The Sucky Job of Adjunct

At Concurring Opinions, Dave Hoffman raises a problem that likely falls under the radar in discussions of how to improve law school, and hence the new lawyer coming into a profession about which they know next to nothing.  Much is made of the role of the adjunct professor, the seasoned practicing lawyer who provides the practical insights that academics may lack.

The adjunct is supposed to pick up the slack between the “real” professor, whose primary interest is crafting a law review article that someone will read and, dare they hope, cite, and the student who anticipates that after three years of opportunity costs and a bundle of debt, they will emerge competent to be a lawyer.  Yea, adjunct. Well, maybe not so much.

With unprecedented financial pressure on law schools due to low application and enrollment, something has to give.  With the least clout of anyone in the academy, that turns out to be the adjunct.

One wrinkle concerns the “fate” of law school adjuncts. Law schools typically employ adjuncts to teach cutting edge areas in practice, and those adjuncts are almost always otherwise employed as full-time lawyers and judges. Those lawyers and judges provide students with opportunities to understand developments in practice that no full-time instructor could deliver (whether or not that instructor ever writes a law review article). They also can be sources for leads on jobs, and can model professionalism.

Hoffman writes of the “glory” potential of being an adjunct.  There is also the role of handling courses real prawfs hate, like legal writing and professional responsibility.  There is nothing cutting edge about it, and no glory to be had. It’s just a job.

The result is that adjuncts, who typically aren’t organized and who have little job security, can be treated like workers in the rest of the economy – i.e., terribly so long as market conditions permit.

The responsive argument is that nobody seeks an adjunct post for the money, which is a curious view coming from prawfs making more than a quarter million dollars to teach six hours a week.  Rather, they see the most significant benefit of being an adjunct to be basking in the reflected glory of academia.

For many law school adjuncts, association with the school brings significant professional benefits, which are more likely to motivate taking the gig than the relative pittance adjuncts are paid. Lawyers routinely highlight their law school teaching expertise in advertising – “Teaches criminal advocacy at X…”, “Professor teaching ERISA at Y….”  (I can’t prove that clients care about this kind of puffing, but the prevalence of claims in the market suggests they might.)

I would suggest that there might be a cause and effect challenge in this assessment; that the puffing isn’t what motivates anyone to become an adjunct, but rather is used because it’s all they get.  Not that anyone, client or lawyer, cares, but given the “pittance” they’re paid, adjuncts are resigned to enjoying whatever puny benefit comes from the puffery.

Knowing quite a few practicing lawyers who teach as adjuncts, and having done a bit of teaching myself, I suggest that this view completely misses the point of why practicing lawyers spend their time teaching law students to be something “real” professors cannot: We give a damn.

Aside: Consider, if you will, why I write this blawg, where I get my butt kicked by a never-ending stream of pseudonymous douches and nutjobs who want to prove me wrong. Is it for the prestige and fabulous wealth it brings me?  Uh. no.

One of my earliest recognitions as a young lawyer, was that the warm glow of a successful representation had a shelf life of about 30 minutes.  Then it was gone.  The only question was what have I done lately, as I would look back on my accomplishment and see nothing.  Lawyers don’t build things. When we’re done with our work, the best we can do is offer a sheaf of papers and watch the back of a client as he walks away, holding his children’s hands. Yes, it’s good. No, it’s not enough.

No human being worth the name wants to leave this earth without feeling that he or she has contributed in some meaningful way to the betterment of society.  One way to achieve this sense of purpose is to give back to the next generation, to help others as we were helped, or worse, as we weren’t.

[A]s Eric Goldman once commented, “There are lots of good reasons to be an adjunct, but the pay is definitely not one of them.”

In the course of giving back, we pay a price.  It sucks up time from our work, as any half-decent adjunct puts in a significant amount of time in preparation so that he can actually teach, actually help, law students to mature into competent lawyers. It steals time from our families, our hobbies, our other interests.  Under other circumstances, this is just part of the gig, and it’s easily taken in stride.  A cost of giving back.

But when the practice of law is under the same financial stresses that impact law schools, the relative cost skyrockets.  When lawyers aren’t doing well financially in their practice, the time lost to the practice to “give back” by being an adjunct becomes very expensive.  Or as the legal philosopher, Billy Joel, explained, “they started to fight when the money got tight, and they just didn’t count on the tears.”

While it’s certainly easier for the law schools to beat up on adjuncts, who are utterly powerless to fight back, when it comes to cost-cutting, and it’s similarly facile for “real” prawfs to assume that the value of  “puffing,” of being able to tell clients that you hand out near the brightest lights of the legal academy, is sufficient compensation, it’s not quite true.

