Most law schools are reluctant to hire candidates straight out of law school, unless the candidate has a Ph.D. in an allied field. Even then, most would prefer that the candidate get some ‘seasoning’ before making the transition from student to teacher, but are relatively indifferent to what form it takes. What makes the most sense depends on your own situation and interests. The three most common paths these days are a one- or two-year clerkship, two or three years as a practicing lawyer, and a post-J.D. fellowship at a law school or some combination of these.
Many law students believe, incorrectly, that a prestigious clerkship (typically, a federal appeals court or Supreme Court) is a prerequisite to an academic career. Again, this used to be true, but the situation now is more complicated. At lower-ranked schools, fancy clerkships still carry a lot of weight. But at more elite schools with a strong emphasis on scholarship, fancy clerkships are neither necessary nor sufficient to land a teaching job. A Supreme Court or very prestigious appellate clerkship, like very high grades, may help you get your foot in the door at more elite schools. But you can get your foot in the door just as well (and in many cases better) at such schools by writing really good work and getting strong support from faculty here and elsewhere. Once your foot is in the door, the credential of a clerkship will not matter much for many schools, compared to whether you have something interesting to say in a scholarly vein. On the other hand, as noted below, having some sort of practical experience before teaching may be advantageous, and you may decide that clerking is a more attractive option than others.
Law schools generally don’t make distinctions among jobs as a practicing lawyer. While there may still be some preference for elite law firms and public interest impact litigation jobs, this variable is in flux. The one important exception is jobs in which applicants have acquired significant substantive knowledge that will be directly relevant to their teaching and writing (e.g., staff member on the Joint Committee on Taxation if you are intending to teach and write in tax; prosecutor or public defender if you are intending to concentrate in criminal justice; a lawyer for the EPA or a public interest environmental organization like the Natural Resources Defense Council if you are intending to concentrate in environmental law). Such experience is not only strategically valuable in securing a teaching job; it can also be very helpful in developing a teaching and research agenda.
It is difficult to switch into teaching after too many years in practice. If you are coming from a private law firm after five years and have not yet made partner, law schools will worry that you are applying only because the writing was on the wall that you weren’t going to make partner. Even if you have made partner or are clearly successful in some other area of practice, after many years in practice it can be difficult to make the mental shift into teaching, just as it can be difficult to make the mental shift in the opposite direction. In particular, law schools worry that you will have trouble starting to write academic articles after so many years in practice, and also find it hard to start over at the bottom of a new career ladder.
Over 80% of those hired in entry-level law teaching positions during the 2013 and 2014 seasons had received some form of post-JD fellowship. Some of those candidates had also completed a JD/PhD or clerked, while many had practiced after law school. Given recent trends, SLS grads interested in academia should seriously consider the possibility of applying for a law teaching fellowship.
Being awarded such a position does not, however, by any means guarantee subsequently receiving a tenure-track teaching job. Indeed, during the 2013 hiring season, more than half of those fellows applying for entry-level positions failed to secure them. Hence, if you decide to pursue a fellowship, it is very important to find a program that will prepare you effectively for the job market.
There are a number of different considerations that might play into determining which fellowships to apply for and which to accept. Some questions to think about and to ask individuals at the relevant institutions include: How much mentoring do fellows receive on their academic scholarship?; What kind of teaching experience does the fellowship provide?; What are the opportunities for scholarly engagement, either in the form of workshops for fellows or fellows’ participation in the general faculty workshop?, and; How successful have prior fellows been at obtaining academic jobs?
Fellowships furnish an opportunity to complete substantial writing and further flesh out your research agenda while also becoming acculturated to the academic milieu of law schools. The opportunity to teach can give experience that law schools will value but the amount of teaching should be weighed against the reduction of time for scholarship.
There are roughly three categories of law teaching fellowships. There are a number in which the fellows are expected to help teach in the first-year legal research and writing or lawyering program. These fellowship programs are relatively large and tend to hire every year, although the fellows often stay for two to three years. There are also a variety of specialized fellowships, often affiliated with centers or institutes; fellows may be hired every year, or only more occasionally and the duration of these fellowships is variable. Finally, there are a number of “visiting assistant professor” programs that tend to host only one or two people at a time for two-year positions.
Below is a partial list that includes the vast majority of the fellowships from which entry-level hires have recently obtained jobs. Some of the smaller programs do not have websites; if that is the case, it is advisable to contact the school directly for information. Finally, Stanford grads can access statistics about fellowship programs’ success rates.
- Buffalo: Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy Fellowships
- University of Pennsylvania:
- University of Arizona
- Arizona State
- Boston University
- Brigham Young University
- Brooklyn Law School
- University of Connecticut
- University of Florida
- Florida State
- George Washington
- UC, Hastings
- University of Illinois
- Northwestern Law School
- Penn State
- Washington University
(Contact the Chair of the Teaching Placement Committee for further information)
- University of Chicago: Olin and Public Law Fellowships
- University of Pennsylvania: Naidoff Fellowship in Health Policy, Law, and Medicine
- Stanford Law School:
- Rock Center for Corporate Governance Fellowship
- Teaching Fellowships for the LLMs in Law, Science and Technology, Corporate Law, Environmental Law and the Stanford Program in International Legal Studies (“SPILS”)