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Tips for untenured law faculty


It’s been an eventful week in the law school world. Two law schools have announced the immediate or imminent downsizing of their faculties, while another has laid off a dozen staff people, and is claiming that an unspecified number of faculty positions that have opened up because of “voluntary” departures will not be filled (I have heard from one of the departed faculty members that his/her departure was in fact in no sense voluntary).

Interestingly, legal academic law blogs, including some which normally spend inordinate bandwith on the comings and goings of deans and faculty in this status-obsessed and gossip-ridden thing of ours, have with almost no exceptions remained eerily silent about all this.

Anyway, if you’re an untenured member of a law school faculty, here’s some free advice on how to do what you can to avoid ending up looking for — Jah forbid — a job as a lawyer. (Obviously the salience of this advice will vary depending on your particular institutional situation, this is far from an exhaustive lists, no warranties of quality are expressed or implied etc)

(1) Work with your senior colleagues to put pressure on your administration to cough up candid financials to the faculty. How much money is the school spending? How much is it bringing in? How much, historically speaking, has the law school been expected to kick to the central university? (This latter question can be very tricky to answer, as universities are hives of various forms of cross-subsidization. For example, the law school will be reasonably expected to pay a certain amount in “indirect expenses,” that is, university-wide expenses, a certain percentage of which will be imputed to individual schools. However, if a school is being used as a cash cow — if revenues are being siphoned off to pay for other programs, as opposed to covering genuine collective costs — they will often be categorized in this way).

(2) How has the admissions office been told to handle the severe contraction in law school applications — nationally they’re down by nearly a third over the past three years, and of course by much more at some schools — and who has given the marching orders? The dean? Central? Has there been any faculty input? The options here are, cutting real tuition by giving out ever-larger “scholarships” to people with high or at least historical median scores, shrinking class size, and slashing entrance requirements. Which or what combination of these things is happening? How much tuition revenue will be generated by this fall’s incoming class relative to last fall’s?

(3) What plans are in place, or being formulated, to deal with further revenue contraction? Are staff layoffs being contemplated? What are the rules for laying off faculty? Should people take a pay cut now to avoid layoffs, not only of faculty, but of (generally powerless) staff? What about buyouts of senior faculty? Has central offered anything along these lines?

(4) Depending on the answers to the above questions, why is the school planning to spend X dollars on faculty hiring this coming year (Other than, of course, to give the dean something to highlight in the glossy law porn that gets distributed to alumni and the rest of legal academia. Speaking of which, how much does that thing cost to put together and distribute?).

(5) Go to your (probably enormous and largely empty) law library and dig up some annual catalogs. Count the number of administrative positions at the law school ten and fifteen and twenty years ago. Compare those numbers to the present situation, and do some back of the envelope math. Start asking questions about who does what and why.

(6) Do the same for the teaching faculty, and compare the teaching loads back in that distant era known as, say, 1998, to that borne today by you and the rest of your “insanely busy” (this is an actual term used in faculty meetings at many schools to describe faculty schedules) colleagues. Start asking questions about whether some — needless to say long-term and very gradual! — downsizing might not be in order, via retirements, buyouts, natural attrition, and not doing idiotic things like tying up several million dollars of future revenue by adding someone to the faculty to teach an “understaffed” first year course.

(7) Volunteer to teach an understaffed first year course.

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  • oh man

    I can’t wait to see what else is to come! This’ll be fun to watch.

    • Lee Rudolph

      I bet you like watching train crashes, too, don’t you?

      • john

        Depends on who’s on the training. And who they scammed to get the money for the ticket.

  • Shows you my current mindset – when I first saw the title, I read “untenured,” as ‘indentured.’

  • Making a pain in the ass of yourself does not sound like a great way to hold onto your job when the axe comes down.

    • The Dark Avenger

      Just don’t piss Brian Leiter off.

    • jayackroyd (@jayackroyd)

      That is the laborer’s dilemma isn’t it? If you alone make waves you will be thrown out of the boat. And, of course, the general idea here is to generate some sort of low level mutiny. So, yeah, it’s not good, necessarily, to want to lead this kind of thing. OTOH, if you’re fucked anyway, it may be worth calling attention to it.

