January 01, 2014
Law Professors who Haven't Practiced: Unsustainable?
Posted by Usha Rodrigues

Between knee surgery (arthroscopic,torn meniscus, recovering well) and holiday travel (6 day trip to Maryland and back with 3 children ranging in age from 1-6, recovering so-so), my blogging and blogreading has been light of late.  So I am late to the Nancy Leong kerfuffle (which made Slate, no less): a recap of sorts available here, and Professor Leong has a series of worthwhile posts here.  As far as I could tell yesterday getting up to speed via cellphone screen southbound on I-85, Leong has been the target of cyberbullying and attacks based on her gender and race.  Mostly by a public defender in Colorado who seems oddly fixated on her (writing 2 plays about someone?  Really?) as a manifestation of the privileged, entitled law professor that has no business teaching law and must have been hired because she looks good.  Many have decried these identity-based attacks, and rightly so: they are unjustified, loathsome, and wrong.  I don't feel I have anything to add to these protests, but I agree with them.  

With that caveat, amidst all of Leong's persecutor's vitriol, one note sounds true: the grievance of the practictioner against the law professor who has never practiced.  While Leong has practiced, I predict that we will hear more and more complaints of this kind.   Looking at the future of law and the tenuous state of the legal academy, it doesn't seem wise or even sustainable to me to continue to hire significant numbers of law professors who haven't practiced.

There, I said it.

In my experience, most practitioners  actually like and respect law professors a good deal. But if you're a law professor and talk with alums or lawyers of any kind, eventually they'll come around to this observation: "It's great to talk to a law professor who has actually practiced."  Sotto voce, what they're saying is, "How can there be so many law professors who haven't actually practiced?"

Law school is a professional school, no longer able in this economic climate to be the liberal arts finishing school it only ever was to the privileged few. I can't help but think that voce will be less sotto going forward, as alums, hiring partners, and prospective students seek professors that can credibly impart the skills and thinking that will get them a job.  Lawyers, particularly the ones who are hiring, tend to be smart and skeptical.  Particularly of claims that people who never practiced law know enough about the practice of law to help students prepare to practice law.

I'm not saying that every new law professor needs to have practiced, or that there aren't many superlative professors who have never practiced--indeed, I know many.  But going forward, I predict that that model will be harder and harder to justify.  

Update: It has been pointed out that Professor Leong has one year of practice experience on her CV, as a fellow for the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. In addition, she practiced in a pro bono capacity. When reviewing her C.V. initially, I mistakenly read "fellow" to be an academic position, as it often is in academia. I apologize for my implication that she has never practiced.

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