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Thursday, July 07, 2005

Getting A Teaching Job: The Role of Specialization

The difficulty with blogging about the law teaching market is that everyone has a different experience.  Practices can vary from school to school and year to year, and "the common wisdom" may be true in some cases but false in others.  With that said, I wanted to post today about the importance of specialization f0r the entry-level teaching market.

In my experience, specialization matters -- a lot.    Believe it or not, most law schools feel it is important to offer students a wide range of courses staffed by knowledgeable full-time professors.   Achieving that goal imposes a subject matter diversity requirement on faculties; every school tries to have a particular number of contracts professors, tax professors, international law professors, property professors, etc.  Professors come and go every year, which means that a school's subject matter needs can change on an annual basis.  Schools often look to the  entry-level market to fill these gaps.  This means that a candidate's chances of getting hired at a particular school are heavily contingent on that school's particular needs in that particular year.

Specialization is tricky for many entry level candidates because most people with J.D.s don't really have expertise in any particular area.   Imagine you went to law school, clerked for a year, went to a firm to do civil litigation for a few years, and now you want to teach.  You probably figure you can teach pretty much anything except for tax, and that it would be kinda cool to teach con law.  Beyond that, you're open.  The problem is that appointments committees probably aren't going to be sure of what to do with you, because you don't really fall into a slot. 

What to do?   Well, it's hard to come up with a one-size-fits-all solution to this, but here's one answer that might work for some people.   Long before you go on the teaching market -- at least a year, better two or three or four -- take a look at the law school curriciulum at a  typical school and pick one first-year course and one vaguely-related upper-level course that you think would together be an interesting set of topics to teach and write about.  For example, you might pick contracts and corporations; or maybe torts and law & economics;  or property and legal history; criminal law and criminal procedure; con law and federal courts; civil procedure and professional responsibility, etc.    Start reading up on these two subjects, going over your notes and casebooks on them from law school, and pick one or two topics in those areas to write about.   By the time you go on the market, you'll have a specialty area and you'll more easily fall into a slot.

Should you try to specialize in a "hot" field to help your chances?   It depends.  I'm skeptical about putting all of your eggs in the basket of a hot field.  Hot fields come and go pretty quickly, and you need two or three years of work to really build up enough of a background and writing trail in that field to be taken seriously in it.  If you try to pick a hot field, you may find that the field isn't so hot by the time you get there.  For example, cyberlaw was red hot in 1999, but relatively quiet by 2003.   Of course, this doesn't mean you should avoid hot fields; if you're choosing between, say, health law (hot) and jurispridence (not very hot), and you are equally interested in the two, by all means pick the former.  A hotter field means that lots of schools are looking for someone in that field and there aren't many specialists in it, and can translate into  greater ease in getting a job.  But be careful about following fads or spending lots of time in a field that you just don't find very interesting.  That's my general advice, at least; actual mileage may vary.   

Posted by Orin Kerr on July 7, 2005 at 07:19 PM | Permalink


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Am I doomed? I want to teach human rights and humanitarian law--strike one? But I will have actually published three articles on those issues this year, on some pretty important contemporary topics--middle east peace, post-Katrina recovery--a hit, or at least a foul tip? I also have an LLM in human rights law from the London School of Economics a couple of years ago--a ball? (at least experientially, London is great and I had a ball there). Before I did all this I practiced employment law for a long time, so I could teach that, civil rights, contracts, civ pro, (maybe a hit in there somewhere) but then am I too old to do this (even if the answer is yes no one would say so, I remember that from employment law)--strike 2? I've been a legal rhetoric adjunct for a couple of years and love the classroom experience--a hit (I'm a provable quantity in the classroom) or another strike (some schools treat adjuncts rhetoric like the minors, or maybe the Washington Nationals).

Seems like I'm a seasoned veteran who's proven to be good for a few hits--anyone think there's a team out there that might sign me up?

