The Road Less Traveled

For Law School graduates making an impact in academia,
working to mold the next generation of intellectual leaders and advance meaningful scholarship could not be more rewarding

By Paula Span

Winter 2010

It is not uncommon to hear lawyers remark that, even early in law school, they could spot which classmates seemed destined for academic careers.
The future professors were ambitious students, of course—the intensifying competition for faculty positions virtually demands stellar grades and enthusiastic recommendations—but they were also, somehow . . . distinctive.

“Sometimes, you could see it,” recalls Frederic White ’73. “You noticed someone asking especially thoughtful, probing questions, being really serious about them. And you’d say to yourself, ‘He’s probably going to be a teacher.’”

Bill Flanagan ’89 LL.M. has noticed another identifying characteristic. “Students drawn to an academic career are particularly interested in the intellectual aspects of the study of law,” he says. “They have a real passion for it.”

Flanagan was likely one of those whom peers could envision presiding over classrooms. He had won admission to Columbia Law School’s two-year Associates-in-law Program, designed to prepare participants for legal academia, and was already writing journal articles and leading seminars in legal writing and research. A Canadian, Flanagan had spent a couple of summers at prominent Toronto law firms, and though he found working there “great fun,” the experience confirmed that the academic aspect of law was always what interested him most.

So it is probably unsurprising that Flanagan is beginning his 18th year at the
Faculty of Law at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, where he has served
as dean since 2005.

But the proposition that future professors are identifiable early on does not always hold. Consider that Frederic White had no intention of joining the legal academy. A self-described “blue-collar kid” from Ohio, and the first in his family to graduate from a four-year college, “I was going to be the first black partner in one of those big Cleveland law firms,” he recalls. “Be a trailblazer. And also, make a lot of money.”

Invited to interview for a position at Cleveland State University’s Cleveland-Marshall College of Law after five years as a municipal finance associate at Squire Sanders & Dempsey, White remembers facing a semicircle of professors. He answered the usual
opening question—“Why do you want to teach here?”—with a blunt, “I don’t. You called me. You tell me why I want to teach here.”

Thirty-one years later, White not only teaches law, he heads a law school. In July 2008, he became dean at Texas Wesleyan School of Law in Fort Worth, after four years as dean at Golden Gate University School of Law in San Francisco and—despite that rocky first encounter—26 years as professor and associate dean at Cleveland-Marshall. “It was the best career decision I ever made,” White says.

Columbia Law School graduates are helping to shape legal education as teachers, scholars, and administrators, working in nearly every state and on dozens of campuses internationally—from Florence to Nairobi, New Delhi to Sao Paulo. Stretching back to the Law School’s earliest days, through the era when
Milton Handler ’26 offered masterful displays of Socratic inquiry in Morningside Heights, to the achievements of more recent standouts such as criminal law legend Yale Kamisar ’54 and current faculty member Theodore M. Shaw ’79, the Law School has placed hundreds of influential scholars in the ranks of the academy.

Some graduates, like Bill Flanagan and Jens Ohlin ’05, a second-year, tenure-track professor at Cornell Law School, moved almost seamlessly from Columbia Law School to junior faculty positions. And because of the Careers in Law Teaching Program (CILTP) at Columbia Law School, which Professor Carol Sanger has directed since 2000, such success stories are becoming more common. The program provides an array of tools and support for those interested in legal teaching, and, in just the past five years, its participants have earned faculty positions at more than 50 law schools throughout the country, including tenure-track jobs at the University of Chicago, the University of Texas, and Boalt Hall.

Ohlin, who specializes in international criminal law, took advantage of every guidance opportunity the program offered and credits the CILTP for his landing a teaching position. “I attended the seminars, lectures, and panel discussions about an academic career from my very first week of law school,” he recalls. “I was probably the only 1L to attend those sessions. And I completed the law school experience while always keeping an academic career in mind. So I was able to make very smart and strategic decisions from the beginning.”

Of course, not everyone enters the academy straight from law school.

A majority of Law School graduates segue into teaching from private practice or public service. And their varied pathways to academia indicate that there is truly no typical approach to entering the field. Jennifer E. Laurin ’03, another recent CILTP participant and a past Law School Teaching Fellow, practiced civil rights law for several years before deciding to pursue a career in academia and landing a tenure-track job at the University of Texas School of Law. “As much as I felt passionately about vindicating the particular claims of my clients, I was really hungry for an opportunity to step back from any individual case and think across cases, to think more systematically,” she says. “I was feeling that drive to ask bigger questions.”

