So You Wanna Be a Law Professor, Part II

First, thanks so much to everyone who made comments to my previous post, which asked for things you’d like to see in a book about the faculty hiring process. I’m knee-deep in summer school, so while I can’t respond individually to each comment, please know that I appreciate each one and all will be helpful as we continue writing the book. I am pleased to see that we have, so far, anticipated many of the topics that you wanted to see covered.

Many comments asked what the chances are for someone who attended a non-elite law school to break into the teaching market. Since that seemed to be a common theme, I thought I’d offer “Becoming a Law Professor: The Nutshell.”


The answer is: write, write, and write some more.

I think you should write and publish something (maybe a couple of things) after graduation from law school, when no one is making you. This will do several things: (i) give you an opportunity to see whether you like writing; because, as Brad Wendel says, this is a writing job more than a teaching job; (ii) will make you competitive for the Ivy League LL.M. programs that will allow you to (as I did) launder your non-elite law school degree; (iii) finally, it will send a strong signal of commitment to prospective employers. Let me take these one at a time.

Can I “Do” Legal Scholarship?— If you don’t like writing, even if you get a job, it will feel like a prison sentence. You need to figure out whether this is something you could make yourself do day-in-day-out at least until you receive tenure. If you find that you would rather have dental surgery rather than write the introduction to your article or go to the library to research a topic, then a tenure-track academic job is not for you. If you really feel a call to teach, but not to write, you might think of teaching as an adjuct or in a clinical position (though the latter often have to write if they are tenure-track).

Writing to Gain LL.M. Admission–For non-elite J.D. laundering purposes, the most prestigious LL.M. programs are Yale, Harvard, and Columbia’s. All are extremely competitive for U.S. students; all claim to admit only those applicants who demonstrate a commitment to becoming a law professor and have good chance of succeeding on the job market. You can take a blood oath in your personal statement that you’re going to be the second coming of [insert name of prominent academic here], but, ultimately, talk is cheap. The best way to demonstrate a commitment to the business is to write articles and publish them, not merely talk about your intention to do so.

Writing to Gain Employment–The same is true for prospective employers. Jobs are scarce, and the effects of hiring someone who doesn’t meet potential can be devestating. Therefore, more and more schools are expecting to see proof of a commitment to scholarship on the front end.

Now you might be thinking that this advice–“Write!”–is like the joke about the shipwrecked economist (“First, assume the existence of a can opener.”). Well, it is, in a way, but next week, I’ll post a couple of hints to help you get started on that first writing project.

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10 Responses

  1. Robert Rhee says:

    Perhaps a section on “How to Market the Article If You Are Not a Prof” is in order. I think non-profs have a distinct disadvantage, and perhaps some thoughts on how to place the piece would be good advice. Many non-profs, for example, may not know about the March-August cycle, etc. Also, a topic on “How to Select an Appropriate Topic or Thesis” would be good since many non-profs may not have colleagues to bounce ideas.

  2. I have to confess, I winced when I read this statement: “you need to figure out whether this is something you could make yourself do day-in-day-out at least until you receive tenure.” That may be accurate — unfortunately — but do you really want to encourage people to see tenure as the writing finish line, instead of as an invitation to do more interesting kinds of writing, pace Rosa Brooks?

  3. I have to confess, I winced when I read this statement: “you need to figure out whether this is something you could make yourself do day-in-day-out at least until you receive tenure.” That may be accurate — unfortunately — but do you really want to encourage people to see tenure as the writing finish line, instead of as an invitation to do more interesting kinds of writing, pace Rosa Brooks?

  4. Kate Litvak says:

    I am seriously (not rhetorically) wondering who the intended audience of this advice is. A person who wants to be a professor but doesn’t know that the job involves writing is like a person who wants to be a ballerina but doesn’t know that the job involves dancing.

  5. Brannon Denning says:

    Thanks for the comments!

    Robert: Yours is a great point.

    Kevin, of course, you’re right, and I certainly wouldn’t encourage someone to adopt that attitude. My only point was that you have to write enough to actually *get* tenure; if you really, really don’t like to write, then you probably won’t last that long–though some do and are never heard from again, which I think is an argument in favor of raising the bar higher than it is set at most law schools.

