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Choosing a law school, part 5

I thought I would say a bit about faculty — the people who teach all those classes in the curriculum. Every law school will tell you that its faculty is excellent, and with justification. Law teaching jobs are sufficiently desirable that law schools generally have many, many qualified applicants for openings. Law schools today hire very well qualified people. Nevertheless, I would like to suggest one way in which prospective students can evaluate whether a particular faculty will provide a good educational experience.

Professors come in many types. For purposes of this post, however, we can get along with a distinction between permanent faculty and part-time (frequently called adjuncts) faculty. For permanent faculty, law teaching is their full-time job. Part-time faculty, as their name implies, generally have another job and devote a relatively small amount of their time to law teaching. They generally teach one class at a school, often in the early morning or evening, and they frequently do so from year to year.

A good school should have the vast majority of its courses, particularly first year courses and basic doctrinal upper year courses, taught by permanent faculty. This is not to say that part-time faculty can’t do a good job. Many are good, dedicated teachers. Nevertheless, full-time faculty are at the school, present for students in ways that would be impossible for part-time faculty. Those professors have more time to focus on teaching, and they bring cutting edge expertise based on their research to the classroom. There are, of course, areas in which part-time faculty can do a better job than permanent faculty. For example, skills courses or courses focused on specialized topics related to practice (e.g. business planning) benefit from the day to day practical experience of adjuncts.

Accreditors give significant importance to the principle that law students should be taught primarily by full-time faculty, and accreditors will give law schools trouble if the principle is violated. Surprisingly, however, law schools sometimes overuse part-time faculty. This happens because, at some schools, permanent faculty do not want to teach first year or other basic courses. Student enrollments in those classes are high, so teaching those classes takes more time than teaching smaller seminars that may be more closely related to a faculty member’s research. It’s obviously hard for schools to force tenured professors to teach classes they don’t want to teach. Indeed, faculty who don’t want to teach a class may not do a good job.

For prospective students, a law school that does not put its full-time faculty in basic classes raises a question that needs to be answered. Do the school and its faculty really give sufficient priority to teaching students? Every school will of course answer yes, but sometimes actions speak louder than words.