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When Work Experience Is Not Enough

Legal practitioners find the leap into academia difficult; scholars recommend non-academicians get assistance with the ‘nuanced’ application process.

University of California, Davis law professor Bill Hing says the process of becoming a professor disfavors people who have dedicated themselves to community lawyering, specifically race- and immigrant-related work.

University of California, Davis law professor Bill Hing is often approached by Asian lawyers wanting to channel their passion from the practice to the classroom. But the how-to’s that he shares about making that transition illustrate a complex, perhaps daunting process.

While some Asian Pacific Islanders do in fact decide the process is worth the time and effort, more than a few grow discouraged. The latter decide to remain practitioners — and sometimes never again entertain the idea of teaching.

This contributes heavily, educators say, to today’s dearth of a formal Asian Pacific Islander pipeline into the law professoriate.

In addition, it contributes to their underrepresentation among law faculty nationally. In 2007-2008, just 2.5 percent (264 total) of the country’s 10,780 full-time law school faculty were Asian Pacific Islanders, according to the Association of American Law Schools (AALS). Yet the pool from which to draw would-be teachers is deep; the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association touts on its Web site that it represents the interests of some 40,000 attorneys.

The dearth of Asian law professors is disturbing to some, considering the growth among Asians entering law school. As recently as last fall, Asian Pacific Islanders were the largest proportion of non-White, first-year law students at more than 8 percent nationally, according to the Law School Admission Council. And the 3,258 law degrees conferred on Asian Pacific Islanders in 2005 marked a 54 percent jump from a decade earlier, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

“I’m shocked to hear of such disparity in this day and age between Asian law students and faculty,” says Dr. Wallace Loh, University of Iowa executive vice president and provost who started teaching law in 1974.

Disfavoring Community Lawyering

Texas Wesleyan University law professor Huyen Pham says prospective Asian law professors are often unaware of how to use the Faculty Appointments Register to their advantage.

Loh, whose administrative career spans two decades at four universities, and others insist that salary differences between lawyers and academicians rarely discourage practitioners from trying to enter teaching. Furthermore, they don’t believe many individuals are fazed by the possibility of becoming a school’s only Asian Pacific Islander law professor, since many have found their law firms also lack diversity.

A much bigger deterrent for lawyers interested in teaching, educators say, is a laborious, oft-vexing application process that places little value on work experience and interests. They also chide law school hiring committees for a lack of outreach to Asian Pacific Islanders.

Law educators interviewed by Diverse emphasize that the hurdles to becoming teachers aren’t overtly racial. However, attorneys involved in race- and immigrant-related work rarely receive much academic consideration for it.

“The truth is, the process of becoming a professor disfavors people who have dedicated themselves to community lawyering, civil rights and interesting, important things in advocacy and practice,” says Hing. “It’s a shame. These lawyers could inspire many young people.”

This gets played out in the application process, which is fraught with nuance and subtext, Hing and others say. Attorneys must either submit scholarly articles they have written since earning their law degrees or they must write a piece indicative of what they might produce if hired so that school officials can judge their writing and research abilities. And, the commonly used, standardized application recommended by most schools gauges the willingness of lawyers to do non-glamorous teaching of large, core curriculum classes such as torts and civil procedure.

Completed applications are banked in the AALS-sponsored Faculty Appointments Register, or FAR, which is accessible to AALS institutions.

But the FAR houses about 1,000 applications annually, experts say. So, law school search and hiring committees often take shortcuts in screening candidates. “There’s lots of one-stop shopping,” says Texas Wesleyan University law professor Huyen Pham. For example, officials at any school might scan the FAR specifically for candidates to teach criminal law, Pham says. A candidate who can teach criminal law but has listed a preference for teaching race and the law or refugee and asylum law, for instance, might never even draw consideration for this particular campus job. Consequently, schools frequently overlook strong job candidates in such hasty but common scenarios. And many candidates are unaware of how best to get noticed using these standardized forms, unaware that word-of-mouth wisdom exists.