      I note, though, that Paul grants anonymity to the faculty member whose institution mischaracterized his or her involuntary termination.

  • Timurid

    Somewhere in America, an English professor’s typing is interrupted by a strangled chirp. He turns to see the canary convulsing on the bottom of its cage. He inhales and feels a strange heaviness in his chest…

    • ruviana

      Maybe I haz a confuse but it seems like the English/literature canary died a long time ago.

      • Vance Maverick

        Per Berube, it died in the 1970s, but the miners have been in stable condition since then.

  • fledermaus

    I’ve been getting fund raising letters from my law school on a weekly basis for the last two months. They go straight to the circular file.

    But I do savor the vision of laid off law profs shocked that no law firm cares that they published an article on philosphy and dispute resolution in a third tier law review.

  • Steve

    (8) Think about a new career.

    • jayackroyd (@jayackroyd)

      Asked and Answered, I think:

      “Jah forbid”

  • Okay, I don’t understand the official Campos position at this point. Yes surely there are other budget priorities (non-faculty administrative staff, cross-subsidies from law school to the rest of the university, &c), and faculty should not be the only ox that gets gored. But if we have too many law students, doesn’t it naturally follow that we have too many law school faculty?

    • Rich

      Across the board, university administrations have increased in size, even as full-time faculty slots have declined or remained stagnant. It’s safe to assume that administration won’t get cut until someone goes out of their way to draw attention to the bloat and find a way to exert pressure.

    • Paul Campos

      My view is that the total number of law schools needs to decline significantly, and that most if not all of the remainder need to reduce the size of their faculties.

      A prudently self-interested junior faculty member should participate consciously in this process. For example at many schools, junior faculty who vote to hire senior laterals might as well be turkeys voting for a second Thanksgiving.

      • Rich

        I think you’re right. And the glut of grads has been building for years. It’s only now with large numbers graduating in a recession that anyone fully appreciates it.

      • Barry

        “A prudently self-interested junior faculty member should participate consciously in this process. For example at many schools, junior faculty who vote to hire senior laterals might as well be turkeys voting for a second Thanksgiving.”

        In which case they richly double deserve their fate; the second time for being idiots who believed their own propaganda.

  • jon

    All those administrators had to be hired. To manage the downsizing. And to maximize the value of the budget.

    • Rich

      You’re joking, of course. It doesn’t take more than one person to deliver bad news.

    • Snarki, child of Loki

      And don’t leave out, they’re needed to maintain ISO-Standard Buzzword Compatibility, otherwise….consequences & stuff.

    • kindasorta

      The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy.

      • jon

        It’s a self-licking ice cream cone.

  • The problem is that lawyers want to get paid a lot, even though they do not produce anything tangible.

    Instead of adding more lawyers to scrap over the parsing of a sentence, send all these smart kids to engineering school, medical school, the Sciences, something that will move our country forward.

    Don’t get me started on the financial “industry.” An industry does something useful.

    • HyperIon

      you wrote:

      Instead of adding more lawyers to scrap over the parsing of a sentence, send all these smart kids to engineering school, medical school, the Sciences, something that will move our country forward.

      but they can’t do math. and they don’t like science.
      that’s one reason they went to law school.
      parsing a sentence is their best skill.

    • Barry

      Perhaps you should look at salaries in engineering and ‘the Sciences’ (at least you didn’t say ‘STEM’). They aren’t budging.

    • dlankerlanger

      send all these smart kids to engineering school, medical school, the Sciences

      because what the world needs is more drones, pesticides, global warming and hydrofracking

      Don’t get me started on the financial “industry.”

      you mean the financial industry that’s overflowing with the exact same science whizzes whose praises you were just singing?

      • I guess it’s time for the pandemic.

    • Sooner

      Consider your sentences parsed.

