Friday, May 01, 2009

Who Wants to be a Law Professor?

I recently learned about an upcoming half-day program in NYC, to be offered by Harvard Law Professor Bill Rubenstein. According to the promotional pitch, Rubenstein will tell current lawyers "everything [they] need to know to get a law teaching job." Touting his own roots as a lawyer seeking a teaching job but "worried about competing against candidates with Ph.D. degrees who knew how to navigate academia," Rubenstein promises to share the secrets he learned the hard way in his years as a faculty member and appointments committee chair at UCLA and more recently at Harvard.

It's tempting to mock this program by comparing it to work-at-home and get-rich-real-estate schemes, and I suppose that I've just yielded to that temptation. But is that a fair comparison? That depends on whether one thinks that the sort of person likely to attend Rubenstein's seminar will derive much benefit from it. Here's what Rubenstein plans to cover:
* how the Association of American Law School's hiring process works;
* what steps you should take before you enter the law teaching market;
* how to write a successful law review article;
* how hiring committees will evaluate you; and
* what you need to do to succeed as you go through the hiring process.
That certainly sounds like important information. To be sure, most of it is readily available for free elsewhere. Consider the document Almost Everything You Need to Know About Law Teaching, on the Columbia Law School website. It covers most of the above topics (with an important exception to which I'll return) and is an adaptation (with permission) of a similar document that Boalt Hall made available to its students and alums. Professor Carol Sanger and I put the Columbia document together when we co-chaired Columbia's program for students and graduates interested in law teaching. Or consider the advice provided by the AALS itself. Or the numerous posts about the law hiring market on blogs by other law professors. Perhaps Rubenstein has distilled all of that information into a very useful package, or will provide links like those above to people who otherwise wouldn't know where to look for them or who are too busy to search it all out and will thus be more receptive to a CLE-style presentation.

I would guess that the Rubenstein seminar can do an excellent job of bringing people up to speed on the nuts and bolts of the procedural aspects of applying for entry-level positions in legal academia. Still, the big-ticket item is writing, and I've got to say that I'm dubious of the notion that one can teach people how to write a successful law review article in 50 minutes (the time allotted in the Rubenstein seminar). I once taught a semester-long seminar in just this subject to 16 students, and we barely scratched the surface.

Still,
for a practicing lawyer no longer able to enroll in a semester-length seminar, isn't an hour of instruction from Rubenstein better than nothing ? Sure. But it's at most a start. In order to produce the sort of scholarship that will help her land a job, a lawyer will need both a lot more general guidance (from, say, Eugene Volokh's excellent book, Academic Legal Writing) and particularized feedback from scholars in her chosen field. Perhaps the most important thing Rubenstein can tell the attendees at his seminar is that they need to find time to write and to make contact with current faculty (at their respective alma maters or elsewhere) who can serve as mentors and readers of their drafts.

Another very useful thing for a lawyer contemplating becoming a law professor would be customized advice. A half-day with Bill Rubenstein (or any of a large number of other current legal academics) could be extremely valuable. Indeed, even a 10-minute conversation could help steer a talent but uninformed prospective law professor away from a fruitless job search or article and re-direct him or her onto a more promising path. Thus, if a sufficiently small number of people sign up, they could easily get more than their money's worth ($350-$500 depending on when one registers) in the form of individualized advice and guidance. But if this is intended as a lecture with only general Q&A, I have doubts about its utility on this score. (I sent Professor Rubenstein an earlier draft of this post and he indicated that he wanted to keep the attendance small enough to allow some individualized conversations, but didn't specify an exact number. By my calculation, though, in order to allow the sort of one-on-one counseling I have in mind AND to cover everything he plans to cover, the enrollment would have to be truly tiny, on the order of single digits. That seems inconsistent with his offer of group discounts.)

I also want to question the premises of the Rubenstein program. He worries that
practicing lawyers are finding it increasingly difficult to land jobs in legal academia because law faculties have been filling more and more of their entry-level slots with candidates holding PhDs in allied fields. But even with inter-disciplinary work more highly valued than one or two generations ago, the very clear majority of new hires at American law schools lack PhDs. Using the latest data from Larry Solum, we find 35 PhDs out of 158 new law faculty (22%). So the premise that it's just about impossible for a plain old lawyer to get a law teaching job is simply not right.

Moreover, the primary difference between, on the one hand, candidates who have been working full time as lawyers and, on the other hand, candidates with PhDs, other advanced degrees in or outside of law, and/or a year or more in a post-JD fellowship is that members of the latter group have had both time to write and good access to mentoring. It's not simply a matter of teaching the people in the first group the mechanics of the hiring process. If they are at a serious disadvantage, the way for them to close the gap is to take a year or more away from lawyering to work on their scholarship.

Finally, to the extent that a PhD makes a big difference--which tends to be true at the most prestigious law schools--that too is not simply a matter of knowing the procedural ropes. There are both supply factors and demand factors that lead some law schools to value PhDs very highly. On the supply side, law teaching is an attractive option for new academics with doctorates in allied fields because law schools generally pay better than arts & sciences departments and have a presumption in favor of tenure. (See Brian Leiter's account here.) On the demand side, I tend to agree with Solum (and thus to agree less with Leiter) that the success of legal realism has left many in the legal academy anxious about scholarship that simply manipulates doctrine, thus paving the way for "law and" movements.
These factors are not likely to be overcome by a half-day seminar about breaking into law teaching, no matter how well executed.

Posted by Mike Dorf