So you want to be a law professor

So you want to be a law professor. If you do a quick Internet search (as I did today), you will likely find the following advice:

  • The most important factors in determining your success in the market for a law professor position are: (1) the law school you attended (top 5 is ideal; top 20 is workable; a school ranked below that will make your search difficult); (2) law review membership, (3) federal clerkship or clerkships; (3) having one or more published law review articles after graduation; (4) a couple of years of practice experience; and (5) excellent recommendations from law faculty.
  • Adjunct teaching experience is not helpful to your candidacy.
  • Generally, practice experience is not helpful to your candidacy.
  • If you want to be a clinician, practice experience is likely important and a record of publication is likely less important. In one article, a professor explained that in his time on appointments committees he found that most candidates who had extensive practice experience were more interested in teaching than scholarship. He suggested, “Such people often are better directed toward clinical work than regular tenure-track positions.”

In the new era of legal education, this seems like a faulty framework for law school hiring decisions. Maybe this is a non-issue. After all, with declining applications and enrollments, many law schools are not hiring.

But for schools that are hiring, isn’t it irresponsible to continue hiring based on the old criteria? Today’s law students expect to be prepared for practice. The old model – a single exam at the end of a semester of case law and the Socratic method – does not cut it. It never adequately prepared people for practice. But in the old days (when I went to the law school), we got our experiential learning after graduation.

Today, that hands-on learning needs to start in the law school classroom. Preparing students for practice means providing context. It means putting students in the role of lawyer so that they can begin to understand how lawyers use the law to help solve clients’ problems in practice. It means providing students feedback during the semester.

This can, and should, be part of legal education for all three years of law school. It need not be reserved for clinics and externships. This education is something that all law professors should be able to provide our students.

Who should law schools hire to train the next generation of lawyers? Does it make any sense that people (1) interested in teaching; (2) with practice experience; and/or (3) who did not attend a top law school should be viewed as less qualified for law professor positions? Why is a clinical teaching position not a “regular tenure-track position” at most law schools? Aren’t people with a passion for teaching and/or with significant practice experience just as capable as the “traditional” applicants to produce meaningful scholarship?

Some law schools have followed a different hiring model for many years and others are changing. I am sure there are others that believe there is a work-around. They will continue with business as usual, but lean heavily on clinicians in non-tenure track positions to provide the experiential learning students and employers demand. But maybe it’s time to start thinking about the advantages of a different approach.

2 Responses

  1. I couldn’t agree more that there is a disconnect between the direction that law school curriculum and teaching is going with the “best” candidates on the market. At this year’s AALS hiring conference I was struck by the rise of the JD/PhD candidates whose passions really lie in the pure academic pursuit of research and scholarship. These folks are really smart, highly accomplished, have published a ton but had very little (often none) actual practice experience. How can they put students in the role of the lawyer when they never have been themselves?

  2. Great post. This strikes at the heart of the tension in legal education – schools market experiential learning but hire profs with no experience. Other criteria that law schools should consider: teaching experience including adjuncts and leadership experience including our veterans.

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