Many adjuncts need to at least cover the cost of giving back, if not actually make money teaching.  Law schools need adjuncts, so they can pretend they’re pushing “practice ready” students out the front door, and so they can give their students a fighting chance at being prepared for their future.  And yet, adjuncts are powerless to end the beating they receive.

Hoffman questions whether adjuncts should unionize in order to gain the benefit of collective action where their individual power is essentially nonexistent.  That this question is even on the table reflects the short-term and foolish bias of academia.  After all, who needs anyone teaching students who actually has a clue about the practice of law, when you can have fabulous scholars cranking out law review articles no one reads?  Isn’t that what law school is all about?


24 thoughts on “The Sucky Job of Adjunct

  1. Marc J. Randazza

    I never felt mistreated as an adjunct. Hoffman’s analysis is sorta correct. Yes, I was a “second class citizen.” But, in a way that you feel when you’re temporarily in a foreign country. Sure, you are not “one of them,” but you’re welcome, and your particular cultural differences might seem annoying or charming, depending on who you talk to. Some full-timers thought I was a blight – and some whispered “we need more like you.”

    But, if I didn’t like how I was treated, I had a real job to go back to. In fact, the way I saw it, the time I spent teaching wound up costing me money. Essentially, I paid for the privilege of teaching.

    I think that the shitty pay for adjuncts is a good thing — if being an adjunct paid well, you’d have people competing for the job for the pay. The little checks I got for teaching were nice, but did not change my life any. But, knowing that I was showing these poor bastards how to actually do a job (rather than listening to the blathering of law review article authors) was satisfying. I liked the kids, for the most part. I saw it as public service. That was the reward.

    Yesterday, I went to a three year old boy’s birthday party. His father was one of my students when I was an adjunct. That was, far and above, the best benefit I got out of the gig.

    So, it is nice to see full time lawprofs give some fucks about the adjuncts. But, if I may speak for them, I’d say “go mind your own business.” Or better yet, “resign from your job and go play lawyer for a refresher time of 3-5 years, then come back.” Or “lets get rid of the useless administrators who are sucking down dollars and raising costs.” Adjuncts are fine. There will always be people who like doing it, and do it just for the fun of doing it — law schools need that, not someone getting a raise from $3K a year to $10K a year.

    1. SHG Post author

      So are you saying that adjuncts shouldn’t get paid, that it doesn’t matter what they’re paid (assuming they are), or that they shouldn’t be appropriately paid so people will compete for the job? How much should being an adjunct cost the adjunct? How much should the law school cut adjunct pay before an adjunct should get pissed, or shouldn’t it matter? What if they can’t find qualified adjuncts and only losers or incompetents are willing to do it for a pittance?

      And what if your student doesn’t invite you to his kid’s birthday party? Do you get your time back? Would it be wrong that an adjunct not see it as a profitable venture, but similarly not expect to have to pay for the privilege of teaching? You kinda left a few open questions here.

      1. Marc J. Randazza

        I’m not arguing that they shouldn’t get paid. I do think that if it paid a “reasonable wage,” that it would actually attract worse candidates.

        But my real point was that shitty adjunct pay is either a) not a problem that needs addressing at all, or b) so low on the list of what is wrong with law school, that it is not worth addressing in the larger context.

        1. SHG Post author

          In the “list of what is wrong with law school,” I would argue that having people doing the teaching who actually do the lawyering may be looming increasingly large. I’m of the view that integrating hard practice instruction with doctrinal education is a critical fundamental change, and that requires access to highly qualified adjuncts.

          The problem is that highly qualified adjuncts are busy. They may well be willing to teach, but how much can they be expected to give up? Let’s be real, being an adjunct has its rewards, but the time suck is hardly trivial. It’s a commitment, and the commitment comes at the expense of other work that needs to get done.

          I get your point, that being an adjunct shouldn’t be a money issue, but I similarly don’t think it’s a great idea to limit the universe of adjuncts to those interesting in paying for the privilege. Sure, you will get some who do it because they sincerely care about the students, but you will also get some who want the resume puffery.

          You want to keep out those who would do it for the money, which is understandable. But that’s why I question whether there’s a line that needs to be drawn, so that it’s not a profit center but it’s also not a loss leader.

          1. Marc J. Randazza

            Might it be a cure to the problem to require lawprofs to take sabbaticals every 3 years to actually practice for one year? Or some other such arrangement. The thing that law school really needs to get rid of is a system that thinks that idiots who haven’t even taken a bar exam are qualified to be professors.

            1. Marc J. Randazza

              Qualifying the above — there is definitely room (in my view) for non-JD PhD. full-bore “academics” on law faculties. I’m not saying to get rid of all of the eggheads — eggheads are a valuable member of the faculty team. But, I’d rather see them as “every school has one or two” rather than it being the norm.

