The Making of a Law Professor

Posted on Categories Feminism, Legal Education, Public

There’s an adage in law that claims that the students who earned As in law school become law professors, the students who earned Bs become partners, and the students who earned Cs become judges.  I can’t verify that the adage is correct, but there is some truth to the first part.  Typically law professors had excellent law school grades.  But that’s not all.  They often members of their school’s law review, and most have held at least one – sometimes two – judicial clerkships.  A good number also spent a couple of years in practice.

As my colleague Gordon Hylton recently noted, such qualifications are considered indicators of the person’s potential to teach law.  The irony here is that few law professors have any background in education or pedagogy and even fewer have any experience teaching. And while law schools often support a new professor as she develops her classroom skills (through formal or informal mentoring or paying for the professor to attend conferences), law schools don’t offer any formal training in teaching law.  Generally, a law professor’s only real teaching qualification is that she once was a law student.

While teaching law is clearly an important part of being a law professor, the coin of the realm is scholarship.  Law professors, like other academics, must produce scholarship, and preferably scholarship more substantive than that about teaching or pedagogy.  It’s said that producing scholarship can make one a better teacher, and surely the more a person knows about an area of law, the better she understands it and the more likely she is to be able to convey that knowledge to her students.  But to the extent that a professor must take time to research and then to write scholarship, she loses time to devote to learning more about teaching.

Striking a balance between scholarship and teaching for any individual law professor parallels a larger attempt to strike a balance between law school envisioned as an academic “think tank” and law school envisioned as a place that trains lawyers.  In 2007, the Carnegie Foundation released its report on law schools, called Educating Lawyers:  Preparation for the Practice of Law.  The authors of that report concluded that law school does a good job imparting legal doctrine, but they chided law schools for failing to adequately prepare students for the actual practice of law. Brief overviews of that report can be found here and here.  To that end, it may be that law schools will begin to place more emphasis on teaching and on clinical and skills program, a development that would benefit women in the legal academy.

The number of women on law faculties has improved in recent years, but does not reach half, particularly at the associate professor and full professor level. A large number of women are found on the often lower-paying, lower prestige clinical and legal writing faculty, many of whom are not eligible for tenure.
According to recent statistics from the Association of American Law Schools, nearly two-thirds of lecturers and instructors, which are non-tenure track positions, are women.

As the number of women in law school decreases, I fear the number of women with the credentials for law teaching will also decrease.  However, it remains vitally important that women maintain a presence in the legal academy, for it is there that women students first see the possibilities of what it means to be a woman lawyer.

Cross-posted at Ms. JD.

One thought on “The Making of a Law Professor”

  1. The issue of the training of law teachers overlaps with the issue of whether law professors should have PhD degrees. While her or his counterparts have entered law teaching after a few years of law practice, the PhD law professor has usually had training in teaching–and sometimes has had substantial training. More importantly, the graduate student has had the opportunity to observe skilled teachers in the classroom without having to have been enrolled in the class that he or she observed.

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