Do I Want to Be a Law Professor?
To answer this question requires some familiarity with what law professors do. Life as a law professor typically consists of three kinds of activities: research, teaching, and service. The main research work in law involves the publication of articles in law reviews, although many professors write books and edit casebooks as well. Law schools also require faculty to teach.
Courseload and Committee Work
The teaching load is usually three to four courses, depending on the school, and typically involves a balance of “service” courses (for example, first-year required courses) and upper-level courses related to the faculty member’s scholarly interests. Like other academics, law professors are required to serve on committees both within their department and elsewhere on campus. They are also expected to make useful contributions to the profession; this can be accomplished in any number of ways, for example by doing pro bono work, legislative work, consulting, participating in scholarly organizations, writing amicus briefs, or working with professional organizations such as the American Bar Association and the American Law Institute.
Although each of these activities is important, most law schools, particularly the most prestigious institutions, treat accomplishment in research as crucial. Such accomplishment is measured by quality and quantity of scholarly publication. Therefore, when considering a career in legal academia it is important to think carefully about your commitment to being a scholar. Successful legal scholars are excited by ideas, and willing to persevere through the many drafts and revisions it takes to give those ideas form and argument. If you like writing and enjoy coming up with your own ideas for papers and research projects, this is a life with considerable appeal. On the other hand, doing academic research is often a solitary occupation (though faculty sometimes collaborate with colleagues or students); the rewards often lie in the pleasure of the process itself, rather than the feeling that you have tangibly made a difference in someone’s life. If you value the opportunity to make a difference in that way, you can certainly find it as a law professor, but you will likely find such opportunities in greater abundance in other career paths, such as public defender.
In addition to tenure-track classroom teaching positions on a law faculty, there are increasing numbers of positions in clinical teaching. For many, clinical teaching involves the best of both worlds—the intellectual excitement of a university setting, close work with committed and energetic students, and the chance to do real-world work with clients and to contribute to the practical and ethical education of students. The activities and responsibilities of clinical faculty members vary from school to school. At some law schools, clinical faculty members also teach substantive subject-matter courses; at many schools, they teach only in the clinical program. Some schools seek to hire clinical faculty who also produce legal scholarship. It can be quite demanding to write academic articles while, at the same time, supervising students in law practice. Thus, some schools do not require clinical faculty to write academic articles, or may permit clinical faculty to produce scholarship of a different type or at a slower pace. The status of clinical faculty also varies from school to school. Some law schools afford tenure to clinical faculty members. At many schools, however, clinical teachers do not receive tenure, and may not be entitled to the full privileges of “classroom” teachers. These other schools may provide a different form of tenure, such as “clinical tenure,” or seek to hire faculty on long- or short-term contracts.