Prof. Levinson Demystifies the Path to Legal Academia


On Tuesday, October 16, Harvard Law professor Daryl Levinson gave a lunchtime presentation to students interested in entering legal academia. Levinson acknowledged that there has always been a great deal of mystery surrounding the qualifications for becoming a law professor. However, while the path to legal academia may not be as clearly defined as the path to becoming a law firm associate, Levinson said there are basic steps a law student can take that will give him or her a good chance of getting a faculty appointment. Over the course of an hour, Levinson explained what qualities law schools are looking for in potential hires these days, the steps that students should take during and after law school towards becoming a professor, and why anyone would even want this job in the first place.

Levinson began by explaining what exactly law professors do: “Scholarship and teaching, in that order.” Levinson emphasized throughout his presentation that while teaching may be important, scholarship predominantly determines whether an aspiring professor finds a job. Law school hiring committees primarily look to candidates’ potential to write valuable scholarship, and only secondarily at their ability to be competent teachers. Levinson drew chuckles from the audience with his wry comment that “perhaps you’ve noticed this.” Once a candidate understands that this is how modern academia works, however, much of the hiring process makes more sense.

So what exactly do law schools look for in an entry-level professor? A quarter century ago, the answer was clear. Historically, law schools looked to the traditional indicia of academic achievement: high grades, membership on the law review, and prestigious clerkships. However, this has long since ceased to be true. As law schools discovered that high grades were not good predictors of whether a candidate would produce good scholarship, and as the forms of scholarship valued by the legal academy shifted, the qualifications for candidates changed. Even practical legal experience is not a good predictor of scholarly ability, and, Levinson noted, “is pretty nearly disqualifying.” Levinson pointed out that today’s younger professors have no significant practical experience, and that if they tried to become involved in the world, “the world would probably recoil in horror.”

Instead of fancy grades, clerkships, and practical experience, the modern credential of choice for law school hiring committees is a graduate degree in an allied field such as economics, political science, and even English or psychology. Approximately twenty-five percent of entry-level professors hired last year had Ph.D.’s, and a large number had Master’s degrees. While this is the biggest credential a candidate can have, don’t despair if you haven’t found the spare five to ten years to earn a terminal degree in molecular biophysics to help you compete for that intellectual property professorship you have your eye on. Levinson reassured the attendees that fewer than half of last year’s hires had any graduate training. Law schools value Ph.D.’s because they indicate that candidates have certain qualities. If a candidate lacks the credential, he or she can still present those qualities independently.

Significant expertise in a field, coupled with interdisciplinary methodologies, is highly valued. Expertise gives an aspiring professor a research agenda, and lets the school know what area the candidate will focus on in future scholarship. While law schools look for professors who are “competent lawyers,” often simply graduating from a school like Harvard satisfies this criteria, and schools tend to focus more on whether a candidate has made some substantial progress towards becoming a professor. Levinson emphasized the importance of knowing what field you intend to work in, familiarity with scholarly work in that field, the ability to critique current work, and a sense of what you are going to contribute to the field.

“More than anything else,” Levinson concluded, “law schools are looking for promising writing.” In order to get a job, a candidate must have written one or two publishable pieces of scholarship. During the interview process, aspiring professors will have a “job talk,” where they present a work in progress to the faculty who are evaluating them. This functions as the primary basis for the school’s evaluation of a candidate. In comparison to the written work a candidate has produced, all other criteria are irrelevant, since they are only meant to be predictors of the candidate’s writing. Good scholarship is both necessary and sufficient: if you have it, you don’t need to rely on other credentials, but if your scholarship looks unpromising, your other good credentials won’t save you.

Levinson then shifted gears to discuss how a law student can develop the necessary qualities for an entry-level professorship. The single most important step while in law school, according to Levinson, is to form a close relationship with at least one member of the faculty, preferably one who works in the general field the student intends to join. A mentor can help a student generate a paper topic, read drafts, and prepare him or her to give a job talk. Schools often decide whom to hire by calling their colleagues. It is absolutely necessary, therefore, for a candidate to have a professor who is willing to speak on his or her behalf. To develop a mentoring relationship, students can volunteer to be a research assistant, take small classes and seminars, and do independent studies.

The second most important step a student can take is to read as much scholarship as possible, particularly from younger professors. A good way to do this is to enroll in reading groups or form informal reading groups. Reviewing articles for a student journal, asking professors for recommended readings, and simply reading on your own are also good strategies.

The final step a candidate should take while in law school is to write. While it is important that a candidate have writing that is publishable, it is not as important to have finished scholarship. Law schools recognize that whether or not a candidate has actually published is largely determined by second-year law students who run law journals and who may not be the best judges of quality scholarship. Levinson recommended that students start by writing two to three-page summaries of ideas, writing reaction papers to seminars, and taking advantage of the Winter Writing Program and summer writing fellowships.

After graduation, students should set aside two to four years to prepare to become a professor. Levinson recommended that students think of this as a “graduate law school” program. Graduates should spent their time reading scholarly articles, and writing one to two articles that can be presented as papers at a job talk. Most students are unable to produce this work during law school, so it must be accomplished after law school.

