Legal Academia: Neither Retirement Nor Escape

Vol. 15 No. 9

Jeff Lipshaw is an associate professor at Sulfolk University Law School in Boston.

I, like most law professors you’ll meet, love my job. After all, there are no billable hours or quarterly earnings conference calls. At most, I teach four class periods a week, and, other than my committee obligations, I generally decide my own schedule. I get to teach and write about the things I care about. And, although no one becomes rich just from being a law professor, compared to professorships in most other disciplines, it pays pretty well. Yet older lawyers who are looking for an early retirement and younger lawyers who want to escape from the pressures of a nascent legal career won’t find the type of respite they are looking for in legal academia.

After practicing in a law firm and as a corporate general counsel for almost twenty-six years, I became a tenure-track law professor, something of an oddity among my early thirty-something colleagues. I, like most law professors you’ll meet, love my job. After all, there are no billable hours or quarterly earnings conference calls. At most, I teach four class periods a week, and, other than my committee obligations, I generally decide my own schedule. I get to teach and write about the things I care about. And, although no one becomes rich just from being a law professor, compared to professorships in most other disciplines, it pays pretty well.

All of these career benefits have contributed to the infamous phrase, “I’d like to retire and teach.” Yet older lawyers who are looking for an early retirement and younger lawyers who want to escape from the pressures of a nascent legal career won’t find the type of respite they are looking for in legal academia. Why?

 

Getting a job is difficult

The Association of American Law Schools (AALS) receives between 800 and 1,000 submissions a year to its Faculty Appointments Register (FAR), a database of information about candidates interested in teaching at law schools. Submission to the FAR is the most common first step in snagging one of the 100 to 150 entry-level tenure track jobs that open each year. Recruiters review this information in preparation for the annual Faculty Recruitment Conference (FRC), also affectionately known as the “meat market.” This year’s conference will be held October 13–15 in Washington, D.C.

You cannot decide one summer day that you would like to submit to the FAR and attend the next FRC. There are strict deadlines and a fee for submission to FAR, and you need to be prepared well in advance of the FRC (See www.aals.org/frs/far.php for more information). Being prepared includes being published (more on that below). Further, the qualifications for a law professorship are much more demanding today than in years past. The qualifications that make you competitive for an entry-level or non-tenure-track teaching position today would have been enough to get you tenure in a not-so-recently bygone age.

 

It’s a scholarship, not just a teaching job

You must write, and your writing must be what the legal academy considers to be scholarship. In that same bygone age discussed above, this type of writing was not a huge leap from the case and statutory analysis lawyers learned in law school. The legal academy has since taken what Georgetown Law professor Lawrence Solum calls the “normative turn.” The question isn’t just what the law is, but what it should be. That latter inquiry increasingly calls on interdisciplinary tools from economics, statistics, cognitive science, and other disciplines. Frustrating for many, you must write before you become a law professor, with the style and substance of a law professor, even to become a law professor.

All that writing once you’ve become a full-time professor has to be a lot easier than writing and trying to get published when you are a working lawyer, right? Maybe, and maybe not. Why?

 

Teaching is really hard

Yes, you will only teach three or four courses a year, which means your time in the classroom will be about six to eight hours a week. What that doesn’t count are the ten to fifteen hours of preparation per hour of class time it takes most people to competently teach a class for the first time. It’s true that your preparation time goes down when you teach the class again in later years, but it doesn’t disappear because (1) it’s unlikely everything was perfect (or even good) the first time, (2) just when you think you’ve perfected the class (or just made it good) it has become stale and you must adopt a new casebook and start all over, and (3) you will get assigned new classes. And we haven’t even begun to discuss the techniques of legal pedagogy, a subject to which all but the most gifted teachers turn after those first experiences of classroom panic (mine being when a numerical example I was using in front of forty securities regulation students didn’t work and I couldn’t figure out why).

Even so, you say, it has to be easier than cranking out billable hours. Maybe, and maybe not. Why?

 

It’s not for the thin-skinned

Nothing you write will ever be good enough. It might be great work, but it’s never good enough. If you submit to peer-reviewed journals, prepare for criticism from the anonymous reviewers (under the system, you are anonymous too) that will make you want to curl into a fetal position. If you submit to student-edited law reviews, prepare for scores of rejections from second and third year law students for every successful placement.

Most law professors wouldn’t trade their jobs for anything. If you pursue a career in legal academy, do it because you are passionate about it. If that is the case, the rewards invariably outweigh the costs.

 

Next Steps

Becoming a Law Professor: A Candidate’s Guide. 2010. PC # 1620455. ABA Book Publishing.

 

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