Law academia: tell me about it!
October 8, 2012 4:40 PM   Subscribe

Law academia: tell me about entering it and what it's like when you're there! How similar is it to humanities academia? How difficult are the jobs to get, compared both to academia and to law firms?

I'm in the process of reconsidering my career possibilities, as anyone who read my last question has doubtless surmised (I'm feeling slightly less panicked this week, thank you!). I'm currently 2-3 years away from an Oxbridge PhD in the humanities. What I would like most is to become an academic in the humanities, but I am only too acutely aware of how competitive it is and what the odds are. If that doesn't work, I'm trying to figure out a solid Plan B (and Plan C and Plan D) that I can have at the ready, as I think knowing concrete possibilities that I'm prepared to move forward with would decrease my anxiety about the situation significantly.

One of the things I have been considering is law - possibly working at a law firm, but especially law academia. My PhD deals with post-WWII American religion, the Religious Right, church-state issues, reproductive rights controversies, etc. I was thinking that if I entered law academia, perhaps I could keep researching and teaching the topics I'm currently working on, or something closely related, but with a bit more focus on the law, specifically. Things I have been wondering particularly are:

1. How competitive is law academia to enter, compared to humanities academia, both now and in, say, six years' time? Assume I have degrees from top schools, a few articles published, and a 300-page book published or about to be on a topic reasonably related. Would I have an advantage with a PhD and a JD, or is that typical? What else are the jobs being decided on? Do most law academics practice first, or do a post-doc, or can you go straight into academia? (I'd be doing more theoretical stuff like church-state.)
2. What is the teaching load like? How much scope is there for teaching in your area of interest, rather than general courses? Are there TAs who grade, or is that up to the professor?
3. Could I research topics in religious/legal history, as my work (something similar or identical to the sorts of issues that my PhD addresses)?
4. What is the environment like for academics there, especially compared to the humanities? Is it collegial?
5. What is the proportion of tenure-track jobs versus adjunct jobs? How does this differ from humanities academia? Are the jobs generally stable? Is there the same big push to publish? Is it mostly articles or books?
6. What are the salaries like? I stumbled online across estimates suggesting around $100,000 to start, and up to $180,000 for full professors (my sense is that regular academic is more like $40,000 to start and $80,000 for full professors, although I'm not entirely sure). This seems unbelievably high. What is it actually?
7. I'd love to know the answers to anything else that I should be asking about that I've missed!
posted by UniversityNomad to Education (3 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Based on the law professors that I know who are junior faculty at R1 institutions:

- it seems that many law professors spent time as supreme court clerks
- many only have a JD, not very many had a PhD - I don't know how common your situation is
- you have to have publications, seems more article than book focused
- teaching load is fairly similar to other professors, it appears - the people in my professor orientation had a 2/2-ish
- salaries vary widely by discipline.... 40k to start? Really? In my social science discipline 40k would be for R2s and most R1 start in the 60s and 70s and 80s for starting assistant professor is not that unusual.

If I were you, I'd try to befriend some people WITHIN LAW SCHOOLS that do what you want to do and cultivate a mentoring relationship with them.

And start publishing in legal journals... and going to legal conferences.

Don't forget that there is also the whole law-and-society thing... a lot of universities have these interdisciplinary law-and-society departments as a pre-law major thing. In my grad university it was populated with faculty from other departments with a core ~5 people from academic backgrounds. I have a friend at UMass who is a political scientist with a law-bent who was hired into the law-and-society department... her tenure case is judged by political science, as I understand it.
posted by k8t at 5:24 PM on October 8, 2012

Not a legal academic, but I was in legal academia recently enough that I can maybe speak to the first two, and the last, of your questions.

1.) For tenure? Very. Ridiculously competitive. Getting into legal academia requires coming out in the top couple of percent of at least three, and possibly as many as six, successive pyramids. You've got to get into a very good school. Top 25 at least, and better top 10 than top 25. A quick search of your commenting history suggests that you may have a shot at this, but it is of course competitive. Then you've got to get onto a journal or a law review, which means breaking the top (say) 10% of your class. This, too, may be doable, but is by no means something to count on, because you will be competing with the kind of people who get into top 25 (or top 10) schools, and because your first-year examinations will of necessity be somewhat capricious -- there is just too much material to cover.

If you have secured a position on a journal or on law review, you will then do your best to position yourself to clerk for one or more judges after graduation. Ideally these will be judges in the Federal system, still more ideally they will be an Appellate Judge and a Supreme Court Justice. Consider your odds there: there are approx. 179 Federal Appellate judges and 9 Justices. This means that in a given year there are fewer than (I think) 400 positions available to all of the very qualified people who want them and have worked hard to get there. You don't absolutely have to do all of these things to secure a teaching job in legal academia, but the other applicants will be doing as many of them as they can. Almost all of my professors had clerked at the Supreme Court level. All had clerked at the Federal level, and all had been on law review.

This is not to say it's impossible: of course people do it. But asked to bet on whether any particular very smart, hard-working, heretofore-academically-successful law student were likely to get a teaching position in legal academia, the smart money is emphatically on the negative.

2.) It was my impression, at the top-25 school which I attended, that the teaching load was not as heavy as in the humanities: a young tenure-track professor would teach perhaps two first-year classes (property, tort, contract, crim., constitutional, corporate, evidence) and an upper-level class related to his or her specialty. Sometimes, a seminar in addition to or rather than one of the above. There were no TAs.

Consider that you want to teach the sexy side of already-sexy First Amendment law, which most lawyers won't ever get a chance to touch outside of law school: on the teaching side, this diminishes your utility to the school, although on balance it will also attract a certain kind of student.

7.) It is by now a commonplace that this is a terrible, terrible time to go to law school. There are many, many threads on metafilter, and many articles elsewhere*, discussing why this is. Keep in mind that there are far fewer positions in legal academia than there are in the legal market: from an economic point of view this means that your expected payout is much smaller than even that of an ordinary law student at a top-25 school. If you are thinking "I can always just practice law if I don't get into academia" you should really re-examine that assumption. Keep in mind, too, that unlike properly academic grad school in which you live on a meagre stipend, you will incur considerable debt in law school. Right now, it's a bad bet. I wouldn't do it again, if I had to do over, and all I wanted was to practice law.

Good luck!

*That page by mefi's own reenum!
posted by gauche at 5:32 PM on October 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

I am a tenure-track professor at a midrange law school; my teaching load is 2-1 (two classes fall semester; one class in the spring). I think the best overview of entering legal academia is "Paths to Law Teaching" by Brian Leiter--it is targeted to U Chicago grads, but has generally applicable advice. For more specific advice aimed at people on the market now, I think that Prawfsblawg's advice and questions thread is especially good (and the law professor hiring conference is happening this week, so the thread is very active at the moment). For salary information, the SALTLAW salary survey is good, though incomplete.
posted by Emera Gratia at 8:12 AM on October 9, 2012

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