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Friday, January 28, 2011

Becoming an Adjunct Trial Advocacy Professor

This piece follows up on Charlie Rose's article on becoming a law professor, and Mark Caldwell's article on breaking into teaching ranks of NITA and other organizations. The third way to teach advocacy is to join the faculty of a law school as an adjunct professor. I'd like to add a few insights on how to break into that market. I recommend reading the articles from Charlie and Mark first, however, because I don't intend to repeat any of their very solid advice, and much of it is applicable to teaching as an adjunct.

Most law schools employ adjunct faculty to teach courses, both doctrinal courses and skills courses such as trial advocacy. The majority of adjunct faculty members practice law in the public or private sector or serve as judges. Students enjoy taking classes from adjunct professors, who bring a real-world perspective to the classroom and bridge the gap between theory and practice in a way that many full-time faculty members cannot or will not.

Teaching as an adjunct is a labor of love. I have never met anyone who became wealthy as an adjunct professor, nor have I met any law school adjunct professors who could make a living from their adjunct salaries. The small stipends that law schools pay adjuncts can never truly compensate them for their time. I sometimes think of how much income my civil trial practice professor, a partner at a major law firm, must have lost to teach our weekly class, which involved a two-hour round-trip drive and a two-hour class. Nonetheless, there is never a shortage of adjunct faculty candidates for open positions. I believe this is because many lawyers love what I call the great teaching tradition of the bar: the opportunity to impart knowledge to a rising generation and help mold the careers of lawyers-in-training.

In a trial advocacy context, few trial ad programs could function without adjuncts. Advocacy is labor-intensive. As we've learned from NITA's research over the years, the ideal class section for trial advocacy is about eight students, with twelve being the outer limit of what an instructor can handle and what will give students a fair opportunity to learn by doing, which is the key to mastering advocacy. Some programs have adjuncts teach a stand-alone advocacy class, and others, such as the one I teach, feature a lecture and lab format, in which a large number of students meet together for lectures and demonstrations, then break into smaller groups for practice and grading. No matter how these courses are organized, there is always a need for good adjunct professors—and lots of them.

So—how to break into this market? Let me offer a few tips. There are doubtless others, and if you have some, please add them to the comment page for this post.

1. Examine your motivation. If you love to teach, are good at it, and are willing to essentially give away your time for the intangible rewards that come from teaching, you're on the right track. If you're hoping to pad your resume, or use an adjunct position as a launching point for a career in academia, you might want to reconsider. Because of the nature of law school faculties and the hiring process (see Charlie's post), your chances of moving from adjunct to full-time professor are slim. It does happen, but it's rare. Ask yourself—would I do this for free and for no recognition other than the good work of my students? If you would, you're probably doing it for the right reasons.

2. Evaluate your skills. Not all good advocates know how to teach others to try a case. If you have no experience teaching advocacy, your candidacy might not be as attractive as someone who has taught advocacy in other forums, such as NITA courses, high school or college advocacy teams, and the like. This might be true even if you are a successful lawyer from a prestigious firm. Speaking from my own perspective, when evaluating adjuncts, I look for relevant teaching experience more than trial experience. Bars throughout the country are full of great trial lawyers who can tell great trial stories, but NITA proved long ago that a systematic approach to teaching trumps war stories in effectiveness.

3. Become a Volunteer. You can get volunteer teaching experience in a variety of ways. Advocacy programs at law schools always need people to serve as judges or evaluators. Trial competitions have a voracious appetite for volunteer judges and teachers. Your bar association might run programs or need CLE instructors on advocacy topics. If you are near a law school, get to know the director of the trial advocacy program and offer your support. Directors are grateful for the support, and they always get feedback from the students about volunteers who are particularly good. To echo something Mark Caldwell said in his article on teaching for NITA and similar organizations, when someone takes you up on your offer to volunteer, make every effort to be there. My own start in advocacy teaching came about 8 years ago when Charlie Rose had a conflict and could not make it to Jim Seckinger's week-long trial course at Notre Dame in which Charlie was an adjunct. He asked me to substitute for him, and Jim kept inviting me back. I never did become an actual adjunct at Notre Dame, but I did teach in the program for several years. The experience, the contacts, the advocacy teaching training I received—all were invaluable.

4. Get Certified. Several years ago, I took NITA's Teacher Training Program at Harvard. This course was one of the transformational moments in my professional life. Learning how to recognize teaching moments and help students improve in a systematic way changed the way I taught, and I have to say, it also changed me as a person. In fact, I took the course in between the first and second times I taught for Jim Seckinger, and Jim—who did not know I had taken the course—made several comments about the vast improvement in my teaching ability. I'm not trying to pat myself on the back here; instead, I'm trying to emphasize just how influential these training courses can be. NITA offers a course, Stetson offers a course, and I know there are other teaching courses out there. It's worth the time and money to take one.

5. Comply with University Search Requirements. I'd love to just pick up the phone and hire a good adjunct when I need one, but I work for a state university, and we have to comply with university search requirements and state law. I've experienced problems in the past with candidates not submitting materials that are required by the university as part of the hiring process. If you hear about a position, don't assume that your friendship with the dean or advocacy director will get you the job. Fill out the proper paperwork and turn it in on time.

6. Work and Play Well With Others. As I mentioned earlier in this post, schools use a variety of approaches to teaching advocacy. You might be a lone ranger, running your own program and class without guidance or assistance. You might run your own program within well-established school guidelines. You might be part of a unified advocacy faculty such as the one I have at SIU or that Tom Stewart has at Saint Louis University. If you are part of a larger program, and don't happen to be in charge of it, be a good citizen. Never disparage your fellow faculty members in the presence of students. If you disagree with a policy or teaching approach, bring it up in faculty meetings, not by open resistance to it in the classroom. Turn in grades on time and comply with administrative policies that are designed to keep the program running smoothly and comply with school rules and requirements.

7. Always Put the Students First. This is the key to advocacy teaching, no matter what the arena. The students come first: before your ego, your wit, your desire to tell one more war story, your moods or your exhaustion. If you put them first, they will notice, and you will have a lengthy and successful experience teaching young advocates.

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