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Resources Articles From Practice to Professoring

From Practice to Professoring

Perspectives
(a publication of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession)
January 2004

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.
   ~ Yogi Berra
 
On the first day of her new position as Assistant Professor of Law at Santa Clara University School of Law, Beth Van Schaack had to tell the Dean that she was pregnant. "We're so excited," he responded. We haven't had a new baby here for a long time." 
 
Although not every woman in the legal academy has received as thoroughly enthusiastic a response, it would be difficult to find a woman attorney in private practice with a similar story.
 
As Beth transitioned from litigation to academia, she discovered a degree of flexibility she'd not experienced before in her legal career.
She'd already had to postpone assuming her position at Santa Clara in order to finish a trial. Beth's dean then planned her teaching around her maternity leave. She taught one semester and then left to deliver her now-four-month-old baby. Between the semester of her leave and the summer, she's had more time with her new baby than most litigators ever dream of.
 
The difference is not necessarily in sheer amount of work. Academics, especially prior to tenure, can often put in as many hours as do lawyers in private practice. The essential difference is choice. Aside from the time your classes, office hours, and committee meetings are scheduled, you're in control of when and where you work. 
 
This flexibility is far more compatible with normal family life than the grueling hours expected of a lawyer in private practice. As a professor, when you have to bring your sick child to the pediatrician, you don't worry that "I'll have to make up those four hours before the end of the month," says Karen Williams about her years teaching at Stetson University College of Law. 
 
In private practice, however, "the billable hour is a daily struggle that overrides other aspects of the practice," says Williams. "You can't form close relationships with colleagues at a firm, like you can with other faculty. When you run into a colleague you like at the firm you wind up saying, 'I'd like to talk to you but I don't have the time.'"  As a faculty member in a law school, "you can take time to talk to students without watching the clock." 
 
Deborah Jones Merritt, Director and John Deaver Drinko/Baker & Hostetler Chair in Law at the John Glenn Institute for Public Service and Public Policy at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law emphasizes the "freedom to set your own intellectual agenda." Merritt, with colleague Barbara F. Reskin, Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington, has published the results of a 12-year study of factors affecting the hiring and career paths of law school faculty. Subtle gender- and race-related obstacles still exist within the ivory tower, Merritt says, especially for women of color. Documented gender differences in promotion and compensation are often due to mobility limits faced by women faculty: wives tend to follow husband more than the reverse. And salaries tend to go up in response to outside offers. 
 
Nevertheless, Merritt says "teaching is a wonderful job." "The glass used to be only half full," she adds. "Now it's 7/8 full." "I get paid to think about the things I love thinking about and which are meaningful to me," concurs Anne M. Coughlin, O.M. Vicars Professor of Law, Class of 1948 Research Professor and Interim Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Law at the University of Virginia Law School.   
 
This intellectual freedom and time flexibility are undoubtedly attractive to many women lawyers in practice struggling to balance billable hours demands and family life. But among the biggest mistakes made by academic hopefuls, observes Sarah H. Duggin, Assistant Professor of Law, Columbus School of Law, the Catholic University of America, is telling law school interviewers that they want to teach because the hours are better or they're burned out from practice. "Another mistake is failing to recognize that teaching is a different, but equally demanding occupation," adds Duggin. 
 
What, then, is a legitimate reason to seek an academic position? And, more importantly, how can a woman in legal practice transition to academe? 
 
There is consensus that a sincere interest in teaching and scholarship is the only good reason to enter the academic job market. Especially when you've been practicing for more than three or four years, law school faculty want to know a new hire "can write, can start and finish a project, and can be creative," says Corinna Barrett Lain, Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Richmond School of Law. Duggin advises a woman in practice seeking an academic career to "start with the premise that people in academia want two things: 1) a person who will make a good teacher in the classroom; and 2) a person who is capable of contributing to scholarly thought and the evolution of legal principles." 
 