Posted by: Charlie Martel | Jun 20, 2007 9:53:04 PM

2 Questions for the experts:

First: Do most U.S. law schools view immigration law as a course for adjuncts to teach? I know of a few immigration scholars (full-time faculty) out there, but it seems most schools generally delegate the course to adjuncts.

Second: Certainly, the quality of a JD (both in terms of the school and the individual performance) weigh heavily in the recruitment process. What about LL.M. and SJD degrees? In particular, are schools willing to consider the unorthodox candidate who has a U.S. JD, combined with a foreign (English-speaking jurisdiction) LLM and SJD (comparative and international law streams)?

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Posted by: ChelseainChina | Apr 13, 2006 5:37:38 AM

Thanks for the update.

First, Professional Responsibility is a hot area because most law profs find it a god-awful course to teach. The rules are either so obvious you feel stupid talking about them ("don't lie, don't steal") or so technical that the students' eyes glaze over. There are some who love it, though, and if you do, it's a great addition to your package

I've litigated in the area and think it is wonderful, though when I was on the market, before my life fell apart, my area was ADR and it never occurred to me to include it as part of what I was interested in.

Life has passed me by now, and the world is a far different place than when people would call me up to ask me to interview.

But I'm glad that there are still people who find one of my favorite areas interesting.

I still need to write an article on regulation of styles and the value of high trust societies in terms of negotiation ethics, but there is always Christmas vacation this year (I didn't get it done last year).

Fun to just look in on the world I missed.

Posted by: Stephen M (Ethesis) | Jul 13, 2005 8:59:00 PM

In response to Paranoid Puppy's first question, about getting locked in, you will spend a lot of time becoming competent to teach in an area, and you won't take lightly the prospect of throwing away all that time and knowledge. Yeah, I know it may be fallacious reasoning to consider sunk costs, but practically speaking it makes it hard to switch areas. On the scholarship side, don't underestimate the amount of time you'll need to spend becoming familiar with a field before you'll be able to make substantial original contributions. Maybe you, P.P., are different, but I didn't have much terribly important to say in my own field until I had spent several years researching and writing in it. Now that I finally think I've found a productive research program, I shudder at the thought of switching fields.

Of course I would never switch fields because I love the one I'm working in -- professional responsibility. Since a couple of comments have mentioned teaching PR, let me add my two cents: There are hot fields and cold fields, even gawd-awful fields. But when you're working as an academic, it has to be *your* field. You have to be attached enough to your research agenda that you'll slog through dozens of books and hundreds of articles, over the course of several years, and put yourself through the wringer of writing things and exposing your ideas to criticism. If you don't care very deeply about what you're writing on, fuhgeddaboutit. So there's only limited room for being strategic in your choice of specialities. In terms of teaching, sure, you can position yourself as a competent teacher of some subject if you've dabbled in it in practice. If you've done commercial litigation and wouldn't think it's a fate worse than death to teach secured transactions, by all means put it down as a teaching interest on the AALS form. But when it comes to that integrated package of teaching and research interests, your publications and job talk, and your 5-year research agenda, it would be a big mistake to choose that on the basis of trend-spotting, rather than following your true vocation.

Posted by: Brad Wendel | Jul 12, 2005 4:33:03 PM

A wonderful thread and some good advice. I'll add my own.

First, Professional Responsibility is a hot area because most law profs find it a god-awful course to teach. The rules are either so obvious you feel stupid talking about them ("don't lie, don't steal") or so technical that the students' eyes glaze over. There are some who love it, though, and if you do, it's a great addition to your package.

Second, the idea of the "package." You need to appear to be someone who has a definite niche, although you also want to make it clear you're a team player who'll do whatever the administration wants you to. Certain courses seem to run together, although they can be fitted together in different ways. A friend of mine who went on the market to teach family law had prepared herself by developing interests in property and estate taxation (both obviously related fields), which made her a powerful candidate, even though there's not usually a lot of demand for family law people. Another, who wanted to do employment law (where demand is usually weak) developed interests in tort and administrative law, both of which fit nicely with employment discrimination and greatly broadened her appeal. So try to think about what fits with the area you're interested in. You don't actually have to demonstrate expertise in these other areas if you can articulate the reason why you think they're important to your work and your commitment to master them.

