Breaking In to Immigration Clinical Teaching


In the past few weeks, several law schools have issued position announcements for teaching positions in immigration clinics.  Like many of my colleagues, I have been asked a number of times for advice on how to break in to clinical teaching as a full-time profession.  A great deal of advice exists on how to obtain a non-clinical, tenure-track position as a law professor.  Comparatively less advice exists on clinical teaching positions.  For instance, the Yale Law School guide, “Entering the Law Teaching Market,” contains some helpful advice for aspiring clinicians but clinical teaching is not its primary emphasis. Prawfsblawg also has regular posts and threads related to aspiring scholars; in fact, one can google “prawfsblawg law school hiring” to read much of the blogosphere advice.  Some of the advice for non-clinical positions applies equally to clinical teaching, although not all of it necessarily does.  Below are some of the main points that I often make when speaking with immigration lawyers who express interest in clinical teaching.

  1. Several Different Types of Clinical Teaching Positions Exist, and it Helps to Know Which One(s) You Want. A number of different types of clinical teaching positions at law schools exist today, with varying levels of job security, publication requirements, and additional faculty responsibilities.  They each have their pros and cons, and it’s helpful to know (roughly) which one might be a good fit for a person at the point in their career when they are considering a transition to clinical teaching. Roughly speaking, I’d divide them into the following five categories: (1) tenure-track or tenured faculty positions, (2) clinical tenure or long-term contract faculty positions, (3) adjunct faculty positions, (4) staff attorney positions, and (5) clinical teaching fellowships.  I provide rough explanations of each, with the caveat that every law school is different, such that some of the descriptions below may not apply universally.  Tenure-track positions for faculty typically exist at law schools that have made an institutional decision to create a “unified” tenure-track, in which professors whose primary teaching responsibilities are in a clinic are evaluated and promoted on a path towards tenure with expectations very similar to faculty who do not teach in clinics.  Almost always, tenure-track faculty members are expected to publish in law reviews, serve on faculty committees, and participate in all faculty votes.  Faculty with clinical tenure or long-term contracts, by contrast, may or may not be expected to publish.  Depending on the school and the terms of the position, faculty may be encouraged – but not required (and potentially, not supported) – in their scholarship endeavors.  Clinical tenure and long-term contract faculty may or may not be permitted to participate fully in certain faculty decisions, such as the hiring or promotion of their non-clinical colleagues.  Whether tenure-track, clinical tenure, or long-term contract faculty, the entire faculty of the law school must usually evaluate and vote on the appointment.  Adjunct clinical faculty (like adjunct faculty at any law school) generally have their own practices, but agree to supervise a limited number of students each term within their specialty area.  Staff attorney positions are typically non-faculty positions in which publication is not expected.  Staff attorneys’ primary responsibilities are usually to manage, support and grow the clinic’s docket and advocacy work.  Staff attorney positions often come with student supervision and teaching responsibilities.  Unlike most clinical teaching fellowships, staff attorney positions are typically not designed with an end goal of preparing the attorney for entry into the clinical teaching field.  Many staff attorney positions are permanent (as opposed to time-limited) positions.   Some staff attorney positions (and some clinics) are supported primarily or partly by “soft money,” such as grants and external funders, such that the job security may depend on the availability of outside funding for the clinic or position.  Finally, a number of law schools offer clinical teaching fellowships, which are typically term-limited, full-time positions designed to provide mentoring to the fellow to eventually obtain a clinical teaching position while the fellow provides case coverage and teaching support to the clinic.   At many law schools, adjunct faculty, staff attorneys and clinical teaching fellows do not require full faculty approval. 

    Some questions for one to consider, in light of these differing positions:  To what extent do you enjoy or have the aptitude for research and publishing?  To what extent is your resume consistent with your potential to publish?  What are your primary motivations for going into teaching? To what extent do internal hierarchies within your workplace matter to you?  What stage are you at in your career as a lawyer?  How geographically flexible are you? (Actually, this last point matters enough to warrant #2.). 

