So You Think You Can Teach? How to Prep for Your First Law School Class

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Becoming an adjunct professor can be a rewarding experience, professionally if not financially. (Trust me when I say it is never rewarding financially.) It is a particularly wise choice after you have spent a few years in practice and have built up a body of real-world knowledge that you can share with aspiring law students. Being mid-career also means you will be perceived by students as having some level of gravitas, whether you deserve it or not.

It goes without saying that you will have to ensure you are knowledgeable about what you plan to teach, but a successful adjunct stint — and an invite back for the next semester — will depend on a lot more than whether your brain holds the most information about estates, trusts, or business transactions.

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Over-Preparing is an Incurable Disease and the Key to Your Success

At the outset of your budding instructional career, you will prep far too much material for each class. There is no pedagogical downside to this. There is, of course,  the real possibility your children, pets, colleagues, and clients being angry with you for spending too much time writing a lecture.

My rule of thumb for classes I am just developing is to prepare roughly twice the material I expect to get through. This ensures if I speak too fast (which happens all the time, because I am a lawyer), or I don’t get any questions, I will have enough material to present.

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Draw on Real-World Experience

Generally the whole point of having adjuncts teach is that they bring a practice perspective to an institution. (We are not — I repeat — not going to get into the debate about whether having adjuncts is just a way to break the stranglehold of tenure. That is for another post.)

You got hired because you hopefully bring a body of work that is interesting and has informed how you will teach. Don’t be afraid to draw on that, even if your experience isn’t something akin to Theodore Olson-level Supreme Court appearances. More importantly, students — particularly those in their second and third years — are interested in hearing about the day-to-day business of law after enduring the inscrutability of first-year property. Part of your job is to show them how to find engagement and enthusiasm in their future work, and you do that by explaining what is great and interesting about your work.

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Your Academic Credentials are Great, But…

There is something to be said for letting your students know that you are qualified to teach them, even if you do not feel that you are. One of the ways in which professors tend to do that is by reaching back to their own law school career and subsequent clerkships.

While this does make you authoritative, your students are probably terrified about their law school performance, especially if you are teaching first-year students. Telling your students you breezed through Secured Regulations is not going to put them at ease. Instead, it will likely make your students feel alienated because acing Secured Regulations is a thing they fear they cannot do; therefore, you are a person that has nothing in common with the class you are teaching.

Work on explaining your background and qualifications in a way that is accurate, but a bit self-effacing as well. In other words, do not be afraid to tell your students you still have no idea what the dormant commerce clause is.

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Learn to Admit When You Don’t Know Something

As lawyers, we live in fear of being caught out by peers, judges, and clients. We never want to be the person that gets something wrong or just doesn’t know the answer. We’ve been practicing, “I don’t know that case, your honor, but I can brief it for the court by tomorrow” since we were twenty-five years old. At some point in your teaching career — most likely quite early — you will face the terrible sinking feeling of not knowing the answer to your student’s question. It could come in the form of a student question about the area of substantive law you are teaching.

Do not, under any circumstances, try to bluff your way through it. Someone in the class will inevitably look up the correct answer and will tell the other students as well — simultaneously making you look like a buffoon and a blowhard.

Inevitably, your students will also quiz you about school practices. When are finals? Is it true that summer school is a waste of time? Should they take the PR bar as soon as possible or wait? You will never know the answers to many of those questions, because you are an adjunct that is on campus for exactly two hours each week. You can, however, familiarize yourself with the resources the school has available and pass those along to your students.

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Have a Sense of the Values of the School for which You Teach

This is most applicable if you are not teaching at your alma mater. Here’s what you should concern yourself when considering being an adjunct:

  • What are you being asked to bring to the table by teaching at the school?
  • Is it a practice-oriented institution?
  • Is it a school that focuses on alternative dispute resolution?

These things matter in terms of how you approach your classroom. An excellent adjunct will reflect the larger values of the school.  If it is possible, talk to other adjuncts at the school to get a good sense of what the school cares about. Spend some time looking at what types of CLEs the school sponsors, what sort of community outreach they do, and who their notable alumni are. If you don’t feel proud or connected to what your school has to offer, it is likely you will not be an ideal fit in the long run.

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Make Sure Your Icebreaker Activities are Not Stupid or Rote

Do not under any circumstances make students introduce themselves by the perennially boring triumvirate reciting their name, undergraduate institution, and where they grew up. Neither you nor the rest of the class will remember these things about them because they are unremarkable by definition. Instead, pick something that is a bit silly and requires students to think for more than two seconds about their answer.

In my classes, I make students introduce themselves by telling the class what karaoke song they would sing and inform them that “nothing” is not an option. I also make Minnesota natives explain to non-Minnesota natives the appeal of the Minnesota State Fair’s smorgasbord of fried foodstuffs so that everyone can share his or her favorite type of artery-clogging food on a stick.

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Dress Like a Grown-Up

No, really. Even if your students are coming to class in pajamas (and they will), you need to ditch the jeans and the t-shirt. How dressy you need to be will depend a lot on the general tone of the institution you are teaching at, but you should at least muster up a snappy version of business casual for your students. It will not wreck your life to put on a shirt with a collar.

Featured image: “Illustration of an Owl Holding a Stick to Emphasize What He is Saying” from Shutterstock.

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