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How to Get a Job as a Law School Professor

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on October 12, 2015 10:59 AM

Maybe you fell in love with law school or have always seen yourself as an academic. Perhaps you just want a well-paying job with easy hours and great job security. Or you could just love The Paper Chase (which inspired the career of a Harvard Law dean) and How to Get Away With Murder (which inspires us every Thursday). Whatever the motivation, you want to be a law professor.

Who can blame you? An academic career is respected, lucrative, and, of course, very, very competitive. Here are some tips on how you can pursue a glamorous life as a law school professor.

Aim for Tenure: When we talk about great academic jobs, we're talking tenure track positions. Those are the desirable spots that lead to high pay, security, and a pair of grad student teaching assistants who can do most of the grunt work for you. Adjunct positions, legal writing spots, and other non-tenure track spots are generally easier to get.

If you're considering pursuing a clinical position, check to make sure that such jobs aren't on a separate track from traditional academic positions. Some schools don't make tenure available to clinical professors and don't consider them for non-clinical positions.

Go to Harvard or Yale: Like Supreme Court clerks, most law professors come from Harvard or Yale. Those two top schools have the greatest percentage of lawyers going into academia as well as the greatest number of alumnis teaching, according to a ranking by Brian Leiter. (Stanford, as always, under performs.) If you didn't go to law school in Cambridge or New Haven, you might have a harder time getting an academic job, but it's still not impossible.

Master Law School as a Student: Your performance as a law student determines how likely you are to be a law professor. Schools typically look for someone who was in the top 10 percent of their law school class, edited a journal, and published a note. You know, the easy stuff.

Clerk: Landing a prestigious clerkship is a great way to set yourself up for an academic career. Clerking for a federal circuit judge is great, clerking on the Supreme Court is better, but clerking pretty much anywhere is better than not clerking at all.

Work, but not too Long: Want to pay off some loans before going into academia? Apply after a few years of practice. And just a few. Two to three years of real world experience is valuable, according to the Georgetown Career Center. Five to six years is not.

Publish, Maybe Study: If you don't go straight into an academic career, make sure you keep demonstrating your smarts by publishing while you practice. Focus on getting your work into law reviews and academic journals.

You could also consider going back to school for a bit more training. Law schools like Yale and the University of California have Ph.D. programs that are meant to set students up for careers as law school profs. But don't bother getting an LL.M. No one respects LL.M.'s, not even law schools.

Consider Fellowships: Many schools offer fellowships for promising future academics. A listing by the Tax Prof Blog shows dozens of academic fellowships, from Alabama to Yale and everywhere in between. (The list was compiled in 2012, but most of the programs are still active.)

Some are focused on minority candidates, some on former SCOTUS clerks, some on those are on a particular practice area or academic topic. You could pursue, for example, a teaching fellowship on sexual orientation law at UCLA or criminal defense at Georgetown. Harvard even has one that was set up by Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, the Climenko Fellowship. It's even open to non-HLS grads!

Use Academic Job Fairs: For a few hundred dollars, you can participate in a fall recruitment conference hosted by the Association of American Law Schools. Consider it a bit like OCI, but for universities, not law firms. Unlike OCI, where class rank tends to rule, here references are king. So get yourself some good ones, especially from respected academics.

Do all the above, sacrifice a goat, and hope that the gods are on your side -- then you might have a fair chance at landing a truly competitive, tenure-track academic position.

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