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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Aspiring Law Professors: Get a Job!

First, I just want to say "Posner."  That now makes three posts in row that the eminent jurist is mentioned (except now I see that I have been foiled by that meddlesome co-blogger Lipshaw posting yet another post.  Phooey!).

With that out the way, I want to discuss the importance of aspiring law professors having real world, practitioner experience before entering the academy.  My general take on this is that we are training future lawyers, not future professors, unlike most graduate school programs.  As a result, it is important that a law professor can give a practical perspective about what it is like to be in the world of law, especially if one is teaching in a specialized field in which his/her students are likely to practice.  And I'll throw in a quote by Oliver Wendell while I'm at it: "The life of the law has not been logic: it has been experience."

And even though I know a lot of law professors spend time in prestigious appellate boutiques before they become law professors, I would think it would be more advantageous for professor wanna-bes to practice in the areas they are going to teach.   Of course, this is what I did, being a labor and employment law associate for four years and I really think it has helped me in my teaching.   There is just something about document production that you have to experience to believe.   Besides, how many areas of the law are really understood by merely participating in its appellate aspects?

Now, all that being said, I know some very fine law professors who never spent a day of their lives in a law office, appellate boutique or otherwise.  One, in fact, I know has been named teacher of the year.  So, of course, I am dealing in generalities, but my basic argument is that since we are training future lawyers, we need to bring some of our own lawyering experiences to the table.

Also, let me add one more argument: legal scholarship (or at least most it) should be practical in its outlook and seek to solve problems, rather than being merely descriptive and characterizing existing problems.  In this sense as well, practicing law prior to becoming a professor can be an important part of what one brings to the scholarship enterprise.

Posted by Workplace Prof on August 22, 2006 at 10:16 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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I generally agree with Orin's point that the precise value of practical experience depends on "who you are, what you teach, and what kind of law prof you want to be." But that position could also be taken too far. Surely some generalizations are possible here, even recognizing them as generalizations subject to some exceptions.

Consider other qualifications. I assume we can agree that it's generally a good idea for law professors to have gone to law school themselves, no matter who they are, what they teach, or what kind of law profs they want to be. This doesn't mean that a law degree is an absolute necessity. It surely isn't. But generally speaking, it's a good idea.

Similarly, although experience in legal practice isn't an absolute necessity, and although its precise value will vary depending on one's area and one's ambitions as a teacher, I think it's fair to say that, generally speaking, some practice experience is a good idea. In that sense, whether some practice experience is valuable probably doesn't "entirely depend[]" on the factors Orin has identified.

Posted by: Trevor Morrison | Aug 23, 2006 10:50:31 AM

I think it entirely depends on who you are, what you teach, and what kind of law prof you want to be. Of course, the best advice when it comes to any career question is always, "Do what I did."

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Aug 22, 2006 4:40:10 PM

That's a fair point, Steve; there certainly are both plusses and minuses to being out of school a while. I'd limit my point to (a) being 6 yrs out has worked well for me, though there certainly are others whose different experiences work for them, and (b) the value of practice experience probably varies wildly by discipline (my "legal history" example).

Posted by: Scott Moss | Aug 22, 2006 2:57:47 PM

I just agreed with Scott on another thread; I'm going to slightly disagree here. It's not that I don't think experience in the real world is beneficial to being a law prof; it's that I think there are also benefits to coming to the academy so shortly on the heels of your own time on the other side of the podium. There are ways in which I think I can relate to my students and better facilitate the classroom experience _because_ I am so wet behind the ears. So, I think there's a give-and-take here. Practice is good, but to the extent that the classroom is what matters, sometimes, being fresher may not be a crutch.

Posted by: Steve Vladeck | Aug 22, 2006 2:16:46 PM

I think that not only my teaching, but also my ability to spot intresting article topics, definitely has benefitted from the fact that I came to teaching 6 years after law school, not sooner. Of course, the utility of practice experience varies by subject: just to take an extreme, a legal historian doesn't benefit nearly as much from practice experience.