While contemplating the complexities of abstract legal theories, of course, a law school graduate has to find some means of support. Most young professors spend their post-graduate years in some combination of clerkships and fellowship programs. Some go into real jobs in the government or at least firms, but Levinson pointed out that “the problem with real jobs is that they are real,” and don’t leave much time for writing in the evenings. Levinson noted that the best thing a graduate can do is go into a two-year post-graduate fellowship. Many law schools have programs, such as the Climenko Fellows at Harvard and the Bigelow Program at the University of Chicago, to prepare graduates for teaching. These programs provide space and institutional support for writing, and Levinson said such a fellowship is almost a prerequisite for students who do not have graduate degrees.

Levinson saved the most important question for the end: why does anyone want to become a law professor? Levinson noted that job satisfaction among academics is much higher than among legal practitioners or even faculty in the Arts and Sciences. Academia gives lawyers time, space, and flexibility to
think about the topics they find interesting. Compared to Arts and Sciences faculties, it is easier to get both an entry-level job and tenure at a law school, and law professors are paid at a much higher rate. Professors can largely set their own schedules, and have almost complete autonomy over what they spend their time reading and writing. Levinson characterized the ability to have control over your own time as opposed to being at the mercy of a partner or client as “invaluable.” He said this control makes the same number of hours worked feel “completely different.”

Levinson concluded by acknowledging that all of this may sound daunting, but only because it is unfamiliar. Most of these steps he outlined are fairly basic, and constitute good advice even for students who have no interest in academia. One of the advantages of being at Harvard Law is the cutting edge research and scholarship of the faculty. Students should take the time to get to know their professors’ work beyond the four walls of the classroom.

Question and Answer with Prof. Levinson

Q: So how easy is it to get a job as a law professor?

A: There are two ways to read the numbers. The discouraging interpretation is that out of 1,000 applications for teaching positions last year, 150 were hired. On the other hand, out of that 1,000 you can automatically throw out about half because they didn’t go to a top 20 law school (that’s just how the academic world works), and you can throw out another twenty-five percent because they didn’t attend this presentation and have no idea what it takes to be a law professor – maybe they think they like teaching, but not scholarship, or maybe they’ve been practicing for a long time and think it would be nice to retire into a professorship. So when you look at the pool of viable, serious candidates, and the students in that pool who graduated from Harvard Law, virtually all of those applicants got academic positions of some sort.

Q: What’s hardest: getting the entry-level job, getting the next job, or getting tenure?

A: Tenure is relatively easy – presumptively everyone gets it, and those who don’t are the exception, not the rule. In the schools with the strictest requirements, about one out of every four professors don’t get tenure. More important is getting the entry-level job, than to care about where that job is. There is plenty of mobility, and some of the lowest ranked schools have faculty indistinguishable from the faculty at Harvard or Yale. Chances are once you get your first job, you’ll be able to move someplace geographically preferable, or with a higher rank.

Q: What if you have geographical limitations? What are your chances then?

A: Levinson noted that there are about 200 law schools in the country, so it shouldn’t really be a problem unless your limitation means, for example, that you can only work in Idaho. April Stockfleet, the OCS advisor on careers in legal teaching, warned students against mentioning a geographical limitation on their AALS application, however. She said schools may interpret this as being too picky.

Q: How do you get a fellowship?

A: Fellowships require a “watered down” set of the same things law schools look for: a good reference from a professor, a well-developed idea, and other indicia of whether you can pull it off, including any papers you wrote during law school and other ways you spent your time as a student.

Q: What constitutes good legal scholarship?

A: Legal scholarship is very heterogeneous. There is less doctrinal scholarship these days, although there is still a fair amount of it. Increasingly there are policy papers and interdisciplinary papers. The tools that students are formally taught in law school tend to be inadequate, since students basically just learn case analysis. You likely need to do more than that, but you can only get a sense of what “that” is by reading scholarship. Most would say your best bet is to be interdisciplinary.

Q: If you are going to be a law professor, do you have to teach any 1L classes?

A: No. Usually it’s a good idea to be able to teach a class that lots of people want to take, or that most law schools offer, in addition to one covering your obscure research interest. Generally, professors teach at least one “meat and potatoes” class, but this doesn’t have to b a first year class – it could be an upper-level class near the area of your expertise.

Q: What should students do during their summers?

A: Whatever they want. The highest value experience is probably a summer writing fellowship, which can also be paired with another job. You can also do something non-academic to see what it’s like and make sure you wouldn’t be happier doing that, at least for a while.

Q: How important are clerkships?

A: Clerkships are important less as a credential, and more for the time and space they give you. The fact that you see so many professors with clerkships is probably more a result of correlation than causation.

Q: Do law schools care what firm you worked at?

A: Not at all. In fact, it might be better to go to a terrible firm than one like Cravath, because chances are you will have more time to write at the terrible firm. You’re going to get expertise in document review, but not much else. This won’t disqualify you, but it will just be a neutral fact about you.

Q: What’s the salary range for law professors, from the lowest-ranked school to the top school?

A: There isn’t very clear data on this. However, as a general rule, law professor salaries will track, or be slightly below, law firm associate salaries in the same market, but without the huge raise you get as a partner, of course. The salaries are much closer to those of associates even up to seventh and eighth-years, than to Arts & Sciences faculty salaries.

Q: What do you most dislike about being a professor?

A: It’s a bad job for people who don’t like a lack of structure. It’s also bad for people who like to make a difference in the real world. Increasingly, this is an ivory tower profession.

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