Ten Reasons Why You Should Teach Here — And Three Why You Shouldn’t

Hiring season is approaching — indeed, today is the day that hiring committees get to see the first round of AALS faculty appointments register forms — and the law blogs are full of unusually good advice for lawyers wanting to enter the teaching profession. In recent years I've felt constrained about what I could say publicly about the hiring process because I was a part of a hiring committee. But this year, as far as hiring is concerned, I am just a regular faculty member, so I can speak more freely.

Rather than repeat the general advice you can find elsewhere, I thought I would instead say a few things about a subject I know particularly well: teaching here at the University of Miami School of Law. Although our overall US News rank is very middle-of-the-pack, due mainly to our large size, our faculty has a relatively high reputation rate both in US News and other comparable surveys. But none of these (flawed) indexes really reflect much about what a faculty member's life is like, and thus they are even less useful to an aspiring faculty member than they are to would-be law students.

So, aspiring law professors and future colleagues, I've compiled ten reasons why you should teach here — and three why you shouldn't.

1. Faculty

The best reason to come to U.M. is the faculty. At its best (which is to say, “outside of faculty meetings”), this is a faculty that believes ideas are serious things, but also is willing to play with them. You will see this most vividly at faculty seminars, especially those with external speakers. The faculty reads the paper in advance of the talk. It thinks about it. We don't let the presenter speak a long time — we want to have a discussion. There may be an element of performance in the questions and comments, but that usually just adds to the fun. Unlike some faculties I've heard about, we are not worshipers at the temple of sub-disciplinarity: faculty members feel comfortable commenting on papers far outside their own specialities, and they are usually right to do so as the distant perspective sometimes proves at least as valuable as the insider's.

While faculty vary in the extent to which they will seek you out – some are shy; others are busy – they will almost all be happy to see you if you seek them out. Very few will treat you like a junior colleague; for most, you will be part of the family from the start. And it’s an interesting family, including some big names in international law, tax, law and society, law and identity, and several other subjects.

2. Institutional style & institutional support

UM wants productive faculty, and it believes in research. But it isn't about telling you what to do. My own story may be instructive: I was hired thinking that I would be writing mostly about administrative and constitutional law. In fact, however, within a couple of years I had turned into an Internet lawyer, and was writing primarily about computers, networks and the law. At no time did anyone here ever suggest that this was a problem. What mattered to people was that I was publishing.

Another way in which UM may differ from some law schools is that our faculty is routinely interdisciplinary and international. Many publish in non-legal journals — a fact which does not necessarily help either our publication or citation counts since the legal tabulators tend to focus only on law journals. Although we recognize that there may be some reputational costs, we are not prepared to tell people where they should publish. We just want it to be good.

There is no international ghetto at UM (the same is true of tax, a traditional faculty strength). As a matter of unwritten policy, everyone is expected to teach a basic course outside their specialty; the result is both that we can have more internationalists (and tax scholars), and that there's a much greater community of overlapping interests.

3. Library

The University of Miami enjoys a superb law library, the result of a decision more than two decades ago to make library acquisitions a financial priority. And if we don't have it, the library will borrow it for you, no questions asked. (As one former librarian put it, “we aim to provide law-firm-quality service”. And in fact, it is almost as good as a top law firm, and the librarians are much nicer.)

The law library has extensive holdings in related disciplines, notably political science, and of course the university library is literally next door, and it also has ever-growing electronic access to journals — which can even be accessed from your home office. We have a particularly strong collection in Latin American and Caribbean law, but also strong holdings in European law. We are weak in India, China, and Russia, and no doubt several other countries with non-Romance alphabets, so if your research involves heavy use of materials from one of those countries, you should check to see if we have you covered. I also have a sense that our holdings for pre-1940 materials are not as strong generally as for things published in the last 70 years. But I am continually having pleasant surprises when I consult Baron, the online card catalog. They've done some impressive buying over the years — which is a good thing as the next major law library is a long way away.

