Why Law Teaching
"One of the greatest things about law teaching is the ability to spend time deepening your understanding of issues you care about, and helping students to do the same. Ultimately, it's a joint process of exploring, testing, and tentatively settling upon what you believe. Without that process, one's beliefs can be hollow and one's work purposeless.
The true luxury of law teaching is that you only report to your own conscience and have the opportunity to help students figure out what they stand for, even when they no longer have that luxury."
-- Lily Batchelder, NYU Law Professor
Law teaching is a terrific job. Law professors think about interesting ideas, work in stimulating and generally collegial environments, and enjoy a large amount of autonomy and flexibility. Professor Walter Dellinger of Duke University called being a law professor a “loophole in life.” But it is not for everyone. Before you start down the path toward academia, consider whether you are truly cut out for the job:
- Give some thought to whether you are truly interested in scholarship and the life of an academic, or whether you seek to move out of another position you find uninspiring. Law teaching is not an escape from long hours at a law firm. There are many demands on the time of law professors – scholarship, administrative duties, answering student questions, faculty meetings, workshops, lectures, law school events, writing exams, and (every professor's favorite) grading exams. A new faculty member often spends 5 to 10 hours preparing for every hour spent teaching, and high quality scholarship takes a substantial amount of time. You will gain greater control over your schedule and the content of your work, but your overall work hours will not be reduced greatly from those seen in other legal careers.
- Take into account that your income, particularly if you are currently at a law firm, likely will be substantially reduced. Most law professors make less than first-year associates at large law firms do; the average salary for first year teachers across the country in 2004-2005 was $84,000 (although, obviously, this varies substantially by region and institution).
- Also consider that the market for law teaching is highly competitive, and becoming more so. Thus, your preparation for entering this market will be substantial. As discussed elsewhere on this website, to make yourself competitive, you will need to perform at a high level during law school and produce one or more (usually more) pieces of quality legal scholarship prior to entering the market. And, even for those candidates with strong credentials, there is no guarantee that you will receive offers from schools ranked highly or near your preferred city or region.
These caveats are not offered to deter you; they are here so that you can be realistic about the costs and challenges associated with pursuing a career in the legal academy. Whether this career path is right for you depends on how you view these costs and challenges as compared to how much you would enjoy being a law professor.
So, will you enjoy the work of a law professor? At the vast majority of law schools, a professor’s primary job is to produce scholarship (teaching is a very important but distant second). Are you truly excited by addressing unanswered questions and difficult problems and working to find answers and solutions? Do you enjoy spending significant amounts of time alone with your research and writing? Are you genuinely interested in growing as a scholar by having your ideas questioned, debated, and criticized by your peers? Are you willing to invest the time and energy to learn to use new analytical tools and incorporate new perspectives in your work? Do you enjoy discussing and defending your ideas in front of others? If your answer to each of these questions is yes, you may find a career in law teaching both rewarding and satisfying.