The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

Why I Wouldn't Recommend Adjunct Teaching at Law Schools Now


Over the years, many successful lawyers have asked me how they might get an adjunct teaching job—a part-time job teaching one specialty class in a subject they know well, usually in a weekly 2-hour block. (Some examples of such classes, though not necessarily ones I've been asked about: Business Torts; Family Law Mediation; Entertainment Guilds; and of course many more.)

I used to tell them: "First, think of adjunct teaching as a very expensive hobby." A typical 2-unit class pays maybe $5000 to $10,000 or so. In exchange, the teacher likely has to spend, each week, about 2 hours teaching; let's say an average of about an hour or so in transit (remember when people would actually have to drive to and from the university?); and probably about 4 to 6 hours preparing for class (much more the first time, perhaps somewhat less later, though each year there could be new developments that would require further preparing), plus talking to students after class and outside class and the like. The teacher would also have to compose and then grade the exam, and in many classes grade student papers (in law school, professors do their own grading, rather than delegating to teaching assistants).

That probably amounts to about 7 to 10 hours per week over the 13-week semester, plus some time before and after, or $40-$100/hour. For most experienced private-practice lawyers—the very lawyers whom law schools most want as adjuncts, at least in non-criminal-law, non-public-interest cases—that means tens of thousands in foregone billings.

Of course, as with other expensive hobbies, some people still want to do it. They may view teaching as a welcome intellectual break from their day jobs (which, even if interesting, can get repetitive). They may be invigorated by being around smart, eager young students. They might also see such teaching as a valuable credential for getting clients, though I'm not sure how much of a factor that tends to be.

In any event, many top-notch lawyers have been willing to teach as adjuncts. That has generally been good for students, who get teachers with specialized knowledge and deep experience. It has been good for law schools, who get coverage of material that the standard tenure-track teachers might not know much about, and can offer their students a good mix of classes taught by the (usually) more theory-minded research faculty and the (usually) more practice-minded adjuncts. And presumably it has been good for the adjuncts themselves, in emotional benefits though not financial ones.

But these days, I wouldn't generally recommend adjunct teaching: Any sufficiently controversial statement, in class or out, can lead to a firestorm of accusations of bigotry, prompt denunciation and firing by the dean, and huge risk to your day-job career. Of course, precisely because the job pays so little, the firing by itself won't cost much (though it would doubtless leave a sour taste). But the news coverage, I think, can be professionally and economically devastating, especially since the coverage won't focus just on the accusations by the students, but the endorsement of those accusations by the law school administration.

This partly stems, of course, from the willingness of university administrators to give in to student demands, including demands for firing. But it also stems from all of this happening so publicly. We're not talking here about a quiet parting of the ways, a discreet conversation in which the Dean tells an adjunct, "we won't need you to teach the course next year." We're talking about public excoriation by students and public condemnation by administrators, often leading to prominent media stories, which will routinely come up whenever the adjunct's name is Googled.

Now full-time tenured faculty may have the same concern, and we indeed have even more to lose, at least by way of immediate salary. But we at least have some degree of security:

  • Our tenure contracts provide both procedural and substantive protections.
  • We are more likely to have friends among the tenured faculty, who often have a good deal of power at the law school.
  • Even tenured faculty members who aren't our friends can easily think, "There but for the grace of God go I," and thus come to our defense as a mean of defending their own institutional interests.

It's much less likely, I think, that powerful faculty members or the administration will treat adjunct faculty with equal concern.

Nor is it easy to stay safe just by avoiding controversy in class, or even by teaching a seemingly uncontroversial topic. As we saw in the Georgetown incident, you can get publicly fired for things you say outside class, if you don't realize you're being recorded (or if you don't realize you're being overheard). You can get publicly pushed out of the job even if you don't say the things, but someone you're talking to says them and you don't object.

