop policy recommendations to help law firms adapt their business models to better meet the needs of their clients and of a rapidly changing legal market.  It will also consider the implications of these changes for legal education.”

The press release insists that the profession is undergoing transformative change. “On the surface, things look relatively unchanged . . . but firms employ thousands rather than hundreds of lawyers, with offices around the world and dramatically different partner/associate ratios. Hourly rates have soared, while clients are less willing to underwrite the training of new associates.  Legal work has become increasingly specialized because clients have more sophisticated needs and expectations, and technology and globalization have only exacerbated these trends. The demand for profitability at firms has increased the need to bill hours and this pressure-cooker environment has caused associates to hopscotch among firms.”

Conspicuously absent in the entire long project description is any mention of: the frighteningly pervasive and growing lack of lawyers for the poor, the working-class, the middle-class, and almost anyone else but the very comfortable, with concomitant deep discouragement of law graduates who wish to undertake this work; the widespread incompetence and ignorance of lawyers about basic legal tasks, including decent legal research and problem-solving, and basic responsibilities to clients; the failures of the fundamental licensing, assessment, malpractice, and disciplinary institutions of the profession; or any of the myriad other problematic aspects of our profession that are not the concern of the wealthy and the powerful.

California is a house burning down, or maybe a fireworks factory exploding, in terms of the paucity of services, assistance, and enforcement of civil and legal rights for its poor and middle-class.  It is hard not to think about what close to a million dollars in the hands of its estimable and frugal legal services organizations –- CRLA (California Rural Legal Assistance), the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, etc. — would have meant in terms of, say, halting unlawful foreclosures that rob people of their property, their retirement security, their children’s inheritances and education funding, in a very real sense, their lives. That need is immense, and it is now.

I daresay copious articles will be the fruit of this generous grant, perhaps a book or two.

I don’t know what else to say. Except that working for genuine change in legal education bears painful resemblance to being an Obama supporter.  Which leads  (in my mind, anyway) full circle to: Obama’s Treasury Secretary won’t authorize allocation of a small fraction of TARP funds intended to help the “hardest hit” communities to legal services organizations representing homeowners fighting foreclosure.  Billions to bail out monster banks who can spend it on whatever — not a penny for legal aid. See “Treasury Blocks Legal Aid for Homeowners Facing Foreclosure,” by Katrina vanden Heuvel, The Nation.  Priorities.  Priorities, most of all your priorities in choosing who will execute your mission, tell you everything there really is to know about the nature of your enterprise.

Vanessa Merton

One Response

  1. I can only imagine how hard it would be to secure a position as a professor right now, especially when schools are named “top places to work”!


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