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Part 2: An Inside Look at the Requirements & Responsibilities of Becoming a Law Professor

published April 15, 2023

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Summary

Becoming a law professor is an attractive career choice for many attorneys. Becoming a professor requires hard work and dedication. In the second part of this series, we will examine the qualifications needed to become a law professor and the steps necessary to make this dream a reality.

To become a law professor, one must first obtain a Juris Doctor (JD) degree from an accredited law school. After completing the JD program, you will need to pass the bar exam in the state in which you plan to practice law. Once you become a licensed attorney, you must dedicate yourself to academic study in the specialty area of your choice.

In addition to the JD and bar exam, most law schools require that professors possess several other qualifications. One of those qualifications is a proven record of scholarly research and publication. This will likely require that you obtain an advanced degree such as a Master of Laws (LLM) or Doctor of Juridical Science (SJD). It also requires that you have a track record of presenting at conferences and other scholarly activities.

Most law schools also require that potential law professors have teaching experience. While this may not be required in all cases, it is important to obtain teaching experience prior to applying for a professorship in order to demonstrate that you have experience in teaching within the framework of a legal educational program.

In addition to the educational requirements, many law schools also require potential professors to have at least three years of legal practice experience. This experience will familiarize you with the legal system and help you to better understand the topics you will be teaching.

The final step to becoming a law professor is to prepare for the interview process. This involves researching the school and its educational philosophy, as well as preparing for the interview. It is important to demonstrate your knowledge of the law, as well as your ability to teach and interact with students. If you are successful, you will likely be offered a position.

Becoming a law professor is a challenging but rewarding career path for many attorneys. Prospective professors must first obtain a JD and pass the bar exam, then obtain advanced degrees and research/publication experience. Teaching experience is also beneficial. Most schools also require several years of legal practice experience before they consider candidates for a professorship. Once these qualifications are obtained, prospective law professors must prepare for the interview process and demonstrate their knowledge and proficiency in teaching.
 

Becoming a Law Professor: Part 2

Are you fascinated by the law and would love a career as a law professor? If so, you're in the right place! Becoming a law professor is a long but rewarding journey. In this article, we'll explore what it takes to become a law professor. This is the second article in our series on becoming a law professor, so you should read the first before continuing.
 

The Value of Advanced Degrees in Achieving Law Professor Status

The academic requirements for becoming a law professor are quite rigorous. Most law professors hold at least a Juris Doctor degree, often with a Master's of Law degree in addition. Many also have a Doctor of Philosophy or Doctor of Juridical Science degree and/or some other specialized degree. The value of these advanced degrees extends beyond job qualifications though; they also provide deep insight into the legal field and the ability to teach it effectively. Advanced degrees also provide credibility and a connection to peers and colleagues in the legal field.
 

Gaining Experience in the Legal Field

Another important requirement for becoming a law professor is gaining experience in the legal field. This typically includes clerking with a judge, working as a legal practitioner, working as a law librarian, or working as an adjunct professor. These positions offer invaluable experience in the legal world and demonstrate the applicant's commitment to the field and teaching ability. Additionally, these experiences can provide valuable networking opportunities for the aspiring law professor.
 

The Relevance of Publications for Law Professors

Publications are also necessary for becoming a law professor. Aspiring law professors must demonstrate their knowledge of the law and a commitment to scholarship through articles, books, and other publications. Publications provide a medium for law professors to convey their knowledge of the law and showcase their research skills. Publications also increase the likelihood of the professor being able to teach at top universities.
 

The Role of Law Reviews and Journals in a Law Professor's Career

Law reviews and journals are essential for the growth of any law professor's career. Publishing articles in law reviews and journals not only provides knowledge to the legal community but also serves as a valuable networking tool. Also, they provide an opportunity to collaborate with other law professors and make connections with those in the legal field which can lead to job opportunities. Law reviews and journals provide a platform for professors to share their research and create a reputation as an expert in their field.

While many begin law school with the goal of becoming a law professor, for others, the path to a career in academia is not always a straight line. For Mike Madison, an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, an interest in teaching came years after he graduated from law school.
 
Becoming A Law Professor, Part 2


"I never gave teaching a thought until I was seven or eight years into practice," said Mr. Madison. "Even then, it wasn't teaching that interested me. It was writing."

Mr. Madison said the things he enjoyed most about law practice were writing research memos and writing long briefs, two things lawyers tend to dislike. As he got more senior in practice, he did a lot less writing and was instead supervising other lawyers and working directly with clients. He said he pursued a teaching career to devote his professional time to doing what he enjoyed most.

"It was a long road to getting a tenure-stream position. I left my law firm in early 1996, made the commitment to find a permanent academic job shortly after that, and spent three-and-a-half years in fellowships and visiting appointments before securing a tenure-stream job beginning in the fall of 2000," said Mr. Madison.

