Friday, October 7, 2011

BECOMING A LEGAL SCHOLAR

What does it take to become a law professor?  With the publication of Brannon Denning, Marcia McCormick, and Jeffrey Lipshaw’s Becoming A Law Professor:  A Candidate’s Guide[1] we can now say, as academics do, that there is  a literature on this question.  Previously much of the advice on
this topic consisted of postings to blogs and other websites, albeit comprising probably the most detailed set of writings law professors have created in that medium[2].

The arrival of a “monograph” pulls this body of advice together, organizes it, adds substantially to it, and supplies a handy tool for the kit of any aspiring professorial candidate.  The guide’s authors have
performed a service for which the hundreds of teaching aspirants who enter the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) pool each season will owe them gratitude.  In the style of a backpacker’s guide—with the voice of intrepid reporters whose blisters have turned to calluses—their
book hits the key points one needs to know to pass through the land of hiring in the legal academy without falling victim to common injuries, fatigue, hazards, and mistakes that are easily avoidable with proper preparation and local knowledge.

But Becoming A Law Professor and its progenitors in the blogosphere have a tendency to slip much too quickly past a question that must arise well before one begins packing one’s bags for this journey.  The question of what it takes to become a law professor turns on what kind of law professor one means to be.  This prior question extends deeper than the standard formal distinctions among categories of law faculty that the literature does a good job of explaining[3]
 
Even with fully tenured faculty, there is—if we are honest with ourselves—a distinction between those
with the goal of a professorship only and those who strive to become scholars of law.  The latter category includes those whose work will be read and valued by others who work in the same field, and whom other faculties would like to have present work at their schools, perhaps visit for a semester or a year, and even hire laterally.  The distinction here has at least partial connection to quality of law school, but we need not nail that down at the level of rankings; it will be sufficient to agree that the
distinction exists.

Becoming A Law Professor crystallizes two related issues that have been bothering me about the emerging literature on how to become a law professor, one having to do with the production of law professors and the other having to do with the American meritocracy generally.

My first difficulty is that the literature, in spite of being crammed to the gills with pointers and commands of all sorts, from how to cultivate persuasive recommenders (pp. 34-35, 43-44) to how to navigate the elevators of a particularly crucial hotel in Washington, D.C. (pp. 46-49), doesn’t give the poor candidates an answer to their real question.  How does one become a law professor—or at least one who is a genuine scholar of law?

The answer, as anyone who has been through this market in at least the last decade or two well knows, can be expressed in a single word:  write (before you seek a job).  Every bit of guidance to the market
emphatically says this, including  Becoming A Law Professor (p. 28).  Of course, “write” is no answer at all.  That’s like telling someone who wants to know how to become a pianist, “Play.”
Let’s call this deficit in the literature the Rumpelstiltsk in problem.  Like the king in the Grimms’ tale, the existing guidance tells the candidate (the miller’s daughter) what she must do in order to realize her intense desire for a teaching job (keen wish not to be executed):  publish serious work (spin straw into gold).  And then it reminds her of this at about the top of every hour.

The literature doesn’t seem to do a lot more on this front than the fairy tale.  It sends the candidate off to, one imagines, a shuttered and perhaps bleak place and tells her to come back with gold.  Indeed, reality is worse than the fairy tale.  There will be no magical being who appears in the grim chamber to offer the aspiring professor publication in the Harvard Law Review in exchange for her first-born child.  



[1] Brannon P. Denning is a Professor of Law, Samford University; Marcia L. McCormick is an Associate Professor of Law, Saint Louis University; and Jeffrey M. Lipshaw is an Associate Professor of Law, Suffolk University.
[2] A comprehensive bibliography of the many (mostly online) resources is at http://www.ericgoldman.org/Resources/becomingalawprofessor.htm.    People love to give advice and, in professional and credentialing processes, to replicate themselves.  I cannot write this review, of course, without being compelled to do the same things myself.
[3] PP. 3-11 (describing categories of “doctrinal faculty,” “skills faculty,” clinicians, legal writing faculty, and administrators).
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