When litigator Rick Levin was invited to become an adjunct professor at Northwestern University School of Law, he felt so proud and happy he started to cry. One of his associates, concerned, asked what was wrong. When Levin explained, the associate snickered: "That's funny. If you applied there, you couldn't get in."
It's true, Levin cheerfully admits. "I almost flunked out of law school," he says. "I never thought I was going to be a good lawyer."
Just a few months after he graduated from Chicago-Kent College of Law in 1986, he found himself on his own in a courtroom, representing a client who had lost a finger in a product-liability case. Using his talent for persuading a jury to see things his way, he managed to win his client $ 164,000 -- a record award at the time for a single finger in the state of Illinois, he claims.
"I got really lucky," Levin explains with a self-deprecating smile. He stresses that he won despite his complete lack of preparation for real-world lawyering.
"I had no idea you had to prepare jury instructions. I thought the judges would just read some," he recalls. "I don't want my students to have the same experience that I had."
They probably won't. Levin, a partner at Levin, Riback Law Group, teaches Introduction to Trial Advocacy, Advanced Trial Advocacy, and Pre-Trial Litigation, and he is passionate about getting his students ready for the courtroom. In return, they have voted him Northwestern's "Outstanding Adjunct Professor" the last four years in a row.
To Levin, the 150-plus hours he spends on teaching each semester are "not a huge burden."
"It's definitely a lot of work, but it's a very, very gratifying thing to be able to give back to law students," he says.
Every September, hundreds of Chicago lawyers like Levin head back into the classroom, willingly donating thousands of otherwise billable hours to Illinois law schools.
Those adjuncts offer their students the chance to rub elbows with real-life practitioners -- including some of Chicago's highest-profile attorneys and judges.
Students at the University of Chicago Law School can learn constitutional law from state Sen. Barack Obama and study legal pragmatism with Judge Richard A. Posner of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit. Jeffrey D. Jacobs, former president and general counsel at Harpo Entertainment Group teaches at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, while would-be prosecutors at Chicago-Kent can learn trial advocacy from David A. Erickson, former First Assistant Cook County State's Attorney and current Cook County associate judge, just to name a few of the most well known adjuncts.
For the firms that employ them, lawyers who work as adjuncts can create strong connections with prestigious law schools and may help them to get the inside track on promising young graduates. The firm/school connection can also reflect prestige in both directions; At University of Chicago, where the moot courtroom is named for Weymouth Kirkland, 11 of 54 listed "lecturers in law" are current or recent Kirkland & Ellis attorneys -- although Kirkland himself was a Chicago-Kent alum.
But what do the adjuncts themselves get out of the deal?
Some get an honorarium of a few thousand dollars. "It probably covers their parking," comments Thomas M. Haney, associate dean at Loyola University Chicago School of Law.
Others do it for free. "I get paid nothing," says Barry Fields, a partner at Kirkland & Ellis who teaches a seminar in trial advocacy at the University of Chicago.
"Maybe at one point I got a sandwich or something from it -- and now I think about it, I'm not sure about that sandwich."
If these lawyers are so smart, a cynic might ask, why are they willing to work for peanuts?
"Nobody does it for the money," says Andrew Leipold, immediate past associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Illinois College of Law. "They do it because they believe in the educational mission. To work with really smart students who want to be there is wonderful. Teaching is about as much fun as you can have doing your job."
While working as an adjunct professor doesn't put any cash in the firm's coffers, it doesn't do a lawyer's career any harm either. Leipold adds: "There's no bad publicity from being an adjunct. Firms like to be able to tell clients, 'Our lawyers are so smart they teach this stuff as well."'
Whatever the adjuncts' motivation, law schools say they would be hard put to function without them.
"One of the most remarkable things about the American legal education process is the willingness of practitioners and judges -- at some sacrifice to themselves -- to make that effort to help mold the future lawyers," comments Nina Appel, dean of Loyola University Chicago's School of Law. "It has enabled the law school to bridge that proverbial gap that exists in some law schools between the practicing bar and the world of academia."
