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How Can I Become A Law Professor?

published October 20, 2021

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Most law professors do not have a doctoral degree, as is the case in most academic disciplines.  Most law professors hold a J.D. degree, which is the basic bachelor's degree in law in the United States.  There was a time when advanced law degrees, such as an LL.M. and an S.J.D., were considered desirable prerequisites for aspiring law teachers, but those days are long gone. LL.M. degrees are nearly extinct, and the S.J.D. is no longer available. Instead, they are now merely specialization certificates that indicate intensive, but not necessarily advanced, law study.

The majority of new law professors are hired to law school faculties based on their impressive performance in law school.  Graduating with excellent grades and joining a prestigious law review is typically indicative of teaching potential, especially if one is complemented by an impressive clerkship and some, but not too much, experience as a lawyer in practicing law. Most professors are not hired based on their legal practice expertise alone.

This situation might be getting better thanks to a study published recently by Vanderbilt University law professors Joni Hersch and W. Kip Viscusi.

At least some law schools are now hiring applicants who have also obtained a Ph.D., according to Hersch and Viscusi. The United States is almost incapable of offering law Ph.D. degrees, so law professors with doctorates in other fields hold them instead.

After studying the law faculties at 26 "leading" schools, Hersch and Viscusi found that 361 (27%) have Ph.D. degrees from these schools.  Thirteen percent (13%) of faculty members have Ph.D. degrees in social sciences other than economics; seven percent have degrees in economics; and seven percent have degrees in other fields such as English or chemistry. Almost 18% of law professors with Ph.D. degrees (65) have a Ph.D. but no law degree.  In fact, most law faculty members with a Ph.D. (296) hold both a law degree and a doctorate.

Unlike any other law school, Northwestern offers PhDs to half of its faculty members.  Other law schools with high percentages of Ph.D. professors include Pennsylvania (43%); UC-Berkeley (42%); Yale (40%); Cornell (40%); and Stanford (39%).

Professors who hold Ph.D.s are crucial to the real purpose of law school education, which is a question that goes to the core of the question. If law schools are primarily academic departments charged with providing students with a sophisticated analytical framework for studying the structure and function of American law, then the Ph.D. law professors, with their systematic training in legal scholarship and research, clearly have an edge over their non-Ph.D counterparts who typically scramble for years trying to pick up such skills on the fly.  A Ph.D. law professor, on the other hand, should be at a disadvantage since, rather than undergo the rigors of an actual law school experience, they spend years in graduate school rather than learning what it means to practice law.

Law schools are tempted to claim that they are both academic and practical training facilities.  However, it can be challenging to strike the right balance between the scholarly and the practical.  Currently, law professors produce a large amount of legal scholarship that is generally poorly regarded by law school counterparts, and the bar regularly complains that most law schools fail to prepare their students adequately for the realities of law practice.

For more observations about the top law schools, see the following article: Top Law Schools Analyzed and Ranked By America’s Top Legal Recruiter Harrison Barnes

Paths to Law Teaching

There are three well-trodden paths to a career as a law teacher; although not all enter the profession through one of these paths:

Path A: The Classical Path starts with exceptional academic performance in law school (e.g., graduating Order of the Coif), service on the law review, preferably in a senior editorial position (e.g., "Articles Editor," "Editor-in-Chief," etc.), followed by a prestigious judicial clerkship, at least on a U.S. Court of Appeals and, if possible, on the U.S. Supreme Court. Due to the fierce competition for law school teaching positions, the Classical Path is no longer a guaranteed ticket to a good law school teaching position, and more and more legal academia are beginning to question whether these are the credentials to value in promising law teachers and scholars. Many schools have turned to interdisciplinary scholarship in recent years, from law and economics to empirical legal studies, which has lessened the relevance of the Classical Path. The classical path is increasingly being pursued by those who would have gone that route a generation ago, but are also contemplating the routes B and C.

Path B: The LLM/“Post-Doc”/VAP Path can require somewhat less by way of academic accomplishment and work experience than the Classical Path: e.g., a strong academic performance, but perhaps not exceptional; some work on a journal, or some substantial writing experience, but perhaps not via law review; some practical experience, either in practice or some sort of clerkship, if not a U.S Court of Appeals. (Asides from your credentials and interview, you can sometimes find a teaching job at a school that has less competition for hiring, however, most of the time hiring is becoming more difficult.) Path B requires additional academic/research experience after graduation from law school, as well as some practice experience. This might take the form of a graduate law degree (an LL.M., less commonly for American lawyers, an S.J.D.) at a top law school (usually this means: Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, maybe also NYU [esp. for tax] [Chicago offers LL.M. and S.J.D. degrees, but primarily for foreign-trained lawyers]); it might take the form of teaching legal research and writing at a top law school that recruits people for these positions with an eye to helping them develop as legal scholars and law teachers (Chicago’s Bigelow program is the best-known example, but Stanford does something similar, and Harvard has what they call Climenko Fellows); or it might mean a position as a “Visiting Assistant Professor” or Fellow at one of the proliferating programs at top law schools that aim to serve as stepping stones to teaching careers (the Visiting Assistant Professor Program at Duke, Academic Fellowships at Penn are examples). (Paul Caron [Pepperdine] makes periodic posts to his TaxProf blog listing these opportunities.) The goal in each case is to publish publishable scholarly work and to impress the faculty at the school that they will recommend you for teaching positions.

