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Switching legal careers: Texas' Emerging Scholars Program is a bridge from prosecutor to professor
by Erica Winter
Law professors used to prepare for the academic careers by being former top law students and excellent judicial clerks. Now, like professors in other disciplines, law professors need a body of written scholarship to back them up in the pursuit of a tenure-track teaching job. Texas' ESP has fellows take a half load of teaching courses for each semester. Fellows devote the rest of their energies the first year towards developing a body of published work. For the second year, fellows work on teaching, publishing, and job hunting.
After 10 years as a federal prosecutor, Buell had "reached the peak of what I wanted to do." An alumnus of New York University Law School, Buell started off as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's office in Brooklyn, NY. Then, he worked as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's office in Boston for four years and rounded out his work spending two years in Washington, DC, on the Enron task force at the Department of Justice.
Buell had always been interested in teaching; but considering he has been out of law school for 10 years and has a family, it "was not feasible" to take a year off to do research and writing, and he could not take the time to do it while practicing. So he looked for temporary positions in academia, knowing it would be "invaluable" to take that time to develop his skills.
The ESP allows him to teach, attend colloquia, work on his research and writing, and also to get feedback on his ideas from other faculty members. It is "ideal" to be able to do research and teach, which he enjoys a great deal. Buell taught federal criminal law this semester and will teach criminal law in the fall next year. Being able to teach courses on law, and not on legal writing and research methods, was "really attractive to me," says Buell. The Texas program "is a real preview of being a professor at a law school."
There are other fellowship programs and visiting assistant professorships out there. Some do involve teaching, but most of those are classes on legal writing and research. Some fellowships only come with research components and no teaching work at all. There are relatively few temporary law school jobs out there, and the positions are difficult to get. Still, there are more law schools offering temporary positions, including the Bigelow Program at the University of Chicago.
Since Buell is on a half schedule for teaching, he has time to develop his legal scholarship. He currently has a manuscript for a law review article on entity criminal liability, and he is researching his next piece on individual responsibility in white-collar crime. In addition to having time to do research, Buell says another draw to the ESP is that "the University of Texas law faculty is outstanding; it's one of the top law faculties in the country."
Scholarly writing uses different muscles than legal writing. The former is expounding on a theory; the latter, setting out an argument. Scholarship is more abstract and broader than argumentation, says Buell, which draws on a confined set of materials, most on the relevant law on a particular issue. Academic legal scholarship draws on law, but also on historical economic, philosophical, and even psychological analysis of an issue. In this arena, the writer decides what is relevant to the inquiry, which is very challenging, according to Buell.
The transition from law practice to law teaching is a little smoother. Buell is able to draw on his practical experience in the courtroom and bring it to the classroom, describing to students real examples of legal practice, such as examples of prosecutorial discretion. The relevance of his work experience to teaching is "all very immediate."
There are other connections between Buell's law practice and his academic career. As a prosecutor, his job was to find the truth and, on a more basic level, to achieve "the right result." Academics and professors also seek truth, he says, and have a socially useful purpose. As for leaving behind his prosecutor's career, "I was ready for a new challenge." Buell adds, "Career change can be a wonderfully revitalizing thing."
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