10 Tips for Law Students Who Want to Pursue Careers in Legal Academia

professor-tiger1a.jpgI 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.

If you’re really interested in law, you could even open your own law firm! Read about more strategies to marketing your law firm, to help you succeed.

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27 Responses

  1. AJ says:

    Quality beats quality, huh? That’s a new one.

  2. Joe says:

    I can’t disagree with you more. I was recently on the “meat market” – I had over 20 publications (including several law reviews) but I had 2 things going against me: (1) my JD was not from Yale or Harvard and (2) I wasn’t very liberal. Guess what, I had very few interviews and no callbacks.

    As for you advice on the LLM. I know of several folks who received their LLM’s from Yale and Harvard and have not done any better than me on the market.

    I think it’s pretty obvious that if you don’t have your JD from Yale, Harvard, or Standford, you shouldn’t bother. You also shouldn’t be a conservative or libertarian unless you have an ivy degree PLUS a great clerkship (am I wrong, please tell me how many law professors there are who don’t have these qualifications…)

    I don’t think you should give people false hope when the evidence so overwhelmingly indicates that the law faculty club is a very narrow one. Lot’s of people who don’t fit the template shouldn’t bother to apply.

  3. Trevor Morrison says:

    It’s inevitable that someone with over 20 publications at the entry level will have a hard time. No one at the entry level — literally no one — can sustain sufficient quality across so much quantity. The lesson here is to write less, but better.

  4. Paul Horwitz says:

    I think the advice from both Dan and Trevor should chasten but not chill. That is to say, it is important to write, and it is important to write well; but don’t become so utterly paralyzed by fear that a piece will be held against you that you end up writing nothing. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good — but be good, to be sure.

    With respect to the “20 publications,” I can’t say anything about them. But I would note that the ones that weren’t in law reviews, if they were practice notes of various kinds, likely wouldn’t count in one’s favor and thus effectively wouldn’t count. Although they wouldn’t necessarily count against you either, they actually *might* be held against someone, and not just for reasons of quality; if the overall sense one got from those publications was that this is a practitioner going after picayune little issues that arise along the way rather than a genuine academic with a program, a set of interests, and a research agenda, that might harm one’s chances on the market, for better or worse.

  5. Orin Kerr says:

    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.

    i disagree. I think it is mostly based on prestige. A candidate who attended a less elite law school can overcome that by writing a lot, but that prestige gap is real. See point 10, which is really about adding prestige to a resume.

    One caveat — be sure that what you publish is good. Quality beats qua[ntity] 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.

    I mostly disagree with this, too. Off the top if my head, I don’t think I have ever seen an entry-level candidate who wrote very good articles; most articles by entry-levels who are competitive at top schools are just so-so. On the other hand, quantity is extremely important for all but those with the very best resumes. Quantity shows a good likelihood of future productivity; someone who has written a ton in the past will likely do so in the future. However, the writing has to be law review writing, and specifically traditional full-length articles in law reviews. Bar journal articles, practitioner pieces, essays, op-eds, blog posts, or anything like that don’t count.

  6. Orin Kerr says:

    Oh, and Joe, it’s hard to tell what happened with your candidacy without knowing more; the market can work in mysterious ways. For example, I personally know nice and liberal former Harvard Law Review editors who went on to prestigious court of appeals clerkships, wrote some articles, and then went on the market and ended up with no offers. If you want to e-mail me and talk about this offline, I would be happy to chat with you and offer whatever insight I can.

  7. Trevor Morrison says:

    It looks like Orin and I have a pretty big disagreement here, which may simply reflect that different faculty priorize different things. But based on my own appointments committee experience plus conversations with others who have served in that capacity at other schools, I will note that the candidates with the longest publication records are rarely the most successful on the market. Indeed, one of the things that places a candidate’s resume among “the very best” is a publication record of relatively modest length (e.g., one or two existing publications, plus a job talk piece in the pipeline) but of superior quality.

    It obviously doesn’t have to be pathbreaking stuff at the entry level, but in my view the quality of the best candidates’ work is considerably above the “so so” level. What you don’t tend to see is additional quantity shoring up deficiencies in quality.

  8. Orin,

    I acknowledge that there is prestige gap, but I think it matters more at schools higher up in the rankings. It is very unlikely that a Top 20 law school will hire a candidate from a second or third tier law school. But that candidate will not face as much difficulty at many other schools. In other words, the prestige gap is greater at the top, and while it still exists even lower down, it is not nearly as large.

