Friday, June 20, 2014

Work experience: Northwestern Law School’s double standard?

I recently read an interview of Northwestern Law School’s Daniel Rodriguez.  In it, he said that Northwestern Law has taken a page from the business schools and requires—or, more accurately, strongly prefers—that its incoming law students have two years of work experience before reentering academia’s bubble.  A double check on the school’s website confirms this: ninety percent of the incoming students have worked at least one year, and more than seventy percent have worked at least two years.  Fair enough.  But then I wondered: does Northwestern Law School impose a comparable, two-year legal work experience preference on its law professors?

First, this comparison isn’t perfect.  A prospective student’s two years of experience can be in any field outside of academia.  And when browsing Northwestern’s faculty CVs, I looked specifically for post-J.D. legal experience.  So this isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison; however, it is a reasonable one.  After all, the professors are teaching law and getting paid big money, rather than merely studying law and paying $56,134 tuition per year for the privilege of reading casebooks (which probably cost an additional few hundred dollars apiece).  Therefore, most people would agree that it would be fair to modify the two-year general experience preference imposed on incoming students to a two-year post-J.D. legal experience preference for faculty.    

A spot check of some of the faculty’s CVs proved interesting.  The first CV I clicked on was that of a clinical professor.  I thought this one would be heavier on work experience than most.  What I found, however, was that this prof graduated from law school, worked at a law firm for less than one year, and then got hired as a clinical prof at Northwestern—presumably to teach students how to practice law.  (Last time I wrote a resume, the conventional wisdom was that if you didn’t work at a company for a full year, you didn’t even put it down.  It seems that times have changed.)

The second CV I pulled up also boasted less than one year of experience at a law firm, but this prof did clerk for a judge for just over one year.  These are both post-J.D. experiences, in the literal sense of the phrase.  But should a clerkship count as legal work experience?  I never did a clerkship.  I’m sure they are valuable experiences, but I also suspect they are more academic in nature, e.g., there isn’t any client representation, let alone actual client contact.  But it is post-J.D., and clerkships do pay money, so let’s count it!  This law prof would meet the Northwestern incoming student work experience preference—barely.

The third CV I clicked on had zero post-J.D. experience.  The dates on the CV indicated that this prof went straight from final exams at one law school to teaching law at Northwestern, with no stops in between.  This prof did have a short career in a non-legal field before law school, but again, I’m counting post-J.D. legal experience in my admittedly apples-to-oranges (but fair and reasonable) comparison. 

By this point, I was really trying to find someone with serious work experience, i.e., someone who not only managed to hold a job outside of academia for more than a year, but also had some real-life client contact.  So I looked for clues in the faculty listing that, I thought, were likely to indicate some toiling in the legal vineyards.  But the next CV I clicked on turned out to be a swing and a miss: only one year of client-based legal experience combined with two clerkships.  Then I found a guy who passed the test with flying colors; he had decades of very high-quality, client-based legal experience.  However, I got the impression that they only hired him into one of those part-time, marginalized teaching positions.  They used to call his position “lecturer,” but then changed the name a few years ago to “professor of practice.”  (To me, this is just further evidence of legal academia’s delusion that legal theory can be separated from legal practice—but that’s another story.)  In any case, my unscientific sampling of the faculty produced mixed but largely unimpressive results. 

As for Northwestern’s experience requirement for its students, my own belief is that law school admission shouldn’t even require a bachelor’s degree, let alone professional work experience.  In fact, law school is really nothing more than an associate’s degree: it doesn’t require a single, specific college-level prerequisite and, even at the prestigious Northwestern Law School, can be completed in only two years.  (That, after all, is the very definition of an associate’s degree.) 

I do realize that reasonable minds could differ on this point, and Daniel Rodriquez might be able to offer some arguments in support of a student work experience preference that exceeds that imposed on many of the school’s own faculty members.  However, I suspect that Northwestern is using this work experience angle as a marketing tool—something to talk about in interviews to try and distinguish itself from its peer institutions.  Interestingly, though, it has adopted this work experience talking point without appreciating the dollop of whipped irony that comes with it: at least some of its law professors would fail a comparable standard, if one were imposed.


  1. Not only ironic but the classic chutzpah of "do as I say not as I do" hypocrisy!

  2. I'm growing tired of your briliant analogies -and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible.

    1. Ha! And I'll take it in the most complimentary way. Thanks. Whenever I read pure nonsense being bandied about by academics, I feel compelled to write.