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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Becoming a Law Professor - Teaching Advocacy

So you want to be a law professor.  You have questions.  I don’t know if I have answers, but I’d at least be happy to share my own experiences in the hope that you can learn from them.  I am approaching ten years of full time teaching, three for the United States Army at the Judge Advocate General’s School and going on seven years for Stetson University College of Law.  I am a tenured professor who holds the position of the Director of the Center for Excellence in Advocacy and the title of Professor of Excellence in Trial Advocacy.  How did all that happen?  Good question.

To quote my father, “Even a blind pig finds an acorn from time to time.”  At the risk of exposing an even greater lack of complexity to my thought process than most of you already assume, I’m not completely sure myself.  To make it even more difficult, how do you not only get to become a law professor but also get to teach practical law and skills that your students will actually use long after they graduate from law school and pass the bar?  I often pass this question this off with a “just lucky I guess” comment, but truthfully luck did not have very much to do with it. A mentor of mine once told me that hard work + good luck = success.  I believe that is true, but in the universe of law professors there is not enough luck in the world to avoid the hard work you must do.  I thought it might be helpful to some of you if I were to go through how it happened for me.

By the way, my comments are directed to those of you who wish to become full time professors, in a future post Chris will be blogging about becoming an adjunct.  Let me just say that it is impossible to run a law school without an excellent adjunct faculty and the ones that I work with are incredibly good.  I was an adjunct once myself and I understand and appreciate the contributions they make.

Understanding Law Schools and their Faculty
The legal academy is an interesting place, filled with all of the levels of competition and complexity that you would expect to find when you have a group of extremely intelligent people who have always managed to rise to the top of any organization they have been a part of.  There is also a great deal of preference; some would say bias, towards professors who are also graduates of an “elite” ivy school.  This usually means Harvard and Yale, with a few others thrown into the mix, much like seasoning in soup.  Do not despair if you are not a graduate of one of those schools, it just means that you need to be intelligent in the way you package yourself, through both training and work experience, to showcase your talents.  The challenge for those of us not blessed to graduate from these institutions is often one of “getting in the door” and explaining how our practical experience has value in the academic world. Some excellent articles have been written on the general subject of becoming a law professor, the American Association of Law Schools has one that, although dated the last time I checked, is well worth reading.  See www.aals.org. 

Some of you may have heard that legal education is on the cusp of great change.  Perhaps you serve on a committee in the ABA or have read some of the reports that push for more practical training at law schools.  I agree that this may very well be the future of profession.  It is certainly sure that we live in uncertain times and that the changes already experienced by major law firms and other elements of the profession may very well transform what it means to be a law professor.  While that day may come, as of the day of this post it is not here yet in most law schools where you might attempt to teach.  My personal opinion is that this change has been coming for some time, and I expect that the sea change in the practicing bar is now making its way to the hallowed ivory towers of academia – the question is how high the wave of change will reach and what will be left in the wake of it.  For now I am focusing my comments on what I have experienced historically.  I will leave for another day any predictions of how the future might look.  If you are thinking about teaching law you are concerned with the here and now.

Like most law students I had thoughts of becoming a law professor in law school, but really did not begin to act on those thoughts until I was assigned as a law professor at the Judge Advocate General’s School in Charlottesville Virginia.  There I learned that scholarship and an ability to display excellence in a niche area that law schools have interest in was the key to the kingdom – so to speak.  I knew that my niches were criminal law, evidence, advocacy and professionalism.  It is helpful if one of your niches is something that a traditional law professor does not normally develop.  Skills courses; advocacy, legal writing, and experiential learning are the most likely candidates.  Armed with this knowledge I started a five year plan to make myself as attractive as possible to hiring law schools (I know that those of you who are my personal friends are laughing at the idea of me making myself attractive, but there you have it). 

Becoming an Effective Law Professor
There are three elements that you must master to be an effective law professor, teaching, service, and scholarship.  Most highly ranked schools pay lip service to the first two and worship at the altar of the third.  The schools that produce practicing lawyers are more concerned with all three, but even there you have to be able to write.  To become a member of the academy you must find a way to establish your own bone fides in the area of scholarship, regardless of the relative ranking of the school at which you wish to work.  The other two can be developed later, but you will never get that opportunity if you don’t show that you can and will produce acceptable law review scholarship.  Faculties know that not everyone can write the type of articles that law schools value so this becomes the defacto tool used to separate the wheat from the chaff.  I am not arguing that this is the best measure of a law professor’s quality, or even that it is an accurate measure, but it is the current standard and you must meet it.  There are good reasons for this approach, but the discussion of why goes well beyond this post.

