Paths to Law Teaching
Information and Advice for Persons Interested in Teaching Law
Prepared by Brian Leiter
(with input from many colleagues over the years)
August 2009 (Last updated December 2015)
I. Paths to Law Teaching
There are three well-trodden paths to a career in law teaching; the great majority of law teachers--though not all--entered law teaching by one of these paths:
Path A: The Classical Path starts with an exceptional academic performance in law school (e.g., graduating Order of the Coif), service on the law review, preferably in a senior editorial position (e.g., "Articles Editor," "Editor-in-Chief," etc.), followed by a prestigious judicial clerkship, at least on a U.S. Court of Appeals and, if possible, on the U.S. Supreme Court. Because of the fierce competition for academic positions in law, this Classical Path is no longer a guaranteed ticket to a good law-school teaching position; also, in the last twenty years, more and more legal academics have developed doubts about whether these are really the credentials to look for in aspiring law teachers and legal scholars. The turn to interdisciplinary scholarship at many schools--from law & economics to empirical legal studies--has also made the Classical Path less relevant. Increasingly, many who would have gone the Classical Path a generation ago find it necessary to also pursue Paths B or C.
Path B: The LLM/“Post-Doc”/VAP Path can require somewhat less by way of academic accomplishment and work experience than the Classical Path: e.g., a strong academic performance, but perhaps not exceptional; some work on a journal, or some substantial writing experience, but perhaps not via law review; some practical experience, either in practice or some sort of clerkship, if not a U.S. Court of Appeals. (Sometimes these credentials alone, plus strong interviews, will get you a teaching job at a school where hiring is less competitive, but the reality is that hiring is becoming more competitive almost everywhere.) The key to Path B is some additional academic experience/research after graduating from law school, and perhaps after getting some practice experience. This might take the form of a graduate law degree (an LL.M., less commonly for American lawyer, an S.J.D.) at a top law school (usually this means: Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, maybe also NYU [esp. for tax] [Chicago offers LLM and SJD degrees, but primarily for foreign-trained lawyers]; it might take the form of teaching legal research and writing at a top law school that recruits people for these positions with an eye to helping them develop as legal scholars and law teachers (Chicago’s Bigelow program is the best-known example, but Stanford does something similar, and Harvard has what they call Climenko Fellows); or it might mean a position as a “Visiting Assistant Professor” or Fellow at one of the proliferating programs at top law schools that aim to serve as stepping stones to teaching careers (the “Emerging Scholars Program” at Texas, Visiting Assistant Professors at Northwestern are all examples). (Paul Caron [Cincinnati] periodically posts a list of these opportunities on his TaxProf Blog; the most recent one is here.) In each case, the goal is to complete publishable scholarly work and also suitably impress the faculty at the school that they will join your Chicago professors in recommending you for teaching jobs.
Path C: The Interdisciplinary Path is often combined with Paths A and B, though it need not be if the work in the other discipline is of sufficient quality and distinction to attract the attention of law schools. Here the candidate also pursues graduate studies in another area of relevance to law--e.g., history, economics, philosophy, sociology, political science--earning usually a Ph.D. A number of Chicago faculty can offer advice on appropriate Ph.D. programs: for economics, talk to Professors Ben-Shahar, Hubbard, Levmore, Malani and Dean Miles; for philosophy, Professors Leiter and Nussbaum; for history, Professors Helmholz, LaCroix, and Weinrib; for political science, Professors Abebe, Chilton, and Rosenberg.
One important caveat about these three paths to law teaching. Most law schools are, more than anything else, looking for potential scholars. All of the paths described are thought to be good proxies for identifying those with scholarly potential. But the best way to establish scholarly potential is by, in fact, publishing scholarly work before looking for a job. Indeed, it would be fair to say that the single best ticket to a job in law teaching is to have published at least one article since graduating law school. One Texas alum told me the story of how the first year on the teaching market, he got relatively little attention; by the next year, he had published an article in Wisconsin Law Review, and now had a dozen interviews, and ended up with a tenure-track job at a good state law school. Publications make and break candidacies.
You should think about work you have done in law school--a seminar paper, an independent study, or the like--that might be revised and submitted for publication to law reviews. Don't publish something just for the sake of getting something published however--publishing a piece of shoddy work will hurt more than help. On the other hand, a work you publish does not have to be the single best thing ever written on the subject! Part of the value of having publications to your credit is that it shows you are serious about a career in scholarship.
Another very important factor for pursuing a career in law teaching is to establish a substantial relationship with one or more faculty members who might later serve as references. Securing a job teaching law depends very heavily on having prominent faculty in your corner, who will write letters, make phone calls, send e-mails and the like. Find opportunities to do substantial writing under the supervision of professors, and make sure to keep potential faculty references posted in your work and your plans. Also keep in mind that candidates for law teaching in certain areas--e.g., constitutional law, jurisprudence--are in over-supply, while candidates in other areas--e.g., real estate law, commercial law, property, corporate law, tax, alternative dispute resolution, trusts & estates--are often in short supply. You should think about what areas of law you might cultivate as areas of expertise which would make you especially attractive as a candidate for a law teaching position. Pursue a course of study in your second and third year of Law School that permits you to cultivate real knowledge of one or more areas in which you’d like to teach and write.
Finally, a special note to Chicago grads: touch base with me or Richard McAdams or Lisa Bernstein at least by the Spring before you want to go on the teaching market. Each year in the late Spring or early Summer, Chicago hosts a special one-day set of mock job talks and interviews for Chicago grads, during which time we will also answer questions and help you prepare for the AALS hiring convention.
Appendix: Model Resume for On-Campus Interviews