Pursuing a Career in Legal Academia
“Yes, it works in practice, but does it work in theory?”
At a school where this sort of joke is part of the common self-conception, it’s no surprise that interests in academia run deep. In a large part, Yale Law School’s outsize ability to send its students into academia was what attracted me to the school. So I’ll devote this post to information for those who harbor hopes of becoming a law professor.
You may have read a variety of sources that tell you that getting into legal academia is about as hard as getting a Nobel Prize. This is not true. Getting a job in legal academia is certainly difficult, but YLS gives you an unbelievable amount of support if that’s your dream.
You can start attending the extremely helpful Law Teaching Series starting your first semester to learn about the profession from current professors. Paper workshops by students and faculty happen all the time and are open to anyone who wants to attend. And, both formally and informally, a large number of professors are invested in helping YLS students become professors. Not to mention that YLS’s alumni network of current professors extends far and deep across U.S. law teaching. Once you begin school here, you will find there is no shortage of opportunities to connect with those professors and alumni. It’s usually as simple as sending an email.
As far as getting started with your own work, there are numerous opportunities for student publishing. As you develop interests in a given field you can write a Note or a Comment for one of the many school journals, including the Yale Law Journal. The school’s writing requirements, particularly the Supervised Analytic Writing project (often referred to as the SAW), are another institutional feature that encourage you to hone your scholarly writing. Coming up with the substance of that writing depends on your own idea-generation, but also spurs you to work with other students and professors in putting together a publishable piece. The first piece is always a hurdle, but in my experience that first piece opens up innumerable further avenues for subsequent articles.
It’s a good idea to get started early. As the professors here will tell you, entering the teaching market requires, above all, a portfolio of “circulable” (e.g. publishable) work. Journal membership, grades, clerkships and PhDs certainly help. But at the end of the day, the law schools that interview you will want to see that you have already demonstrated an interest in publishing research and have a research agenda that will sustain a fruitful academic career.
The good news is that with the institutional support and general freedom to pursue your interests that YLS offers, there’s ample opportunity to get a head start on that portfolio. You also get the advantage of developing your thinking with professors who are masters of their field and who continue to sustain cutting-edge research agendas—and who are happy to help.
Ultimately, whether or not you commit to legal academia, I want to emphasize how rewarding this process is. Attending paper workshops, shaping your ideas with intense and brilliant professors, and becoming an expert in a field in which you want to write—all of these things knit you into the school’s intellectual life in an incredibly meaningful way. Both the unique quality of that intellectual life and the personal relationships you build within it will stay with you for a long time. For me, it’s an essential part of what makes YLS unlike any other place.