To Teach or Not to Teach, That is the Question

“Teaching is one of the noblest of professions. It requires an adequate preparation and training, patience, devotion, and a deep sense of responsibility. Those who mold the human mind have wrought not for time, but for eternity.” Calvin Coolidge, speech, Jul. 4, 1924.

For me, law school provided a stimulating intellectual opportunity to expand my knowledge of history and the law, while engaging in thoughtful conversations with some very intelligent people. I have always loved being a student and teacher. The advantage of teaching law school is that I am paid to be a student of the law and to share that knowledge with our students. As Confucius said in The Wisdom of Confucius, “Be versed in ancient lore, and familiarize yourself with the modern; then may you become teachers.”

Securing a teaching position at a law school is exceptionally difficult right now. According to an ABA Journal article by Debra Cassens Weiss posted on December 22, 2014, law faculties have “shrunk by 965 people over a four-year period, a loss of nearly 11 percent… ”  For law schools, it is a buyer’s market. Law schools can be extremely selective when choosing faculty, because in addition to the new lawyers seeking a career in the academy and the practicing lawyers looking for a career change, now there are a number of former faculty members with teaching experience who have been cut because of declining enrollments. Law school admissions have continued to decrease while the number of law schools has increased. The competition for qualified students is fierce, while the glut of qualified teachers allows schools who have the luxury of hiring new faculty to be very selective.

Generally, schools look at a candidate’s academic credentials as a starting point in the hiring process. Some schools are reluctant to hire anyone who went to a school with a lower ranking than the hiring school. Where you went to school and your class rank at graduation matter.

Journal experience is generally required. If a candidate hasn’t published, the candidate must demonstrate a desire to publish and show how that desire is manifested. Scholarly potential must be present for a school to hire a new faculty member.  Once you are hired, you are expected to publish law review articles in your chosen field of expertise. All schools have publication requirements for retention and promotion. Publication production is a major emphasis for law school professors. Check on the publication requirements at each school you are considering. Some schools will allow publications other than law reviews to count after you have published a couple of law reviews. (An article like this does not count as a publication at FAMU College of Law.)

“He who can, does.  He who cannot, teaches.”  George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman. Prior work experience in a specialty area is helpful. Most schools will expect faculty to teach a required course in addition to an elective course. You need to explain how your chosen required course is connected to your chosen elective area. Work experience in your chosen substantive area of interest is very helpful. Working for the IRS, the USPTO, the Copyright Office, NASA, NOAA, the SEC, NASDAC, one of the stock exchanges, the FAA, the FCC, a legislative committee, or at any governmental office specializing in an area of law that lends itself to being taught as an elective course is very helpful. In-house corporate experience in an industry that gives you practical knowledge that you can pass on to students in your elective class is invaluable.

If you are interested in a position in a clinic, practical experience in the field is required. Litigation and/or ADR experience is a prerequisite for most clinical positions.

Legal writing has become a specialized field with professors dedicated to teaching writing as a career. Writing positions rarely turn into full-time doctrinal teaching positions. If you are interested in teaching a substantive class, you will want to check to see if the school you are interested in allows writing professionals to teach other classes. Writing professors are the hardest-working teachers in the academy.

The joke in the academy is, “I teach for free; I get paid to grade.” Grading final exams, and other projects if they were assigned, is the worst part of teaching. Generally, a grading deadline means that for fall classes, you have to work during the semester break to complete your grading before the spring semester begins. After the spring semester, you have to grade before summer school begins, so that students can know their class rank and standing. Some schools have financial disincentives for failing to meet a grading deadline.

If you want to test out teaching a substantive course at a law school, you should contact the academic dean to discuss the possibility of teaching a specialty course as an adjunct professor. You will need to show the dean that you have expertise in the area you are interested in teaching. Adjunct professor pay is very low, typically $500 per credit hour for a semester. At that price, you have to love it.  At your billable rate, you will earn your entire fee preparing for your first week of classes. Adjunct professors must do it for love, because it can’t be for the money. It is rare for a school to hire an adjunct professor for a full-time position, but it is not unheard of. Do it because you love teaching, not because you want the school to hire you full time.

If you want to teach for the money, you may be very dissappointed. I have been teaching for 25 years and receive a salary that is slightly above average for full professors. After 25 years of teaching, I now make as much as my classmates who started at large law firms made as first-year associates. I am pleased to finally make the rookie salary that so many of my students have made for years. Obviously, my classmates who went to law firms have been making a significantly larger salary than I have for a couple of decades. I teach because I love it.

In addition to teaching at a law school, you might consider teaching at a university. Most business schools have lawyers teaching in their programs. Many colleges have trial and appellate advocacy programs taught by lawyers. Many graduate programs have at least one lawyer on the faculty, or an adjunct who teaches regularly. I had several lawyers as professors when I was a student at UCLA film school. My wife is in a graduate library program where they have a lawyer as a full-time faculty member.

I have several former students who teach in high school. The law degree put them in the highest pay bracket. I have former students who are school principals and administrators. Again, they love their work.

The advantages to teaching outweigh the negatives for me and most of my colleagues. While I generally work 40 to 60 hours a week in addition to teaching my classes, I have a great deal of flexibility as to when and where I work. I can work at home if I don’t have any meetings or classes. Part of a professor’s duties include serving on law school committees. In addition to regular committee meetings, general faculty meetings are held every other week. Faculty meetings are generally an hour and a half to two hours long. Committee meetings are generally one hour long. Depending on the committee, it may meet more than once a week during certain times of the year.

In addition to internal committees, faculty are encouraged to engage in community activities by participating in state and local bar associations and the ABA. The American Association of Law Schools has an annual meeting and committees that create meeting programming. Faculty members are encouraged to participate in AALS committees.

Teaching is a wonderful career if you love working with students. I found this entertaining quote that sums up how every teacher feels at one point or another: “I almost stopped teaching entirely. The worst thing for me is contact with students. I like universities without students. And I especially hate American students. They think you owe them something. They come to you … Office hours!”  Slavoj Zizek, “Slavoj Zizek: I am not the world’s hippest philosopher!”, Salon, Dec. 29, 2012. Most schools have required office hours so that students can ask questions between classes.

If you want to teach, you should begin writing your law review now. Hiring season begins in August and continues until the positions are filled. If a school doesn’t fill its positions, the dean will hire visiting professors to cover classes. Consider a visiting position to find out if you like teaching, you like the school at which you are visiting, and if the faculty at your school likes you.  Depending on the school, you can get a full-time position after visiting at a school.

“The key to fixing education is better teaching, and the key to better teaching is figuring out who can teach and who can’t.” Jonathan Alter, Newsweek, Jun. 15, 2009.  “I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. It might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”  John Steinbeck, “…like captured fireflies.”

Teaching is a noble profession that is exceptionally rewarding to the teacher, and hopefully to a few students each semester.

About the Author

William Henslee is a professor of law at Florida A&M University College of Law and is a member of the Law Practice Today editorial board. He can be reached at 407.254.3220 or

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