Cornell, J.D. '09
Lecturer of Law
The University of Kansas School of Law
Like many, I participated in journal activities and seminars that sparked my interest in legal academia, but the work of several of my professors at Cornell inspired and encouraged me to pursue a career in law teaching. In particular, during my second year of law school I had the opportunity to see Professor Sheri Johnson testify before the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles concerning the clemency request of a condemned inmate. She spoke on issues of mitigation and racial disparities in the criminal justice system that she had studied throughout her career. The man’s life was not spared, but in that opportunity I saw the broad influence and impact a law professor could have—on the lives of students, individual clients, and entire classes of people impacted by inequality in the legal system. Before that point, I had always planned to be a “regular” lawyer after my time at Cornell. After that point, I considered legal academia to be a path I had to explore.
My CV reflected that of a typical entry-level law faculty hiring candidate in many ways, but departed greatly in several others. Following a standard model for many faculty hiring candidates, I began my legal career as a clerk to a federal appellate judge. I then entered private practice at a well-regarded law firm, spending a good deal of my professional time in the rather- cerebral appellate practice area.
From there, my path to teaching departed from the norm. To pursue my teaching interest, I began adjunct lecturing in legal subjects at a nearby maximum-security prison facility. I prepared student materials, taught using the Socratic Method, and graded exams in a way similar to that which I had seen in my law school courses. Robert Summers I was not, but I honed skills in encouraging student comments, discussion, and questioning during the prison teaching experience.
As my attraction to teaching grew stronger and my available billable time became consumed more by reading law review articles than determining ingenious ways to bill clients for reviewing emails, I decided to pursue a career in teaching. In that pursuit, I was blessed to have several mentors at Cornell and at law schools in my area that encouraged me to take part in a fellowship or Visiting Assistant Professorship (“VAP”). I obtained a VAP at the University of Kansas School of Law and over the course of several months, spent more time working than I had at almost any point before, as I prepared to teach a first-year course and produced a piece for the legal academic hiring market. During my VAP, I attended the hiring conference in Washington, DC hosted by the American Association of Law Schools, obtaining the opportunity to interview at a number of schools around the country, but ultimately elected to remain at the University of Kansas.
What advice do I have to offer?
- First, reach out to your professors at Cornell. They may seem intimidating, busy, or unapproachable, but most have an interest in helping you find the right career path. Their advice is even better if you have chosen a path in which they have excelled.
- Second, write early and write often. Show that you have an interest in legal scholarship and not just a professorial position. In that writing, think about the impact you want to have. Your interests may span from the application of Roman-Dutch law in Sub-Saharan Africa to intellectual property and antitrust issues in the United States, but it is imperative you channel a focus of some sort. The most effective way—and a necessary one—is in developing a research agenda. If you were to plan three articles that would establish you as an expert or a leader in a given field, what topics would you explore? What new ground would you like to discover or propose?
- Third, be interesting. Not unlike every other organization from which you have sought employment, law school faculty hiring committees want to know why, out of hundreds of worthy applicants, you add value to their institution. Does your dissertation provide you a template for analyzing the use of racially provocative statements in closing statements in criminal matters? Is your hope to partner with a law school’s business law faculty to propose a method for reorganizing the Commodity Futures Trading Commission? Whatever it may be, find something, think of something. You are a smart person with outstanding credentials, but what actually makes you special? Let us know.
- Finally, have thick skin. By the time you are considering a life in the legal academy, you may have obtained a number of credentials. Your credentials are valuable, but know that throughout the hiring process you will face tough questioning, a range of personalities, and faculty members with differing views of friendliness. Be prepared to answer tough questions, but also be prepared to move on from a bad interview.
I wish you the very best.