How J.D. Graduates Can Prepare for Careers as Legal Scholars

September 30, 2019

Law students and recent graduates all get asked the same question, “What kind of law do you want to practice?” or some variation like, “What do you want to do with your law degree?”

For some aspiring lawyers, the idea of pursuing a career as a legal scholar is their dream.  They don’t want to practice, but want to teach, inspire and publish. For others, discovering that dream might not happen for years after they have had a fulfilling career.  Being around passionate college and graduate students who are ready to take on the world can be very uplifting.

If you are thinking about a career as a professor or legal scholar, you will need to do your research and make sure that teaching students about law and publishing articles and books is for you.   

people in a courtroom

Before you begin your teaching career

Get into a good law school and study hard.  If you have not yet entered law school, this is your first step.  Your grades will matter. While there are always exceptions, you will see that most law professors went to good law schools and earned top grades that allowed them to qualify for their school’s premier law review journal, a clerkship or fellowship.  Talk with faculty in your area of interest and see if you can be a research assistant. Take seminar classes where you write a paper in lieu of taking a final exam. This can help you discover your research interests. Present your work as part of a peer review process, law review symposium or other conference that allows student presenters.  

Publish or perish. Think about what area of law is of interest to you and what you want to research.  While your scholarship will evolve over time, you will be expected to publish based on topics and interested you identified during your interview process.  It is hard to work full-time and find time to write articles, but it is strongly recommended.

Practice before launching into a teaching job.  Would you want to be taught by someone who has practiced or someone who has not?  Your future students will appreciate your ability to draw from your own experiences as you explain material to the class.  If you plan to teach in skills classes, prior practice experience is especially critical. Clinical professors are also expected to write and publish.  

Consider earning an advanced degree after the J.D. to prepare to be a legal scholar.  While not required to secure a job as a law professor, some professors have the LL.M. and others have secured Master’s and Ph.D. degrees.  Look for a program that adds value to your existing credentials and experiences. Consider an LL.M. program offered at Stetson University College of Law where you will have the chance to pursue scholarly writing as part of the degree requirements.  In the case of the LL.M., you can go to school part-time while continuing to work full-time. Ph.D. programs usually require full-time enrollment and take many more years.

Talk with professors and conduct a self-assessment.  Ask your professors how practice differs from teaching?  Talk with them about the pros and cons of being a tenure-track or tenured professor?  Grading exams over the December holiday season may be a con, but summers off to be with your family would be a pro.  

Eventually, you will be ready to apply to be a law professor.  It isn’t as easy as applying for a job through Monster or Indeed.  While some prospective professors attempt to break in to full-time teaching by serving as an adjunct, it is the rare exception who finds that is a path to full-time employment.  

Typically, hiring for entry-level teaching positions happens as part of an annual faculty recruitment event sponsored by the Association of American Law Schools.  Their site has information and requirements for candidates wishing to become a part of what faculty jokingly call, “The Meat Market.”  There are also some schools who advertise through the Clinical Legal Educational Association.  

Be prepared to relocate

To follow this dream, you may need to spend a couple of years at a school serving as a visiting professor before moving on to your permanent home.  Also, consider looking at faculty positions a colleges and universities. Your degrees and scholarship may qualify you for teaching at the college or graduate school level in addition to law school.  

Law schools across the country have shrunk their enrollment.  Landing a teaching position at a law school has become more competitive.  Set yourself apart from the competition with strong credentials and a solid record of publishing quality work.  Stetson’s LL.M. programs may be a strong first step to enter this competitive and rewarding field.    

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