02/10/2013 08:33 pm ET Updated Apr 12, 2013

The Truth About Law Professors

Law professors are facing criticism. They are accustomed to being on the other side of the podium. In the tradition of Professor Kingsfield of Paper Chase fame, they are depicted as engaging students in Socratic dialogue that puts the future advocates' analytic abilities to the test, constitutes hazing, or both. Now they are accused of profiting from those whom they are training. Although legal education ought to be subjected to scrutiny, if people want to be angry then they should be angry for the right reason.

Contrary to what people assume, the job of a professor is not easy.

When I entered academe, my former colleagues in practice seemed to believe I would spend the afternoons napping and the summers frolicking. Before I became a teacher, I spent time in what since has been dubbed "BigLaw."

I didn't just spend time at a firm; I spent lots of time there. I billed between 2500 and 2700 hours per year; I had a few 300 hour months. That was respectable back in the day. It likely would pass muster even as standards have changed.

These numbers do not describe well the workload if you have not billed time in six-minute increments. If you work the conventional 40 hours per week, 50 weeks per year, you would have worked 2000 hours total.

That's only if you managed to bill a client for each of those minutes. No ethical lawyer could claim to do that. You'd lose at least an hour per day to lunch, bathroom breaks, hallway chatter. That means you would need to work another hour each day to make those numbers.

Consider what it means to bill another 700 hours on top of that. Let's make the math simple by running through the figures with the hyper-efficient lawyer who realizes every moment of those 700 hours with no loss. You could work another full day, which brings you to seven days per week, and you would have put in more than half of that additional amount: eight hours for that extra day multiplied by fifty weeks equals 400 hours. To gain the final 300 hours, you could work another hour each day from Monday through Saturday.

Let's summarize how we reach that total of 2700 hours per year. It's Monday through Saturday, 9 am to 7 pm, plus Sunday, 9 am to 5 pm.

Even lawyers who love their job cannot keep up that pace. They need a few breaks. So you could work Monday through Saturday, 9 am to 8:20 pm, freeing up a day of rest.

The point of this exercise is that I can attest that I worked harder as a professor than I did as a practicing lawyer. The main difference is that when I was a professor, most of what I thought about I would have thought about even if I weren't being paid to do so. When I was a practicing lawyer, most of what I thought about I would not have thought about without being paid to do so.

For that matter, I am middling in my productivity as a professor. I have colleagues whose publication lists are much more impressive. The work required to write a law review article is underestimated by those who have not pursued tenure.

Any law professor who wants to be successful must be highly self-motivated. There are neither clients nor supervisors who will monitor their progress. There are only peers who check up on them once per year.

The legal academy deserves challenges, and it is receiving more than its share of them. There are various reasons to take to task its members, but laziness should not appear on the list.