The pros and cons of being a law professor


What do you tell people who are hell-bent on going to law school?  I have to deal with this a lot. As many of you know, I left a big firm and eventually, circuitously, fortunately ended up in a tenure-track position teaching business law at a non-law school.  That is, I teach law to undergraduates and MBA students, but not JDs.

Just this morning, one of my students came to ask me about my career, and it was obvious from the first question (“So, just how much do first-year associates make these days?”) that she was more interested in the lawyering part of my career than the teaching part.  Fair enough; I often tell my students that I am happy to talk with any of them who are considering law school, and that I will do my best to talk them out of it.  When my student asked me why I left practice, I told her it was because of my daughter, which is true.  Blank stare.  I felt as though she had heard me say, “Because I like meatball subs and I couldn’t get good ones downtown.”  From her vantage point, it must be hard to see why someone would leave an extraordinarily high-paying career to do something like teaching.

Since the first class I taught as an adjunct, six years ago, to this day, there has never been a day when I regretted leaving law practice for teaching.  I love helping college students understand what makes the legal system so exciting and, often, so frustrating.  Having a relatively small, interactive audience for six hours a week is enormously fun.  The challenge of preparing for those six hours includes scouring the web for the most interesting, current, real-world examples of whatever it is we will be discussing, because no textbook will ever be as engaging as whatever relevant thing is going on now.   I love answering questions and sparking debates, and when students tell me that my class had made them more interested in law as a complement to the business world, it’s a huge thrill.  It’s more thrilling, in fact, than any paying client victory I had in my 13 years of practice.  Pro bono was also pretty exciting, but as most big firm lawyers know, that can only form a tiny part of any billable practice.

Most rewarding of all, I think, is when I can help a student individually, even when I am helping them with something totally unrelated to class.  The whole in loco parentis thing can be pretty wonderful.  It also helps my actual parenting to have a schedule that is flexible enough to let me leave campus almost every day in time to pick my daughter up from school and have time to talk with her afterward.

While it’s nice to have a break from teaching in the summers and over winter break, I am rarely not writing or researching something pretty much full time during those “vacations.”  This may change if I ever get tenure, but apparently you don’t really get to rest until you go on to make full professor, which is sort of like double tenure.  Even then, if you spend less time publishing, you spend more time teaching, which actually sounds great.

The least fun parts of my job include: writing exams and paper prompts, writing additional exams for the students who have to miss a exam due to one crisis or another, grading exams and papers, and listening to students explain why their grades are unfair or why it is so very important that I give them a chance to improve their final grade with an extra credit project even though they could not adequately do the regular credit.  Those extra credit requests only come at the end of the semester, for some reason, although the students’ grades evolve gradually over the course of four months.  It’s hard to deal with perpetually disruptive and/or underprepared students, although I’m learning how to talk with them outside of class in a way that doesn’t make the problems worse.  There is so much to learn, just as there was when I was a junior lawyer, but in academia I am surrounded by senior people who are genuinely helpful, so that’s a big difference.

Knowing what I know now, would I do it again?  Would I leave millions of dollars on the table to pursue this far less prestigious line of work?  In a heartbeat.  I highly recommend personal happiness.  It’s priceless.

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