Along the way, Mr. Madison published two law review articles, went through the "meat market" AALS hiring conference three times, and moved his family twice. He said the most difficult decision of all that was the initial decision to give up practice and try to find the academic appointment.

Indeed, the transition from practitioner to teaching can be difficult.

"The major challenge is moving from the problem-solving mind-set of practice to the more theoretical, policy-oriented focus of legal scholarship," explained Gabriel "Jack" Chin, Chester H. Smith Professor of Law, Professor of Public Administration and Policy & Co-Director, Law, Criminal Justice, and Security Program at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. "The focus in practice is clear: help your client, whether your client is right or wrong. In legal scholarship, you are trying to come up with the best possible information about your subject or the best possible solution to the problem. They are different skills."

The best preparation for a lawyer who wants to be a professor, Mr. Chin said, is to write a law review article. By doing so, a practitioner will know whether he/she enjoys writing and whether becoming a law professor is the right choice, and it will also help get him/her the job. "Most strong applicants, even coming from demanding practice settings, have published law review articles," Mr. Chin said.

Denise C. Morgan, Professor of Law at New York Law School, agrees and stressed the need for heavily focusing on writing as a way to break into the teaching field. "It really helps to have some published academic writing when you go onto the teaching job market in order to prove that you are really committed to the academic life and are not just trying to escape practice."

But what are the chances of getting hired as a law professor when making that switch from practitioner to professor of law?

D. Gordon Smith is a professor of law who also serves as the appointments committee chair at the University of Wisconsin Law School. He said that almost every person it hires is an entry-level candidate, and the criteria for becoming a law professor is the same whether the candidate has no practice or 20 years of practice.

"My experience in interviewing has been that people with substantial practice experience often are drawn more to the teaching side of the job than the scholarship side. Of course, this is not always true, but I think it is a fair generalization," said Mr. Smith. "Such people often are better directed toward clinical work than regular tenure-track positions. If they want to pursue the tenure-track position, they are in the same category as everyone else."

Another route sometimes less traveled is the adjunct teaching path.

Eric Goldman began as an adjunct professor before eventually getting a full-time appointment as Assistant Professor at Marquette University Law School. Mr. Goldman— who was an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco, Santa Clara, and UC Berkeley law schools—said that adjunct teaching can be a great experience and is one he enthusiastically recommends. However, he said it is not the way to go to achieve a full-time, tenure-track position.

"As a bridge towards getting a full-time, tenure-track job, I don't think it's heavily weighted in the hiring process," Mr. Goldman explained. "A candidate is principally evaluated on their academic pedigree, other prestigious accomplishments, and track record of publishing law review articles; prior experience as an adjunct is an insignificant factor compared to those criteria."

Mr. Goldman said experience as an adjunct might help a candidate at the margins by convincing schools that a candidate is serious about becoming a professor and shows proof that the candidate can teach. He cited his adjunct experience at Boalt Hall (UC Berkeley) as having added some weight to his resume.

While an adjunct professor, Mr. Goldman worked as general counsel and assistant secretary at Epinions, Inc., and an associate at Cooley Godward, LLP. Mr. Goldman said for experienced lawyers, it can be difficult to start their careers over in entry-level positions.

"I left [Epinions] to become an assistant professor—the junior guy on the totem pole—with no credit for my past experience. This meant that I had to learn the ropes, build new skills, build my reputation within the school, and stress about tenure."

Mr. Goldman admits he could have devoted some of the time he spent adjuncting instead to writing one or more law review articles, which might have been a better investment of time for preparing a law-teaching candidacy. Still, Mr. Goldman said he would not have done things any other way and considers his adjuncting experience as the "best professional experience of my life."

Can working as an adjunct be a barrier to being hired by that school, but a boon to teaching elsewhere?

"It depends," said Mr. Smith, who is involved in the law school hiring process. "Some schools may be reluctant to hire their own adjuncts on the theory that such candidates may receive 'friendship' votes that advantage them over outside candidates without regard to quality. On the other hand, a person may make themselves known to the faculty by being a good adjunct."

Still, Mr. Smith believes that adjunct teaching can serve as a useful experience. However, he said it is unlikely to lead to a tenure-track position at most law schools. "In evaluating candidates, law schools give adjunct teaching relatively little weight, although excellent evaluations from adjunct teaching are a definite plus."

Whether making the switch from longtime practitioner or transitioning after years of adjunct teaching, there is one factor that stands out as the most significant criterion for becoming a law professor.

"The bottom line is that you cannot talk about law school hiring without discussing scholarly potential," said Mr. Smith. "That is far and away the most important factor in the hiring decisions of most law schools, and everything else lags by comparison."

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