Essentially all entry-level hiring at law schools is done through the American Association of Law Schools’ Faculty Recruiting Register. Ten or 15 years ago, nearly 1,000 people signed up seeking a career in legal academia. This year, 328 names appear in the register.
What happened? Why doesn’t anyone want to teach law any more?
I suspect a bunch of factors are at play, but I’m going to build to a crescendo here. I’m going to start with the factors that don’t matter, and I’ll finish with the real reason applications to law school faculties have dropped off. And, of course, there’s nothing at all empirical about what I’m doing here. I’m giving you my suspicions, which are worth what you paid for them.
(Allow me a personal aside: I considered a career in legal academia. I wrote about a dozen law review articles during the course of my career, in part to keep the door to academia open. In the early 2000s, three law school buddies of mine ended up on the five-person “appointments committee” of a respectable law school. I received a memorable email: “Herrmann, if you ever wanted to teach, now’s your chance! We’ve got a majority on the appointments committee!” But I decided against, and “knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.” I didn’t. I spent some time teaching on the adjunct faulty of a law school while I was working as a partner at a firm, but I never again seriously considered full-time teaching.)
Where was I?
Oh, yeah. Why doesn’t anyone want to teach law?
First: Money. Everyone’s wallowing in student debt. If you go to a prestigious law firm — and anyone with the law school credentials needed to teach could land a job at a prestigious law firm — you earn north of $200,000 per year. In academia, you earn less. That’s two hundred thousand reasons not to teach.
But I don’t think that explains the decrease in applicants for law school teaching jobs. It’s more or less been true during my lifetime that you get paid about a third less in your first year of teaching than you’d make in your first year at a fancy law firm. (That gap grows over time. If you’re a successful partner, you can earn far more at a firm than you do in academia.) But the one-third discount has remained essentially constant over the past few decades; you’re taking no more of a haircut now than you were 30 years ago. The haircut is, of course, measured as a percentage; a one-third haircut off of $150K is less than a one-third haircut from $210K. So, as salaries have risen, the absolute amount of the law school haircut has increased over time. But you can afford to repay your debts on a law professor’s salary, and people choose to teach in part for the academic lifestyle. Indeed, my sense is that the life of a first-year associate is worse now than it was many years ago, so that academia’s comparative lifestyle advantage has increased. I don’t think money’s the deciding factor.
Here’s the second possible reason fewer people are applying to teach law: Entry-level hiring at law schools is way down these days, so the number of people applying for those jobs is lower.
It is true that entry-level law school hiring has fallen off. Law schools are trying to reduce the size of their faculties, not bulk them up. But I don’t think that explains too much. If you apply to teach, and you don’t land a job, then you stay at your fancy law firm, earn another $200K for your next year’s work, and apply to law schools again the following year. I’m not sure the unlikelihood of landing a job significantly decreases the number of people who would apply for the job.
If you sense the thundering volume building in my crescendo, then you’re right (and you have sensitive ears). Here’s the third, and real, reason I think fewer folks are now applying for jobs in legal academia. Thirty years ago, the path to a tenure-track position in legal academia was relatively easy: Get great grades at a great law school, clerk, apply for a tenure-track position in academia. No muss, no fuss.
Today, the path to a tenure-track position in legal academia is hard: Get great grades at a great law school; clerk; spend several years doing serious academic writing, perhaps getting an advanced degree in history, economics, or philosophy on the side; apply for a tenure-track position in academia. That’s lots of muss and lots of fuss. It upends your life.
For me, at least (and of course I view myself as being representative of everyone), it was easy to work at a law firm and then consider an early career move into legal academia. If I’d really had to invest three or four years in obtaining an advanced degree, or being a teaching fellow, or working as a visiting assistant professor, all the while cranking out articles, that’s a whole lot more challenging change of jobs.
I suspect that the new requirements for entry-level jobs in legal academia — the requirements that force candidates to spend years of their lives earning less money on the off-chance that they’ll land a job in academia some day — are probably what’s reducing the number of candidates for those roles.
Mark Herrmann spent 17 years as a partner at a leading international law firm and is now deputy general counsel at a large international company. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Drug and Device Product Liability Litigation Strategy (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.