With a new faculty hiring season approaching (presumably . . . hopefully), I want to discuss the value of significant practice experience for tenure track ("TT") law professors.
My thoughts on this topic are ultimately self-serving and informed by my own experience as I practiced for 11.5 years before becoming a full-time professor. I was unpleasantly surprised by the prevailing wisdom regarding practice experience when I went to the meat market in 2010. Back then the conventional wisdom seemed to be as follows: Ideal: zero to 3 years of practice; Acceptable: 3-5 years of practice; Potentially Disqualiying: more than 5 years of practice up to 10 years of practice; Disqualifying: more than 10 years of practice. [Of course, the conventional wisdom does not hold at all schools and for all candidates -- I got a job; Jeff Lipshaw practiced for 25 years; many others in the academy have significant practice experience. However, if you read through the comments on the linked post above, profs from the T14 to the fourth tier made similar comments and acknowledged the prevailing view.]
The primary justifications I have heard for disfavoring those with significant practice experience are (1) that there are often questions regarding the motives for leaving practice (i.e., couldn't cut it, looking to "retire and teach" [HA!], etc.); (2) that "practice rots the brain" (HA! again); (3) that practitioners will not be able to produce "valuable" scholarship (which reflects the perceived bias against doctrinal scholarship in the academy); and (4) that a practitioner will just tell a bunch of war stories in the classroom and not actually teach. I think each of these justifications reflects a broad, unfair, and inaccurate stereotype of experienced practitioners.
This issue has taken on added relevance over the last year or more given the changes taking place in legal education and in the larger legal economy. (See, for example, this post from PrawfsBlawg, and this one and this one from Conglomerate, this one and this one from ProfessorBainbridge, and, of course, a vast number of message board comments [including some on the foregoing posts]). There is a greater focus on the need for experiential education for all law students (due to ABA mandates and otherwise) and on the aspiration that law schools produce something close to "practice ready" lawyers.
While the hiring of 17 or so new profs who were 10-20 years out of school shows some positive movement, there can be little dispute that over the last decade (or more?), the dominant trend has been to hire primarily folks with minimal practice experience (a year or 2 post-clerkship in a BigLaw firm) for tenure track positions, often with a preference for those with PhDs in other disciplines.
There is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with hiring folks who fit the paradigm above. Hundreds of law professors with minimal practice experience and/or PhDs are wonderful teachers, scholars, and colleagues who have provided significant value to their schools and their students. Such folks should unquestionably continue to be a large part of the legal academy. But should most law school faculties be made up primarily of such folks? Given the current environment, my answer is no.
Ultimately, I see this as an issue of faculty diversity. Few would dispute that there should be a mix of races and genders on any law faculty, because of the variety of life experiences and perspectives that will exist in any heterogenous group. [I am also a believer in diversity of political, philosophical and other viewpoints as well.]
Likewise, there should be diversity of legal backgrounds -- Ph.Ds, "traditional" academics, and experienced practitioners -- in the tenured/TT ranks of EVERY law faculty (with the possible exception of Harvard, Yale, Stanford, etc.).
Each will bring a different point of view to the classroom, the faculty lounge, and the faculty workshop. They may produce different types of scholarship with (potentially) different audiences. They may collaborate in new and exciting ways. Provided there is mutual respect among those of different backgrounds, each can inform the teaching and scholarship of the other. Further, a diversity of backgrounds allows a diversity of perspectives for counseling and advising and supporting students. All of this seems highly desirable to me, especially in the current environment.
Bottom line, diversity on any given law faculty should encompass not just race, sex, national origin, etc., but should also embrace differences in experience in the law. There is certainly room for this type of diversity in the legal academy (and without creating second class citizens among the legal professoriate).
[Just FYI, I will moderate the comments so keep them on point.]