Advice for New Law Professors

Last summer, I had fun offering a few pieces of advice to incoming law students. I thought that I’d give some thought to advice for new law professors. As I look back, there really wasn’t much to go on; my first job was teaching in a school that had not made a new hire in several years. Consequently, I had to learn by making mistakes, and I made a lot of them! So, here are a few things I thought of; I may add to the list throughout the month.

1. Prepare for Classes Early and Often—Here’s something they don’t talk about much at the AALS Faculty Recruitment Conference: teaching is hard and class preparation is time consuming. Much of the discussion about being a law professor concerns the publication side of our business. What are you working on? Where is it being published? Have you had luck trading up? Compared to preparing for and teaching those first classes, though, researching and writing is a breeze. I had no idea how much time it would take simply to prepare for class each day, nor was I prepared for how miserably I felt I was failing during those first few weeks—and in the subject (con law) that I knew well and couldn’t wait to teach! Knowing that I had two additional classes to prepare for and teach that I didn’t know as well made for a decidedly Un-Merry Christmas. Spend lots of time preparing for class this summer, but know that you will still that it wasn’t enough.

2. Remember that your first year teaching is like a first draft—But I don’t mean to be a downer. You should allow yourself to experiment, to make mistakes, to change things up mid-semester if things aren’t working. After all, the first draft of the first article you ever wrote wasn’t perfect, was it? Of course not. So you should regard your first year teaching—your first couple of years, in fact—as rough drafts. Moreover, involve your students in the process. Ask them what is working, and what is not. My experience is that students are very understanding, and will do what they can to aid new professors adjust to the classroom and to the experience. By year three, as J.B. Ruhl told me, you will see why being a law professor is a “loophole in life.”

3. Try to get the first article done quickly—Many new professors will already come with publications, but there’s something a little intimidating about writing that first article as a professor. You feel like it has to be a little better, a little more insightful, place a little better than the articles you sent out six months ago. Sometimes this reticence can turn into paralysis or panic as pre-tenure review (or tenure) approaches. Try to get a draft of something done this summer—even a small piece, an essay or a book review, something. While if you follow my class preparation advice, above, you’ll have plenty to fill your days, you (and your colleagues) will breathe a sigh of relief if you get that first piece out as a member of the faculty.

4. Avoid Entangling Alliances—As my colleague Marcia McCormick has observed, joining a faculty is a lot like joining or marrying into a family. It will take you a while to sort out personalities. What you do not want to do during your first few months, is to allow yourself to be enlisted by senior faculty on either side of any contentious faculty issue. Even senior faculty who ought to know better sometimes cannot help themselves when it comes to faculty politics. Enlist on the wrong side, offend the wrong faculty member, and grudges might be held, friendship withdrawn, etc. You have so much to worry about with classes, making up with the offended gray eminence who no longer says hello to you in the hall is a stressor that you’re better off without. There is definitely a time (even as a junior faculty member) for speaking your mind and offering your opinion, even at the risk of offending your colleagues, but your first year on the job is usually not that time.

5. Memorize Students’ Names—It means so much to students for their professors to acknowledge them by name. I cut out pictures of students from our facebook and paste them on an index card that has their name on the other side. When I have a few moments, I practice memorizing their names. For whatever reason, memorizing names is not a strength of mine, so I have to spend time on this. It often takes me until the second semester for names to stick. I think the students appreciate the extra effort, though.

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3 Responses

  1. tim zinnecker says:

    Brannon (whose path, alas, did not cross mine when I had a wonderful two semesters as a visitor at Samford) offers sound advice that many newbies will find most helpful. I’ll comment on one of his suggestions and offer two of my own.

    Learning the names of students may not seem a high priority, but I agree with Brannon that it is quite important. First, taking the time to learn (and remember) a name is a sign of respect and reflects your (genuine) interest in that person. Second, knowing the names of your students may put both you and your students at ease and reduce some of the natural waryness, nervousness, and tension that exists between the podium and the seats. Third, the quicker you learn the names of your students (my goal: by the third class) the more impressed your students will be with your talents, particularly if you can recall names outside of class without the aid of a picture book or a seating chart. All of these benefits may encourage your students to work harder for you throughout the semester and perform better on your exams, resulting in a more enjoyable classroom experience for all.

    Two additional pieces of advice:

    1) Think about how you want to handle recitation (e.g., random, assigned, alphabetical, etc.) and attendance (yes or no), as well as any possible grade adjustments stemming from these or other matters, and state your policies on these matters in a first-day handout. Do not change oars in midstream. Students may or may not agree with your stated policies, but they’ll be very unforgiving if you fail to be consistent.

    2) Don’t be afraid to respond to a student’s question with “I don’t know.” Few of us know everything about our subject matter (not even those of us who have been annointed to teach UCC courses), and students may remind us of that fact on occasion. Those questions may send us in search of an answer before the next class meeting, and perhaps they will prompt some insightful and stimulating classroom discussion. If you’re lucky, those questions may be the genesis of your next article.

  2. H Lime says:

    Good advice, both Brannon and Tim. I recently completed my first semester as an adjunct law professor teaching military law, and although the requirements are somewhat different, yours are good learning points.

    I would add another one (looks like #8 now): talk to other professors from various schools who teach your topic. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice, and you may get much more than that. Teaching a course for the first time might present the seemingly insurmountable task of suddently coming up with a syllabus. That task shrinks suddenly when you tap the years of experience that some of the very fine professors in your field have out there.

    H Lime

  3. Frank says:

    All very sound advice–they should have you speak at the new professors conference!