The Changing Face of the Law Professor

With professors who study computer science, economics, history, and statistics, the Harvard Law School faculty of today touts a wide array of academics, many of whom boast Ph.D.s or scholarly work in other subjects. Yet this was not always the case.

“Somebody who got into a top law school, did very well and then completed a prestigious clerkship was well situated to be hired on the basis of those credentials,” said Law School professor Richard H. Fallon, who attended Yale Law School and clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell.

Now, however, the Law School looks for a greater breadth of academic qualifications in its prospective faculty, including “demonstrated scholarly accomplishment, a promising research agenda offering both relevance to legal analysis or law practice, and an ability to present and effectively defend a thesis or argument before faculty members,” according to Law School Dean Martha L. Minow.

As the expectations for aspiring law professors have changed, faculty and administrators say, so has the tenor and complexity of today’s legal scholarship, sparking a continuing debate on the merits and drawbacks of new approaches that incorporate other academic fields into legal training.

CHANGING EXPECTATIONS

In 1963, Charles Nesson had just graduated summa cum laude from Harvard Law School and was headed for a clerkship with Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan.

“I received a call from the dean asking if I wanted to come teach,” Nesson said. “I didn’t apply. I said yes, and that was it.”

After clerking for Justice Harlan and working for the Department of Justice, Nesson joined the faculty in 1966 and has remained on Harvard Law School’s campus ever since.

But the days when of top students, such as Nesson, could expect job offers right after graduation seem to have passed. Today, the road to professorship has fractured into many, lesser-travelled pathways, most of which require significant scholarship beyond the attainment of a law degree.

If a student approached him about becoming a professor,  Fallon said, “the thing that I would start to talk to the person about is how the person would get himself or herself into a position in which it was possible to produce significant legal scholarship before going on the job market.”

“I think what’s really changed is the demand for published writing,” he said.

As new scholars are added to the faculty today, they are expected to write prolifically, and many of them already have for their dissertations.

"I think what's really changed is the demand for published writing," Law School professor Richard H. Fallon said.

“You have to think about the fact that the main job for a law professor is to write,” said Law School professor William B. Rubenstein. “You have to enjoy the process and think of yourself as writing term papers for the rest of your life. They kind of see us in the classroom and are less familiar with the scholarship.”

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