Many in academe assume that if you've practiced "too long" you will have lost your ability to think about scholarly issues in an academic way. Anne Coughlin cautions that "being in practice too long is a liability." Faculty will be suspicious about why you want to move to academe. Margot Schlanger, Assistant Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, agrees. "As a practitioner, you focus on what's interesting to practitioners. These are different problems from what scholars focus on." 
 
Schlanger loved being a trial lawyer. But after two years at the Department of Justice she decided that law teaching would suit her even better, because it would be "less frenetic, more compatible with family life, and allow deeper inquiry into important issues." She wanted to be "engaged in real world problems" and to do "something intellectual, but not too ivory-towerish." Teaching law, she says, is "about thinking through hard problems for a really long time." 
 
Schlanger, a Yale graduate, wanted a position at a top tier law school. Advised that she'd need – at an absolute minimum – an almost-complete draft
of a scholarly article, she revised the most serious paper she'd done in law school as a law review article, a task requiring countless hours of night and weekend work. The biggest challenge, says Schlanger, is that "you have to demonstrate that you can do the job without the support structure that makes it possible to do it." Schlanger's efforts were successful: she was hired by Harvard Law School to serve on their faculty. 
 
As Corinna Lain advises, "Find it in yourself to write even if you're billing 2000 hours. Ask yourself, 'how badly do I want this?' Show how dedicated you are. Write an article and get it published in a flagship journal." 
 
It's also important to have a research plan in mind since many job interviews include giving a "job talk" about your scholarly interests, says Sarah Duggin who worked in a large firm for 11 ½ years, including 5 ½ years as a partner. She also served as General Counsel for an academic health system and a large corporation before joining the faculty at Catholic University.  Duggin advises women to "capitalize on your strengths and practice interests. Pick two or three issues that are novel or controversial. Read what scholars have written in law journals and other academic sources. Do at least 15 hours of research
on each topic so that you have an idea of the scholarship in the area. Look at web sites like Jurist and see what people in academia are reading about. When asked in an academic job interview, "If you had 10 years to contribute to thinking on an issue, what would you do?" Duggin urges you to "make sure you're excited about your research agenda."  And, cautions Duggin, "don't simply talk about a case. Putting in the time to do a scholarly presentation will help you decide if this is really the kind of work you want to do." 
 
Schlanger suggests that practitioners who worry about not having the credentials to get hired by a top tier school start at a lower ranked school.  Once hired, you'll have the support necessary to write and publish more extensively. She points to a long list of current Harvard faculty who began their teaching careers elsewhere. 
 
Practitioners for whom a tenure-track position seems out of reach and those who want to teach but are less concerned with writing about theoretical issues can consider clinical faculty positions. Ruth E. Stone, for example, practiced law since 1978 before becoming a clinical professor at Florida State University College of Law in 1995. She says that teaching is "the best job I've ever had. The students tell me this (clinic class) is the best part of law school." From her perspective, clinical teaching provides law students – most of whom will become practitioners – with the skills they need to practice law. Although she likens the status differences between academic and clinical faculty to a "caste system," she would not trade places with her tenure-track colleagues. 
 
Karen Williams had practiced for five years before receiving a full time fellowship to teach at Stetson, where she also headed the Trial Team Competition Program. "You can't duplicate the rewards of teaching in law practice," she says. "Students come in without skills and by the end of the semester they're doing trials before practicing judges. There's such a sense of accomplishment and closure." Regretfully, Williams returned to practice at the end of her fellowship: because the salary structure for clinical faculty is significantly lower than for tenure-track faculty, Williams didn't earn enough to pay off her law school loans. 
 
