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How I Became a Law Professor

Professor of Law Emeritus, The Ohio State University

Becoming a law professor was largely the result of an alphabetical accident. As an undergraduate (and indeed during all of my education to that point), I could make A’s if I applied myself, which usually I did only in the courses that I liked. The others I could make B’s in without much effort. Consequently, I graduated from college with an almost perfect B average. I had been admitted to the University of Texas Law School, starting in 1965, and I figured at law school I’d just do what everyone else was doing and that would be enough to see me through. At Texas everything is oversized, and the entering class had 500 people in it (almost all men in those days).

What I didn’t count on was being seated next to Jay Westbrook (an alphabetical accident) in each one of my first year courses. Jay would eventually graduate number one in the class, and since he and I became close friends (rooming together for the last two years of law school—decades later we are still close), I simply did what Jay did. That led me to graduating 14th in that class of 500. Without grades like that I would never have qualified to become a law professor.

A word about Jay Westbrook (now himself a law professor at U. of T., and the world’s leading expert on international bankruptcies). Jay is the most intelligent person I have ever known when it comes to handling an abstract idea (but not when, for example confronting a spider). When we were roommates, I would be sitting in our rented apartment happily reading Mad Magazine, and he would come bursting through the door saying, “Doug, agency law is flawed at its basic core!” I would beg him to let me alone, but the excitement over his discovery would lead to a two hour discussion of the myriad problems with agency law. By the time we got to class, we were both loaded for bear. He also taught me how to boil an argument down to the fundamental disagreement, which proved hugely valuable latter in life.

When I graduated in 1968, I went to practice law in Chicago with a major firm. In the fall of 1969, I received a letter in the mail from the Indiana Indianapolis School of Law, asking if I was interested in interviewing for the position of Assistant Professor of Law, with a starting date of Jan. 1, 1970. The letter was signed by a “Melvin Poland,” which made me suspicious that it was a fake (surely no one was really named “Melvin Poland,” and, it being Chicago, there were a lot of Pollack jokes going around). On the other hand, the letter was on letterhead stationery, which was hard to create in those days without great expense, so I did reply, was interviewed, and hired. It turned out that Indiana had a sudden need for someone to teach Contracts, a basic first year course, and my former Contracts professor at Texas had recommended me for the job. It was a course that I taught for decades, most recently in 2007-08.

My starting paycheck dated from Jan. 1, 1970, so I never had any trouble figuring out how long I’d been in law teaching. Once I got into the classroom, it was “duck discovers water.” I had a very fulfilling teaching career, winning numerous teaching awards, publishing a large number of casebooks, etc. The biggest reward was in influencing the leaders of tomorrow, many of whom are in Congress, on the bench, deans and faculty members at law schools, or running major law firms, corporations, or non-profit organizations. There are thousands of them.

But if Jay Westbrook had been named “Jay Smith,” I would probably be practicing law somewhere, oblivious to the enormous pleasure of standing in front of a room filled with bright minds eager to learn what you can tell them about how to practice law.

If any law student reading this is interested in law teaching, I do have some advice for you. First of all, you need very good grades and then an early legal career that’s itself impressive (with a U.S. Supreme Court Clerkship getting top ranking). It is very hard to get into law teaching, but being interested in subjects where schools are always in need of expertise is a step up. These include the basic first year courses, particularly Property and Contracts. It helps if you have published an article in one of these fields, since whether you can write well is a major criterion. The year before you want to start teaching, you should plan to attend the Association of American Law School’s Faculty Recruitment Conference (commonly known as the “meat market’). Check with the AALS for registration information. At this conference, which is held each fall, law schools and applicants gather together for preliminary interviews. If those go well, selected applicants are then invited to the home schools for more formal interviews with the faculty, administration, and even students. Applicants are usually expected to give a job talk at this time. For excellent advice about that and about the whole process, see GW Professor Daniel Solove’s blog post: “Law Teaching Interview Advice.”

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