Law Teaching 101

Do I want to be a law professor?

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.

What is a law professor’s course load and committee work like?

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 such as 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.

How important is a law professor’s research commitment?

Most law schools, particularly the most prestigious institutions, treat accomplishment in research as crucial. Such accomplishment is measured by the quality and quantity of scholarly publications. 

Successful legal scholars are excited by ideas and willing to persevere—through many drafts and revisions—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.

What is clinical teaching like?

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 hire clinical faculty who also produce legal scholarship. It can be quite demanding to write academic articles while also supervising students in law practice. 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 give 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.


How can I make my application stand out to hiring or appointment committees?
Traditionally, getting excellent grades at a distinguished law school, being a law review member or (preferably) officer, and having a prestigious clerkship after graduation have been the most important factors, especially at the top schools. 

In recent years, however, scholarly achievement—not just potential—is increasingly required. By the time you are applying for tenure-track teaching jobs, you should have at least one polished piece of work ready to be submitted to prospective employers and to be used as a “job talk.” A paper already in the publication pipeline can serve these purposes well. Most law faculties still value candidates who have practiced law, so a few years of experience can be useful, particularly if you have also been able to write.

Should I pursue post-J.D. training?
To prepare for an academic career in this increasingly competitive market, some students pursue an additional graduate degree in a law-related discipline. Post-J.D. fellowship programs aimed at bringing law graduates into teaching are also available. One established example is the Law School’s Academic Fellows program, where emerging scholars teach legal research and writing during the first semester and are free to develop their scholarship in the second semester and during the summer. The program also has limited fellowship funding for Columbia graduates to spend one to six months in residence while working on their writing. Similar programs exist at other top schools, and admission is not confined to graduates of these respective schools. Check the Fellowships page for an up-to-date list.

How can I develop a record of scholarly achievement as a law student?
You can select courses that require writing papers rather than taking an exam to help you develop your research interests and produce publishable work. Consider working as a research assistant for a professor whose specialization interests you. This experience will enhance your research skills and your familiarity with the subject matter, offer you a close view of the scholarly world (and, ideally, some mentoring), and provide you with a valuable reference later on. Seek out opportunities to present papers in seminars and at conferences; the practice will be valuable, and you may also make helpful contacts. Above all, let your professors know that you are interested in a teaching career. Even faculty members with whom you have not taken a class or who do not share your research interests may have useful suggestions and ideas.

Do legal research and writing positions provide a useful entry to teaching?
It depends. Teaching legal writing and research, in and of itself, has little to commend it as an entre to law school teaching unless that is the subject you wish to teach. A number of schools do have permanent legal writing and research faculty, some tenure-track. A few schools have programs, like Columbia’s Associates in Law program, that are specifically structured to assist aspiring young scholars who do not yet have the writing portfolio (and, perhaps, mentors) that will contribute to their success. Recent associates now teach at American, Buffalo, Cornell, St. Louis, Washington & Lee, and other American law schools, as well as at leading schools in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. 

How can I produce a substantial scholarly article while working full-time?
This is a real challenge, and there are no easy approaches. 

You may wish to consider a fellowship. Some prospective law professors enroll in J.S.D. programs that require a measure of teaching in exchange for a stipend and time to write with input from faculty members. However, the competition for these positions is stiff, and the opportunity cost of roughly two years is high. 

If you have the self-discipline and an accommodating employer, you may do better to give yourself a “fellowship,” i.e. take off roughly three months from work to write an article. If you plan to do something like this, you should develop the idea and do some preliminary research before your leave of absence begins. 

Setting a realistic timetable is essential. The sort of work that a full-time academic could produce in less than a semester may take an aspiring academic a year or two. But given that your writing will play a major role in whether you land a teaching job, you should take the time necessary to produce a paper that showcases your abilities.

