Are Legal Writing Professors Like Nurses?

by Lisa McElroy

In a recent blog post on the Wall Street Journal’s website, Jacob Gershman quoted from a poem and article penned by Georgetown legal writing professor Kristin Tiscione.  Those who are fortunate enough to know Kris know that she is a thoughtful, professional, highly competent professor who has taught an entire generation of Georgetown students.

Although the poem artfully expressed the frustrations of the 94% of legal writing professors who are not eligible even to apply for tenure, it was the comments that caught my eye.

The first two comments on the post compare podium professors to doctors and legal writing professors to nurses.

I’d like to start out by saying that the commenters who said things like “Why should a nurse be paid the same as a doctor?” were incredibly insulting to nurses.  Anyone who has ever had to stay overnight in a hospital – even for a happy reason like delivering a healthy baby – knows that nurses represent the front lines of health care.  Hospitals are nothing like they’re portrayed on Grey’s Anatomy.  In almost all of them, the nurses take care of patients’ psychological and physical needs.  The doctors visit patients for a few minutes at most, once or twice a day.

But when the Robert Wood Johnson foundation recently suggested in a draft report that nurses be paid the same wages for the same work – in other words, paid like doctors – that idea resulted in, shall we say, objections from doctors.  Or so the New York Times – the so-called paper of record – reports.  

Why might that be?  I ask especially because, as an abstract to an article published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine explains, “[Investigators] report that primary care physicians and nurse practitioners often work side by side but inhabit different universes, at least perceptually. Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist and Nobel laureate who helped found the emerging field of behavioral economics, would find this unsurprising. He contends that all humans are influenced by powerful unconscious mental filters that shape how they perceive the world around them. Given the heated debate over the roles of physicians and nurse practitioners in providing primary care in the United States, those filters are probably working overtime when these professionals reflect on their practice experiences and the literature on their respective performance.” (emphasis added)

The abstract goes on to say, “The differing views of physicians and nurse practitioners about their work can have troubling consequences.”

Substitute in “podium professors” for “physicians” and “legal writing professors” for “nurse practitioners,” and you’ve got the crux of the debate that goes on in almost every American law school. And it’s a heated one.

Now, I also think that the comparison of “legal writing professors” to “nurses” is an uninformed one, in many ways.  Even when nurses do the same work as doctors, they are educated differently.  Their training is much shorter.  Their responsibility level is much lower – nurses of many levels of licensing cannot prescribe medication, for example, nor do they have to deal with the responsibility of figuring out the right medicine to prescribe.

But legal writing professors graduated from law school.  In fact, according to a study published recently in the University of Louisville Law Review, 28% of legal writing professors responding to a recent survey had received a J.D. from a “top twenty” law school.   Thirty-six percent had post-undergraduate degrees from a top twenty law school. They incurred the same debt as professors who teach podium courses.  They sat beside them in the same classes.

The difference?  Well, the same study shows that most legal writing professors have far more practice experience than the average podium professor.

And yet, at most law schools, legal writing professors earn far less than podium professors. Sort of like nurses providing the same care as doctors make a lot less than their physician counterparts.  Huh. 

But, you might say, legal writing professors don’t do the same job as podium professors.  And, at many law schools, you might be right.

Most legal writing professors are not required to publish law review articles to keep their jobs.  Most podium professors are.

But most podium professors are not required to give detailed feedback on student writing.  To meet one-on-one with students on a regular basis.  To counsel and coach students through the process that is legal analysis.

To work on the front lines of student care.

That’s an awful lot of responsibility vis-a-vis students.  It’s pretty much ensuring that these students are qualified and competent to represent clients in the practice of law. 

I’m not necessarily arguing that all legal writing professors should automatically be eligible for tenure.  I’m not unrealistic enough to think that tenured faculties (including the one of which I am proud to be a part) will change their thinking about the “publish or perish” tradition.

But Kris Tiscione’s poem, the WSJ blog post, and the comments on the blog should make us think about equal pay for equal – albeit somewhat different – work. 

I’ll tell you what.  Next time I need an IV inserted, or a dressing changed, or a kind word uttered, I sure hope there’s a nurse around, one who’s paid a living wage. 

And for my law students?  I hope that they’ll benefit from the incredible community of legal writing professors, people who struggle to get by but give their hearts and souls to their work. 

My last hope?  It's that, not too long from now, Kris Tiscione will have grounds to write a more optimistic poem.  And when that happens, I hope the Wall Street Journal will report on it.