            2. SHG Post author

              You know damn well how such an idea would be received by academics, who believe with all their heart and soul that their work is critical to the future of the law, society and all of humankind. And that the trenches are for vulgar losers.

    2. Adjunct

      To the extent I can follow your barely coherent comment, are you suggesting that because you’re making money, my pay should be cut? Who the hell are you to decide that I should “pay for the privilege” of teaching?

      Nobody is suggesting that we be paid on some parity basis with tenured faculty, but to suggest that law schools are doing us a favor by letting us teach is absurd. No, we clearly don’t do it for the money, but we also don’t do it to lose money.

      1. Marc J. Randazza

        What I am saying is that if you do it for the money, then you’re doing it for the wrong reason. If you have no other job, then what do you have to offer as an adjunct?

        I don’t think that adjuncts’ pay needs to be cut – at least not until 50% of the add-no-value administrators are laid off.

        And “Who the hell am I?” My name is clearly posted above, shiteyes.

  2. John Barleycorn

    ~~~Basking in the reflected glory of academia~~~

    Well someone has to mop up both literally and figuratively now don’t they esteemed one?

    Moping at times can be rather boring though and it never did pay very well.

    I have always wondered why the resourceful amongst the “adjuncts” within many of the “white collar” trades haven’t got together to capitalize for culture and more importantly just for fun.

    I guess it might have something to do with “accreditation” and “legality” but I tend to think it has more to do with the ever increasing insular fantasy land various guilds have created for themselves and no one really wanting to call bullshit on their own guild no mater how much of an outlier they may be. That and the shit tons of work involved perhaps.

    To bad too, because some sort of apprenticeship journey that churned out capable “crazies” at the end of the chute might indeed prove worthy in a generation or two.

    Enjoy the ride everything will be just fine until it isn’t.

  3. Stan

    [anecdote warning…] I worked as an adjunct teaching admiralty law for a couple of years. I figured that after adding in preparation time, driving time to and from the law school and time spent exam grading, I might have made minimum wage. In terms of monetary value, I put it on a par with the savings I got from cutting and splitting my own firewood for the wood stove that I used to supplement my home heat. I loved it, and I have reason to believe that at least some of my students got something out of it, too. I wasn’t doing it to feed my family or to mingle with the other full-time professors. I prepared, showed up, did my thing, and went home. It was the best of both worlds: I got to teach something I knew well without dealing with academia. As between me and the law school, I think I got the better of the deal. Having to teach a subject forced me to fill in the gaps in my theoretical knowledge and made me a better practitioner.

    1. SHG Post author

      Was there supposed to be some takeaway from this, or did you just want to let us know you have a wood stove?

      1. Stan

        My takeaway was the last sentence: teaching made me a better practitioner. The rest was setting the stage… And yes, I still have the wood stove and split a couple cords each year, for which I was most thankful when we lost power for four days last winter.

        1. SHG Post author

          Not your takeaway. Without knowing you (or the quality of practitioner you were before teaching), that’s essentially meaningless for anyone else, reducing your comment to pointless self-indulgence.

          What’s the takeaway for the rest of us? Be an adjunct for squat because it makes Stan a better practitioner? And don’t make me play 20 questions, please.

  4. Jeff

    I’m just not buying into Marc Randazza’s argument that the potential for wanna-be adjuncts competing for the job primarily for the pay justifies a low pay. Increasing the pay would only increase the size of the applicant pool, and as long as the school did it’s due diligence in hiring the best person for the job, then the best person would get the job, irrespective of their primary reason for being attracted to the position.

  5. LTMG

    For two years I was an adjunct teaching MBA candidates. $2500 per section, two sections per semester, three semesters per year. My employer generously kicked in $5000 per year to staff who were adjuncts. While I truly enjoyed the experience, the after tax income went a long way to pay for my son’s Jesuit high school education. In retrospect, I am grateful for the experience teaching working professionals, and my son is making full use of his education. Based on student reviews, seems they appreciated my real life take on management. Everybody won.

    I traded my adjunct hat for an expat hat, then spent a decade overseas. Did some guest lectures there, too.

    1. SHG Post author

      Are you trying to say that, as much as it was an inherently worthwhile experience, the money mattered too?

      1. LTMG

        At that time, the money definitely made it easier to give my son a better education which, in my opinion, is still, paying dividends.

        Timing proved to be important. Shortly before I ceased being an adjunct in 2001, the telecom industry in which I worked experienced a meltdown. I was able to avoid the massive layoffs by launching an operation in SE Asia.

        In my semi-retired state, my work as an adjunct is also paying dividends.

        As you accurately point out in your post, one doesn’t become well to do by being an adjunct. There are some, I’ve heard, who eke out a living as an adjunct serving at a few colleges and universities.

  6. Pingback: The Sucky Job of Adjunct | Simple Justice | A i...

Comments are closed.