The Academic Path: Becoming a Law Professor

For lawyers who want to teach, postgraduate law degrees like the LL.M. or J.S.D. are one path, but not the only one.

If you want to become a law professor, there are several different routes. Most, however, start with two things: a first law degree and the ambition to teach law. You'll need both.

But then what? What qualifications and experience do you need to get hired as a law school professor?

Let's start with degrees. Here, the "classical" profile of a law school professor varies slightly in different parts of the world.

In the United States, for example, a doctorate or graduate degree isn't required to get a teaching job at a law school. This is because a J.D. is already considered a postgraduate degree, unlike first law degrees in other parts of the world.

An informal survey of a handful of US law schools – UCLA, Vanderbilt, Northwestern, Emory, and Columbia – suggests that only around 10-25 percent of faculty have a Ph.D., J.S.D., LL.M., or D.Phil degree.

Meanwhile, graduate degrees are much more common among law professors elsewhere in world, including Britain, Continental Europe, Australia, and East Asia. In most of these countries, an undergraduate law degree qualifies one to become a solicitor, but many law schools will not typically appoint faculty with less than a master's degree.

Over 80 percent of the law professors at Melbourne University or Hong Kong University, for example, have a Ph.D., J.S.D., D.Phil, or LL.M..

“In general, if you want to continue your career as a scholar and academic, it's very hard without a Ph.D.,” says Hervé Tijssen of academic careers in Europe. Tijssen coordinates the research LL.M. and Ph.D. programs at Tilburg Law School in The Netherlands.

But becoming a professor is not just about collecting degrees; it's also about what you do and produce during your graduate studies. Tijssen says getting a Ph.D. is, of course, about developing specialized, theoretical expertise, but it's also about getting a broader understanding about interdisciplinary connections and the wider context of law in society.

“You become not just a specialist, but a generalist, as well,” says Tijssen.

Ph.D. students on Tijssen's program – like on other doctoral programs – get a chance to get teaching experience in the law school, which is a factor for law schools when hiring new faculty.

Perhaps most importantly, however, postgraduate research degrees lead to publications. Solid publications - along with a strong degrees (ideally from top-tier schools) – are probably the single-biggest factors for law school hiring committees. Without publications, it is tough to land any academic job – even with teaching experience.

"As between someone with extensive teaching experience and weak publications, on the one hand, and someone with no teaching experience and good publications, on the other, the job offer will go to the candidate with solid publications, every time," says W. Bradley Wendel, professor at Cornell Law School who maintains a popular website about academic careers.

"The thinking is that an inexperienced teacher can learn on the job," says Wendel, "but it's unlikely that an unpromising scholar will suddenly figure it out and become a good scholar."

Therefore, if you're looking for another academic qualification, it should facilitate research and getting published rather than focus on coursework and exams.

This is one reason why getting an LL.M. is not a common pathway to a teaching jobs in the United States. With the exception of a handful of US LL.M. programs – like Yale's LL.M. program or NYU's Legal Theory LL.M. – most do not give ample time for publishable research.

Many "Research LL.M.” programs, however, do provide students with this opportunity. Most of these programs can be found in the UK, Australia, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, and more sporadically in Asia and Europe.

A few dozen law schools in the United States offer Doctor of Jurisprudence (J.S.D., also sometimes called S.J.D.) programs, including Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, Berkeley, Chicago, NYU, Yale, Cornell, and Duke. These two- to three-year J.S.D. programs are research-oriented, and designed for future professors. Graduates typically exit with at least one piece of substantial academic scholarship. Some programs also let students to hone their teaching skills with short-term adjunct opportunities.

W. Bradley Wendel, now at Cornell, finished his LL.M. and J.S.D. at Columbia University a decade ago. He suggests this experience was less about collecting two more degrees for his resume, but more about publishing and getting acclimated to the culture of legal academia.

"The primary benefit was having lots of time to research and write, and also hanging around in an academic environment and kind of soaking up the culture," says Wendel.

He singles out the faculty workshop series he was invited to sit in on as particularly beneficial.

"I learned so much from observing the question and answer process," says Wendel. "I really came to understand what makes a good versus a weak paper, what sorts of objections one might expect, how to defend a position in a constructive way (as opposed to being defensive), what sorts of topics are fruitful in terms of the engagement one might expect from the audience at a workshop, and so on."

But while LL.M.s remain relatively uncommon on US law faculty profiles, more aspiring professors are getting doctorates if not in law, then various “related” disciplines like economics, political science, and philosophy.

According to Lauren Endelman, associate dean at UC Berkeley's School of Law, this is “because law schools are recognizing the value of empirical research, and Ph.D. programs provide the tools to conduct such research, as well as more in-depth background in disciplinary literatures.”

“The Ph.D. is becoming a route into law school teaching that is an alternative to the more traditional law review / clerkship route,” says Endelman.

Berkeley offers a Jurisprudence and Social Policy (JSP) program, a Ph.D. program that emphasizes the interdisciplinary connections between law and other fields like economics, philosophy, sociology, and political science.

Yet another possibility for transitioning into legal academia is one of the growing number of Visiting Assistant Professor (VAP) programs. These fellowship positions offered by some US law schools let aspiring professors spend one or two years researching and teaching before going out on the competitive academic job market and (hopefully) landing a tenure-track position.

But lawyers embarking on any of these paths to becoming a law professor should know that academic job markets – like any other legal job market – can be fiercely competitive.

According to NYU Law's Academic Careers Program, each year around a thousand hopefuls register for jobs with the Association of American Law Schools (AALS). The AALS, through its annual meeting – the so-called “meat market” – facilitates most law school faculty hires in the United States. Of those, only a fraction will land jobs.

And while the process won't be the same everywhere, it makes sense to consider what might make you a competitive candidate for a faculty job before starting down any one long path.

The following resources might be helpful for lawyers interested in academic careers:

- W. Bradley Wendel's useful website about academic careers
- University of Chicago's “Info for Academic Job Seekers” website
- The Association of American Law Schools website

Image: uwgb admissions / Flickr (cropped) - Creative Commons

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