You can get publicly fired for seemingly accurately discussing important subjects that naturally come up in your job, such as a disproportionate number of lower grades coming from black students. You can get publicly fired for that without regard for whether your statement may be accurate. You can get fired for it even if tenured faculty members have made similar observations in their scholarship.

You can likely get fired for condemning the government of China in a blog post, if you say "China" five times and then say "Chinese" to refer back to the Chinese government's actions (the theory being that you're bigoted against ethnic Chinese, even if context it's clear that you're referring to the government and not the ethnic group). To be precise, a University of San Diego tenured faculty member with nearly 30 years of teaching experience has been publicly condemned by his Dean for that, and is being formally investigated within the law school. It seems pretty likely that, had this been an adjunct, he would have been swiftly dismissed.

You could of course get fired for accurately quoting slurs in discussing a case from the readings. A tenured undergraduate faculty member has been fired for that, with the school faulting him not just for quoting "nigger" (from a leading precedent that had quoted the word 19 times)—I'm sure all adjuncts know now how unsafe that would be—but also "fag" from Snyder v. Phelps (the near-funeral picketing case, in which the Court overturned a tort verdict based on signs that, among other things, said "God Hates Fags").

Other tenured faculty members have likewise been condemned for saying "fag," though I expect that many practicing lawyers in fields where this comes up often (e.g., employment lawyers) would have thought they could quote the word in class (e.g., when quoting Pam Karlan's 2019 argument from the Bostock sexual orientation discrimination case). What if you're an adjunct teaching trademark law; can you safely say "The Slants," the subject of the leading Supreme Court case Matal v. Tam? I imagine most trademark lawyers would be surprised to think that they should expurgate it ("The Sla-word"?), but who knows?

And of course a tenured University of Illinois (Chicago) law school faculty member has already been publicly condemned by his administration for including "n_____" and "b____" in a fact pattern on an exam—not the actual words, but the expurgated versions. Again, I suspect that many lawyers coming from practice would have thought that of course the expurgated versions would be safe. Not any more, it seems.

Moreover, in many similar incidents the faculty members have reported that they had taught the class without objection in previous years. They thought it was safe; indeed, they hadn't even considered that it might not be. Indeed, they might have thought of themselves as progressive, and in sync with the politics of the campus. But we're in a different time now.

I very much doubt, for instance, that the USC business school lecturer (and fluent Mandarin speaker) who gave the Mandarin word "nei-ge" as an example of a filler word (the analog of "um" and "er") in a class on business communication expected controversy. But students publicly denounced him, and the Dean then promptly publicly condemned him and pulled him out of teaching the course in the middle of the semester. And the professor was the subject of national and international media coverage—not all negative, to be sure, given how badly the administration came off in this, but also not the sort of thing that's generally good for one's career. That lecturer, at least, likely made a decent salary in exchange for running this sort of risk (and might still keep his job, especially in light of the apparent faculty pushback). Not so for the adjuncts that I'm describing.

So, look, if you want to be an adjunct, and think you can avoid these risks—including the things that aren't even controversies yet but will become controversial next year or the year after—that's great. Law schools and law students will profit from your boldness. And maybe you think you

  1. have a safe enough underlying subject matter,
  2. can avoid anything controversial coming up in your stories from practice (e.g., stories that discuss gender or race dynamics in court or in negotiation), your off-the-cuff responses to student questions, or anything you say in a foreign language that might sound controversial in English,
  3. can stay away from any outside-class controversial statements about the class, whether talking to colleagues or others,
  4. can stay away from any controversial statements in Tweets, blog posts, or other publications, and
  5. won't find it oppressive to constantly be watching everything you say, again in class or out (something that can affect all adjuncts who are trying to avoid trouble, not just the few that do end up in trouble).

Or maybe you're confident that the administrators at the particular law school you'd teach at will stand behind their adjuncts even in the face of student demands and of Twitter mobs.

But if a friend of mine now asked me whether I'd recommend going into adjunct teaching, I'd say: For the sake of your legal career, your peace of mind, and perhaps your dignity and self-respect, stay away.