That bridge is especially strong in Chicago-area schools, adds John E. Corkery, associate dean for academic affairs at The John Marshall Law School. "That's one of the benefits of being in a large city where you have a large, diverse pool of really qualified lawyers who are willing to serve as adjunct faculty."
Fairly recent development
Historically, law school adjuncts are a relatively new phenomenon.
Back in the late 19th century, Harvard Law School Dean C.C. Langdell decided to create a new model of legal education. Until that time, most young lawyers learned their trade by apprenticing themselves to a veteran attorney.
Some lawyers did go to law schools; others, like Abraham Lincoln, were essentially self-educated.
Langdell "wanted to make it more academic," explains Professor Celeste Hammond, Director of John Marshall's Center for Real Estate Law. "He wanted to make law sound more like a science."
Generations of law students have Langdell to thank (or blame) for some now-standard law school practices. He created the first-year program of Torts, Property, Civil Procedure and Contracts, developed the casebook as the basic law school text and promoted the Socratic method of teaching.
He also created a new vision of law school faculty -- brilliant legal scholars who might never have set foot in the courtroom.
"The traditional law school would have only people who had never practiced law," Hammond says. "The more elite the school, the more true that statement would be."
Some critics complained that, while the Langdell model might produce students who could "think like lawyers," it gave them virtually no guidance in the nuts-and-bolts legal skills of trying cases and drafting documents. As the decades passed, more and more law schools began hearing complaints from alumni who grumbled that they had been tossed unprepared into the deep waters of real-world law.
Those complaints got official acknowledgement in 1992 with the "MacCrate Report" on legal education, issued by the American Bar Association. The authors cited the "lament of the practicing bar," who chronically complained about lawschool graduates: "They can't draft a contract, they can't write, they've never seen a summons, the professors have never been inside a courtroom."
The report's conclusion urged law schools and practicing lawyers to look at legal education as "a common enterprise," and exhorted them to work together to give novice attorneys "the skills and values required for the competent and responsible practice of law."
In other words, the report told the nation's most elite law schools what schools like John Marshall had known for years: Attorneys who practice law every day have valuable information and insights to pass along to the next generation of lawyers.
"John Marshall was on the cutting edge of this approach to legal education," Hammond says. "We've always had adjuncts teaching at John Marshall. Most of our full-time faculty had substantial practice experience before teaching. We've always valued practicing attorneys and their ability to be the best teachers."
What adjuncts bring
These days, adjuncts play a critical role in teaching second- and third-year students at every law school in Illinois.
"We don't want adjuncts teaching the first-year courses," says David E. Van Zandt, dean at Northwestern. "We want faculty teaching first-year property, but if you're talking about putting a transaction together, or detailed zoning and housing code issues, adjuncts can do a much better job."
"Law school professors teach students to think like lawyers and read like lawyers and write like lawyers, and they're amazing at it," adds Levin. "It's the adjunct's responsibility to make them act like lawyers."
When adjuncts teach trial advocacy, says Loyola's Haney, "Students learn how to write a brief that is going to be persuasive to an appellate tribunal, how to argue that case orally, how to do appeals. There's a whole range of issues involved in terms of knowing the law, the court rules as to what happens when."
However, Hammond stresses that trial advocacy adjuncts aren't simply drilling students in basic courtroom procedures -- where to sit and when to stand up. "It's a balance," she says. "We're not teaching them how to get to the courtroom. There are aspects of current legal education that will do that; they do internships, they do clinics. I'm talking about more substantive law courses or skills training."
For litigators like Levin and Fields, much of their classroom time focuses on courtroom demeanor. "We try to give them some practical tips, to provide them with additional viewpoints and additional educational opportunities," Fields says.