Re "representing the rich": I did plaintiff-side work, and while most of it was high-money enough to be "big litigation," I love that I had some number of really small cases. I may be one of very few profs who has a war story of almost getting beaten up while serving a complaint on an individual who had been hiding successfully from our process server; I actually brought a rose and rang his bell saying, "flower delivery" (essentially channeling the old "land shark" skit on SNL in the 1970s).

Posted by: Scott Moss | Aug 22, 2006 12:29:17 PM

Having practiced (also labor and employment law, go figure) longer than most law profs before getting into teaching, I'm biased towards thinking such experience helps. But we have to be cautious. Rick makes a good point about the "law of the rich." Also, law practice varies considerably based on subject matter. In labor/employment, I've had experiences that at least make fun "war stories" and maybe have a useful practical or pedagogical point; but in torts, I don't feel I can explain what it's really like to do products liability cases because I've never done them. Still, having practiced means I can say in some classes, "this is what REALLY happens, and why." There may be other ways to get that kind of knowledge, but practicing is probably the best.

Also, having practiced helps in advising students about jobs and what a career in a law firm is like (although again, I know more about firms in my field). It also helps in talking to alums about their jobs when they are a couple of years into it.

Finally, I respectfully dissent from Paul's suggestion that law review articles should primarily be about problem-solving (although I'm all in favor of articles that try to solve problems). But that's another issue.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Aug 22, 2006 12:04:23 PM

I think it's an over-simplification to say that we are training lawyers rather than law professors. Sure, most of our students will be practicing members of the bar, and we need to develop in them certain skills related to legal practice. But many of our students will be in positions to reform the legal system as well, by working in government or lobbying, for example. Accordingly, it is essential to develop analytical skills in our students, and years of practice are unnecessary to qualify one for teaching those. Without question, some teachers should have put in time as practicioners. I don't think that needs to be anywhere near universal, however, any more than non-law graduate degrees should be a prerequisite for a law teaching job. In sum, we're teaching students to think as well as to do.

Further, the question whether practice experience is advantageous is misleading. Of course such experiece is helpful, but the question to my mind is whether it is more helpful than other experience I could get in the same amount of time. For example, would a school be better off hiring the faculty member who has practiced for two years or the one who has clerked on a court of appeals and the Supreme Court? Or the one who did a fellowship and published an article as part of the fellowship? It is far from clear to me that the practice experience (especially if the "experience" is two years of document review) is better than other forms of experience that are less "practical."

As a final matter, some "practical" scholarship can seek to "solve problems" in a way particularly likely to capitalize on the experience of a practicing attorney. But much valuable scholarship -- even "practical" scholarship such as analyses of doctrine -- hardly need be done by somebody who has practiced in a field.

Posted by: Mike Dimino | Aug 22, 2006 11:32:10 AM

Like Paul, I litigated labor/employment cases for several years. That taught me a lot about high-dollar litigation. In the last 3-4 years, though, I’ve started doing a fair amount of pro bono work – mostly uncontested divorces, custody issues, etc. That experience has significantly changed my perspective on law practice, particularly Civil Procedure (which I teach along with Employment/Labor classes). Not all cases are about money, and many cases involve very little money. That changes practice substantially. If there are only a few thousand dollars at issue (more likely debt than assets), you don’t do extensive discovery, motion practice, legal memos, more than a few minutes of legal research, etc. Practice is in front of the court rather than in front of a computer. Practice is faster-paced, and less formal. Cordial relations with opposing counsel are imperative, because the clients can’t afford to pay for their attorneys to squabble.

Many law profs, if they practiced at all, practiced the Law of the Rich. This perspective affects the way that casebooks are written and the way that profs present that material in the classroom. Some of our students will practice this way, but most students at all but the elite law schools will start out their practice taking low-dollar cases and doing administrative hearings until they can build a reputation and a practice. Looking back, I think I did my early students a disservice by assuming that high-dollar practice was the only kind of practice.

Posted by: Rick Bales | Aug 22, 2006 11:11:37 AM

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