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The New Law Professor: The Changing Requirements

Most people would expect for a law professor to be someone who has had experience studying and practicing law. A typical, ideal professor would be someone who went to a top law school, did well academically, completed a clerkship at a prestigious court, and went on to receive a Ph.D in any legal-related topic.

This is not the case, according to Harvard Law School faculty. Instead, the law school looks for a greater range of academic qualifications for its prospective faculty. This includes a demonstration of scholarly accomplishments, a promising research agenda in legal analysis or law practice, and/or the ability to present and defend a thesis or argument before other faculty members.

The expectations for aspiring professors have definitely changed over the past few decades, which has some faculty and administrators questioning the new approach, especially ones trying to incorporate other academic fields into legal training.

Charles Nesson, a professor at Harvard Law School, was offered a position to teach shortly after his graduation in 1963. He graduated summa cum laude, and decided instead to do a clerkship for Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan. However, after clerking, he decided to join the Harvard Law faculty, and has been there since 1966.

The days of top students being offered professor jobs at universities has passed. Now law schools want to see professors with more unique experiences beyond just attaining a law degree and requires significant scholarship (what required significant scholarship? This is unclear).

The demand for publishing has really changed the requirements to become a law professor. New scholars are added to the faculty every year, and they are expected to write prolifically. Law professor James Greiner claims that 3 years of law school does give students an adequate amount of time to complete serious research that is essential when becoming a professor. He says, “If we are going to require that everyone have two or three published papers before they apply for an entry level job at a national law school, we are essentially requiring them to do a Ph.D.”

In addition to more strict requirements, professors are starting to study law in new ways. Over the past 20 years, legal scholarship has taken tools from other disciplines, such as economics, history, literature and psychology in order to bring a greater depth to legal education. This leads to an extraordinarily diverse faculty with different ideas and techniques they can employ on their students. In a society where specialization is key in many professions, seeing professors give their students insight from different perspectives from various fields can help them to expand their thought processes to solve problems.
Although the track to become a law school professor has become increasingly strict, the benefit is that law schools now have a faculty that is passionate about their profession and what they study. They are in a field to provide superb lawyers for the workforce, and they aim to do so in new and innovative ways.

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