4. Students

We have smart students with upwardly mobile ambitions. Some come from wealthy families, but for many a law degree will be the highest level of education ever achieved in their families — a matter of pride for an extended clan you may have the good fortune to meet at graduation. Despite the lures of nearby South Beach, UM students are by and large a studious lot: their awareness that few silver platters await at graduation usually translates into a commendable work ethic. At least until the end-of-term fog settles in, I find that my students have done the reading, and often have something to say about it. There is a little shyness — some students don't want to ask questions for fear of looking silly; other students worry about being labeled a “gunner” — but ordinarily class discussion can be pretty lively. Although we have more men than women as students, it is often the case that the women lead the discussions and make the most substantive contributions. Classes tend to be fun (at least for the instructor). Visiting professors from other law schools consistently remark on the high quality of classroom performance here.

The UM student body has improved greatly in the past decade. Our best students would be at home in any law school. Our worst students would have been near the middle of the class 15 years ago. The only fly in the ointment is that despite their good college grades and creditable LSATs, a substantial fraction of the class comes to law school unable to write as well as they think or speak. Overcoming this obstacle remains one of our biggest challenges. That said, every year we have students who write publishable papers in classes and seminars. It's been a particular pleasure to see those pieces go into print along side those of full-time academics.

Some of our students will go on to be national leaders; a much larger number will play key roles in the State of Florida, as judges, politicians, and leading members of the bar. Some people have described alumni reunions as state judges’ conventions, but this is slightly unfair. On the other hand, there’s no question that both Florida as a place, and UM graduates as important players in that place, have been at the center of major wrangles with national impact ranging from the 2000 election to the Terri Schiavo affair.

Aspiring faculty sometimes worry that they will not find good research assistants outside a top ten law school. It's true that I don't hear stories about students writing papers that professors then publish under their own name as I did when I was a law student at Yale. But if you are looking for a research assistant rather than a ghost writer then my experience suggests this is not a serious problem if you teach a first-year class. As a teacher in the larger first year classes you can identify the students who are good and who fit your style before they get too caught up in other things. Some of them will get on law review, and will be too busy to work for you; some of those that don’t will work downtown for higher pay than the law school can offer, but usually there's someone you will be happy to have who will be happy to have the job in their second or third year. I can’t claim that every research assistant I’ve had has been stellar, but I can say that some of them were amazing — and that they are harder to find when I don't teach first years.

5. Research support

Research support exists to make it easier for you to write. The most important part of UM's research support is its excellent law library. But it doesn't stop there: In addition to the collection itself, we have a staff of helpful law librarians who seem happiest when given difficult research requests. There's a document delivery service which will get you any book or article you ask for and deliver it to your office within a day if it's on campus or a few days if it must be sent from far away. (One down side: you can gain weight from the loss of movement caused by having everything come to you.)

At conferences I sometimes hear stories about places where senior colleagues try to tell tenure-track faculty what to write about (or, worse, forbid certain topics or styles). We don't do that. If anything, we have erred in the other direction — tip-toeing around junior faculty sensibilities so much that we may have provided insufficient mentoring, In an effort to do better in that department, the faculty now enjoys the services of a “director of faculty development” — yours truly as of a few weeks ago — whose job will be to help colleagues (and especially pre-tenure colleagues) with their research and writing by identifying resources, serving as a sounding board, or just staying out of the way.

In addition, every faculty member has an office budget which allows you to hire a research assistant, books and supplies, and to travel to conferences. Each of these budgets is fairly generous, and the Associate Dean has discretionary funds to add to them up for good cause. In my experience, any cause I can bring myself to ask about has been treated as a good one.

6. The University

A generation ago it was “Suntan U”. Today, under the (very) energetic leadership of Donna Shalala and an impressive suite of Deans, the University of Miami is joining the ranks of the leading research universities in the USA. For openers, President Shalala raised $1 billion for the University. YES, $1 BILLION. Now that it's in the bank, she's warming up for a new round of fund-raising. The lion's share of the first round went to the medical school, but the rumor is that the law school might be able to claim a bigger share of the next round.

