Educating The Next Generation of Law Faculty: Part 1

Educating The Next Generation of Law Faculty

By James Vescovi and Susan Wampler

Most law students give little thought to a career in teaching. After all, they are in the midst of mastering a new language and learning hundreds of challenging new concepts. Teach this stuff? They just hope to remember it when the bar exam comes around. And yet, some students fall in love with the academic life while they are in the midst of it. They find a career in practice not nearly as attractive as the world of ideas, scholarship, and collegiality. A few, arriving with Ph.D.s in hand, are invariably curious about teaching. Still others, after a few years of practice, find themselves hankering to get back to academia and share their knowledge.

How exactly does Columbia Law School identify those students and alumni with professorial potential, let alone encourage and guide them into the world of teaching?

For starters, Columbia attracts a higher percentage of those who will someday teach than most other law schools. Columbia's status as one of the nation's top law schools acts as a beacon to exceptionally gifted students. The excellence and depth of Columbia's legal education are widely appreciated and enable even those who have not graduated near the top of their class or served on law review to gain consideration. The many opportunities for writing on one of Columbia's 14 journals and under faculty supervision produce publications and mentorships that can open faculty doors. A large percentage of graduates (usually about 20 percent) get clerkships, which also prove a vital step toward a future faculty position.

This past year, at least 13 Columbia graduates secured jobs as professors at law schools in the United States and Canada.  (For a list, please click on "A Bumber Crop of New Professors.") The placement of these graduates reflects the School's focus on scholarship, as well as the work of the Program on Careers in Law Teaching. Established two years ago, the program - overseen by Professors Carol Sanger and Michael Dorf and assisted by many faculty members - helps current students and alumni/ae explore careers as law professors.

Professor Carol Sanger

"We work with current J.D.s to show them what they can do during their three years at law school to decide whether they might want to teach and, if so, give them direction on pursuing a teaching career," says Prof. Sanger. "We also assist alumni/ae who have been out in the job market and are considering full-time teaching careers."

Most candidates formally present their credentials at the Faculty Recruitment Conference sponsored annually by the Association of American Law Schools. Last year, the Law School, which ranks third nationally in the number of alumni in teaching, hosted a hospitality suite to give Columbia hopefuls advice and encouragement. But the work to secure a teaching offer begins long before this event.

A taste of faculty life
Beginning in the fall and lasting throughout the year, the Program on Careers in Law Teaching invites students to attend faculty luncheons, where they have the opportunity to mingle with professors and hear the presentation of working papers.

"These lunches give many students a first glimpse of faculty life," says Prof. Dorf.

In January, the program holds an open forum on teaching careers, followed throughout the spring term by weekly workshops with faculty. The workshops cover a variety of topics, such as writing opportunities in law school, the transition from practice to teaching, the mechanics of the job market, and developing a scholarly agenda. Last year, more than 30 professors participated in the workshops.

The program's overall goal, according to Profs. Sanger and Dorf, is to inform students about what they will need to be competitive candidates if and when they decide to pursue a job in academia. This includes having pertinent job experience, a published paper or two (or a strong research agenda), and a familiarity with the mechanics of the hiring process.

"We also encourage students to develop relationships with faculty members who share an interest in a specific area of law. Hopefully, they become scholarly collaborators," says Prof. Sanger. "That way, when students graduate, they know who their supporters are in mentoring relationships that extend past graduation."

While the program did not exist when he was a student, Aaron Saiger '00, a new professor at Fordham Law School, took full advantage of seeking out faculty mentors.

"My work with Columbia faculty - both through formal classroom instruction and by involving me in their research and pedagogy outside the classroom - actually nurtured my interest in legal academia," he says. Prof. Saiger credits Professor Richard Briffault with spurring an interest in state and local government law, which he is teaching at Fordham. In addition, while a student, Prof. Saiger worked as a research assistant for Professors Lou Henkin and Barbara Black.

The Program on Careers in Law Teaching also assists Columbia alumni who graduated before the formal program was created. Like students, alumni receive advice on the job search and are also directed to Columbia faculty members who might act as mentors and supporters. There are other forms of assistance, too. Last year, Prof. Saiger was provided with a stipend and a space to work on scholarly writing.

"We ask alums, ‘What professors did you get to know as a student?' or we'll hook them up with professors who share an interest in their area of specialization," says Prof. Dorf.

The program's Web site ( provides answers to frequently asked questions and a host of useful Internet links.