Law Teaching Careers–PART IV

This is the fourth of a five-part series on law teaching as a career, prompted by an email interview I had with a reporter. See Parts I, II and III.

4) What should students do to prepare themselves for a career as a law professor?

Several law professors, including Brian Leiter (article and chart showing where law professors hired in 2000-2002 got their JDs), Brad Wendel and Larry Solum (chart showing where law professors hired in 2004 got their JDs and analysis over time of educational background of law professors), have answered this question in detail, especially with respect to the role the JD-granting institution plays in the outcome. (Yet more resources can be found on my page at http://eric_goldman.tripod.com/resources/becomingalawprofessor.htm). In many cases, a law student’s choice of law schools may realistically prevent them from getting a law professor job. A student at a top 5 law school meets the initial criterion. A student at a top 20 law school can have a chance. A student at other law schools faces long odds. An LLM from a prestigious school might help overcome a JD from a less-regarded school; Brad Wendel addresses this issue specifically.

No matter where a student went to school, there are 2 things that will increase the odds of success.

First, add as many “prestigious” things as possible to your resume. This includes things like prestigious judicial clerkships (federal appeals court or federal district court), prestigious student activities and honors (like law review and Order of the Coif) and prestigious jobs with big brand-name law firms.

To understand the importance of prestige, consider how your application will be reviewed. In most cases, you will submit a resume through a centralized resume service that almost all the law schools use when they are hiring. Your resume will be shipped to the law school in a stack with hundreds of other resumes. How do you stand out in this crowd? The more prestige on your resume, the more likely that your resume will catch the eye of someone reading through this enormous stack. We might debate whether or not this system is fair or accurate, but for now this is the prevailing system. As such, you benefit by having as many impressive items on your resume as possible.

Second, publish law review articles. Publish while you are in school. Publish while you are in practice. Publish as often as you can while maintaining quality. If you love to write, publishing will be a natural step for you. If you don’t love writing, this standard may remind you to consider if you’re on the right path.

There are other possibly useful things a student might consider, such as getting a PhD in another discipline (many schools now look favorably on interdisciplinary candidates), adjunct teaching (if for no other reason than to confirm if you like teaching) and networking with well-known and well-connected law professors. While it’s doubtful that any of these steps hurt, they are likely to help only at the margins.

Putting aside the issue of qualifications, I think the single best thing a student can do is to have realistic expectations. It is extremely rare for freshly-minted JDs to get a full-time tenure-track position. Frequently, there are a number of time-consuming prerequisites: a judicial clerkship, a few years of practice at a brand-name firm, publication of one or more law review articles following graduation. Therefore, a student who really wants to become a law professor may need to develop and implement a multi-year plan to get there.

I’ll wrap up this series tomorrow.

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