Until relatively recently, there was a very clear path into legal academia. While in law school students compiled an excellent academic record and worked on law review; following graduation, they clerked for a year or two, typically for a federal appeals court judge and/or the U.S. Supreme Court. Upon completion of the clerkship(s), they were hired as assistant professors. Only after they were hired did they begin to develop expertise in a field of law and to generate scholarship in that area.
While law schools still fill some entry-level slots on the old model, increasingly successful candidates for tenure-track jobs in law have written two or three articles by the time they go on the job market and can outline an interesting scholarly agenda that will carry them through the next three to five years. Most hiring committees still want to see a transcript that reassures them that the candidate will be able to handle a conventional law school class, but that no longer means one has to graduate at the very top of one’s class. Some law schools still count law review membership and prestigious clerkships as a plus, but the importance of these credentials are increasingly dwarfed by the candidate’s scholarly accomplishments.
Thus, the biggest challenge for law students interested in academia is to use their time in school to formulate an interesting and tractable set of research questions, acquire the skills necessary to answer them, and get some serious writing done. Some students accomplish that by pursuing a joint graduate degree in law and another academic discipline. Others will go on the academic job market with only a JD degree, typically after a few years of working as a lawyer or in a policy position in government, but amass a substantial scholarly record through writing done in law school and, increasingly, in one of the many post-JD fellowships designed for graduates interested in teaching law.
Beyond that, it is difficult to generalize about the best course of study for pre-academic law students. The path a student should follow is highly individual, depending (among other things) on the student’s substantive area of interest, methodological approach to the material, work habits and academic experience outside of the law school. Some students come to law school knowing what areas they want to write in and with the scholarly tool kit necessary to plunge right in. Others are uncertain of what areas they want to specialize in, uncertain how to go about writing a publishable scholarly article, or in need of additional skills to do the sort of academic work they are interested in. The single most important piece of advice we can give you is to contact faculty members in your areas of interest early on and discuss with them how best to use your time in law school, given your interests and background. In addition, the faculty members on the Law School’s Teaching Placement Committee are always available to give advice on matters small and large.
Pre-academic students should choose law school electives with a number of goals in mind: getting a broad education in law; investigating possible areas of scholarly interest and developing expertise in already identified areas of interest; creating opportunities for scholarly writing; and getting to know faculty of particular interest to the student. The optimal combination of such courses will vary from student to student, but rationale for gaining broad experience remains the same. First, if you are comfortable with a reasonable range of substantive areas and legal vocabulary, you will be a better teacher and a better colleague. Second, many law schools require their faculty to teach one or more basic courses outside of their areas of scholarly interest. Third, fluency with the ‘stuff’ of law will make you a better scholar. This is true not only for those planning to write traditional doctrinal scholarship in law, but also for those whose scholarship is explicitly interdisciplinary. After all, the added value you bring to the table as a legally trained philosopher, sociologist, economist, etc., is your institutional knowledge of law.
Directions in specific legal practice areas will provide a starting point for relevant law school courses in that substantive area. Again, we strongly encourage each pre-academic student to seek faculty help in tailoring a program of study that makes sense, given his or her areas of interest and academic background.
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