Path C: Paths A and B are often combined with the Interdisciplinary Path, although it need not be if the work in the other discipline is of sufficient quality and distinction to attract the attention of American law schools. The candidate also completes graduate studies in another relevant area of law - e.g., history, economics, philosophy, sociology, political science - earning a Ph.D. usually.   

The three paths to law teaching carry one important caveat. The most important thing for law schools is finding potential scholars. Researchers believe that all the paths described can be used as indicators to find those who are likely to become scholars. It is better to publish scholarly articles before applying for jobs, however, since this establishes scholarly potential. Having published at least one article since graduating from law school is by far the best way to get hired as a law teacher.        

You may be able to revise and submit for publication to law reviews papers you have written in law schools, such as a seminar paper or independent study. If you publish shoddy work, you are doing more harm than good. So do not publish something just for publication's sake. On the other hand, you do not need to publish the best piece ever written about the subject! You will be considered a serious scholar if you have publications to your credit.

Establishing a substantial relationship with faculty members who can serve as references is another very important factor in pursuing a career in law teaching. Getting a job teaching law is highly dependent on having prominent faculty write letters, call, e-mail, and do other things to help you. Take advantage of opportunities to write under the supervision of professors, and write down your plans and the work you do. Also keep in mind that candidates for law teaching in certain areas--e.g., constitutional law, jurisprudence--are in over-supply, while candidates in other areas--e.g., real estate law, commercial law, property, corporate law, tax, alternative dispute resolution, trusts and estates--are often in short supply. As a candidate for a law teaching position, you should evaluate which areas of law might make you especially viable as a candidate. If you wish to teach and write about specific topics, choose a course of study in your second or third year of law school.

Education Requirements And Degrees For Law Professors

To become a law professor, you must complete several education requirements. Professors of law are generally experts in legal research, law, or political science. Law professors make up 43 percent of all legal academia and 40 percent of all doctors. The topics of law professor education were investigated more precisely by analyzing 379 law professor resumes.

Law professors usually attend Central State University or Yale University for their education.

If you would prefer to stay in your pajamas during the day, we have prepared some online courses that can assist you in your path to becoming a law professor.

What Degree Should I Get to Become a Law Professor?

The most common degree for law professors is a bachelor's degree 43% of law professors earn that degree. A close second is a doctoral degree with 40% and rounding it off is a master's degree with 12%.

What Is The Average Law Professor Salary?

The average law professor salary is $159,593 per year, or $76.73 per hour, in the United States. People on the lower end of that spectrum, the bottom 10% to be exact, make roughly $98,000 a year, while the top 10% makes $258,000. As most things go, location can be critical. Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania provide the highest law professor salaries.


Having a career as a law professor means being high average, low variance. It is a good job to teach law in a tenure-track position. You get to teach professional school students, even the entry-level classes are pretty interesting, and there is time to conduct research. Despite the differences among schools and over time, the profession as a whole is quite similar. There is not much difference between the jobs of people who work at a given school, regardless of how young or how old they are.

Private legal practice differs from this. Regardless of what you measure, once you reach mid-career there is an order of magnitude difference between lawyers' jobs. Some lawyers make four figures and others make eight figures, and some never set foot in a courtroom, while others argue in front of the Supreme Court every term. You are highly likely to have a great career as a law professor, but you will be giving up a lot of variances.

The relative benefits of being a law professor are greatest at the beginning and end of one's career, given the low variance over time. As you become more proficient in academia, your responsibilities and time commitments increase. (It is true that responsibilities pile up in other professions too; however, in academia, each new responsibility replaces freedom and not lower-level activities.)

As you have progressed through your career, you have also seen a lot of benefits from being an academic. As I mentioned before, an academic career has a fairly flat trajectory, so you are ahead when other careers take a dip.

A law professor's main purpose is to be judged exclusively on output, not input, as is the case with many legal jobs. Many firms may award bonuses determined by the quality of your output (for instance, did you get good reviews, did you get a great result for your clients, etc. ), but inputs (for example, how many hours did you work) are the first-order determinants of compensation. As a lawyer's career progresses, this balance may shift, and it may be different for different types of careers. A lawyer's reputation is generally enhanced if he or she works hard for a client.

However, as a law professor, you are rarely consulted. The final product is what matters regardless of how long you spent on the article. The same is true for teaching. It is not uncommon to find professors with reputations for being great teachers that are essentially charismatic individuals who do not work very hard in preparation for their classes. It does not matter how hard they work.

You might think twice about becoming a law professor if you are concerned about being evaluated this way. Professors often tell lawyers that no one listens to their thoughts. The first reaction is always jealousy: “I have to bill my time in six-minute increments, but no one cares or knows, how you spend your time?”. You should always ask if they would prefer their bonus based on people reading their brief and deciding if it is better than a brief written by their peers. Then they point out how unfair it would be not to get paid for all the hours they work.

Let me lay my cards on the table now. I should have done this instantly, but let me take some time to think things through. Being a lawyer is a great job. Numerous law professors think that actually having their students do the work they trained them for would be punishment. Law professors who look down on practice probably do not know many lawyers, at least based on what I have observed in the past. Maybe it is better to say that they tend to talk more than listen when they talk with the lawyers they know. Since most lawyers have great jobs, whether they work at a big law firm or as public defenders. However, teaching is a wonderful profession.

See the following for more information:
Please see the following articles for more information about law professorships: