10 Tips for Law Students Who Want to Pursue Careers in Legal Academia
I recently posted data about law professor hiring statistics per institution where teaching applicants earned their JD. Some students from schools that did not have high success percentages have expressed despair that their chances are low because of the school they graduated (or will be graduating) from.
My intent in collecting and analyzing this data was to encourage more applicants to the teaching market, not discourage them.
So why are certain schools doing so disproportionately well in placing their graduates in teaching positions? Is it all based on a school’s prestige?
The answer, I believe, is no, it isn’t primarily based on prestige. Certainly, the prestige of one’s law school will get attention in the AALS hiring process, but the most important criterion is scholarship. One thing that the statistics I posted don’t reveal is the quality of the applicants’ scholarly records.
Many teaching applicants don’t have a strong record of scholarship, so they would be weak candidates no matter what school they graduated from. One of the reasons that Yale, Harvard, and a few other schools have so much success is because they train students to do the things they’re supposed to do to be successful on the teaching market. Not only do they provide a lot of advice about the teaching market and hiring process, but they have their students start doing the two things key to becoming a strong law professor applicant — read and write legal scholarship.
At Yale, for example, students have to write at least two big papers in order to graduate – which can often readily be turned into law review articles. Classes frequently assign a heavy dose of law review articles, thus getting students acquainted with legal scholarship. Students at Yale who know they are interested in teaching early on have a great advantage — they start reading and writing legal scholarship during law school and have a big head start toward becoming a law professor.
Here’s my advice in a nutshell to law students who desire to be law professors:
(1) Find a Mentor. Seek a mentor at your school and tell that professor about your desire to teach law.
(2) Write and Publish. Write, write, write! Publish, publish, publish! One caveat — be sure that what you publish is good. Quality beats quantity hands down. I’ve seen many a candidate with many publications who was sunk because of just one weak article. Everything you publish should be very good.
(3) Read. Read lots of legal scholarship. The best way to learn how to write law review articles is to read them. Read the legal scholarship in the fields you are interested in. Look for articles to model your own work after. Find articles that have placed well and articles that have been cited a lot.
(4) Think. Start thinking about ideas for papers. Keep a journal of ideas as they come to you. If you do a lot of reading of legal scholarship, you should start to get some ideas about issues that aren’t being discussed or arguments about particular issues that aren’t being made.
(5) Seek Writing Opportunities. Take as many classes with writing opportunities as you can or do an independent writing project under a professor’s supervision.
(6) Learn the Publishing Process. Seek advice from professors about how to publish and place your article well. Timing matters a lot — aim for the spring or fall submission windows. Use your bargaining power when you have an offer — sometimes students or recent graduates too readily accept the first offer they receive. Talk to friends who are articles editors at the law review to get a sense of how the decisionmaking process works from the inside.
(7) Seek Advice Before You Go on the Teaching Market. Be sure to ask your mentor for advice before going on the teaching market. How you present yourself as a teaching candidate, what package of courses you list that you will teach, and many other things are of critical importance.
(8) Research the Blogosphere. Today’s teaching applicants have a great new tool — the blogosphere. The legal blogosphere is teeming with some great information and advice about law teaching.
(9) Visiting Associate Professorships or Fellowships. Look into doing a visiting associate professorship or fellowship, which increasingly is becoming a route to becoming a law professor. These will give you time to do some reading and writing, as well as to get known within the legal academy.
(10) Pursue a LLM. If you’ve gone to a lower-ranked law school, you might look to do an LLM at a top-ranked law school. This will give you time to do some reading and writing, and it will give you a degree that will enhance your resume.
Although only a few law schools account for most of the law professors hired, it is possible for graduates of other law schools to be successful. Note that many Yale and Harvard graduates did not end up with law professor jobs whereas some students from schools outside the US News Top 20 did. Strong teaching candidates can come from anywhere. The key is to publish a lot of good stuff. Do this, and the general hiring success percentages in my statistics will not apply to you. You’ll be much more likely to be successful.