Friday, January 4, 2008
Posted by Alan Childress
The ABA Journal online had this headline two days ago that seemed to come out of nowhere: "Why Law Profs Are Miserable." It quotes Paul Caron on TaxProf as applying the criteria of a more general book on
occupational happiness, to conclude that law profs' misery comes from anonymity, irrelevance, and immeasurement. (Or at least as support to explain another professor's view that law profs "are so edgy" [not in the street sense of edgy, like American Psycho or modern art].)
Except that I don't know of anecdotal or statistical evidence to support the claim that law profs are miserable. It seems like a very good job to me, and the numbers and qualifications of candidates for teaching jobs (almost all perfectly willing to take a huge pay cut) seem very high over the last few years. Plus I don't know of a lot of people who voluntarily leave the academy. So I don't find any support for the claim that law profs are miserable.
So the article would seem to be more about The Reasons Law Profs Would Be Miserable If They Are.
Except the reasons don't make sense. Law profs are not anonymous--the job is highly interactive and social, except for much of the writing component of it which is the most widely exposed and least anonymous (nationally) part of the job. Law profs are not irrelevant--we may not be as important as our egos think, or as influential broadly as some politicians, business leaders, and practicing attorneys, but in the circle we operate in, we seem to matter. All teachers, law or otherwise, have to take joy vicariously in the development and success of their students and ideas, so relevance may be often defined by the actions of our subjects rather than our direct actions. But that is fine with me, and with most profs I know. There is nothing like seeing the lightbulb go off over the head of a student in a socratic dialog, or seeing a former student get elected county commissioner or appointed judge.
Finally, success is not immeasurable, especially since teachers often define success in this vicarious way. But even in the more direct ways in which an individual may succeed, there are plenty of markers and objective-enough measures of success to deny the claim that the job is inherently amorphous and a-rewarding. We are measured all the time, and our stats are posted in libraries or on school websites.
I would worry that anyone who thinks otherwise seems to see tenure as the moment of retirement, but that hardly fits the reality of most law profs I know and even the tireless and productive Mr. Caron himself. Clearly he is finding something to define success to him other than receiving a lifetime contract. Indeed, most self-starters I know have turned that job security into a kick-start of increased productivity, relevance, and measurable achievement. The people who seek the job and get hired are almost always virulent self-starters.
So I do not know where this miserable idea comes from. But the headline certainly caught my attention and made me click on the story just to see what in the world they were talking about. I assumed it was some poll or study of job satisfaction, but even then wondered about the methodology because it sounded so unlike the law prof world I know, not just at my school but other schools I have observed or visited. To me it seemed like one of those scratch-head headlines I read a few weeks ago that claimed that Mother Theresa Was Not a Nice Person. Law profs are no saints, but they do not seem miserable to me either. Or even particularly edgy, in any sense of that word.