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Thursday, November 01, 2007

THE path to legal academia, or VARIED paths?

Law students toying with a careers as law profs get too little information about how to pursue that job path, setting aside students lucky or schmoozerific enough to have profs take them under their wings during law school.  So Harvard Law prof Daryl Levinson has done a real service by giving a presentation to students, and answering questions from the student newspaper, on how to become a law prof.  Even the most basic advice -- publish, publish, publish -- may be quite surprising and unintuitive to a law student; I know it was when I first heard such information as a 2L.

I'd like to add that there's not necessarily one "path to legal academia" (I'm quoting the student newspaper's article title, not Levinson's words); there are many.  For example, here's one excerpt from the article:

Levinson emphasized throughout his presentation that while teaching may be important, scholarship predominantly determines whether an aspiring professor finds a job. Law school hiring committees primarily look to candidates' potential to write valuable scholarship, and only secondarily at their ability to be competent teachers. Levinson drew chuckles from the audience with his wry comment that "perhaps you've noticed this."

I agree, and while I can't speak to the criteria at Harvard or NYU (where Levinson has been a prof), I know that at some of the more mid-market schools, a candidate who looks like a weak teacher won't get very far -- even at schools that place fairly heavy weight on scholarship as well.  I think one of the bigger mistakes job candidates make -- laterals and entry-levels -- is giving job talks that aim exclusively at showing off scholarly depth but that are disjointed or unprofessional or otherwise sloppy.  More aspiring law profs will get their first jobs at mid-market schools than at Harvard or NYU, so they should be careful not to neglect this point.

UPDATE (11/2/07): Professor Levinson has clarified his views on practice experience, which apparently the Harvard Law Record characterized in a misleading way; my apologies to Prawfs readers and Professor Levinson for not noticing  this clarification sooner.

The coverage of Levinson's talk also recounted his view that "practical legal experience is not a good predictor of scholarly ability, and ... 'is pretty nearly disqualifying.'"  Let me set aside the debate over whether practical experience is desirable; my only point here is that practical experience is valued a good deal at many schools whose names don't rhyme with "Blarvard" or "Blen Bly Blu."  Set aside profs focused on interdisciplinary, theoretical, or empirical matters (no lawyer "practices" those); and there are diminishing returns to experience (e.g., five years won't get you a lot more props than three); but I've definitely seen practice experience matter in hiring for fields like corporate law and civil procedure.

Finally, my own personal experience as an entry-level differed from Levinson's view that that it matters to schools "not at all" what law firm (if any) you worked at.  In 1999, after clerking, I started five years at a small New York law firm practicing plaintiff-side employment discrimination litigation.  By "small New York law firm" I don't mean "only 100 lawyers, much smaller than Cravath"; by "small" I mean I was full-time lawyer #4, and the first associate, at a firm that existed in one short hallway it leased from a larger firm.  On the prof market, twice I heard skepticism about my choice, though both times from sympathetic sources: a mentor at a first-tier school said it hurt my odds that i was at a "no-name" firm; and a dean, in an interview, gave me a chance to explain my odd career choice.  Just to be clear: these frank discussions were helpful, not upsetting; what bothered me is the that hiring profs who didn't discuss my firm may have held it against me.  At super-elite schools, of course, publishing is (as Levinson explained) so necessary and sufficient that working at Cravath or Firm X is mere trivia.  But at many schools, especially for entry-levels with short publication records, your law firm matters, though in a sadly superficial way; e.g., if a school really cared about my law firm experience, it wouldn't have taken much to find out that (a) my firm by 2003 was arguably the biggest and best plaintiff-side employment discirmination and wage litigation firm in the country and (b) I may have had more meaningful practice experience than peers who worked at big firms.

Of course, I may be over-extrapolating from my experience, so don't take my word for all this.  The best thing I did on the market was to get the perspectives of several profs, each of whom knows different schools and had different experiences on the market.  And feel free to email profs in your field out of the blue (especially profs at places where you're not now a job candidate); in my experience, profs are quite open to helping new folks break into law teaching.

Posted by Scott on November 1, 2007 at 01:10 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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Tracked on Nov 2, 2007 11:24:49 AM


As someone who moved to academia from a small (5 person) law firm, I second the sentiment about quality of practice experience. I don't know how many aspiring academics from big firms were trying cases a year out of law school, but I suspect the number is few.

Posted by: Michael Risch | Nov 1, 2007 2:23:27 PM

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