More importantly, the past couple of decades have seen a transformation in the quality of both the students and the faculty in the arts and sciences. It's become hard for students to get in; and departments such as History, Psychology, Business, and Sociology have attracted faculties that include a wealth of potential collaborators, adding to existing strengths in Medicine and Communications. Both the law school and the University encourage inter-disciplinary collaboration. The law school has begun to take advantage of these resources (I, for example, am working with a team on health privacy issues that includes participants from both the Business School and the Med School), but there's much waiting for you that remains untapped.

7. Perks

The law school wants to support your research, and we try to put our money where our mouth is. Entry-level faculty can apply for a summer research grant before starting work in order to prepare their courses. We light-load you (usually only one course per semester) during your first year to give you time to find your feet. You'll get a summer grant as of right every summer until tenure to encourage you to write — after that you'll have to submit proposals and make good on them too. And you're entitled to a semester's leave before tenure, more or less in the term of your choice, in order to help you write.

The law school is located on a very beautiful campus in the center of suburban Coral Gables, itself a very pleasant city with excellent restaurants. Rumor has it that in the old days the university administration spent more on landscaping than books; whatever the truth, there's no question that the campus is very nice to look at. It also sports a state-of-the-art gym that's about three minutes walk from the law school around our picturesque lake (crocodile optional). The campus sports other useful amenities, including a faculty club, a food court, and an on-campus daycare.

8. Miami

Miami is a cosmopolitan city. Part of its identity is as the defacto capitol of Latin America; part is as an artistic and musical center; and then there's the celebrity-and-tourist thing. It's an attractive place for young and old, and — if you take care to live in the right school districts, or have kids who qualify for the right magnet schools, or are ok with private schools — a pretty easy place for the middle-aged pater and mater familias. Like many sunbelt cities, Miami is more sprawling mosaic than urban core and periphery. Both urban and suburban living are within easy reach of the campus. Our politics are fascinating and complex, with much political power held by first and second generation immigrants from Cuba, and to a lesser degree Haiti, and Central America. The region now enjoys a lively cultural life, with a rich music and dance scene and some creditable small theater companies. If you prefer nature to culture, there's always the nearby Everglades as well as world-class coral reefs for diving just south of Miami.

If your work involves domestic issues, you will find them in Miami, which is the city of the future in ways both good and bad. Along with our glitz you will find us on the cutting edge of today's and tomorrow's political and social issues: immigration, environmental (think “Everglades restoration”), medical (think “retirees”), and all the social questions that big cities produce.

Housing costs tend to be high, but many other living costs are low and there is no state income tax. The University has, however, taken bold steps to address the housing issue by offering new hires a deal in which the university will subsidize part of your home purchase in exchange for a proportionate share in the equity when you sell, an offer that puts many nice homes within reach.

9. Weather

Miami's weather is glorious for almost half the year; variable for another chunk, and miserable in the dog days of summer and early Fall. The good news is that much (but not all) of the miserable part comes when the law school is not in session, so you can escape if you choose. When the weather is nice, our central courtyard, the “bricks,” becomes the social center of the community, a place where students and faculty mingle between classes. Even office rats like me end up looking healthier than the wan, pale, parka-clad figures I see huddling on the Boston subway. For those with outdoor ambitions, you can live on Miami Beach, or just enjoy the sea view from a balcony in a tower apartment in downtown Brickel.

10. The revolution is coming

The next five years will see a radical transformation in the faculty, and perhaps the style, of University of Miami School of Law. We have at least six open jobs at present, with the likelihood of much more turnover as faculty retire (couples welcome!). The next three to five years' appointments, including that of our next Dean, stand a good chance of determining the future course of the school for a generation to come.

At present we have only ten full-time faculty under 50, and only fourteen between 50 and 60; the remaining 17 are over sixty, including some very much over sixty. Our hiring is resolutely in compliance with the age discrimination in employment act (of our last six entry-level hires, two were very experienced lawyers well over 40), but given the overall composition of the entry-level market, it is likely that this age profile will change dramatically in the next few years.

