Advice on Becoming a Law Professor
Brad Areheart, ‘05, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Tennessee College of Law, shares his advice on becoming a law professor.
First thing to understand is (1) this is the best job in the world (seriously) and (2) that becoming a law professor is hyper-competitive. It doesn’t mean you can’t get there. But it does mean you won’t luck or “fall into” a job as a law professor. (Conversely, you can fall into a biglaw job – just make excellent grades and interview well.) The best way to describe the competitiveness of getting this job is to compare it to getting a job at a large law firm. Getting a tenure-track job anywhere (even at a lower-ranked school or one that is located in an undesirable city) is probably about ten times more difficult than getting a job at a large firm in a desirable city. All of this means you will have to be very conscientious and driven to make it.
With that cheery note, the place to start is in law school. It’s probably the least discussed in terms of logistics or advice – but in a way, the most important. Once you get out of law school, you will be slammed with taking the bar, hopefully starting a new job, and trying to do that new job well enough that you not only stay employed, but also are successful by some measure.
Preparing to be a Law Professor While in Law School
If you know you want to be a law professor when you are in law school (and I did), then you should absolutely make some choices that will pay dividends down the road:
- First thing you should do is read the following book cover to cover: “Becoming a Law Professor” (ABA, 2010: Denning, Lipshaw, & McCormick). Getting information on becoming a law professor used to be kind of difficult. You needed to talk to the right people or survey the Internet and jump from message board to message board – but now this book basically contains all of the logistical steps involved in becoming a law professor. As someone who had read everything I could get my hands on before this book came out (and then read this book once it was published), I can vouch for it. This is the definitive guide for someone seeking to become a law professor.
- The second thing you should read is Sam Buell, Becoming a Legal Scholar, 110 Michigan Law Review 1175 (2012). Buell’s short essay (only 16 pages) moves beyond the standard aspiring law professor advice to “just write” or achieve other proxies and instead structures thoughts around how to become an expert in a particular field. In other words, how one develops the knowledge and insight to write something that will make a contribution to a particular literature and get noticed by other experts in that field.
- The most important advice if you are serious about becoming a law professor is to begin writing one or more scholarly articles while in law school that you can publish after law school. You will likely come across subjects that spark your interest or maybe even specific ideas you’d like to write about. And there are all sorts of ways you might go about writing an article that serves more than one purpose. I took two directed studies when I was at Texas Law. Also, there are seminars that require you to write a paper. Finally, if you are on a journal, there’s your note. Unless you are publishing your note on the Texas Law Review (TLR), you should probably not publish it with your secondary journal; you should wait and submit it broadly as a practitioner. I wrote two articles when I was in law school (one was my TLR note, but it wasn’t selected) that I later published after I graduated. And this went a long way toward jump-starting my publishing momentum when I was practicing law. Even if none of these situations apply (you can’t find a professor to supervise your directed study, you don’t like any seminars, and you aren’t on a journal), you should still start writing one or more scholarly articles if you are serious about becoming a law professor. There is probably a professor at Texas Law who would be willing to take a look at it and, most importantly, you will have the time to do so – even if it feels like you are super-slammed at the time.
- You should befriend at least a couple of your law professors. This was not particularly comfortable for me – but looking back I see the importance. The most important references you will have on the academic job market are probably law professors. And even though some have little or no desire to be a mentor to you, some will have that desire.
To paraphrase something I heard Professor Mitch Berman say once, if you graduate from law school and you’re thinking “you know, it might be cool to be a law professor one day,”you’re probably not going to make it. To succeed on this track, you will have to be super focused at an early stage and driven.
Preparing to be a Law Professor After Law School
After law school, you will need to continue to research and write. One of the best pieces of advice I got was from Professor Ernest Young (formerly at Texas Law, now at Duke) when I was in practice. He encouraged me to take six months and focus on reading in the area that I wanted to continue writing in. Basically, take a “night and weekend sabbatical” (on top of your day job). This is probably the key to becoming a legal scholar – becoming super-conversant in the literature, debates, and dialogues that you want to have a say in. I wanted to write about disability and employment discrimination so I bought about 20-30 books on these topics, published by reputable university presses, and read pretty much all of them. This helped me become steeped in the literature and try to make an original contribution through what I was writing.
Another good piece of advice from Professor Brian Leiter (formerly at Texas Law, now at Chicago) was that you should try to have three (excellent) publications before going on the market. There are three blanks in the publications section on the FAR form (which is the Association of American Law Schools Faculty Appointments Register) and you should aspire to have (ideally, really good) publications for each line. But more important than quantity is quality. I’ll say that again: quality trumps quantity all day long. The most important proxy for quality is article placement; this is critical because most people (even those on appointments committees) will never read all of your scholarship. So you should absolutely consult other law professors when submitting articles and making decisions about where to publish. If nothing else, call or email me as I’m happy to try and help any of you.