    Regarding quality vs. quantity, I think we’re not in as much disagreement as you think we are. Certainly, quantity matters and helps. But the articles must be good. As you point out, most entry level articles are not particularly stellar, which is true — in fact, most law review articles in general are not all that stellar. Music has its Mozarts, literature has its Shakespeares, and law reviews have . . . well, nothing quite the equivalent. So things are graded on a curve! I strongly believe that my quality beats quantity advice is sound. In a choice between publishing 5-6 rather poor articles or 2-3 articles of good (or even moderate) quality, I’d recommend the latter.

    That said, I think it is important for a candidate to demonstrate productivity. I’d recommend having 2 or more publications. While some candidates can still be successful with just 1 publication, that is becoming increasingly rare.

  9. Thanks, Dan, for setting out some tangible steps. I think the classic how-to on this for the general audience is Brad Wendel’s Candy Mountain essay. The “Wendel test” he offers will strike fear into those who hope Dan is right about degrees, but in fact much of the advice is consistent. And all of this should be used to ‘chasten, not chill’ (as Paul handsomely says about writing in particular, but should be equally true as more general advice: enter the job market realistically but not paralyzed and wilting).

    The other classic piece, focused on those with long practice records aspiring to enter teaching after their JD (LLB?!) does not have that just-fresh-feeling, is Jeff Lipshaw’s How Not To Retire And Teach. Again it serves up some apparently bad news but nothing that cannot be faced and overcome; it’s just that some of the things candidates assume will *sound* good to committees may not (the 18 articles, the years in partnership, the word ‘retire’) but ultimately can be made plusses or fixed. Links:



  10. anon says:

    More good posts, Dan. This type of banter between professors is quite useful, in that one can hear a variety of perspectives on a topic that often seems opaque. Thanks for the post Dan!

  11. law student says:

    What about the importance of clerkships? The “Wendel test” gives the impression that candidates need a “super clerkship” to be competitive. Virtually every successful candidate has a prestigious appellate clerkship, especially for hires at top schools.

  12. Joe says:

    I will note that the candidates with the longest publication records are rarely the most successful on the market. Indeed, one of the things that places a candidate’s resume among “the very best” is a publication record of relatively modest length

    My god, what does this say about the Academy then? And what does it say about the whole idea of being able to publish your way out of a non-elite JD?

    literally no one — can sustain sufficient quality across so much quantity. The lesson here is to write less, but better.

    Really? You presume that the quality of my scholarship is poor because of the number. Would it make any difference if I told you that my other publications were not in bar journals, but very highly ranked, peer-reviewed journals in the subject area of my PhD?

    Frankly, the questions I got at the market told me a lot about my chances for callbacks – it was obvious at during many of the interviews that they had very little real interest in hiring me. I was even asked why I was a member of (gulp) the Federalist Society! I only wish they had not interviewed me to begin with so that I could have saved the $2,000 I spent going to that B.S. process known as the “market.” It’s a fraud.

    Look, people can say that the market is competitive and that’s why HLS/YLS, etc al. grads dominate the market. It may also be the case that the student who graduates at the last of their class at these institutions are still a Yale/Harvard law school graduate in the final analysis. But don’t insult people and say that law schools aren’t obsessed with prestige and people who attended less prestigious schools can “write they’re way in” – it’s a lie and everyone know it. If you talking about quality over quality, then how do you explain this nonsense? It can be explained entirely by the political message advocated.

    Yeah, no prestige bias or bias against conservatives… Well, that’s why lawyers have bad reputations I guess.

  13. prof says:

    As someone on a top 50 faculty, I just don’t buy the “conservatives are discriminated against” argument. I’ll grant that law faculties tend to skew “liberal” (at least as that term is used these days in the U.S. — to many of our European friends “liberals” here would be “conservatives” elsewhere), and I’ll further grant that like tends to be biased toward like. That said, I know that my own faculty and others of which I have personal knowledge are KEENLY aware of these facts and are very committed to compensating for it by affirmatively seeking out conservative hires. To be quite frank, I find, at least on my own faculty, that there’s an affirmative bias _in favor_ of hiring conservatives in order to “balance things out.” My claim is not that conservatives have an advantage when it all washes out — just that the old refrain that conservatives can’t get hired is highly, highly questionable at best.