    Kate: Your comment made me chuckle, but I wonder whether it is entirely apt. For a lot of would-be law professors, particularly those at non-elite schools, they have only seen the classroom teaching side of their professors’ jobs. The writing aspect certainly isn’t necessarily on display (except, perhaps, the literal displays of reprints, etc. that schools maintain). Thus, I think it remains something of a mystery; I certainly didn’t understand how central it was to the enterprise when I first had thoughts that “hey, I’d like *their* job.” Moreover, I think that even if “writing” is understood as important, the type of writing that is important is not. To return to your analogy, the teaching part is what students see and graduates remember, just like it is obvious that being a ballerina involves dancing. But since writing and scholarship is not necessarily visible to present or former students, it is would be like someone who liked to dance and wanted to be a ballerina, but then discovered that skill in accounting or something was central to becoming a successful ballerina. At any rate, the centrality of scholarship and writing is, I think, more apparent at elite schools, but I think that there is room in the profession for others, too. Those “others” are the intended audience.

  6. Scott Moss says:

    A person who wants to be a professor but doesn’t know that the job involves writing is like a person who wants to be a ballerina but doesn’t know that the job involves dancing.

    That’s me! I’d wanted to be a ballerina just because of the cool tights they get to wear, but then I found out about the dancing part….

    Kate is right about the salience of writing, but I’d choose an analogy that’s less hard on those who don’t know about “the writing part” — after all, to a non-academic, being a professor may seem to be all about the teaching.

    I’d say the analogy is to people who want to be a high-paid lawyer because they like to speak and argue — but don’t like, or know the job entails, mostly paperwork.

    I also think there is plenty of room in legal academia for folks who like writing but haven’t don’t, and won’t do, very academic writing. Say you love teaching and, in law practice, you wrote lots of CLE and bar journal articles (which was my situation in 2003). Frankly, there are many, many schools — probably most American law schools — where you can get tenure writing 15,000 word articles on doctrinal developments. It’d be unfortunate if legal academia had nothing other than that stuff, but I think those folks are quite valuable to law schools and the legal profession.

  7. Ben Barros says:

    I’m not a big fan of the phrase “laundering” a non-elite JD, and I’m a bit skeptical of the utility of an LL.M. If you can write, it is not clear to me that you need one. Extra time to write before going on the market is great, but for people who aren’t in a life situation that will allow them to go back to school for a year, going directly on the market can work. Otherwise the advice seems sound.

  8. Brannon Denning says:

    Dear Ben:

    I’m not sure how others use it, but I use the “laudering” phrase ironically; I got a great legal education at Tennessee, but many hiring committees want validation from elsewhere. And I agree with you about the utility of LL.M. programs–whatever else they do, they certainly *don’t* give you extra time to write, in my experience. But I think that if you’re looking to maximize your chances, the LL.M. at one of the Ivys helps a great deal.

  9. Andy says:

    Doesn’t this really beg the question whether a candidate’s JD really serves as a reliable proxy for that individual’s ability to produce legal scholarship. If scholarship is the name of the game, I fail to see why a candidate’s chances should not turn on the quality of his/her scholarship. Should graduates of mid-tier law schools really be forced to “launder” their JD if they have produced high quality work that can be evaluated by hiring committees?

  10. Brannon Denning says:

    Dear Andy:

    You’re absolutely correct. In fact, there is evidence that the best proxy for ability to produce scholarship in the future is whether someone has published at least one piece of scholarship other than what one might have written as a student on law review. In a just world, you are correct: candidates would be evaluated on their merits, regardless where they went to law school. However, law schools and law school faculty are slow to change. Many law professors — particularly those who went to elite or Ivy League law schools — have a tendency to want to replicate themselves on the faculty. Further, I think that when committees have to sort through hundreds of the Faculty Recruitment Forms, there is a tendency to fall back on heuristics like where a candidate received one’s J.D. to winnow the pool quickly.

    Thus, I think writing is of utmost importance, but to maximize one’s chances if one has a J.D. from a non-elite school, hiring committees being what they are, I think that an LL.M. at an Ivy League school will provide the extra validation that might get committee members to read the things that you’ve written.

    Yrs,

    BPD