In Levin's Advanced Trial Advocacy class at Northwestern, that translates into five or six hours in class one night a week. "The first five, six weeks we do opening statements and closing arguments," he explains. "Then we do mini-trials, teaming them up two students against two and three against three."
At the end of the semester, Levin videotapes his students in action, then brings the self-conscious novices in to his LaSalle Street office for individual critiques.
Watching themselves on tape -- with Levin giving play-by-play -- can be an emotional ordeal for the students, he chuckles. "They watch these things in the fetal position," he says.
They shouldn't worry. Levin believes it's his job to focus on his students' strengths. "So much of the traditional grading system is pointing out people's weaknesses," he says. "I've had students say, 'You could be harder on me.' That's not what it's about. I'm never going to be Mike Ditka. I've been in classes where the teacher made somebody cry with a critique. That's not teaching; that's intimidating."
But he doesn't hesitate to let a student know that she needs to put in more work on her courtroom presentation. In one videotaped closing, the student falters as she addresses the jury. "I told her, 'While I know you wrote a really good closing, you're relying on your notes too much. You have to practice that speech three or four times, at least.' So much of what I teach has to do with presentation, personality and hard work."
Other adjuncts focus not on skills, but on specialized aspects of law that don't fit neatly into the full-time faculty's areas of expertise, such as intellectual property or bankruptcy.
Sometimes, adjuncts are hired in response to student interest, Leipold says.
"Occasionally, students will want a class and I'll just say, 'Icelandic blood feuds sound really interesting, but I just don't think there's going to be the interest here.' But we want the curriculum to be nimble and flexible," Leipold says. "If I hear interest from a few students, and we can find the right person, what the heck, we'll do it."
Students can be taken aback at the academic rigor of those special-interest classes, says Eldon L. Ham, a sole practitioner in business, sports and entertainment law, who is beginning his 10th year teaching sports law at Chicago-Kent.
"I give them a lot of war stories, anecdotes, and weird bits of history, but they do get surprised at how much there is in terms of real law," Ham says. "Sometimes they imagined a better romance-to-work ratio than I had in mind."
Anyone who questions whether adjuncts provide real, heavy-duty instruction should sign up for his sports law class, Ham adds. "We deal with anti-trust, Title IX, ADA. It's such a broad area that, in some ways, it's a good review for the bar exam."
Professor 'Your Honor'
Adjuncts who split their time between the law school podium and the bench can offer special benefits to students, Corkery notes. "When you have judges teaching, you get a really different perspective than you would get from a faculty person. You get somebody who's calling the balls and strikes every day, game after game."
But unlike umpires, judges who work as adjuncts enjoy the opportunity for a little argument, says Cook County Circuit Judge Peter Flynn, who teaches Illinois Civil Procedure at John Marshall. "On the whole, lawyers don't talk back to judges," Flynn says. "Students do. They ask: 'Why is that the rule?' 'What sense does that make?' 'What do you mean?' 'That can't be right.' 'Wait a minute, you said XYZ last week and now you're saying this.' -- All of which not only challenges me to make sure I haven't started babbling jargon, but also challenges me to articulate better even the things I'm absolutely sure are right. It enormously deepens my understanding about what I'm doing. Hence the old proverb, the best way to learn something is to teach it."
Flynn says he thinks judges may have a pedagogical advantage over other lawyers. "I spend most of my day explaining things, or trying to -- explaining procedure to litigants, rulings to lawyers, trying to make the law comprehensible and intelligible. So all of this gives one a sort of teaching orientation."
As a judge, he also sees the most common errors that young (and not so young) lawyers are likely to make. "You hope that you can influence them in the direction of being the kinds of lawyers you would like to have practice in your courtroom. You hope you can help them to avoid the mistakes that you see over and over again."
