Since the Great Recession, careers in teaching law have changed, much like law practice itself. This piece cannot tell you everything you need to know about becoming a law professor, but it may help you consider if teaching is right for you.
A Career as a Law Professor Comes with Real Rewards
The job offers enormous flexibility and freedom to control most of your schedule. You can work on projects you find interesting, including those involving research, teaching, and community service, and you can build relationships with students, other faculty, and experts in your field. As you engage more, you may even be able to influence how the law develops. I have not yet met a professor who does not love teaching.
Being a Law Professor Is Neither Easy nor an Easy Job to Land
The Job Requires Long Hours
A good law professor will invest hours helping students to learn the law—including making their classrooms dynamic and providing assessments to students throughout the semester. Teaching students how to research thoroughly and write clearly requires large amounts of time. On top of this, there are countless hours spent on service projects in the law school, university, wider community, and the bar.
Finding an Entry-Level Job Is Difficult
Employers seek cumulative experience and additional credentials from aspiring law professors because of intense competition and limited positions. The website “Prawfsblawg” posts annual entry-level hiring reports that provide a sense of the hiring landscape for entry-level professors. Sarah Lawsky of Prawfsblawg has compiled years of self-reported data. Since about 2014 to 2019, law schools nationwide have hired approximately 75 new tenure-track law professors each year. In 2019, a law degree alone was not enough to land a tenure-track post. Every reported hire had either a clerkship, an advanced degree, or a fellowship. Many had all three. Roughly 80 percent of successful candidates go through fellowship programs and accumulate publications and teaching experience.
You Will Likely Move Multiple Times for a Tenure-Track Job
You will move first for a fellowship and then, if all goes well, to a school offering you a tenure line. There are about 200 law schools in the United States and hundreds of applicants for entry-level tenure-track positions each year.
Be Prepared to Work This Road Alone
My romantic relationships have not weathered all of the sacrifices this career has required. Not every partner will move with you. Some friends give up this career once they have children and realize that they cannot accept the uncertainty and risk involved in the early stages of an academic career.
If You Are Serious about a Teaching Career
Reach Out to Law Professors for Guidance and Mentorship
Before you initiate contact with professors in your legal area of interest, I recommend reading their scholarship and becoming familiar with their research. When you finally reach out to them, discuss the aspects of their work that are related to your area of interest and come up with ideas of your own to advance this field of scholarship. Candidates who complete fellowship programs may have a better chance to get hired because they have had time to build relationships and establish an academic profile. Simply landing a fellowship position to prepare for going on the academic market may now require some academic writing.
Seek Good Advice
You could start by reading Jeffrey Lipshaw’s pieces on the subject. Prawfsblawg hosts many informative discussions and publishes posts on these topics by Jessica Erikson and others familiar in the field. Opinions often vary about the right way to do things. Many schools have idiosyncratic preferences for their new faculty.
Do a Serious Gut-Check
Be warned, the academy has self-replicating preferences for graduates from particular schools. Candidates with under-represented backgrounds may particularly benefit from good guidance and mentors. Despite these risks, academic teaching can be a wonderful job. That may explain why the competition for law professor posts has grown so much.
For more in-depth information on this topic, watch the ABA Career Center Career Choice webinar on academia and becoming a dean. The speakers give an overview of how to begin a career in legal academia, what it takes to become a dean, and how their careers have evolved in the pursuit of their current positions.
Note: This is not for CLE. The recorded program and materials are exclusively for ABA members.