What this means for our new hires is that they will find themselves at the heart of their new community — and have a chance to lead it — much earlier in their careers than they might otherwise. The coming turnover in the faculty, coupled with this year's Dean search introduces an element of uncertainty about what we'll be like in the future that may not be to everyone's taste. Fortunately, the faculty is engaged in a strategic planning exercise this year which means that any new hires will be spared that chore at least. At present, the law school enjoys a nearly unique chance to reinvent itself, and people with ideas and energy should find all the breathing room and opportunity they want. I hope that people reading this will come join us in building something wonderful.

***

All that is very well, but honesty compels me to say that there are also some reasons why not everyone may be happy here. Indeed, there are three main reasons why you should not teach here:

1. Weather

If skiing is your passion, and neither waterskiing nor snorkeling are substitutes, then Miami may make you sad. It's hot and very humid here from July until the heat breaks sometime in October or September. That means you can have up to three and half months when it's not much fun to go outside. Plus, occasionally we get weather with a name. But we don't get snowstorms, avalanches, earthquakes, random tornadoes, floods, or mudslides. If you want immunity to natural disasters, move to Rhode Island.

2. Language

Many people in South Florida speak Spanish as their first (and often only) language. The campus is Anglo — although some of the bilingual staff and students will speak Spanish to each other — so this is not a work issue. But it is a life issue: you will hear lots of Spanish in the stores and on AM radio. If you are the sort of person who can't cope with foreign languages around you, there's a strong chance you will not be happy here. I don't speak Spanish, and I only found it a noticeable handicap for my first few weeks here, when I would get lost driving around and stop at a store for directions, then wait impatiently while they went to find the English-speaker. It's a non-issue today unless I happen to go bargain shopping for some exotic household good, and indeed contributes to Miami's cosmopolitan vibe.

3. Geography

It's flat here — no mountains (and houses have no basements). More seriously, it's also far from many of the legal nerve centers. If you're doing national work and you are having meetings related to it, odds are the meeting will neither be in Miami nor even within driving distance. That means air travel. And while we have great direct air connections to most of the world and the law school is generous with travel support, we do not have a working time machine. Given the post-9/11 security regime at airports, and the increasing vagaries of air travel generally, it is rarely possible to have a meeting in New York or Washington without spending the night out of town. That can mean having to reschedule a class (something we allow for good causes), which is a pain for you and even more of one for your students. It certainly means that doing national committee work is always a substantial time commitment. It is almost 500 miles to the state line, and then where are you? Somewhere between Tallahassee and Moultrie, Ga.

***

As I said at the outset of this essay, this year I am not on either our entry-level or lateral hiring committees. But if you find the positives outweigh the negatives and have an interest in coming here, I'd still be happy to try to answer any further questions you might have, either in comments to this entry or by private email.

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10 Responses to Ten Reasons Why You Should Teach Here — And Three Why You Shouldn’t

  1. Andy Diaz says:

    Or you could go teach at FIU, where the law school is just as good if not better, and students pay one third of the price in tuition. How’s that for a smart student body?

  2. michael says:

    I’ve met several of the FIU faculty and I think they’ve put together an impressive team. But I don’t think it is fair to say that “the students are just as good” since (at least on the hard data) they are not, and I think the faculty there have a harder time than we do. I’d also have a look at this when trying to decide what weight to put on FIU’s statistics. And I’d compare the breadth of curricular offerings, too: how much freedom will you have to teach what you want?

    Being public, FIU is much less expensive, which is a real plus for their loyal students. Whether that’s a plus for faculty, I don’t know. Usually state schools are somewhat more bureaucratic — more forms, less flexibility, than private schools — in how they deal with faculty. Whether FIU has escaped this, I simply don’t know.

    My sense is that at present we face more competition from FIU in the market for students (at least from the local area, where I am sure it must be having an effect or if not will soon have an effect) than we do in the market for professors (where I’ve yet to see anyone take them over us).

  3. Andy says:

    There are some indicators which show the students at FIU being far more competitive. Like bar passage rates, but that’s just one indicator. The point I was making, however, was in regard to paying over $30,000 for a mediocre law school. Within that point, I don’t really have to argue that FIU is a lot better or a lot worse a law school than UM, it’s definitely a far better deal.