Given the impact that adjuncts can have on law students' education, the process of finding and training them can be fairly casual, deans acknowledge. "We often find them by word of mouth, by reputation," Haney says. "If I'm looking for someone to teach bankruptcy, for example, I will go to some of my fulltime faculty and ask, 'Do we have any graduates you remember who might be good teachers and willing to teach?"
By asking for personal referrals, he says, "you're hopefully doing some kind of screening process. There are some really top-rate guys who are horrible in a classroom."
Hammond, who has been helping to find adjuncts at John Marshall for about 15 years, says she often relies on bar association connections to find likely prospects. "What I'm really looking for is a closet professor, someone who could communicate and who had the scholarly bent. I would look to see what they had published, kind of scope them out and say, 'Hi, would you consider teaching?"'
Whenever possible, Leipold says, he looked for adjuncts with some previous teaching experience. "Chances are, if you can teach about onions, you can teach about potatoes," Leipold says.
But not every brilliant practitioner has an equally brilliant professor locked inside trying to get out, he stressed. "We turn down people all the time," he says. "If I wasn't convinced they were going to be decent teachers, it didn't matter how fancy their credentials were."
To succeed, adjuncts need institutional support, insists Gerald Hess, a professor at Gonzaga University School of Law in Washington state and director of the Institute for Law School Teaching. "One of the difficulties is that many law schools hire adjuncts, tell them where the bathroom and the classroom are, and turn them loose," he says.
"There's a real value in using adjuncts, but they need a lot of nurturing and supporting and valuing," Hammond adds. To help her adjuncts at John Marshall get up to speed, Hammond has offered "teach-ins," providing intensive instruction on various teaching methods.
Other common problems arise outside the classroom, when busy adjuncts find themselves disconnected from the full-time faculty. "Being an adjunct can be the most isolating, lonely thing possible," says Loyola's Haney. "You could get through the entire semester without meeting another faculty member or administrator. In a school like ours that has an evening division, we have to go out of our way to make these people feel at home."
It can also be hard for adjuncts to get to know their students one-on-one in the limited hours they spend on campus. "Out-of-classroom time is an inherent problem," Hess says. "Many, many, many adjuncts underestimate how much time it's going to take for them to do a good job. The lack of accessibility is a big problem for students."
It can be painfully obvious when an adjunct professor isn't working out. "It doesn't happen very often," Leipold says. But when it does, the students make sure the law school administrators know about it.
"Students resent it -- and resent might not be a strong enough word -- when they think this teacher did not meet the standard," Hess says. "There are many students who are quite aware of how much they are paying for law school, how much they're paying per hour. I've had students tell me how much they're paying per minute in the classroom. If they think that time is being wasted, they are very resentful."
Generally, most adjuncts who don't make the grade don't try to stick around, Leipold comments. "The enrollment next time the course is offered is very low. The word gets around if someone's not very good. People vote with their feet. But most of the time, we work real hard at the front end to make sure we're getting good people."
When a law school does succeed in finding the right adjuncts, those attorneys can make a priceless contribution to their students' education.
"One of the things that adjuncts can do, assuming they like practicing law, is to bring their excitement to law students -- many of whom are beginning to wonder if they made the right choice, or who have forgotten why they chose law school at all," Hess says.
Adjuncts also may offer inspiration to weary upper-level students, he says. "For the third-year student who is a little tired of the sort of theoretical take on the practice of law, here's somebody who's out there on the front lines. For those students, those are the people they're going to listen to."
On the adjuncts' side, the rewards of teaching may be intangible, but they're real, Levin says. He says his greatest joy is taking a student who seems ill-equipped for courtroom work and turning him or her into a polished advocate.
Levin remembers one student in particular. "He could not ask a question without saying 'And' and 'Okay?"' By the end of the class, Levin said, the student was so well-spoken that he won a place on Northwestern's trial advocacy team.
For Levin, the real pay-off from teaching comes when a student finds success, then tells him: "I never would have been able to do this without you."
Reprinted with permission from Chicago Lawyer, September 2003.