American higher education, under pressure on all fronts, has squeezed adjuncts. Adjuncts, in turn, have protested in a variety of public fora, and now seek government regulation to ameliorate the conditions of their employment. In general terms, the problem is this: universities have high fixed labor costs (TT faculty), weak manager oversight – and consequently spiraling costs, and increasing student demand for expensive facilities. Their ability to raise prices is constrained (at least more than it used to be.) The result is that adjuncts, who typically aren’t organized and who have little job security, can be treated like workers in the rest of the economy – i.e., terribly so long as market conditions permit. At a variety of schools – including mine – unionization movements are afoot.
One wrinkle concerns the “fate” of law school adjuncts. Law schools typically employ adjuncts to teach cutting edge areas in practice, and those adjuncts are almost always otherwise employed as full-time lawyers and judges. Those lawyers and judges provide students with opportunities to understand developments in practice that no full-time instructor could deliver (whether or not that instructor ever writes a law review article). They also can be sources for leads on jobs, and can model professionalism. The networking and professional development street runs in both directions. For many law school adjuncts, association with the school brings significant professional benefits, which are more likely to motivate taking the gig than the relative pittance adjuncts are paid. Lawyers routinely highlight their law school teaching expertise in advertising – “Teaches criminal advocacy at X…”, “Professor teaching ERISA at Y….” (I can’t prove that clients care about this kind of puffing, but the prevalence of claims in the market suggests they might.) Adjuncts also can use the experience to deepen their knowledge of a field, thus improving their skills. Or, as Eric Goldman once commented, “There are lots of good reasons to be an adjunct, but the pay is definitely not one of them.”
Now, like university adjuncts more generally, law school adjuncts can feel like second-class citizens. They are rarely if ever even mildly integrated into the faculty. They usually teach in the evening (when their practices permit them to). They don’t have offices on campus. And teaching takes more time than many of them have to give. With that all said, mandating that law school adjuncts be treated like teachers in the rest of the university – and given higher benefits and salary – is profoundly foolish and unwise. I realize that that is very easy for me to say. But I have heard that at many schools, university-wide adjunct policies designed to make adjuncts’ lives better – some, of course, prompted by unionization – have had perverse effects when applied to law school adjunct faculty. Law schools are already stretched thin, and there already is a secular trend against adjunct teaching given the reduced numbers of students. When lumped in with & bumped up with the rest of the university’s adjuncts, law schools respond by employing many fewer adjuncts.
And even in a better law school market, law school adjuncts really are differently situated than their undergraduate counterparts. Treating them like oppressed graduate students will harm law students, law schools, and lawyers alike.