George R. Johnson Jr. ’76, meanwhile, came to academia by a bit of political happenstance. He was serving in the Carter administration and planning a move to the Senate Judiciary Committee when the 1980 election replaced Chairman Edward Kennedy with Chairman Strom Thurmond. Johnson quickly exited government and joined the law faculty at George Mason University. He then moved on to Howard University, and later became president of LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis. In 2006, he joined the inaugural faculty at Elon University School of Law in North Carolina, where he rose to the position of dean this year.

Graduates making their way in academia report a variety of rewards and satisfactions. But most cite the unparalleled level of intellectual freedom, the stimulating nature of a scholarly community, and the ability to interact with and guide students as central components of what makes the job satisfying.

Jennifer Laurin realized the unique benefits of an academic career from her very first day on the job—which happened to take place only a few months ago, when she began leading a course in criminal law at Texas.

“The ability to share a discipline and a subject matter that I care so much about with people who are just encountering all of that for the first time is exciting,” she says. “And it’s been a huge relief to find that I am really, really enriched by being in a scholarly community.”

Laurin enjoys the support of her colleagues and finds it gratifying to know she will have the capacity to affect important debates in criminal justice happening at the law school, in the state of Texas, and beyond. “That was a big draw for me,” she says.

Also high on the list of what attracts Law School graduates to academia: intellectual autonomy. As Sienho Yee ’93, professor and chief expert at the Wuhan University Institute of International Law in central China, puts it: “The academic track allows one to pick one’s own battles in the field, rather than having to do whatever people pay one to do.”

Expected to devote much of their time to scholarship, professors have the freedom to pursue whatever strikes them as “most intellectually fascinating,” says Bill Flanagan of Queen’s University, who is a good case in point. He grew deeply concerned about the then–newly recognized disease AIDS while still a law student in the late ’80s. Twenty years later, HIV and AIDS have remained an important focus of Flanagan’s research and publishing, which have taken him to conferences around the world and led to leadership roles in AIDS projects involving Russia and Brazil.

As an academic, “You’re free to challenge conventional views; you’re almost expected to,” he says. “And you’re doing it because you think it’s important, because you think you can make a contribution.”

For Tugrul Ansay ’55 M.C.L., ’56 LL.M., who spent nearly 30 years as a professor and administrator at Ankara University’s law school in Turkey, the scope of influence afforded academics was always a major draw. As a professor and dean, he introduced a number of innovations at Ankara and emphasized an “American way of teaching” that favored the Socratic method over “one-sided, 45-minute lecture[s].” In 2003, years after Ansay had retired from the university and was lecturing and writing in Germany, he was asked to apply the principles he had long espoused to a new law school underwritten by one of Turkey’s wealthiest businessmen as part of a wave of private law schools being established across that country.

The law school, housed at Koc University atop a wooded hillside, admits only 50 students a year. As founding dean, Ansay insisted on first-year “core courses” in the liberal arts, fewer teaching hours so that faculty members could pursue research, and an approach that encouraged student analysis and participation. “If your ideas are good,” he says, “some day people start to accept them.”

At a more micro level, the ability to shape the future of the profession by influencing young scholars constitutes one of the most appealing aspects of their careers, academic lawyers say. That process begins in the classroom and continues as professors advise, mentor, and recommend students.

Jens Ohlin, who holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia University in addition to his degree from the Law School, says his favorite part of the day occurs when students drop by his office to discuss an interest in one of his specialties or to ask for career advice. “It can be very moving,” he adds.

But Ohlin also says that being a truly great professor takes even more work than he expected—what with the lecture preparations, scholarship demands, and everything else involved with being a reliable colleague. “And there is no partner calling you at 5 p.m. saying, ‘Where’s the memo?’” he notes. “All you have is your own ambition. And it can be tough to know when to stop, because there’s always the next book, or the next article.”

Of course, no one ever said that life as an academic would be devoid of drawbacks, and those who have chosen the field seem in accord about the most obvious one. “As a law dean, I’m aware of how well our alumni are doing in large firms,” Flanagan says. “The gap is enormous. They’re making three, four, or five times what a law professor makes.

“The non-pecuniary benefits of an academic career have to be quite meaningful to make up for that loss of income,” he adds. “And they are, to me.”

Those benefits are sufficiently meaningful that Law School alumni who serve as professors encourage some of their most promising students to also consider academic careers. Several of the lawyers who George Johnson trained at George Mason and Howard are now themselves teaching law, he says. Frederic White also strives to recruit the best and brightest.

As a professor, “you get to impart information to smart young people,” White tells his students. “You get to help them along in their careers. Sometimes you get a chance to straighten them out a little.

“You’re running a relay, and you hand off to somebody else, and you hope they’re better, faster, stronger, and smarter than you are.”

Paula Span teaches at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and is the author of the recently published book When the Time Comes.

With additional reporting by Mary Johnson

Illustration by Brad Yeo