Third, once you're on a faculty, and particularly once you're tenured, at many schools you'll get first dibs if a course you're interested in opens up. Where you start doesn't necessarily mean where you'll finish. (Although I'm a contracts/corporations guy, I've also taught Professional Responsibility, Family Law, Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, and Legal Research & Writing.) Nevertheless, if you think a field is "god-awful," don't even attempt to compete in it. There are people who really do think that, say, contracts and corporations are far more interesting than Justice O'Conner's views on affirmative action, and it's hard to fake enthusiasm.

Fourth, think seriously about the things you list at the top of the FAR form. I've never understood it, because I always assumed I'd teach whatever people wanted me to teach, but I've been at three law schools and at all three the particular courses noted were extremely important with respect to whether or not a candidate even got a screening interview. So of the top six "wish list" selections on your FAR form, I'd advise you to make sure five of them are bread-and-butter courses that schools regularly offer.

Posted by: Frank Snyder | Jul 11, 2005 1:02:25 PM


I will throw in my two cents from having served on the appointments committee a couple times at my school, one year as chair so I got to see all the materials sent by candidates. Each member of our committee reviewed some portion of the FAR forms, and as chair I reviewed all of them. I also looked at all the mailings (some are quite humorous), and when I saw a candidate from the AALS "big book" that we were interested in, I also checked to see if that person sent a separate mailing. If so, I viewed that as a plus factor, that at least the person had heard of us (I'm at a USN third tier school with a name that is not well known to many -- Wayne State) and would not recoil in horror at the thought of moving to Detroit if it came to it (actually, moving to the Detroit suburbs, but that's another story). Sending a research agenda and reprints would be helpful by getting everything in place at once if the school wants to interview you, because at some point they'll ask for it anyway, or you'll send it anyway. You may want to go in phases, sending a CV and research agenda statement in one mailing, and if a school contacts you for an interview have the articles/evaluation package ready to launch. Having been on both sides of the AALS market, I know you have to get used to rejection.

As an aside on the issue of specialization, I agree with many others that it's important to put down courses in which you have expertise and are willing to teach that fit in at least in part with the core courses every law school offers. It is usually the case that Deans & Associate Deans need people to teach first year courses, at least occasionally, so pitching one of those is never a bad idea. Given that we have at least 8 Con Law teachers on our faculty, there's a tendency here to see a desire to teach that (coupled with the usual interest in First Amendment, Jurisprudence, and International Human Rights) as a negative.

Finally, and I've gone on way too long, be a little careful about coupling criminal procedure automatically with criminal law. The fact that the first names are the same does not mean they are in fact the same subject, although many crim law teachers also work in the crim pro field. I get a little nervous when I hear a candidate discuss an interest in some area of criminal law, and then say, "And I'll teach crim pro too" when the person has absolutely no experience (or interest) in the area.

Posted by: Peter Henning | Jul 9, 2005 11:07:09 AM


I am interested in your thoughts on sending CVs and cover letters to specific schools in which a job applicant is interested. Is it a waste of time because recruitment committees only read the FAR forms, or do some recruitment committees review supplemental mailings? Also, if there is some benefit in sending a mailing, what should a job seeker include besides the cover letter and CV? Research agenda? Article reprints? Teaching evaluations? Thanks.

Posted by: Greg | Jul 9, 2005 10:33:14 AM

Professional Responsibility -- how can that be an underserved area? It is one of the few that is always interesting. Just curious.

Posted by: Stephen M (Ethesis) | Jul 9, 2005 10:14:46 AM

My sense is that anyone can be a good reference if they have a reputation for being good judges of scholarship. A professor at another school who really likes your stuff is probably better as a reference than someone who taught you but doesn't remember you well.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jul 8, 2005 6:50:06 PM

Ditto what Paranoid Puppy said. Obviously it's ideal if you have former profs who love you. Assume you don't. What's second best?