  14. Tom says:

    Perhaps a stupid question, but one that I’m guessing other wannabe-profs are asking themselves: What makes an article “quality”? For those of us on the outside of the academy looking in, it is difficult to gauge whether a search committee will view my work as quality or crap.

  15. J.G. says:

    Sure, Yale and Harvard may acculturate students to law teaching, but methinks their students’ relative success on the meat market has much more to do with prominent (and not-so-prominent) professors at these schools calling their friends on other faculties — who often also went to Yale and Harvard — to “put in a good word” for former students. Thoughts?

  16. Trevor Morrison says:

    Joe evidently feels he was treated unfairly on the job market. Knowing nothing about his particular situation, I have no idea whether he’s justified in those feelings. I certainly didn’t mean my earlier comments to defend any particular treatment of him (or anyone else) on the market; I meant them only as descriptions of common hiring practices. In that same vein, a few more thoughts:

    1. Re “publishing your way out of a non-elite JD”: I don’t think I’ve ever held this up as a viable path, and in fact I have serious doubts about it. Rightly or wrongly, many schools do seem to treat a JD from an “elite” law school (which doesn’t mean just Yale or Harvard, but probably does mean one of the 16 or so schools that think they’re in the “top 10”) as something approaching a necessary (though certainly not sufficient) condition for hiring. There are exceptions, of course, but I think this is a fair description of the practice among most schools in the “top 50” or so.

    2. That said, if someone wanting to write themselves out of a non-elite JD were asking me for advice about how to do it, I would suggest trying to land a VAP or other teaching/writing fellowship at a higher ranked school. This will help deliver some institutional prestige and will also provide space and time to write a job talk piece. Of course, landing one of those positions is no mean feat, but it does tend to be easier than landing a tenure-track job at a comparable school.

    3. As for having 20 publications in “very highly ranked, peer-reviewed journals in the subject area of [a candidate’s] PhD,” my sense is that a record like this will often not help very much. I concede that my initial comment about the trouble that is likely to befall someone with such a long publication record was based on the assumption that we were talking about bar journal pieces. But if we’re now talking about a candidate with (a) a “non-elite” JD and (b) a lengthy publication record from another discipline, it’s easy imagine problems. Law faculty often aren’t experts in the candidate’s PhD field, so they need to find a way to decipher that part of the candidate’s file. So they will ask questions like: Is the PhD from an elite program in that field? Does the candidate have the strong support of his/her PhD advisor? Are the publications in the PhD field co-authored? Is this a field where co-authorship is common and where some co-authors may not have done much work on the project? To the extent the candidate did really well in the PhD field (by, e.g., having substantial involvement in 20 peer-reviewed publications in the field), why isn’t s/he seeking an academic position in that field? To the extent the candidate did really well in a top PhD program, why did s/he attend a “non-elite” law school? And finally, is there any evidence that the candidate’s legal writing has made, is making, and/or will make good use of the PhD?

    It’s possible, of course, that the candidate has good answers to all of these questions. But if s/he does not, there are likely to be problems. E.g., if appointments committees come to conclude that this is a candidate who decided to seek a law teaching position only after not succeeding in his/her PhD field, the PhD could end up being more of a liability than an asset.

    4. Finally, there’s the question of anti-conservative bias. I don’t doubt that such bias could exist in some quarters. But I join others who have said that the influence of any such bias tends to be significantly overstated by people complaining about the teaching market.

  17. Orin Kerr says:


    Very interesting take on article quantity; I think you’re right that this is one of those questions on which opinions generally will diverge. I think it also may depend on how strong a candidate’s resume is without writing: I think it may be that the stronger the CV without publishing, the greater the risks are with writing a lot of articles.

  18. Trevor Morrison says:

    You might be right about that, Orin.

    Also, I should clarify one thing: When saying that the very strongest candidates tend to have a couple existing publications plus a job talk piece in the pipeline, I did not mean to claim that appointments committees formally disqualify people with more publications simply on account of the volume of writing. When committees look at a candidate with 10 publications on his/her resume, they don’t simply say, “That’s too many; s/he’s out.” Rather, my point is that when committees actually read the stuff written by entry-level candidates with such long publication records, invariably it turns out that too much of it is substandard. But of course one must actually read to know for sure.