  • So what does happen to the downsized law faculty member? They already know that they don’t want to practice law: that’s why they left that rat race in the first place. I don’t mean to be cynical about it– what are they supposed to do? They are the embodiment of no employable skills. Lots aren’t even admitted to the bar, even assuming they want to start filing custody actions or closing real estate deals.

    • Barry

      They’ve also been out of the practice of law for a few to several years, and probably didn’t make partner in the first place. They aren’t new grads with high potential; they aren’t partners who have established (and portable) clients.

      They’re f*cked.

    • john

      I hear the LLM is a versatile degree, could be a good place to weather the storm.

  • Like Fries with that?

    Lawyers paved the way for their own professional collapse by underwriting the corporate criminal behaviour which destroyed much of the economy. We should feel sorry for them?

    • ottnott

      The law profession allowed too many middle class youths the opportunity to use their own brains and effort to move into jobs paying high-5 or low-6 figure salaries.

      That is unacceptable. Only wealth and connections should allow one to collect annual earnings in excess of, say, $75,000.

  • MacK

    I would add a few more pointers.


    Look at the endowment – does the law school have a dedicated endowment or is it part of the general fund?

    If the law school has a dedicated endowment what restrictions are there on its use?

    Be careful with endowments – some are in fact buildings like libraries, that then require an actual cash budget to keep up that is not part of the gift?

    Tenure system

    Somewhere the school will have a written tenure policy – find it and read it.

    What categories of academic are there, tenured, fixed term, pre-tenure?

    How does the school provide for dealing with layoffs – financial exigency is common?

    Does the school have effective LIFO (Last In First Out), seniority and bumping rules?

    What are the demographics of the faculty like – are a lot in their 60s (coming up on retirement)? They will be cheaper to buyout or may retire leaving natural wastage.

    Broad Situation

    Is the law school standalone or part of a bigger university?

    Does the law school enhance or hurt the broader schools reputation – is it ranked comparably high with respect to the parent college or university?

    Does the law school have a separate campus? If not, are its facilities attractive to other departments?

    Are there a number of law schools in the same metro? This is a danger because they could: (a) offer joint courses in certain subjects; or (b) just merge.

    Is your law school one of multiple state/public law schools in your state? Is it the lower regarded?

    Has your dean suddenly headed off for new pastures?

  • PopeRatzo

    Welcome to 2013 America. Be glad you’re not 55 years old and unemployed.

    These stories are the same in every industry. People are being discarded left and right, and people are finding that a law degree or a PhD in Math or even salable skills are not a ticket to a middle-class lifestyle.

    And remember, an entry-level job in a factory (when you can find such a thing) is paying about the same as it was in 1979. Reaganomics is a bitch.

    • So right Pope! As I often say to younger workers in my office, and particularly those libertarians in my office: This is your world. You love it. You helped create it. From Reagan to Clinton to Bush II to Obama. A world where there are no labor unions (“We don’t need those anymore!” has been the mantra I’ve heard for 40 years) and nothing but wage stagnation and decline except for the privileged few. As a writer at the BusinessInsider.com said a few weeks ago, “We are a nation with 3 million overlords, and 300 million serfs.”

      So let’s go argue about gays getting married….

  • tony smith

    Some law schools should have never existed in the first place. Why Seton Hall vs. both Rutgers campuses? Why Vermont versus tons of other law schools in New England? I am told, however, that Vermont had lots of mismanagement. Plus, it is an independent law school, without the help of a deep alumni base of a broader university.

    • Facts

      After Rutgers merges, New Jersey will have the lowest Law School to Population ratio in the United States (other than Alaska, which has no law school at all). Just two law schools in the tenth biggest state. To suggest that the school shouldn’t have existed is ludicrous.

  • Richard Hershberger

    Count the number of administrative positions at the law school ten and fifteen and twenty years ago. Compare those numbers to the present situation, and do some back of the envelope math. Start asking questions about who does what and why.