    I can’t really speak from the faculty side of the equation. Though FIU has some marquee professors which have to be a draw to some degree. But I’m willing to say that once UM loses the student market, and there’s very little doubt that it will–in 2006, for example, 22 students were accepted both by UM and FIU, 11 went to FIU and 11 to UM–the professor market will follow.

  4. Tim Harris says:

    I’ve been using http://www.generationalprofiles.com to see of whom I identify with…perhaps that could be of help when you find yourself teaching late Gen X and early Gen Yers.

  5. anon says:

    no one from outside of florida, or maybe even only south florida, would go to FIU. UM actually has some form of a national platform; FIU does not. People should know that FIU is a cheap law school that is great if you want to do local work – only.

  6. michael says:

    Re the most recent Andy Diaz comment:

    Bar pass rate statistics are meaningless when a very small fraction of the class takes the exam; FIU has scored best only when the number sitting was very low. Not that small differences one way or the other tell you much anyway: My thoughts about the bar statistics are at Bar Pass Rates are Over-Rated As A Measure of Law School Quality and ABA Proposes Bar Pass Rate Standard. Note that the first link has actual data for the most recent July sitting for which data are available (July, which involves more people, is usually more representative of a school’s overall performance than February).

    As for student recruiting, I suspect UM would be in trouble if it drew the majority of its students from the local market, for in the long run I agree that as FIU improves and solidifies its local reputation, it will have a powerful draw locally given the tuition difference. But, in fact, UM has a national draw for its students: we enroll under 400 JD students per year; losing even 22 to FIU, while regrettable, just isn’t going to be the end of the world. If it is true that FIU faces relegation to the US News 4th tier, even that day may be postponed a while although it will surely come eventually.

    All this, however, if off topic. One point of my post is that I don’t pretend to have inside knowledge of what it is like to teach elsewhere; I can, however, talk about what it is like to teach here. Much as I’m sure it speaks well for FIU that its students want to defend it aggressively even when it is not being attacked, it is sort of besides the point, which is what UM is like, not what other places are like.

    I do take some exception to your use of the word “mediocre” however. The intellectual atmosphere at UM — something very important to the faculty — is unusually lively, and indeed has a national reputation for intellectual engagement. UM doesn’t need to trash FIU to make itself feel good. Indeed, I’d say that from the professorial point of view, UM is better off for having FIU down the street. The more local scholarly interchange, the more hosts for local conferences, the more academic buzz in town, the better for everyone.

  7. Andy says:

    Michael,

    I’m not attacking UM, but I do think it’s telling that when compared to a law school that is barely five years old, and was only permanently accredited several months ago, UM has very little to point to in terms of differences.

    Maybe we have different understandings of the word mediocre. My point however is that I couldn’t excuse paying $30,000+ for a school that is not even in the top 10 of the second tier. I suppose you can point to a whole slew of intangibles outside the US News paradigm, but the same can be done on the FIU side. And I’m sure prospective students are so bombarded by those they eventually stop paying attention.

    I think you’re ignoring the value of the tipping point with local students. That will be the beginning of a snowball effect. And I haven’t heard any argument countering why it wouldn’t happen.

  8. Peter says:

    The FIU comparisons are not relevant to Michael’s central point: the quality of academic life at UM. For four decades I have been a regular visitor (in the non-professorial sense) at the law school, in the last couple of years for extended periods. I find Michael’s description fair and accurate. It is a stimulating, frequently exciting , place to be part of.

    There is an unusual familial warmth to the place, encompassing students, faculty and staff, which can make it a delight to be there. And it can be a superb school at which to teach.

  9. Orin Kerr says:

    Cool post, Michael.

  10. Altoid says:

    Interesting post that shows pretty graphically the difference between law school faculty and those at regular liberal-arts or undergraduate colleges!

    OT, yes, but I’m dying to know– What does the university’s logo signify? Is it really a U? Why? This bothers me no end every time I see a Miami helmet. Any elucidation gratefully received.

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