Posted by: Schmoe | Jul 8, 2005 6:34:52 PM

Thank you. That's enlightening and reassuring.

I think the other Big Question is: so what's the deal with references, especially when you've been out for a few years and you haven't been keeping as good touch with your former profs as you should have? Is it normal to dredge up profs who might hardly remember you? What if a former prof you know really well and who would very likely give you a strong reference has an undeserved reputation as being a little, well, nutty? Avoid? Likewise, how about people who have seen your writing but weren't professors of yours (i.e. people from whom you solicit comments on publications-in-process, co-authors): do they make decent references?

Posted by: Paranoid Puppy | Jul 8, 2005 3:46:26 PM

This may be too obvious to need stating -- specialize in something that interests you, that you have IDEAS about. Whatever you specialize in, you will be expected to have at least one interesting Big Idea about it per year. Ideas are the most precious currency among law professors; it is the only thing there is a real shortage of.

Most of us don't have an infinite number of ideas, nor can we choose which field we'll get our ideas in. The ideas just come.

So no matter how hot a field is, you won't be a good candidate if your articles are second-rate make-weights. So I would recommend not being to stategic. If you want to interest others, write about what interests you. Moreover, what's the point of leaving a law firm if you're still doing stuff just 'cause you have to?

Posted by: Eugene Kontorovich | Jul 8, 2005 3:25:22 PM

Paranoid Puppy,

My experience is with the entry-level market, so I don't know how helpful I can be. At the same time, my third-hand impression is that some amount of subject-matter evolution can happen if a person sets it as a goal.

First, a professor may be able to pick up a better course in exchange for one they like less simply by asking the academic dean if they could teach it at some point. An opening may come up when a senior colleague retires or someone is on sabattical, and that opening can get the professor on the rotation of colleagues who teach that particular course at that school. It takes time, and obviously it helps to have proven interest or scholarship in the area, but it can happen.

More formally, teaching packages are often negotiated much like other job benefits. If a highly valued member of a faculty really doesn't like teaching subject X, a way will usually be found (at least eventually) to lessen that faculty member's teaching load in that area.

With that said, consider two important caveats. First, in most instances the changes will involve maybe one of that professor's courses, or at most two, and generally not the entire package. A professor who teaches contracts, corporations, and securities regulation may switch to contracts, corporations and law & economics; someone who teaches torts, law & economics, and environmental law may switch to torts, environmental law, and law & literature. It's a lot less likely for someone hired to teach (say) federal income tax, business tax and international tax to switch to con law, crim pro, and the Fist Amendment.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, my experience is that most people end up really liking what they teach, even if it's a topic that they expected to be "gawd-awful." They may think teaching property or patent law will be boring, but find that actually it's terrific. So you may think you will want to switch, but find that you really like where you are.

That's my third-hand sense of things, at least. I'd be curious to hear if others have a similar sense, or whether my impressions are idiosyncratic.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jul 8, 2005 3:06:35 PM

Hey y'all... so how locked-in do academics get in "specialization" areas? For example, imagine someone goes on the market and starts off as a specialist in some gawd-awful but marketable area of law like tax or T&E, but also (either before or after hire) writes in say con law or jurisprudence, with the aim of switching specializations in a few years, either at the same school that hired such a person or elsewhere. Is this a common feat? Thanks.

Posted by: Paranoid Puppy | Jul 8, 2005 12:29:53 PM

A quick added note on property --

Based on my observations, I think that "Property/T&E" is a package that a lot of schools look for. If you're thinking about property, and can credibly call yourself a T&E person too, that makes an attractive FAR form.