  1. Geography Matters. Quite a Bit.  The clinical teaching job market, like the overall job market for academic jobs, is pretty tight.  The drop in law school applications over the past several years has caused quite a few law schools to restrict their faculty hiring, and so being geographically flexible makes a big difference.  For folks who are willing to move anywhere (or most places) for their dream teaching job, participating in the American Association of Law Schools’ Faculty Recruitment Conference may make sense, as a number of law schools have hired for tenure-track and clinical/long-term faculty positions through the conference (also referred to as the “meat market”). But for attorneys who realistically cannot move, then cultivating relationships with the law schools in one’s area may provide a better route to developing some pathway to clinical teaching. If pursuing opportunities within a particular geographic area, personal relationships with existing faculty help, as they might lead to adjunct teaching opportunities or other collaborations with a law school.
  1. Publishing Helps, But May Not Be Critical. PhDs, LLMs are Probably Less Valuable for Clinical Teaching. As discussed in #1 above, whether one publishes really depends in large part on the nature of the position and the law school’s expectations of the clinician.  For tenure-track positions, demonstrating one’s potential for scholarship is generally required for the position.  For other positions, one’s track record as an excellent attorney, an innovative advocate, a leader in the profession, and an effective teacher may be the main criteria for the job.  That being said, I think writing helps, even if in less traditional forums such as practice guides or blogs.  Writing in an area that grows out of one’s practice experience or advocacy work is often a great place to start.  My sense is that obtaining an advanced degree such as a PhD or LLM is not particularly helpful for clinical teaching, since those degrees do not tend enhance one’s ability to teach practical skills (meaning, I wouldn’t recommend obtaining any of those degrees in order to prepare oneself for a clinical teaching position; better to spend the time writing, litigating a cutting-edge case, developing innovative lawyering, seeking out opportunities to work with law students, etc).   
  1. Clinical Teaching Fellowships? A Mixed Bag.  Many of immigration law professors directing clinics at law schools across the country have completed clinical teaching fellowships.  (I did mine at Stanford).  They can offer excellent experience for aspiring clinicians to gain teaching (and lawyering) experience, develop mentors and relationships within the legal academy, and start on their scholarly agendas prior to entering the law teaching market.  But clinical teaching fellowships cannot guarantee a full-time faculty position in this job market, especially if the fellow isn’t geographically flexible.  The pay tends to be low, and thus difficult for candidates without other sources of financial support.  Whether one pursues a clinical teaching fellowship may thus depend on the other factors outlined here.
  1. Don’t Discount the Serendipity Factor. As with much of life, one just never knows how things will unfold.  My sense is that timing and luck matter a lot in determining who gets which clinical teaching jobs.  Maybe a local law school happens to decide in a particular year to expand its clinic or receives funding to expand in the immigration area.  Maybe a full-time clinical faculty person retires.  When I initially interviewed at my own law school (through the AALS “meat market”), they were looking for an entirely distinct faculty role, but as our discussions progressed, a retirement was announced and I somehow had the opportunity to start an immigration clinic in Southern California.  

A final note:  Clinical teaching is an incredible profession.  The immigration law professor community – and the clinicians amongst us in particular – tends to be very supportive.  The distinctions between non-clinical and clinical teachers in the immigration field are generally relatively weak.  Quite a few immigration clinicians are prolific scholars, and on that same vein, a lot of non-clinical immigration law professors are deeply invested in their communities, in the legal practice, and in shaping the development of the immigration laws.  It’s a blessing and privilege to be doing what I do.  (Feel free to send me questions and I’ll plan to develop another post around them in the future.)  

This post originally appeared on Law Professor Blogs © 2014-2016 by Law Professor Blogs, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

About The Author

Jennifer Lee Koh. Jennifer Lee Koh Professor of Law, is an expert on immigration law and clinical teaching, and has devoted much of her career to promoting and protecting the rights of immigrants across the country. Professor Koh joined Western State in 2010 from Stanford Law School, where she was a Clinical Lecturer and Cooley Godward Kronish Fellow. At Stanford, she supervised students enrolled in the Immigrants' Rights Clinic on cases ranging from the representation of individual noncitizens in immigration matters to policy work, community-based advocacy and litigation on behalf of immigrants. Professor Koh teaches immigration law, administrative law, and directs the immigration law clinic. The Immigration Clinic offers second- and third-year law students the opportunity to develop lawyering skills by working firsthand on real-life cases and advocacy involving immigration issues.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.