Sunday, January 7, 2007

Under No Circumstance Should a Beginning Law Professor Read This Post

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw

Let me start this off with the obvious disclaimer.  I am a "beginning" law professor (personally, I like to think of myself in the same vein as my hero Horace Rumpole who, having never "taken silk," i.e. Rumpole become a Q.C., is consigned to the category of aging "junior" barrister).  But I think I may be in a very select group of "beginning law professors" who spent as long as I did in practice before being called to the academic bar.

So while I took with substantial gratitude the advice offered last Friday morning at the AALS New Law Professors section, I also listened to it with the perspective of starting what is at least my thirdLarrysolum career, the first two of which resulted in the equivalent of tenure.  And one piece of advice, in the midst of all the other good advice, buried in the middle, and perhaps not, and offered up by that wisest and kindest of academic mentors, Larry Solum, stood out among all the other combined wisdom.   (Note:  this picture captures the real Larry far better than the taxidermic one Paul Caron used at the session!)

I strongly urge all take to heart his message to concentrate on the intrinsic value of the work.  I am too much of a Kantian to be able to assure anyone that if you do all the right things, the real world results will come.  As they say, shit happens.  But I am positive, to a moral certainty, that there is no other alternative.   The paradox in every meaningful achievement is that you focus on the independent variables to the function y=f(x), because you simply cannot force y into being.

Let me try to be more concrete about this in a different way.  In my function, y is about ME.  It's the result I want for myself.  In Humean terms, it's the passion for something to which my reason is slave.  It is the inward focus on me, my needs, my desires, my career, my life that in my other careers I have seen (in myself and others) transferred into an organizational inward focus - where what this all means for me (a partner or an executive) or us (the law firm or the company) far outweighs any consideration of what this all means for others (our clients or customers or employees).  But, ironically or paradoxically, it's the outward focus that lets us achieve our inward goals.

Unfortunately, the impact of the normal or standard curve doesn't end when we get onto the tenure track, any more than it did when we were accepted at elite undergraduate schools or or elite law Normalcurve schools.  Everybody we hired in our law firm had already experienced several levels of stardom, but some people didn't make it to partnership.  In every one of these circumstances, we hope to hell it's not us.  But I'm fifty-two years old, I'm not going to be the President, or even a Senator, or on the Yale faculty, and there are very few things as to which I can say I'm in the top ten in world.  We walk a fine line between ambition and despair.

We will get lots of instrumental advice: how best to game the law review system; what kind of publications work best for tenure committees; how best to dress when teaching classes.  But the advice that resonates with me is the kind given by Larry:  look outward because, paradoxically, the result of the inward look is instrumental to our passions and ultimately unsatisfying.  Write because you have something to offer the world; teach because you have something to offer your students; serve because you have something to offer your institution.  We didn't make this choice of career for an instrumental end, and we shouldn't conduct it that way either.

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Ah, Jeff, that posting is one of the many reasons I think the world of you! People should become academics precisely because of what they can offer the world (which is one of the reasons I care so much about MoneyLaw principles), and not because they can get (more) famous. Bravo for you for knowing the difference between doing something for its intrinsic value and doing it for the types of rewards that are ephemeral and often meaningless.

And beginning law professors SHOULD read the next sentence. BEING A LAW PROFESSOR MAY IN FACT BE THE BEST JOB IN THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD. We lead incredibly pleasant lives, not just by comparison with most of the world, but even by the standards of academia. We don't need a Ph.D. to get hired (although I still wish I had one!), we teach mostly what we want to teach and usually when we want to teach it, we are well-paid (even if not lavishly paid), and we have more freedom in our lives than ANYONE in the "real world" will ever see. As far as I can tell, professors (at least in research universities and in stand-alone law schools) are the only group that their putative boss (the dean) CANNOT tell them what to do--at least in terms of telling them what they should be researching. The dean can ask a professor to DO research, but not WHAT they must research. That means that we can reinvent our research areas as our lives present new opportunities. Who really can have a better job than that?

How anyone can walk around feeling bad--jealous, petty, depressed--about being a full professor has always been beyond me.... And I think that your advice, Jeff, about how to do this thing called "being a law professor" the right way will remind people of how lucky we all are.

Posted by: Nancy Rapoport | Jan 7, 2007 3:06:19 PM

Dear Jeff,

This is a timely post for me. I'm contemplating giving up being a legal academic altogether because I seem to only manage to be an average Assistant Professor despite putting my heart and soul and time into the job for the last 5 years. Where I come from (not the US), being average is almost a guarantee that I'll be denied tenure in a couple of years' time when it's time to put up my application. I have contemplated going back in practice because I'm 40 and don't think I'm going to be able to find another job if I wait too long to get out, but now I think I owe it to myself and others to try again, perhaps at another less prestigious institution. I believe I have something to offer the world; something to offer my students; and I have something to offer my institution.

Posted by: george | Jan 8, 2007 7:19:00 AM

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