Posted by: Anonymous | Jul 8, 2005 11:11:23 AM

I would second Orin's basic point about the importance of specialization. I've advised UT alumni on the teaching market for about 8 years now, and while there are always two dozen or so schools each year who seem to be looking for "the best athlete," without regard to specialization, the vast majority have very particular curricular needs that drive the process (though in some cases, these schools are content to get a "best athlete" who can teach the needed course, even if it is not a primary area of research interest). However, as Orin also notes, what those needs are change year to year. Still, my impression from the last half-dozen-or-so years is that the following areas have pretty steady demand: corporate law, securities regulation, tax, intellectual property, wills & estates. Note, though, that in each case, the candidates that fare the best are the ones with *real* qualifications in these areas, not those who throw it on the list of things they might teach. This is particularly the case, it strikes me, in IP, where far more candidates claim competence than have it. (This was certainly true in the early 2000s, my anecdotal sense is the market has cleansed itself a bit since then.)

Orin is also correct, alas, about demand for jurisprudence. A variety of factors are probably at play. First, jurisprudence used to be a dilettante's subject, so many schools have someone who "picked it up" decades ago, and so teaches *the* course--and for most schools, one course and one teacher is thought to be enough. Second, there is a large supply of candidates who are interested in jurisprudence (though, as with IP, the interest among the candidates far exceeds the actual competence--note, too, that these days, no school that knows what it's doing would hire someone in legal philosophy who didn't also have a PhD in philosophy). Third, and related to the first point, most schools are content to have one person covering the subject, and with 180-or-so accredited law schools out there, you can do the math. It's easy for the market to be saturated!

All that being said, many jurisprudentially-minded candidates fare better by coupling their jurisprudential interests with some substantive area of law: thus, we have seen a proliferation of candidates writing in tort theory, contract theory, property theory, criminal law theory, and so on. A candidate doing nothing but "pure" jurisprudence, as it were, i.e., fundmanetal questions bout the nature of law and legal reasoning, the relationship between law and morality, the duty to obey the law etc., will find the teaching market tough-going I fear.

Posted by: BL | Jul 8, 2005 10:38:14 AM

One additional thought, which may be obvious by this point in the thread. If you read over the post and the comments, you can probably get a pretty good idea as to what topics tend to be in demand: it's the topics that relatively few professors want to teach. Commercial law, tax, professional responsibility, property, patent law, etc. The topics that are less in demand on the whole are the topics that lots of people do want to teach, like con law.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jul 8, 2005 10:00:32 AM

A personal comment based on what I've seen in the market over recent years: a candidate that has an interest in teaching (and has written in the area of) commercial law should be attractive, particularly if the interest extends to two or more of the following: secured transactions, payment systems, consumer bankruptcy, business bankruptcy, electronic commerce.

Posted by: tim zinnecker | Jul 8, 2005 9:49:11 AM


My sense is that relatively few people who land criminal law professor jobs have prosecutorial experience. At some schools, at least, having been a prosecutor can be a liability rather than an asset. In my experience, more crim law types are former defense attorneys than former prosecutors.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jul 8, 2005 9:40:40 AM

Not that I would (or could) change course now, but should I expect it to be in an uphill battle to land a criminal law professor job if I lack the prosecutorial experience (even though I have my best publications in the area)? In other words, should I emphasize my other scholarly interests more?

And related to that, is there any hope of being hired in today's market focused on gender and law issues (where I have also published)? Or is it possible to be hired as a PR person where I have a strong interest, but no publications?


Posted by: Corey Rayburn | Jul 8, 2005 9:26:28 AM


Property is hot hot hot. Well, maybe not that hot. But it is always in demand because for some reason not many entry level people want to teach it. There is no accounting for taste!


Posted by: Ben Barros | Jul 8, 2005 9:01:27 AM

Ben's points are great, as are Orin's (naturlich!). And may I urge international trade on the internationalistas out there? Public IL must be as oversubscribed as con law (and jurisprudence, I suspect).

Posted by: david | Jul 7, 2005 11:59:22 PM

I'm with Ben Barros -- I agree with him on all fronts. (Although re #5, if you're a crim law/ crim pro person, how about adding a cool new subject like computer crime law instead of something boring like evidence? I hear there is a casebook coming out soon, hint, hint.)