How about adjunct teaching?
In general, adjunct teaching is not a good way to break into the legal academy, although it can help you learn whether teaching will be a source of gratification for you. Adjunct teaching at another school will be of minor interest to a faculty you are applying to, save possibly as a source of teaching evaluations.

If you are interested in adjunct teaching, contact Elina Yuffa at [email protected].

Should I pursue clinical teaching experience?
For students interested in clinical teaching, practice experience is especially important. While many law schools look to some of the same criteria that measure candidates for traditional classroom teaching, prospective clinical teachers must also demonstrate the ability or the potential to supervise students with real cases or projects. Schools often hire clinical faculty from the world of practice; many clinical teachers come from law firms, government agencies, and nonprofits. Some students gain both practice and clinical teaching experience through clinical fellowships. 

How do I find a school that’s the right fit for me?
Because the requirements for clinical teaching positions vary dramatically from school to school, you should think carefully about the type of position you are seeking. You might consider, for example, whether you would enjoy a teaching position at a school that requires clinicians to produce academic scholarship. If you would like to obtain a tenure-track clinical teaching position or one that requires scholarship, you should follow the same advice given to nonclinical teachers: have a paper or project ready to discuss. To get a better sense of the role of a clinical teacher, and of the variety of positions in the clinical teaching market, you should regularly read the newsletters of two professional groups: the Clinical Section of the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) and the Clinical Legal Education Association (CLEA).

How should I determine where I want to apply?
The academic job market is extremely competitive, so if your personal situation permits, you should expand your applications beyond a small number of schools or a particular geographical area. You are only applying for your first job, not a position for life, and law facultyƒ often move around. You should anticipate that, wherever you find a teaching job, you will (in the early years of your academic career) be required to “pay your dues” as you juggle teaching and administrative responsibilities with scholarly projects.

What is the timeline and hiring process like?
Hiring for entry-level, tenure-track teaching jobs typically begins more than a year before the start dates. The process is largely conducted through the Association of American Law Schools (AALS), which distributes candidates’ standardized résumés to appointments committees and sponsors the Faculty Recruitment Conference (FRC) in the fall in Washington, D.C.

If you wish to apply for this type of position, you should start your preparations in the spring of the calendar year in which you will be applying. The AALS website includes a very informative Faculty Recruitment Services page. 

If you choose to participate in the AALS recruiting process, be sure to fill out the application in time to have your material included in the first Faculty Appointments Register (FAR) distribution. Many schools fill up their interview slots based on this first set and don’t look at candidates whose material comes in later. Law school appointments or hiring committees comb through the first FAR distribution to decide which candidates their committees will interview at the FRC.

What happens at the Faculty Recruitment Conference?
This is where faculty appointments committees conduct initial screening interviews. Candidates should plan to attend the conference and expect to pay their own way. It is generally worthwhile to stay at the conference hotel, as the 30-minute interviews are often scheduled back to back. Columbia Law School hosts a hospitality suite for its candidates at the conference. This is a great place to have a snack, get advice, swap war stories, or just unwind between interviews.

What should I expect from on-campus interviews?
After your screening interview, if you are invited by a school for an on-campus interview, the school will pay the costs of the trip. On-campus interviews begin as early as the week after the AALS conference and may extend into late February. 

In general, the on-campus interview will consist of a dinner with several faculty members, a series of interviews with other faculty members, your job talk, a meeting with students, and a meeting with the dean. The job talk is usually a 15- to 30-minute presentation to the school’s entire faculty—often with visual aids but not read from a prepared text—on your current work, followed by about 40 to 60 minutes of questions. In most cases, the chair or another member of the appointments committee will shepherd you through the process. 

On-campus interviews are arduous. Remember that you are potentially being evaluated by everyone you encounter, from the librarian to the dean’s secretary to the head of the appointments committee. Be wary of invitations to criticize colleagues, former teachers, or other schools; this will almost always reflect badly on you. At the same time, remember that if you were invited by the appointments committee for an on-campus interview, you must have made a very favorable impression, and the faculty are trying to impress you as much as you are trying to impress them.

