Most lawyers at some point in their careers toy with the idea of becoming a law professor. For some, teaching law seems like a return to a simpler time in their lives before the hustle and bustle of practice. For others, the idea of being a professor represents an opportunity to engage with the law in ways that practice may not afford. Still others may view being a law professor as an opportunity to improve the legal profession and influence students as they begin their path to the law.
The path from practice to the legal academy, however, is not a simple one. This essay provides four tips to make the transition from practice to the legal academy a little easier.
1. Determine your commitment. Entering the legal academy is not a retirement job. Most law professors work as hard as or harder than practicing attorneys. Time spent in the classroom is only a very small percentage of a law professor’s responsibilities. Many professors work 60–80 hours a week (or more) preparing for class, researching the law, writing scholarship, and performing administrative activities.
Most law professors report a very high level of job satisfaction. This is partially the result of law schools doing a good job at recruiting highly motivated people. In addition, most law professors are afforded a significant amount of freedom that allows them to pursue their own academic interests and define their own schedules.
With that said, being a successful law professor requires a strong commitment to teaching, scholarship, and service. Those without this conviction should consider another career path.
2. Find your role. Many law school graduates consider becoming law professors in part because they enjoy and are comfortable in academic settings. Being a law professor, however, is only one of a myriad of jobs available at most law schools. Those who are considering leaving practice for the academy should consider how they might best serve it. For example, the skills and temperament necessary to be an outstanding director of academic support, dean of admissions, or law librarian may be completely different than the skills and temperament necessary to be an outstanding law professor.
Even those who are firmly committed to becoming law professors should consider what type of law professors they would like to be. If teaching as an adjunct professor a night or two a week would satisfy one’s urge to contribute to the legal academy, no reason exists for taking the time, energy, and expense to find a tenure-track appointment. Those who want to teach full time must make a choice among seeking a doctrinal, legal skills, or clinical appointment. Finding one’s role before entering the legal academy will help to avoid job dissatisfaction later.
3. Improve your résumé. The job market to obtain a law school faculty appointment continues to become more and more competitive. Even in the best of times, law school faculty appointments are difficult to obtain. In the wake of the recent economic downturn, individuals who would have easily found a faculty appointment a few years ago are now struggling.
One of the keys to obtaining a faculty appointment is having a résumé that reflects a consistent record of achievement. Attending and doing well at a highly ranked law school can improve one’s chances of obtaining an appointment dramatically. For those who did not attend a highly ranked school for their J.D., obtaining an LL.M, PhD, or other advanced degree from a highly ranked institution can also dramatically improve one’s chances in the faculty-hiring market. At least one publication in a law review is also essential to obtaining a teaching position. Many candidates on the job market often have written multiple articles to demonstrate to potential employers a commitment to scholarship. Clerkships, fellowships, and visiting assistant professorships (VAPs) are also highly regarded by most law-school hiring committees.
4. Attend the conference. The overwhelming majority of law-school faculty hiring occurs at the Faculty Recruitment Conference (FRC or “meat market”) that is hosted each year in October or November in Washington, D.C. by the Association of American Law Schools (AALS). A few months prior to the conference, the AALS compiles a Faculty Appointments Register (FAR) from information submitted by candidates interested in finding a teaching job. Hiring teams then review the FAR and invite candidates to participate in screening interviews at the conference (see www.aals.org/services_recruitment.php for more information about the FAR and the conference). Candidates who are successful during the screening interviews are then invited to travel to and interview with schools that may be interested in hiring them.
These four tips provide a starting point for those thinking of becoming a law professor. The path from practice to the legal academy is rarely an easy one; but, with patience and commitment it can lead to a wonderful and enriching career.
Eric C. Chaffee is an associate professor and chair of the Project for Law & Business Ethics at the University of Dayton School of Law in Dayton, Ohio. He can be contacted at Eric.Chaffee@notes.udayton.edu.
Becoming a Law Professor: A Candidate’s Guide. 2010. PC # 1620455. ABA Book Publishing.
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