A surprisingly large number of lawyers, judged from my anecdotal experience, are interested in teaching a law school class. I just wrapped up my whirlwind of a first semester as an adjunct law professor teaching Contract Drafting at the University of Richmond School of Law. Here are some key lessons I learned, which I hope will help inform your decision on whether to pursue an adjunct position.
Right from the start, I’ll emphasize that it’s not a decision to make lightly.
Being an adjunct law professor takes a lot: time, effort and patience. But it also gives a lot: satisfaction, relationships and personal growth. (But not money — more about that below.)
Lesson 1: Being an Adjunct Law Professor Is Going to be More Work Than You Think
Douglas Hofstadter coined an adage that has become known as “Hofstadter’s Law.” It stands for the proposition that it always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.
Everything about being an adjunct law professor took more time and work than I thought it would, from creating lesson plans to grading papers to meeting with students. I write this not to discourage you from pursuing an adjunct position but rather to help you adjust your expectations appropriately.
Lots of people seem to believe that a life in academia is slow-paced and less taxing than “real work.” I taught one class and wasn’t responsible for any research, writing or administrative tasks; it was all I could handle in addition to practicing law. Be prepared to spend at least five to seven hours each week to teach one class that meets once a week.
Lesson 2: Don’t Do it For the Money
An adjunct professorship is not an entrepreneurial side hustle. It’s more of a passion project. It’s not something to do for the money, because there’s not much of it. If you do it, don’t calculate your hourly rate. It’s better not to know. There are many rewards to being an adjunct, but direct financial rewards are not among them.
Would some potential clients be more likely to use your services if they saw on your curriculum vitae that you taught a subject that mattered to them? Maybe, but don’t do it for that reason either.
Lesson 3: Beware the Curse of Knowledge
The more you know about a subject, the harder it can be to teach it to others. The “curse of knowledge” is a thing, as I learned.
It’s easy to assume that those you’re teaching have a certain foundation of knowledge — things that may seem obvious to you. It’s also easy to forget that you’ve acquired your knowledge through years of practicing law. If your students don’t have the necessary foundational knowledge, an entire lesson may — and probably will — go right over their heads.
What’s the solution? Teach fewer things, but teach them at a deeper and more fundamental level. That was advice I received from another professor, but I didn’t understand it until I got down a rabbit hole in class on a concept that I should have been teaching at a much more fundamental level.
Lesson 4: But There’s Still Lots to Learn (or Relearn)
This may sound contradictory, considering I just cautioned you about the curse of knowledge, but be ready to feel like an imposter. You’re likely an expert in your practice area, but if you’re like me, you’ll realize that you have to learn it a whole new way and at a different level to teach it to someone else. The adage that you don’t truly know something until you teach it is apt.
And there’s a practical benefit to digging back into the nitty-gritty of a particular subject — in my case, commercial contract law. I learned a tremendous amount by preparing for class, teaching, answering questions, meeting with students and grading papers. There have been a number of instances where I applied things I learned (or relearned) to my day-to-day legal work.
Plus, it’s one thing to know the subject matter cold. But teaching requires a unique set of hard and soft skills to keep students engaged. Trying to be a good teacher who can elicit understanding, as opposed to merely being a vessel of information, is the toughest challenge of all.
One of the best ways to become a better teacher is to talk to the great teachers working at your school and ask them for their advice. This was invaluable for me.
Lesson 5: Students Love the War Stories
So much of law school involves teaching students how to think like a lawyer. As a result, many students seek out classes taught by adjunct law professors to better understand what it’s like to be a practicing lawyer. My read on the room was that it was the personal anecdotes and war stories — the nitty-gritty of what the practice of law entails — that students wanted to hear.
If you take on an adjunct role, incorporate some ultra-practical lessons for students. For instance, this included teaching students how to red-line a document — something most had never done before.
Lesson 6: The Profession is in Good Hands
The future of the legal profession is secure. Without hesitation, I can say my students were diligent, well prepared, willing to participate, and demonstrated a genuine interest in the law. These qualities will make them good lawyers in the future, regardless of where they end up working. And I’m sure that my experience was not unique. Despite the tendency of older generations to fret about younger ones, we’re in good hands.
Parting Thoughts on Becoming an Adjunct Law Professor
So, despite the long hours and lack of money, would I do it again? Absolutely. In fact, I am doing it again next spring. I’ll be using the months until then to refine my materials, review my performance and gather input from student comments to make next semester even better for my class.
If you’ve been toying with the idea of pursuing a stint as an adjunct law professor, I encourage you to give it real consideration. Law schools need more practicing lawyers to add their practical knowledge to the curriculum.
Subscribe to Attorney at Work
Get really good ideas every day for your law practice: Subscribe to the Daily Dispatch (it’s free). Follow us on Twitter @attnyatwork.