Sunday, December 03, 2006

Catch 22 of becoming a legal academic

Increasingly over the last decade, law schools have looked for entry-level faculty candidates who have not just the potential to produce excellent scholarship, but have already produced such scholarship. For candidates with PhD's, the dissertation or a spinoff of it will usually do the trick, but regular lawyers--who still make up a majority of new academic hires--must find a way to write and publish at least one, better two or more, journal articles before they go on the market. A student Note, if well done, can help, but it's hardly enough. The problem for many lawyers aspiring to be academics, therefore, is how to find the time to write while working a day job. Some have the discipline and stamina to write in their free time, but long hours at lawyer jobs and family commitments make this implausible for a great many otherwise qualified candidates. The solution for some has been to apply for teaching/scholarship fellowships, like Columbia's Associates Program, the University of Chicago's Bigelow Program, and Harvard's Climenko fellowship. (There are others, as well.) I'm partial to the Associates Program, because this is my third year chairing the committee that selects and welcomes our Associates, but I have noted an expected but unfortunate trend even in the short time that I've been involved in this enterprise: As admission to these programs becomes increasingly competitive, we (meaning all the schools) tend to favor those applicants who have already written something that, just a few years ago, would have itself landed them a tenure-track position. So now this means that applicants to writing fellowships must find the time to write so they can get into the program that will give them to write.

For my part, I've tried to combat this trend by looking for "diamonds in the rough" for our Associates program, that is, candidates who don't have any (or many) publications but really do have great potential. But there is a tension between taking that approach, which in my view is true to the purpose of the program, and the temptation simply to hire/admit people that we can predict, based on their track record thus far, will land good jobs down the road. So far I've been delighted with the Associates we've hired, but I do understand how a lawyer looking for time to write can find the admissions criteria for these programs to present a bit of a Catch-22.

Finally, a plug for the Associates program: If you're an aspiring academic and haven't yet applied, the formal deadline is Dec. 15. Use the "Admissions Procedures" link on the left-hand menu of the page for the link I provided above, and fill out the graduate legal studies application (even if you don't plan to pursue a degree; we use one form for convenience and uniformity).