Are there other hiring venues I can look into?
While many law schools hire clinical faculty members through the AALS Faculty Recruitment Conference, there are other established pipelines. Many schools advertise clinical teaching positions in the CLEA newsletter, and these schools welcome applications made directly to the school’s appointments committee or to the director of the clinical program. Law schools will typically invite clinical faculty candidates to on-campus interviews. Some clinical faculty on-campus interviews require job talks, while others will not. 

Are independent applications possible?
In addition to registering with the AALS Faculty Appointments Register (FAR), you may also want to apply independently to schools in which you are especially interested. Your application should include a cover letter, résumé, transcript, and scholarly writing sample. The cover letter should state a plausible explanation for why you especially want to teach at that law school, such as proximity to family or a specialized program in your area of expertise. The package should be sent to the dean of the law school or the chair of the faculty appointments committee. 

Whether or not you apply separately, the AALS now permits you to upload a résumé along with your AALS form. Most schools will not look at your résumé until they have first screened your AALS form, so you should be as complete as possible with the AALS form. 

Your résumé should include a prominent section listing published works, forthcoming publications, and works in progress. (Include only drafts that you expect to be able to share when you start receiving phone calls for interviews.) You should also include a section giving the names and contact information of your references and a section stating your research and teaching interests. Ideally, these should be related to one another.

When are offers made? 
The timing of decisions varies from one school to another and depends on a particular school’s procedures.

Most schools will permit you to wait until you have heard from all the other schools at which you had on-campus interviews before requiring you to accept or reject their offer. However, a growing number of schools give fixed deadlines, with the result that their offer may expire before you know whether you will be receiving offers from other schools. Schools that make “exploding” offers do so to avoid waiting too long on their first-choice candidate and potentially losing their second-, third-, and fourth-choice candidates. They also count on the risk aversion of candidates as a method of ensnaring candidates they would otherwise lose to higher-ranked institutions. There is no standard approach on handling an exploding offer from a school that is acceptable to you but less desirable than a school at which you remain in the running. Weigh your choices based upon the relative merits, your estimate of the likelihood that you will receive additional offers, and your taste for risk, as in other contexts, such as clerkships and law review offers of publication.

Do you have any tips for my letters of recommendation?
In law, unlike other fields, your references will not generally send unsolicited letters of recommendation; rather, they will wait to be contacted by interested schools for their opinions. You should ask permission before listing someone as a reference and make sure each academic reference is familiar with your scholarly work. If, after you submit your application, you have an article accepted for publication (or some other relevant and important change occurs in your circumstances, enhancing your qualifications), you should notify your references and update your application with a letter of explanation and any other applicable materials. Keep your references informed about your schedule of on-campus interviews and about any offers you may receive—that way, they can pass on this information strategically to their contacts. An interview at one good school can generate interest at others.

What kinds of topics will be discussed during the interview?
Be prepared to discuss your teaching interests. Keep in mind that schools will often have teaching needs at the first-year level. Rehearse specific answers about which courses you would like to teach and what your approach to them would be.

More importantly, you should be ready to discuss your publications and research projects and should be able to state the thesis of a piece of work concisely. Developing a concise yet interesting statement of a thesis takes practice. Make sure that, when asked this sort of question in an interview, you will neither flounder nor digress. You should also practice answering questions about ideas for future work, or your “research agenda.” You want to leave the impression with your interviewers that, given the opportunity to pursue your scholarly interests, you will be a productive addition to the school. 

When you are asked what questions you have for your interviewers, do not ask about salary and benefits—those questions can wait until you’re offered the job. Instead, think of questions that will reveal your scholarly interests, such as opportunities to organize conferences and workshops. If you are applying for a clinical teaching position, you should be prepared to discuss why you are highly qualified to supervise students in the types of cases or projects that the clinics may handle.

How should I prepare for my job talk?
Familiarize yourself with the work of faculty members, particularly those whose work is related to yours. Your job talk should not ignore faculty publications on the same topic. At the same time, you shouldn’t pander to your audience by invoking their work where it is not relevant. Find out how long you are expected to speak, and whether the protocol at the school is to let you finish the talk or be interrupted with questions right away, as with an oral argument in court. 

Time your job talk and practice it in front of an audience that can ask probing questions: colleagues (if you are being open with them about seeking a new line of work), law school classmates (if they are available), your spouse or partner (if they are game), or (as a last resort) the mirror.

Remember that you have more expertise in the subject of your paper than most of your audience. Members of your audience may or may not be in your field, so balance providing enough background for the non-specialists against spending too much of your time on basics. If you are interested in and enthusiastic about your topic, the talk should go well. 

How should I field questions from the audience during my job talk?
Try to anticipate hard questions and prepare responses. It’s OK to pause to think about a hard question. You are being evaluated on the quality of your mind rather than the speed of your answers. Most questioners want you to feel comfortable and are not out to trip you up. If you don’t understand a question, it’s OK to ask for clarification, and if you don’t know the answer, it’s OK to say something like “I want to give that some more thought. Thanks for the suggestion.” (Just don’t answer every question this way!) Above all, be responsive to questions and respectful of everyone who asks questions.

How else will I be evaluated during the on-campus interviews?
Throughout your time on campus, show enthusiasm for the school and its location. Think of ways to show that you have some acquaintance with the history of the school and ask questions about it. Demonstrate your intellectual curiosity by asking faculty members about their work, as well as discussing yours. In your meeting with the dean, convey that you enjoyed meeting the faculty and are impressed with the school, the students, the building, the curriculum—whatever is plausible.

The process as a whole is difficult and can be at times dispiriting. Patience is necessary. Many candidates have gotten outstanding jobs in their second (or successive) year of applying, usually after writing a bit more. In addition, many schools hire according to their needs. They may not be looking broadly at all promising entry-level candidates, but are focusing on candidates with a genuine interest or actual experience in a particular field. These needs and school budgets change, so you may be attractive in a subsequent year simply because your field is now the object of a search. 

Check out these publications for greater insight into the legal teaching world:

  • Gabriel J. Chin and Denise C. Morgan, Breaking Into the Academy: The 1996-97 Michigan Journal of Race & Law Guide for Aspiring Law Professors, 1 Mich. J. Race & L. 551 (1996).
  • Anne M. Enquist, Paula Lustbader, and John Mitchell, From Both Sides Now: The Job Talk’s Role in Matching Candidates with Law Schools (October 4, 2010). 
  • James Gordley, Mere Brilliance: The Recruitment of Law Professors in the United States, 41 Am. J. Comp. L. 367 (1993).
  • Deborah J. Merritt and Barbara F. Reskin, The Double Minority: Empirical Evidence of a Double Standard in Law School Hiring of Minority Women, 65 S. Cal. L. Rev. 2299 (1992).
  • Deborah Jones Merritt and Barbara F. Reskin, Sex, Race, and Credentials: The Truth about Affirmative Action in Law Faculty Hiring, 97 Colum. L. Rev. 199 (1997).
  • William Prosser, Lighthouse No Good, 1 J. Leg. Ed. 257 (1948).  
  • Terrance Sandalow, On Becoming a Law Professor, 1 Mich. J. Race & L. 580 (1996).
  • Lawrence B. Solum, University of Illinois College of Law, “The New Realities of the Legal Academy,” in Becoming a Law Professor: A Candidate’s Guide, Brannon P. Denning, Marcia L. McCormick, and Jeffrey M. Lipshaw, eds., American Bar Association. 
  • Eugene Volokh, Test Suites: A Tool for Improving Student Articles, 52 J. Leg. Educ. 440 (2002).

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Elizabeth Williams