Whither the (U.S.) International Law Academic?

by Duncan Hollis

The state of the international law academy in the United States is undoubtedly strong.  International law and its progeny are no longer marginalized pieces of the law school curriculum as they were for much of the 20th century.  U.S. Law Schools regularly offer international law, with a fair number now doing so in the first year (whether as a required course or an elective).  Nor is the subject limited to a one-off class; schools often try to cover the more fragmented landscape with multiple offerings, from human rights to trade, from arbitration to international environmental law.  Given this proliferation of courses, it’s not surprising to see a similar growth in the number and prominence of international law academics (there is, though, a chicken and egg question here as to which came first).  Today, many schools have moved beyond the requisite “one” international law professor to incorporate faculty with a broad range of international and comparative research interests and experiences.  By way of example, here, at Temple, depending on how you count, we have 11-13 international law faculty.

All that may come as cold comfort, however, to those looking to become international law professors at a U.S. law school in the coming years.  It’s no secret that the U.S. legal education market is in a rather dramatic contraction right now.  As applications tumble, schools are cutting the size of their entering classes, and in some cases their existing faculty.  Last week, a great post by Sarah Lawsky (UC-Irvine) provided a wealth of comparative data on the impacts the market shifts are having on tenure-track hiring for U.S. law schools.  The picture is not a terribly pretty one – from a high of 167 junior faculty hired in 2008 to 73 this year.  I don’t know exactly how many of these 73 hires were in international law, but I’d guess not many.  As schools re-trench, many will focus on hiring in domestic areas because that’s where the perceived jobs are for students (the supply for potential international lawyers having long outstripped the demand, at least for those with a U.S. J.D.).  I’d welcome data that upsets my expectations, but, for now, I’m betting that international law teaching jobs (which were always pretty competitive) are now going to be very hard to get.

This situation leads me to ask three questions.  For starters, is there anything aspiring international law academics can do to actually increase their chances of landing a job in the field? For example, I was asked by a PhD candidate at King’s College London a few weeks ago whether having a PhD in international law would be valued by U.S. law schools given how some law schools have been actively seeking to hire law professors who have PhDs.  My answer, I’m afraid, was not terribly encouraging.  A PhD without a J.D. will raise hackles on many faculties who want law professors to be lawyers.  And where a candidate has both a PhD and a J.D., the pedigree of both degrees will matter more than the presence of the degrees themselves.  Moreover, I’d hazard to guess that other factors may be more important to hiring committees, namely prior work experience in international law (which I think still matters), publications with an emphasis on the “s”, and having had a prior fellowship.  Indeed, according to Lawsky, 84% of the 2014 hires came from a fellowship program (in contrast, 19 candidates had PhDs and none of these were in international law).  And, of course, networking and ‘who knows you’ may actually be the most important aspects of a candidacy in a market that’s become so small.

Given the harsh hiring reality, my second question is what does the future hold for international law teaching, at least in the United States?  Will prospective candidates simply keep their day jobs and avoid testing the market altogether? Will folks take a “wait and see” attitude, hoping for a rebound in interest and hiring in 3-5 years?  Or, will candidates go abroad to try and teach? My sense is that the market in Europe for international law teaching has not suffered the same downturn currently plaguing the United States, and thus there may be more opportunities there. Similarly, I know from a number of post-docs who I’ve worked with that China, Singapore and other areas in the Far East are paying more (not less) attention to international law as well. I’d be interested to hear from more knowledgeable readers what the state of the European and Asian markets are for international law academics (and whether there are other teaching markets potential candidates should consider).

Third, and finally, I wonder if it’s a good or bad thing to have fewer new international law professors entering the profession?  I’m inclined to look at it negatively on the assumption that international law work will continue to rise, not just as a stand-alone profession for lawyers, but as a component of the work all lawyers do in an increasingly globalized world.  As such, there should be sufficient faculty to introduce students to this area and the legal work it involves. Others, however, I suspect might suggest the pendulum has swung too far and that U.S. law schools are devoting too much time and energy to international law in both curricular and hiring contexts, saying that the on-going re-adjustment is therefore a good outcome.  Still others might argue that the issue is idiosyncratic; as law schools start to move away from uniform aspirations, a case could be made that certain law schools should become more focused on international law by virtue of their history, geography, or market placement at the same time as other law schools’ circumstances make the case for devoting less attention to international law. 

What do readers think?  Is there any hope for someone trying to get a U.S. law teaching job in international law in 2014-15?  Are there alternative places candidates should look if, in fact, U.S. law schools are hanging out ‘no vacancy’ signs in international law?  And, how worried should we be about this situation, whether in the short, medium, or long-term?

[UPDATE:  With a hat tip to Peter Spiro, it seems Sarah Lawsky did track hiring candidates by subject matter, so we can actually see how many of this year's lucky hires expressed an interest in international law.  By my count it looks like there are 2 candidates who identified international law as their primary area of interest and one who did so for international trade.  Three other candidates identified international as a third or fourth area of interest.]

http://opiniojuris.org/2014/05/12/whither-international-law-academic/

4 Responses

  1. Interesting

  2. As a matter of curiosity, how are practising law degrees other than the JD (such as and LLB) being viewed? 

  3. Duncan: one practice keeps appearing — hiring teachers on a non-tenure-track basis.  If this increases, watch out for threats to tenure.

  4. This is a very useful and interesting post, Duncan. Yes, getting a job teaching international law in the US has been a fickle monster for a long time, and I’m sure it’s true (as borne out by the numbers you cite) that it’s even more difficult now. In fact, I interviewed with Temple around 2005 (you may not remember that – you were there in the interview at the meat market hotel!) I didn’t get a job that year or in the next year of the AALS process.

    I got my big break by teaching overseas. For me it was getting a faculty position at the University of Warwick in the UK. I got this job through applying for openings at jobs.ac.uk, which appears (I just checked it) to still list most all academic job openings in the UK. My impression is that hiring for academic jobs in the UK is tight right now. I’m not sure if it’s tighter there than here in the US. But I had a wonderful experience teaching international law in the UK. The PIL academic community in the UK is still what I consider to be my collegial home.

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