  19. an 0L says:

    I noticed that USC was higher on this list than it is on US News, and also that USC focuses heavily on writing.

  20. FutureProf says:

    Questions that I posed over at the Faculty Lounge (http://www.thefacultylounge.org/2008/05/soloves-advice.html), but to which I would also appreciate the thoughts of those hanging out here:

    Any thoughts on the effect that starting an academic career in a B-school would have on ultimately transitioning to a law school? Would law schools still consider a candidate seriously if s/he has a strong publication record during his/her time at the B-school? Or does going down the B-school road largely foreclose the possibility of a law school appointment?

    Also, how realistic are the chances that one could slowly transition their way into a co-appointment at both a university’s B-school and law school?


  21. anoncomm says:

    (1) there is definitely some bias against conservatives at most schools, but less than there used to be. The bias is stronger in fields like Con Law, Criminal Law, International Law, and of course Civil Rights/Employment/Labor law, and less in business-oriented subjects. Indeed, in the latter, if you aren’t interested in economics, which is more common on the Left, it’s very harmful.

    (2) Someone with a JD from a low-ranked school and a well-published prior academic career in a non-law field is going to have difficulty getting his or her foot in the door. The non-elite credentials are going to be problematic for the elite schools, and too much publishing and not enough practice experience is going to turn off the low-ranked schools. (More generally, yes you can look TOO GOOD for many low-ranked schools.)

  22. WCS says:

    Seriously, why is teaching ability not a factor? In fact, why is teaching ability not THE factor in selecting faculty? Aren’t schools supposed to be about teaching students? How does a professor’s writing a law review article on some esoterica — that will never be cited by a court or read by a practicing attorney — help prepare a student to be a lawyer? In my fifteen years of litigating, I never once saw the district court or the Court of Appeals cite or even mention a law review article, and I do not remember ever consulting one myself.

  23. new graduate says:

    How does private practice fit into the equation? Is there a certain number of years of experience that can boost one’s resume (in addition, of course to having published a few articles) if coming from a “non-elite” law school?

  24. wcs says:

    New Graduate: Maybe others have different experiences, and it may vary from school to school. But, I have been told several places that practicing more than 3-5 years actually counts against you. It does not show a commitment to academia. It is not the case that you should become thoroughly accomplished at practicing law, then seek to share what you have learned with the next generation.

    Any of you out there have a different take?

  25. EUlawyer says:

    Dear All,

    Thanks for all this info-it’s very helpful. I’d like to ask you about applicants with a foreign law degree.

    My field is EU and international law, and I have a PhD in EU law from a top UK University. I’d like to know whether it is totally impossible to get a job at a good US law school in any of these fields (EU, international law) without having a US degree.


  26. David Case says:

    I don’t know that it will help in Joe’s specific situation, but I think it is way too strong to call a “lie” the statement that people who attended less prestigious schools may be able to “write [their] way in.” It is certainly extremely difficult but not impossible and it does happen from time to time. As an example, I published an essay some years back that is relevant to that issue — “The Pedagogical Don Quixote de la Mississippi,” 33 U. Memphis L. Rev. 529 (2003).

  27. Nancy M. says:

    From my experience, pedigree does matter more than other factors. Having failed to land a law prof job after two years at AALS despite (1) three law journal publications (including a well-cited lead article in a prestigious journal along with two other substantive pieces in a law review & law journal.. and NOT counting a couple of additional trade journal pieces), (2) an LL.M. and an S.J.D. from a top tier (but not top 20) law school in addition to my JD from a top tier (but not top 20) law school, and (3) two appellate (including a well-respected state supreme court) clerkships, I can come to no other conclusion but that pedigree is the most important thing. I’ve had enough conversations with hiring committee members to confirm to my own satisfaction that as a general rule, hiring committees get much more excited at the possibility of announcing a Harvard/Yale hire than at the possibility of announcing a new prof who already has a proven track record of scholarship. Harvard/Yale sells better.

    So I’m pretty much giving up at this point. Other than inventing a time machine and trading my full scholarship to a top tier but not top-20 law school (which I had to accept for financial reasons) for a more prestigious pedigree (and I really do have to wonder if any hiring committee members ever stop to consider that those of us from low-income backgrounds have to go where the scholarship is, not where the pedigree is, not realizing at age 21 how much that lack of pedigree would come back to punish us years later…)… there’s not much more I can do at this point to improve my chances.