The Other Side of the Socratic: Tips for Pursuing a Career i

by Vault Law Editors | May 25, 2011

Legal academia is one of those careers that seems unreachable, both because of how competitive it is—generally requiring impeccable grades from a top school and published scholarship to even be considered—and how little information is out there on pursuing the profession. But students in the Lions’ legal den are receiving valuable tools to prepare them for future careers as law professors through Columbia Law School’s Careers in Law Teaching Program. According to Columbia Law’s (“CLS”) website,

Traditionally, getting excellent grades at a distinguished law school, being a law review member or (preferably) officer, and having a prestigious clerkship after graduation have been the most important factors, especially at the top schools. In recent years, however, scholarly achievement—not just potential—is increasingly required. By the time you are applying for tenure-track teaching jobs, you should have at least one polished piece of work ready to be submitted to prospective employers and used as a “job talk.” A paper already in the publication pipeline can serve these purposes well. Better yet is to have something published already, and a second project suitable for presentation to schools. Most law faculties still value candidates who have practiced law, so a few years of experience (particularly if you have been able to write as well) can be useful.

Brains, prestige, writing achievements and practical skills—law professors are the total package. So how is CLS’s Careers in Law Teaching Program helping its students prepare for these rigorous standards? “One of the purposes of the program is to prepare our graduates for the market while they’re still students . . . so when they leave Columbia they can continue their scholarly work, and will also be familiar with the mechanics of the hiring system,” says CLS professor Carol Sanger, who with Professors Vincent Blasi and Jamal Greene oversees the Careers in Law Teaching Program.

The program includes detailed write-ups on legal academia, counseling for alumni pursuing careers in academia, informational lunch sessions for students throughout each spring semester, advice on developing and publishing legal scholarship, access to sample scholarly agendas (which the school describes as “a methodology and set of linked problems that you plan to tackle as a scholar”), job search and fellowship resources, and information on the application process. CLS also hosts an Academic Fellows Program, allowing law-professor-hopefuls to focus on their scholarly agendas at Columbia Law for one or two years; the Associates-in-Law program through which participants perform research, attend workshops and seminars, and teach legal research and writing; and a variety of more-specialized fellowships for those with interests in intellectual property, corporate law, and law and culture.

Professor Sanger and other Columbia Law professors also offer mentoring to those considering professorships. This guidance begins while students are still in law school. Believing the spring lunch seminars provide a “good understanding of what it’s going to take,” Professor Sanger urges all of the law students to attend the sessions. “In case you think you might ever be interested in it—keep your eyes open now,” she says—and this includes building relationships with professors. “Get to know your professors so that when you decide four years out that you really know that’s where your heart lies and you want to teach . . . they’ll actually know who you are and remember you well,” says Professor Sanger. Students should also begin exploring the culture of legal academia and observing interactions at faculty workshops “so that you get the feel for it and aren’t afraid of it,” says Professor Sanger. Also key is “developing the habit of writing,” she says—you will need a minimum of “one polished paper that you’re willing to share” and should really strive to also have at least one published work.

When it comes to experience, professor-hopefuls may want to get to chambers: “Most of our candidates have clerked,” says Professor Sanger. But other legal experience is valuable too. “Columbia graduates tend to practice before they go into the academy,” she says. And practice is critical if a candidate aspires to teach clinical programs, advises Professor Sanger.

As professor candidates approach the application process, Professor Sanger encourages them to present a “holistic picture of themselves” that links their teaching, practice and scholarly interests. With this kind of connection, a “school can say this person makes sense . . . there’s a reason they’re researching this. There’s a reason they’re interested in teaching this subject,” says Professor Sanger.

It’s all part of being the total package.

Columbia Careers in Teaching Law Program
Almost Everything You Need to Know About Law Teaching (CLS site)
Professor Sanger Bio

Read More:
6 Things to Consider When Applying to Law School

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