In response to "space is the place," the goal is to convince appointments committees that you are a credible expert or expert-to-be in the fields that you say you want to teach. Whether one article is enough depends on your background and the topic. For example, one article on professional responsibility may be enough to persuade a committee that this can be your bread & butter course, as (in my experience at least) there is a high demand for PR profs but a relatively low supply.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jul 7, 2005 11:17:22 PM

Ben... what is property like, market-wise, anyway? Thx...

Posted by: Space is the place | Jul 7, 2005 11:12:27 PM

I've now seen the hiring process from both sides over the past two years. Here are a few thoughts:

(1) The "top line" on the AALS form (your top three teaching choices) is very important. The truth is that most schools are hiring to fill a specific need. If the school wants to hire, say, a property person, that school will choose to interview someone who has property in their first three choices over someone who has listed property as something they would be willing to teach if asked. My top two slots were property (what I write about) and corporations (I worked at a big firm). All of my interview schools were looking for either property or corporations. And, surprise, I now teach property AND corporations.

(2) Most schools looking to fill a specialized slot will probably be looking for someone who is truly a credible expert in the area. If you have some tangential experience in a hot area, it might not hurt to list it, but in most cases I doubt it will help a lot.

(3) Your freedom w/r/t the courses you list depends a lot on your credentials. If your resume glows in the dark, by all means list things like con law, law and econ, jurisprudence, etc. (Consistent with Orin's view, pretty much all of the people I've met at new teachers events who were hired to teach jurisprudence have PhDs). If you just have a really strong resume (like pretty much everyone on the teaching market) give some real thought to supply and demand. First year courses and core upper level are always a good bet.

(4) Look hard at your experience and think about how you can best market yourself. I've been stunned at the number of big firm associates who go on the market wanting to teach con law. How about corporations, contracts, secured transactions, sec regs, bankruptcy, UCC etc.? Sure, everyone really wants to teach con law. But this is a _really_ good job. People who really want to be law professors have a better chance of getting a job than people who only want to teach con law.

(5) Crim law/crim pro is an okay market, but not super strong. The issue here (as elsewhere) is supply and demand. There are a lot of prosecutors/crim defense lawyers hitting the market every year, and the demand is static. If you fit this profile, also think about adding evidence to your package.

Posted by: Ben Barros | Jul 7, 2005 10:54:42 PM

How about broad writing? Suppose you write in a wide range of areas surrounding what really interests you (mainly), something like jurisprudence which you hope to teach long-term, with maybe one piece in what you plan to sell yourself as a specialist in short term. Does that fly?

Posted by: Space is the place | Jul 7, 2005 10:42:24 PM

Related to specialization, do you have any thoughts on picking teaching subjects to list on the AALS form in addition to your specialized area? How much knowledge do you think someone should have in a topic in order to list it as something you may be interested in/willing to teach? For example, if you have published tangentially on a hot issue like health care but never took a health care course and don't necessarily plan on publishing more in it, is it wise to list it as something you might be interested in teaching? Or is it better to try to list subjects that are as related to your specialized area as possible?

Also, what is your sense of how tough the market is for crim law/crim pro?

Posted by: adk1997 | Jul 7, 2005 8:36:36 PM


I'm not sure, but I gather that's the main reason -- lots of people want to teach it, and it usually isn't a topic that lots of students are lining up to take. Maybe my sense of the market is idiosyncratic, though, so I hope others will weigh in here.

Another consideration for candidates with J.D.s is the competition from candidates with Ph.D.s My sense is that many schools looking for an entry-evel person to teach jurisprudence tend to prefer a specialist with a Ph.D. over someone with only a J.D. So if you're a J.D. looking for a specialty area, jurisprudence is not the easiest path to take. Again, though, actual mileage may vary.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jul 7, 2005 8:07:44 PM

May I ask you to discuss briefly why you believe that jurisprudence is not hot? Is it because there's plenty of interest in teaching it and therefore not many spaces that schools are looking to fill? Or is there another reason (or reasons) as well?


Posted by: MOD | Jul 7, 2005 7:42:44 PM

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