From Lawyer to Law Prof

Why some lawyers opt for the classroom over the courtroom

From Lawyer to Law Prof

It has long been true that, after a few years in practice, a good portion of law graduates choose to do something else instead. Almost everyone who gets a law degree is glad they did. How they feel about law school itself is another story.

Some students find the process so unpleasant — competitive, cliquey, judgmental — they block it out of their memory and never look back. Some thrive in law school, finding it challenging and stimulating in unique and inspiring ways. A subset of these people make their way back to law school to make a career of it.

I asked some of my colleagues why they chose to return and what appeals to them most about being a law prof.

Craig Jones, QC, Professor of Law at Thompson Rivers University (“TRU”), says: “As a lawyer I’d always been a bit of a law geek and I liked to research and write, so that part of it seemed natural. The real addiction, once you try it, is the teaching. You’re surrounded by these really smart young people, and being there when the lights of legal thinking start to go off like flashbulbs, is completely invigorating. So I feel like my love for the law, and my fascination with its intricacies, gets renewed with every new group of first year students.”

Nicole O’Byrne, who teaches in the Faculty of Law at the University of New Brunswick, explains: “In law school I consistently gravitated toward constitutional law and jurisprudence, and I wrote history essays thinly disguised as law papers at every opportunity. After winning the Constitutional Law prize in second year, I took a job at a law firm to pay some bills. To my surprise, I loved every minute of it! The lawyers I worked for assigned me challenging work, and the managing partner convinced me that lawyers on the ‘front line’ are often confronting problems only dreamed of by academics. After graduation, I went back to the firm convinced that my academic proclivities (and tendency to get lost in the library stacks) could be satisfied in practice. However, one day it dawned on me that there was no time code on the billing sheet for ‘thinking’. From that moment, I knew that I needed to follow a path where I could explore ideas without the worry of the next file, the next client or putting out the next fire.”

Andrew Pillar, an assistant professor and colleague of mine at TRU, says: “I enjoyed practice more than I expected. So I didn’t run away from practice to academia. Rather, I was drawn to research because I wanted to spend my time trying to understand and figure out responses to the access to justice problems that I saw while in practice. I just didn’t feel I had the time or the skills to really address systemic problems while I was in practice.”

Blair Major, also a law prof at TRU, sees a similar appeal: “When reading and thinking about the law, I am not constrained by the concerns of my clients or by the demands of billable hours. I do not have to move quickly from one legal idea to the other, but I get to sit with things, thinking about them, trying to really understand them and make sense of them from
different angles.”

Yet, teaching does entail trade-offs. As Andrew Pillar notes, “I miss practice for the opportunity to deal directly with clients. The sense of being able to do something tangibly useful for someone was a source of real satisfaction in practice.”

No job is perfect, but for some of us, being back at law school is a good place to be.