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Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Why the Ought Intersects with the Is So Quickly in Law School Teaching Job Advice

At the "Summary, Judgment" blog, as Howard notes, Will Baude and Adam Chilton are offering a series of posts on how to get a job in legal academia. I'm not sure the subject is as neglected as their introductory posts suggest. There is at least one book on the subject, and it has been blog fodder for years, along with things like Brian Leiter's "Paths to Law Teaching" page, which has been around for over a decade. But no doubt there is room for more (and more recent) advice, and of course there's a lot less available on this subject than on getting jobs in other (and larger) disciplines or academic sectors (such as the humanities). Certainly I find the advice they have offered so far fair and useful. But....

In one interesting post, Chilton writes that the advice he plans to give will honor the point that "giving advice and debating reforms are different conversations. My experience has been that people often quickly pivot from advice about how to succeed in legal academia to debating how legal academia should be reformed." He also suggests, in a way that I think is dimly related to this point, that one reason it is (in his view) hard to get good advice about how to become a law professor is that aspiring professors in other fields get the best advice from their peers, such as fellow grad students, and from professors in social environments, and that both of these things are rarer in legal academia.

I wonder if there aren't some very good reasons why it's hard to separate the is and the ought when it comes to law school advice, or at least why the question of reform is likely to spring to mind so quickly in the law school context. Take as an example Chilton's latest post, on "how to spend your time in law school if you want to be a law professor." The advice is sensible enough: attend lunch talks, take paper classes as well as exam classes, sign up for academic workshop courses, hit the necessary targets (law review, clerkship) but don't wait on them before taking other steps toward your goal of teaching. But not every school has significant numbers of lunch talks, student attendance is very rare at most of those schools, and many schools don't have academic workshop courses. Some schools are heavy with paper courses, and others are not.

Indeed, the kind of school Chilton is talking about is, really, a top 20-ish law school. Even then, the advice is probably most fitting to the 15 or so schools in the top ten. Even so, all this advice is still a stretch at some of those schools. And even where it applies, it may not be of much use. Sarah Lawsky's hiring report tells the story every year, and it is largely the same story: a lot of Yale, a lot of Harvard and Stanford, a fair amount of Chicago and Berkeley and NYU, then a quick drop-off to such undistinguished also-rans as Columbia, Michigan, and Georgetown. (Plus Hebrew U! It does very well indeed--although all the Hebrew U grads covered in this year's report took a doctorate from a fancy-pants American university.) There are indeed hires every year who come from other schools, including US law schools "below" the top ten-ish. Most of those hires (but not all of them) have doctorates. There is credentialism in other fields, of course. But for various reasons, including a stronger disciplinary base and the much larger number of schools involved, compared to American law schools those fields look pretty darn good.  

I don't mean to discourage anyone who is not already taking a lead-off from third base from aspiring to a law teaching job. (I went to a [very good] law school outside the US, but also had an LL.M. from the typical fancy American school and various other elite credentials, and still encountered a lot of resistance beyond the amount of resistance I richly deserved. I'm glad I persisted.) Given the remarkable, mechanical credentialism and path-dependence of the American law school hiring process, however, it is probably fair to say that the first and most important piece of advice to any law student who is thinking about a law teaching job is "Be at the right law school in the first place." (Of course I'm sure Chilton knows this, and the point is made by Baude in an earlier post.)

And people who are already at the right law school usually already have a great deal of social capital of the kind that goes unremarked because almost everyone who is part of the discussion already has it. They already know, for example, that for whatever reasons it's a good idea to be at Harvard or Yale--a point that is far from well-known to all even if one leaves out family commitments and things of that sort. They already know that there are some schools that, to quote Chilton's post, are especially helpful for getting a job in "private equity" (if they know what that is--I'm not entirely sure I do) or "politics" (albeit not so much the useful kind of political position, like city councillor or school board member, and more the less-useful kind, like member of Congress). They probably already know that it's to their advantage to cultivate professors and other useful figures rather than avoid them, and have been doing it so long it feels natural and as if it has nothing to do with self-interest. And so on. Of course there's a lot more they can learn, both in order to get a job as a law professor and--no less important, albeit this is a normative rather than descriptive point--to learn how to be a good (as opposed to succesful) teacher and scholar, one who serves his or her institution and discipline, and understands and exemplifies academic virtues and values. (One does occasionally encounter people who have enough brains and facility to become successful law professors, and who do just that, but who do not have an academic vocation as such. They like the job, or the platform, or the perceived prestige, and the teaching and scholarship are something of a means to an end.)

Baude and Chilton are quite clear that their goal is to provide practical advice and not recommendations for reform. But one can understand how quickly one's thoughts turn from one to the other. It is simply hard to hear certain words of advice coming out of one's mouth without quickly becoming critical--or cynical. (I think the same thing is true of advice on how to publish successfully.) At least that is true if one voices, or at least recalls, the often-unspoken presumptions. "Cultivate an interest in scholarship" is sound and not terribly troublesome advice. "While attending Harvard, cultivate an interest in scholarship" is sound advice that, one hopes, leaves a somewhat sour taste in the mouth. I'm sure that choosing the right luxury yacht is a difficult decision involving many complex factors, and that good advice can be given on the subject. But I wouldn't be terribly surprised if many a writer for SuperYacht World ended up confronting some nagging thoughts, and started thumbing Piketty or Veblen on his or her lunch hours.

I don't disagree that giving advice and debating reforms are different discussions. But it seems to me that in this area, at least given the glaring nature of the presumptions and prerequisites involved, that "pivot" is hard to avoid--and, if we want academically sound and virtuous as well as successful aspirants, perhaps we shouldn't avoid it.    

Posted by Paul Horwitz on June 17, 2020 at 11:54 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink

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