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Taking Up Teaching Law As A Career

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Students with good academic records and those who have published work that has been widely appreciated should seriously consider a career in teaching.

Life as a law professor typically consists of three types of activities: research, teaching, and service. The chief research activity in law involves the publication of articles in law reviews. Professors may have to edit casebooks as well. Most professors end up writing books on law.

Professors can either teach law in the law school context or at various colleges and universities in business law, political science, history, or literature disciplines. Although professors in law schools enjoy somewhat better salaries, they perform many of the same duties as their college and university counterparts.

Both have to serve on committees and engage in scholarly research (the old "publish or perish" syndrome). They also hold office hours and give exams that may be given only at the end of a course, in the case of law school, or throughout the semester as in colleges and universities. If professors have an area of expertise, there is always the possibility for outside consulting or legal practice as long as it does not interfere with teaching duties and if permitted by their institution.

Even though consulting enhances the classroom experience by providing examples of "real world" experiences, some institutions highly discourage professors from engaging in all but limited consulting during the course of the school year, the school being fearful of obtaining anything less than a professor's full attention.

An obstacle a law graduate may encounter if he or she decides to teach business law at the college or university level involves some self-serving Ph.D.s who believe that anyone, especially Ph.D.s, can teach business law. Perhaps in the past non-lawyers did teach business law, but now business law covers so many current and dynamic topics that it takes an attorney to explain the law, where the law is headed, and why. Business law courses have become Legal Environment of Business courses, introducing students to such legal concepts as Civil Procedure, Environmental Law, Intellectual Property Law, and International Law, which were probably not even in business law texts at the time they took their undergraduate courses.

University professors are paid based on market demand. Since some university administrators, as well as some professors, believe that lawyers are a dime a dozen, salaries for business law professor positions are lower than for other business disciplines, yet competition for business law positions is stiff. So why opt to teach when there are other employment options available.

Perhaps the main reason is that professors have the opportunity to be their own bosses without the added pressures of having to collect unpaid accounts as well as the other pressures that come from having one's own practice; it is the best of all possible worlds. Also, they enjoy the interaction with their students. It keeps them young. In addition, professors have time to do the things that they really need to do when they need to do them.

Moreover, they can avoid the crowds by taking care of business during the week that others have to take care of on the weekend. There are many who feel that professors lead a very hectic life and that all the time they are grading papers, grading projects, putting exams together, preparing for class, and serving on committees, but those times are the exception, not the rule.

The job consistently has a beginning and an end. They can breathe a sigh of relief at the end of the semester and then take off for a few weeks of much needed rest and relaxation, unless they are trying to finish a book! At the end of the school year, they can choose to teach or to take the summer off, the choice is theirs.

It can be quite challenging to motivate the students and to think up ingenious ways to teach the material so that most students will grasp the concepts. Each semester, however, provides a new beginning. Professors continue to use the teaching methods that work and discard those that don't. Through trial and error and constant experimentation, they eventually settle on something that works. They get a lot of feedback on what works when our students judge our performance each semester through student evaluations. They have to admit that some of the evaluations provide some rather interesting and enlightening reading.

After teaching the same course for several semesters, they can spend more time on scholarly research or other competing matters as our comfort level with the material increases. Also, most teachers eventually become tenured, which means that they can be terminated only for cause. There is no other profession that enjoys such job security. There are some who believe that tenure leads to laziness and incompetence, that contracts should be renewed or not renewed on a yearly basis, or that term contracts should be given. Some institutions are adopting this attitude. It will be interesting to see what the future holds with respect to the tenure issue.

Teaching at a law school presents many of the same challenges and holds many of the same opportunities as teaching at colleges or universities. However, most exams at the law school level are given only once a semester (at the end) and are normally essay in nature. Therefore, in many instances, law professors have to make tougher judgment calls as to what a student's course grade will be since they have received less input over the semester. If there is any question, professors will normally give the student the benefit of the doubt and grant the higher of two grades.

Professors at law schools normally also spend more time in preparation for class than do their college or university counterparts. The teaching method frequently used at universities is the lecture method; at law schools it is the Socratic Method, which involves an interactive discussion between professor and students, with the professor asking the questions, the students providing the answers, then the professor questioning the answers.

Teaching at a law school can be a very challenging experience. New professors will not get much of a choice as to which classes they would like to teach, which can prove difficult. Students are generally extremely bright, very motivated, and highly enthusiastic. They are also highly competitive and extremely conscious about grades. However, interest in the law begins to vary among students as they progress through law school.

Competition for law school teaching positions is very intense. As a prerequisite, you should have served on law review, preferably as an editor, finished in the top 5 to 10 percent of your graduating law class, preferably from a prestigious law school, and have served a federal judicial clerkship. If you don't graduate at the top of your class, however, you really can't improve your chances by taking graduate law courses. Law schools see through this ploy and will judge you on the basis of your law school record. Some of the few ways to improve your chances include publications and/or an advanced degree in another area. It is not recommended that you attend law school with the sole intent of teaching at a law school upon graduation. Otherwise, you may be disappointed.

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