    I’ve been saying for a while now that there is a real market opportunity out there for some collection of ambitious academic types to go out and find empty classroom space (perhaps a closed Catholic school), hire a few secretaries and janitors, and open a college: one without administrative bloat or climbing walls in the student union. For that matter, for many subjects it is not clear to me why you need anything other than a log with a student sitting at one end and a teacher at the other. Colleges seem to believe that they can’t attract students with the climbing wall and similar irrelevant crap. I’m sure this is true for some students: the ones who bring nothing to the school other than a tuition check. But I am also sure that many prospective students don’t care about climbing walls, or at least not as much as they care about not paying for pointless bloat.

    The bloat is inevitable, eventually. Such is the nature of postlapsarian bureaucracy. But it should be possible to hold it off for a few generations.

    • Sam

      For many years, Shimer College was an example of such a school (or nearly so), with faculty also covering most administrative positions — this being the only way to keep the tiny school viable during the very difficult 1980s. However, although Shimer still does a pretty decent job of minimizing administrative overhead, it no longer really follows this model, and has an administrative structure that is mostly a scaled-down version of what one would find elsewhere.

      There are several reasons for this — it’s very hard on the faculty, plus there are many administrative tasks that simply have to be done by a qualified professional — but one of the biggest is accreditation and regulatory requirements. The educational dinosaurs that currently rule the earth don’t really care one way or another about gnat-sized colleges like Shimer, but for their own reasons, they have rigged the game in ways that make it very difficult for a small school to stay afloat unless it has a team of highly specialized professionals working to stay abreast of all the latest hoops that must be jumped through.

  • You know what I say to my fourth tier law school when they want money from me? I say, “Shut yourselves down. You produce graduates who can’t get jobs and certainly not jobs that justify their $150K investment. Shut yourselves down.”

    They won’t because the owners are making the money. The teachers are largely untenured track and adjunct (what a lovely phrase, “adjunct”) and the kids are fodder who will be molded into serfs.

    The youngsters can’t out do me as a lawyer, and I can’t compete on their price they are willing to charge for their services.

    Rich people win again! Hooray! Happy 4th of July!

  • jon

    Government has failed us yet again. Elected positions are supposed to absorb excess legal production.

  • Failed academic wannabe

    For those law profs who are considering moving back to practice, here are my suggestions.

    If you have less than five years of practice experience, don’t bother. No one is hiring.

    If you have more than five years (and especially more than ten), you’ve got a chance, but play your connections. Cold calling/applying will be useless. Concentrate on people/firms you worked with in the past. If you had a good reputation, someone will probably be hiring.

    Consider career clerkships. Judges love former clerks who can write.

    (I start in the fall as counsel/NE partner with a big firm, up for full partner in late 2015. I also left several career clerkship and firm final round interviews on the table when I accepted the job.)

  • Cereal

    Law schools serve no purpose. Until a century or so ago they did not exist. Wannabe lawyers learned the trade by apprenticing to real lawyers. And only very recently has it become an assumption that law schools exist to wring huge amounts of profits out of wannabe lawyers who will pay or borrow anything to get a high paying law job. Since that no longer is the reality, law schools go poof. Kind of like LP pressing plants and record labels, dig?

    Find new work. Soon.

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  • Alan A.

    “Go to your (probably enormous and largely empty) law library”.

    Our law library is generally well populated with students during the academic year, and far from huge. But then, I suppose that we law librarians are part of the scam, and should therefore be on the unemployment line, too, eh, Paul? All that useless study space, and all those useless books and databases draining student dollars, when, as we all know, everything is available online and can be easily found using Google.

    We also all know that law professors are absolutely brilliant legal researchers who would never think of asking their library liaisons for research help, let alone rely on them in the production of “their” law review articles almost to the point of being unethical.

    • Paul (not Campos)

      I agree Alan – why does PC have to throw gratuitous hate at the law library?

      I understand universities over-spend on climbing walls and cool cafeterias and sports facilities, but the library is in many ways a lab for the lawyer.

      If you library is largely empty, you (faculty) are letting a great resource and partner in teaching go to waste.

  • Paul B

    Can’t find a press release online but (late Friday afternoon of course)the Sacramento Bee reported that McGeorge downsized its staff in response to declining enrollment. Not clear if the term is used as colleges use it, i.e., not including faculty.

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