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What Makes a Great Law Professor?

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on September 14, 2016 6:58 AM

The typical law student will have about two dozen professors in his or her law school career. Many of them will be fine, some will be meh, a few will be bad, and one or two will be truly great -- the kind of professor you'll remember fondly years down the road. Maybe they turned you on to a new area of the law or a new way of thinking about the legal system. Maybe they made a topic you hated seem tolerable, even enjoyable. Maybe they just made you laugh.

If you've had a professor like this, consider yourself lucky. And if you've yet to find one, start looking. They're out there. Here's what to search for.

Finding a Great Professor

You owe it to yourself to take at least one law school class with an excellent professor, even if it's in an area of law you're not planning on practicing, like International Climate Change Law, or that won't be on the bar exam, like International Climate Change Law. (If you can find a great professor teaching a practical course in an area of law you plan to pursue, even better.)

But finding a great professor isn't as easy as checking out ratemyprofessors.com or looking at past student reviews -- though those are both good ways to start. Ask your friends, other students, and recent grads who they'd recommend.

There's no singular formula for a great professor, of course. Greatness is in the eye of the beholder, after all, and you're going to want to seek out professors who inspire you personally. But here are some characteristics most great professors will have:

The Ability to Unpack Legal Concepts: This is, of course, the most important skill any professor can have. Seek out professors who can explain the battle of the forms or Iqbal and Twombly in a way that most students can understand.

Experience and Engagement: Great professors tend to have done, or are doing, great things. They may have practiced for years, allowing them to illustrate legal concepts with their own experience. Or they could be advising government bodies or leading public interest groups while they teach. Look for someone who knows the law through practice, not just academics.

The Ability to Answer Questions: One of the most disappointing interactions with a professor I had in law school was one of my first office visits as a 1L. I had a question regarding crim law. It was something about "reasonable person" standards and an incredibly drunk English man. When the professor answered my question with "well, what do you think?" I knew I was in trouble. When I explained my thinking, I was met with something "and what about that?" Soon, it became clear that I wasn't going to get anything resembling a firm answer, or even basic guidance.

Encouraging you to think through problems on your own is a sign of a good professor. Stonewalling isn't. Find someone who knows how to actually answer questions.

The Willingness to Give You an A and a Stellar Recommendation: I mean, that's what we're all really looking for, right?

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