“Lawyers wanting to go on the (teaching) market need to be strategic in filling out the FAR,” Pham says. “They can’t be boutiquish. If they’re immigration experts, that’s a bonus for the schools, but those classes and many other topics are too small to be top priority for most schools.”

Because schools give so little weight to a practitioner’s career accomplishments, many Asian Pacific Islanders lack incentive to join the formal pipeline into academia, she and others say.

Pham, who has served on her school’s hiring committee, adds: “You definitely need a savvy mentor’s help when filling out the FAR. I don’t recommend going through it unadvised. If you’re a betting person, it’s not the kind of odds you want.”

Advised or unadvised, very few Asian Pacific Islanders have signed up in the FAR recently. The same holds true for Blacks and Hispanics. From 1990 to spring 2007, the number of attorneys annually submitting applications to the FAR from each of those three ethnic groups has never reached 100 and is typically far fewer, according to AALS. Yet annual FAR applications from Whites during the same period ran as high as 963 and never dipped below 539.

Not surprisingly, Blacks and Hispanics are underrepresented among U.S. law faculty too. In the same year that Asian Pacific Islanders numbered a mere 264, Blacks composed only 759 and Hispanics 339 — 7 percent and 3.1 percent respectively, according to AALS, meaning more than 74 percent of 10,780 fulltime teachers were White. Others did not specify race.

UC Davis has better-than-average Asian Pacific Islander representation — a rarity with 11 tenured or tenure-track faculty. Law dean Kevin Johnson remains optimistic that faculty ranks will multiply nationally despite the pipeline paucity. “Asians are the new actor in the law school teaching scene. It takes time, but the political realities are that change must take place.”

Overcoming the Myths

One goal of the annual Conference of the Asian Pacific American Law Faculty (CAPALF) is to groom young scholars along with lawyers wanting to transition to academia, says Alfred Yen, a longtime Boston College law professor and frequent co-organizer of the event. “They can present a paper or article- in-progress and get feedback in a friendly environment. We regularly reserve program space for this.”

Johnson, who has attended CAPALF twice including the most recent meeting this past March, praises it as “a good model within the academy to get critical, constructive feedback” on works in progress.

While the feedback proves to be helpful, Yen says the colleagues he hears from say the hiring climates are not exactly welcoming for Asians, even at schools interested in diversity. “Schools don’t make much effort to hire Asians. In our case, race is an afterthought. We aren’t seen as underrepresented.”

Throughout his career, Yen has periodically examined the slow-growing numbers of Asian Pacific Islander law faculty. He found that in 1990, for instance, Asians made up only 1.4 percent nationally. A study he conducted, published in a 1996 Asian Law Journal article, suggested that affirmative action hiring policies were not being applied to Asian Pacific Islanders. “A number of (Asian Pacific Islander) law professors doubt whether law schools are truly committed to the affirmative action hiring of Asians,” Yen wrote. He also shared the thoughts of one of his peers in 1996: “Other minorities resent us because they think we are not a ‘true minority.’ Whites resent us because they think we don’t deserve or need preferential treatment. We lose both ways.”

Yen added in this same article that “the model minority myth creates the perception that Asian Americans are all overqualified academic ‘superstars.’ It is assumed that sufficient numbers of Asian Americans will be hired anyway.”

Many of his Asian Pacific Islander colleagues, Yen recently told Diverse, still feel this way today.

Loh finds it “inexcusable” that the number of Asian Pacific Islander law faculty today remains so low. “Search committees ought to be held accountable. If a pool isn’t diverse, the search should start over. Search committees need to do better.”

Hing and others hope efforts by CAPALF will help propel more Asian Pacific Islanders into classrooms. As one who often guest lectures at various schools, including some with no Asian law faculty, Hing says, “I can’t tell you how many times Asian students have said, ‘We wish we had someone like you here.’”

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