Sometimes a combination of serendipity, generosity and raw talent creates opportunities one might never have imagined. Nannette Jolivette grew up in poverty in Louisiana but has had an exceptionally successful legal career, both in practice and in academe. She passed on her acceptances to Cornell and Berkeley, and chose to attend Tulane Law School where her full scholarship would avert a large debt burden.  After earning her LL.M. in environmental law,
she became head of the Energy and Environmental Law Section in the firm where she was a partner. Following an overwhelming victory in a high profile case, Jolivette was approached by the judge, who also happened to be on the search committee for a faculty position at Southern University Law School. Praising Nannette's ability to communicate effectively, the judge suggested she'd be an excellent teacher. That's how Jolivette found herself on the faculty of Southern University.  
 
"Law began as a public service," says Jolivette, "but today it's a dollar-chasing kind of job." Teaching allowed her to return to her passion for service. It is, she says, "the most meaningful job." 
 
Unfortunately, the commute from her home in New Orleans to the campus in Baton Rouge proved to be unsustainable. Jolivette returned to practice and two years ago she won the most significant admiralty cases in recent history. One of her partners encouraged her to take over a course he'd been teaching at Loyola University Law School for many years. She welcomed the opportunity to return to the classroom and continues to pursue every avenue to teach as an adjunct. 
 
Not every transition from practice to professoring involves moving to a law school. After 15 years as a public service lawyer, Vicki Lens found herself feeling alienated at work.  Having always enjoyed public speaking, she accepted an opportunity to teach law to social work students. The experience was so gratifying that Lens returned to school to earn her Ph.D. in Social Work. Today, Lens is an Assistant Professor of Social Work in the School of Social Work at Columbia University and the Coordinator of the Law and Social Work Joint Degree Program. 
 
Janet Kaye pursued a different path. She found the "dichotomy between law school and practice shocking" when she graduated from law school at American University in 1974. After practicing law for five years, she decided to become a print journalist. Though she had no daily newspaper experience, she convinced a newspaper editor that her skills as an advocate would serve her well as an editorial writer and was "relieved to find [she] was right." Later she began reporting on legal and social issues. Kaye taught her first journalism course 20 years ago at the request of a former newspaper colleague. After several years of part-time teaching, she decided to pursued a full-time academic career. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Communication at SUNY College at Buffalo where she teaches courses in journalism and media law. Always wanting to "make a difference," Kaye is now working on two projects concerning media portrayals of domestic violence. 
 
Idara Bassey found yet another way to move from practice to teaching. After obtaining her J.D. from the University of Georgia, she was awarded a Ford Foundation Fellowship to pursue an LL.M. in international law. She then "joined the sea of blue suits," heading off to Washington, D.C. where she directed the outreach program for African diplomats of a humanitarian relief agency. She became their in-house legal counsel shortly thereafter.
 
Bassey tried doing contract work for corporate law firms, but hated "the competition to see who could sleep the least; who could abuse themselves the most in the service of a client." One day she came to work wearing a head wrap from her home of Nigeria – and was immediately dismissed from her assignment. "I decided it would be a long time before the system would change; I couldn't wait it out." 
 
Bassey then discovered an option she hadn't known existed: the world of online teaching.  American InterContinental University was looking for someone who could teach international business law in their online M.B.A. program. For Bassey, teaching working adults whose educational needs don't mesh with the traditional brick and mortar structure is a perfect match. 
 
Do practitioners-turned-professors miss practice? "I miss the courtroom and involvement in management decisions," says Duggin, "but I really enjoy interactions with students and colleagues in the academic setting." Schlanger misses "the immediacy of legal projects, the collegiality of litigation teams and the feeling of directly serving the public good." "Payoffs are somewhat less immediate now," she says. 
 
But all clearly believe that the benefits far outweighing the costs. "I love the intellectual atmosphere and the exchange of ideas," says Schlanger. "The result of all that thinking through is some piece of work product that's very much mine, that I'm proud of." 
 
"The confluence of new class preparation and research makes for a lot of extra hours in the first few years", says Lain. But all point out that tenure confers security and greater flexibility – a far cry from what awaits a new law firm partner.
 
In practice, there seems to be a huge difference between theory and practice – and for those who choose it, it's all for the better.
 

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