As a Texas Law graduate, you will have a shot at legal academia – and this is more than most graduates can say. There really are only about 12-15 law schools that produce any significant number of law professors and Texas Law happens to be one of them. Yay! At the same time, it is fairly low on that list of 12-15 schools in terms of producing law professors. In other words, you’re not coming from Yale or Harvard and that’s a pretty significant disadvantage. What this means is that you will probably need to be a “star” when it comes to publishing to get hired anywhere – much less at a “good” law school. Writing/publishing/scholarship is really the currency of legal academia. And the good news about that is even if you don’t graduate at the tip-top of the class here at Texas Law you can still probably become a law professor if you work really hard to be a good and thoughtful scholar.
You should also try and figure out if there are any annual conferences in your area of scholarship. I write about employment discrimination so I began attending an annual labor and employment conference every year. I would just take a couple of personal days at the firm and secretly fly out to this conference where I’d network and present papers. It was great in terms of making connections and beginning to understand what it felt and looked like to be an academic.
VAPs and Fellowships
Even if you follow all of this advice, you still may not be able to make it into legal academia without a fellowship or VAP (Visiting Assistant Professor). This is the new norm in legal academia: to go to a law school after some amount of practice experience, be in residence, and write and teach while aspiring. The majority of people who are now securing tenure-track jobs on a year-in, year-out basis in legal academia have done a fellowship or VAP. That’s significant. And of those who are successfully securing tenure-track jobs without a VAP or fellowship, most have an advanced degree (with a Ph.D being the most common). There is a small sliver of people who have neither a Ph.D nor a VAP/Fellowship who will secure tenure-track positions in any given year, but it is rare and coming from Texas, it is probably not going to be you.
TaxProf Blog updates a list of fellowships and VAPs every year. Some are subject matter specific and some are general. But if you are serious about legal academia you should apply to these and you should probably do that before you go on the teaching market (though you can also do it concurrently). The danger to doing it concurrently is you will be less competitive by virtue of not having done a VAP/fellowship and thus if you do get a job, it will probably be at a place that is not your top choice. And even though you can always lateral at a later point in time, the lateral market is probably even less predictable than the entry-level market. It’s a balancing act. Getting a job anywhere is great, but still some jobs are better than others. And of course, some geographies are going to be more attractive (to you personally) than others. On that note, I’ll transition to sharing some of my experience.
My Personal Experience as a VAP and on the Market
I first went on the teaching market in the fall of 2009. I was starting my fifth year of practice. I had written in law school and all through practice, had already published three pieces (two of which were really good placements), and been attending conferences. I also had a good work in progress. I thought I had a decent shot. I only received four interviews in Washington, DC (on-campus interviews), two callbacks/flybacks, and ended up finishing second for a position that the person ahead of me accepted. At the time, I wanted so badly to receive an offer from that school (a 4th-tier law school). However, I had also applied for fellowships and VAPs at the same time; i.e., I had gone on the market concurrently with applying for VAPs and fellowships (the thing I would advise you not to do). And I ended up receiving a couple of VAP offers, including one that was a brand new position at Stetson University College of Law (a law school I had never even heard of at the time). I accepted it because it was a two-year position (my other VAP offer was only for one year), I would be teaching all doctrinal courses and pretty much the courses I wanted, the location was great (on the beach), and the pay was really good – much better than most. ($75,000, plus free housing versus a more typical fellowship salary of $50,000). (By the way, another Texas Law alum, Rachel VanLandingham, took my spot at Stetson when I accepted my current job at the University of Tennessee College of Law.)
At Stetson, I taught three classes a year (I think two classes/year is the norm for most VAPs). And the key, as in any VAP or fellowship is that first year. The second year, you’ll be on the teaching market so you want to write and place as many good pieces of scholarship in that first year that you can. Though always remember (quality over quantity). I placed three more articles that year (one that was my job talk from when I had been on the market in 2009) and all were good placements. I also had a terrifically nice group of law professors at Stetson who mentored me and gave me advice about pedagogy, writing, and just generally being a law professor.
I went back on the teaching market in the fall of 2011. Totally different experience. That fall I got 26 interviews (versus four); eight callbacks (versus two); and three tenure-track offers (versus none) – and that includes me withdrawing from some of the places I had interviews or callbacks. Suffice to say, it was a very, very different experience. I think it goes to show both the importance of (especially doctrinal) teaching experience and having a sufficient quantity of quality publications. (Never sacrifice quality for quantity though!)
I’m happy to take any questions or further share any details of my experience. I would sincerely like to help anyone at Texas Law reading this who thinks this is the job they want to do. I had many people who helped me along the way and this really, really is the best job in the world!
You may contact me directly at 865-299-2822 or firstname.lastname@example.org.