Dean Starts Program to Boost Practicioners Into Academia

BY DINA AWERBUCH

In its October 18, 2007 issue, the Record ran an article entitled “Prof. Levinson Demystifies the Path to Legal Academia,” covering a presentation Professor Daryl Levinson gave to students interested in careers in academia. The article received strong reactions from the legal blogosphere, with much criticism aimed at the wide gulf between academia and the “legal world.”

Critics may be pleased to learn that Dean Elena Kagan has initiated a new program to bring practicing lawyers to Harvard Law School and provide them an opportunity to start careers in academia. While the program is still in its planning stages, Kagan happily met with reporters from the Record to describe the program and her vision for the law school faculty.The program, which is set to begin in the 2008-09 academic year, will bring practitioners who are interested in academia to Harvard for a two-year position, with the tentative title of “Visiting Assistant Professor.” These positions will function much like the Climenko and Houston fellowship positions at Harvard Law and fellowships at other schools that are geared towards recent graduates.

The program does not yet have a formal name, but Kagan noted with a laugh that “we usually name programs when someone has given money…so if someone wanted to donate to the program we would be happy to come up with a name.”

The members of the program will be expected to both write and teach, and will be given institutional support to these ends. By the end of the program, members should be prepared to go on the general academic market. “We like to think we’re good mentors,” said Kagan, explaining that senior faculty consult with fellows on articles they write and go through a moot “job talk” that fellows use to interview for faculty positions at other schools.While the program was officially presented to Harvard Law faculty in November, Kagan said that the issue has been a matter of discussion for quite some time. According to Kagan, one of the reasons so few practitioners are hired by law schools these days is that very few people with substantial practice experience are actually putting themselves forward for entry-level academic positions. The market has shifted such that a much higher percentage of applicants are coming straight from law school or a fellowship. Part of this may be due to the difficulty of producing published scholarship while working as a practicing government, nonprofit, or private sector lawyer. “I think that’s a shame,” said Kagan. “We’d like to see people with more practice experience who also show scholarly potential.”

Although many commentators in the blogosphere were highly critical of the heavy emphasis placed on scholarship in legal academia, Kagan took a more moderate approach. Kagan noted that the high concentration of Ph.D.’s in the academic market is a result of concern over whether candidates are going to be good scholars. “That’s appropriate,” she said. “You want people to be good teachers but also good scholars.” Candidates who hold Ph.D.s are attractive to law schools because they have been thinking and writing in academia for longer, and therefore already “look like” scholars. However, fellowship programs have provided competition for the candidates with Ph.D.s, and Kagan hopes the new program for legal practitioners will do the same.

That said, how can a law school identify a candidate who will not only be a good scholar, but a good teacher as well? Kagan said that “there is always guessing on both halves – teaching and scholarship,” but that the role of the “job talk” is to provide law schools with indicia of a candidate’s potential in both areas. “You can see a lot about a person’s ability to communicate . . . you can form some judgment of [things like the candidate’s] ability to present ideas in a cogent way.”Kagan also noted that not every practitioner can be turned into a scholar. Someone who is suited to scholarship in other ways, however, is helped by practical experience. Kagan reflected on the role her own career in government has played in her academic life, such as the great value of her time in the Clinton presidential administration to her scholarship in administrative law, and said that such experience can create differences in an academic’s emphasis and approach to scholarship.

Many faculty were highly supportive of the new program. Professor Philip Heymann, who has been involved in planning the program, said that “the Dean, with a little luck, will lead a revolution across all of America’s prestigious law schools. But that all depends on our being willing to broaden Harvard Law School’s conception of ‘scholarship’ to include experience-based ways of understanding the practices, skills, roles, and effects of lawyers in America. To some of us, that form of understanding, together with the teaching that flows from it, is the major contribution of any professional school to a great university.”

Professor Richard Parker was also positive about the program’s recognition of the value of practice, saying “I hope this encouraging new program will result in a new path not just into legal academia generally but, in particular, onto this faculty.”

Parker went on to say that “the question is whether there is a specific and valuable skill or understanding internal to law which is nurtured by legal practice, and which should not be crowded out by the sort of social science practiced in other fields. More bluntly, it is whether we think that, in 50 years, there should still be law schools separate from other graduate schools in the university.”

Heymann added, “If Dean Kagan can pull this off, it will be a wonderful change to the world Daryl Levinson accurately described.”

Andrea Saenz contributed to the reporting of this article.

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