Your work experiences, the quality of your teaching and prior service to the profession will become plusses that you might use to convince a faculty to take you when you did not graduate from an elite law school or have not published sufficiently erudite scholarship, but they will not carry the day without the scholarship component.  To paraphrase a great teacher of professionalism, “There is no try, only do.”

So what kind of academic scholarship is worthy of consideration by a law school?  It is one thing, and one thing only – articles published in a law review.  Not only must it be law review articles, but they must be placed in the highest ranked publication possible.  Why?  The answers to that question are complex and serve as the subject of many a law faculty barbeque, but for now you just must accept this fact and act on it.  This doesn’t mean that you cannot write case files, casebooks, legal treatises or other practical publications.  But if you want to be a law professor you must first carry the heavy load of writing law review articles.  You actually need to carry that load for the entirety of your career, but you can do the other stuff once you have shown the other members of the academy that you can do what they value most.  Think of it as establishing “street cred” with the decision makers who decide whether or not you will get the job.  There are lots of places on the net where you can learn about writing law review articles.  You might want to check out http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1577346 or http://lib.law.washington.edu/ref/lawrev.html.  Both are good resources.

Putting your Best Foot Forward
In addition to developing your academic writing chops, you want to increase the quality of your niche appeal.  I chose to do this by developing my advocacy teaching skills.  I attended NITA’s “train the trainer” program, taught at the JAG school, and looked for opportunities to teach advocacy in a law school environment.  I was presenting a speech about terrorism at Notre Dame Law school when Professor Jim Seckinger invited me to come back to teach in his intensive advocacy course.  This meant taking a week of vacation (actually leave since I was still on active duty), providing my own transportation and housing, and working all day long for five days straight.  I jumped at the opportunity and am forever grateful to Jim.  It was literally the beginning of a great post Army career. 

I learned a great deal working with Jim during the next two years, and I was able to put adjunct faculty, Notre Dame Law School, on my curriculum vitae. I also reconnected with civilian academia. My law school professors took the time to mentor me once they knew that I wanted to become a law professor, and much of what I am sharing with you first came from them.  Professor Robert Blakey was particularly helpful.  Between Bob and Jim I acquired knowledge and experience, now all I needed was a bit of luck.  During this same time I was also writing, and more importantly, developing a long term research and writing agenda that I could discuss with any law school that was considering me as a candidate for a teaching position. Eventually I participated in the AALS hiring process.  That is an entirely separate post.  Finally I was offered, and accepted, a position at Stetson University College of Law as an assistant professor on a tenure track.  My teaching package included professional responsibility, criminal procedure, evidence, and trial advocacy.  

Lessons Learned
So what can those of you who are thinking of becoming a law professor who teaches advocacy take from my comments? 

First:  There is a reflective component to this profession that requires you to be able to express your thoughts in the preferred medium – law review articles.  These articles are qualitatively different from other types of writing and you must learn to speak the language of the profession to be accepted as a potential member.  Time that you might spend bemoaning this fact is time better spent writing the article you are complaining about.

Second:  Where you went to law school matters, but it is not necessarily dispositive.  You must acknowledge that certain schools, and certain faculties regardless of the school, are so enamored by the presence of an Ivy League law degree that they will not consider any other graduate.  You cannot do anything about that, short of getting an L.L.M. from one of those schools.  You should focus instead on the positives you might bring to the table – if you write well enough your origins can be overlooked.

Third:  Dance with the one that brought you.  You must have a certain degree of ability in a niche area that meets the law school’s needs.  Key areas where practitioners excel include professionalism, advocacy, and upper level law school courses that require actual understanding of how the law is currently being applied.  Once you identify that niche develop it.  Write in that area, attend conferences or programs that will help you develop that specific skill and then approach your law school alma mater about chances to volunteer or teach as an adjunct.  NITA is a great place to begin that process, we have a conference at Stetson I’ve mentioned in other posts that can also help.  

The ability to influence a group of minds as they struggle with the depth and breadth of what it means to be a member of our profession is a blessed experience, I hope that this missive has helped you think about what might be required to achieve it.

All the best,


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