Southern University endowed professors share secrets to legal academia work

By Karen Kidd | Jul 10, 2016

From left, Christopher Odinet, Angela Allen Bell, Gail S. Stephenson and Shenequa Grey, all new recipients of Southern University Law Center’s endowed professorships.   Photo courtesy of Southern University Law Center

BATON ROUGE – Recent recipients of Southern University Law Center’s prestigious endowed professorships shared some advice for up-and-coming attorneys who aspire to academia.

"Be realistic about your expectations," Angela Allen Bell, named the B.K. Agnihotri Endowed Professor, said during a Louisiana Record email interview. "This is not as prestigious of a position as it may appear at first blush. This is a service industry and the demands are grueling."

Bell is one of four accomplished scholars who Southern University Board of Supervisors voted should receive the endowed professorships, based on recommendations from a special committee of the law faculty,

"Professors have shared duties to students, the institution, the community, the nation and the profession," she said. "You must honor all of these simultaneously. The rewards are abundant, though. The sparks we ignite in our students can propel large-scale change. The research can positively impact the social landscape and contribute to the expansion of law when that is necessary. The service work often inspires and empowers others. Additionally, we are uniquely positioned to forge global alliances and engineer far-reaching solutions.  This work is as much an opportunity as it is a chore."  

An endowed professorship at Southern University Law Center is considered among the highest honors that can be bestowed by the board of supervisors upon a faculty member.

"Scholarship is a key purpose of the endowed positions," the school said in a press release. "The funds from these endowments propel research and create opportunities for collaboration with scholars from around the world."


Bell’s studies focus on civil rights, restorative justice, social justice, and the interplay between race and justice.

"My other observation is that the legal profession does an adequate job of maintaining the narrative, but it falls short when it comes to exposing the counter-narrative, the counter-story, which gives voice to people whose voice is often muted or overshadowed by the narrative," she said. "Those who do the work of exposing the counter-narrative must be fearless and be comfortable walking the road alone at times. They can't be people pleasers, and they can't be concerned with self-promotion. This spirit and conviction is in short supply. If you care enough about justice to devote yourself to this work, your decision to enter academia is not yours to make. It's been made. Your role is to obey your calling."   

In her own comments, Shenequa Grey, a Clyde C. Tidwell Endowed Professor whose research centers on the law of evidence and constitutional criminal procedure, offered three pieces of advice for up-and-coming law professors.

"First, I would advise an aspiring law professor to truly understand what the position entails," Grey told the Louisiana Record. "This profession requires excellence in many areas. Not only are law professors expected to perform exceptionally well in teaching, but they are also expected to produce scholarly publications, to advise and counsel students, and to serve the law school, community and the legal profession. Additionally, law professors must obtain ongoing training and experience by attending conferences and workshops. I would also advise an aspiring law professor to try to practice law at least enough to be able to relate their teaching to the real-life practice of law."

Grey said that last bit of advice will also provide aspiring law professors with a better idea of their areas of interest.

"Second, one must be self-motivated and able to work alone," Grey said. "Writing scholarly articles, books and other publications can be quite isolating. There won’t be anyone there to motivate you or to force you to do it. So preferably, you will enjoy writing and you should have a voice --  something you want to say."

Grey stressed the need to be able to write. 

"It will also be helpful to try to get as much experience and practice writing as possible by writing scholarly articles for a law review or other scholarly journal, or by clerking for a judge," Grey said. "Further, most law professors typically made good grades in law school, were on law review and passed the bar examination on the first attempt. Also, obtaining an advanced law degree, such as an LL.M. (Master of Laws) or an S.J.D. or J.S.D. (Doctor of Laws), can help a person enter into academia. Many of these programs give students opportunities to write a scholarly paper and some specifically include opportunities for teaching."

Finally, she said law professors need to get more fulfillment out of contributing to the success of others, than out of obtaining those achievements for themselves.

"As a professor, success for you is the success of others – those students you have touched in some way," she said. "There is a feeling of pride when you see a student walk across the stage and receive their juris doctor degree, pass the bar examination or get elected to judge, knowing you helped to provide them with the tools to attain those accomplishments." 

Chris Odinet, a Horatio C. Thompson Endowed Professor whose research focuses on mortgage lending and commercial/consumer finance, also provided three pieces of advice.

"First and foremost, it's essential that you have some experience practicing in the area (or at least one of the areas) in which you will be teaching," he told the Louisiana Record. "More and more, legal education is moving toward a 'practice-ready' framework. Luckily for us, at the Southern University Law Center we've always had a very strong foundation in experiential learning. (We've had one of the most dynamic and wide-ranging law clinics in the state for quite some time.) Making sure that real work exercises are built into lecturing on doctrinal information is critical."

Being a good teacher also matters, Odinet said. 

"Not every good lawyer is a good teacher," he said. "Being able to explain complex concepts in a way that helps the student build a foundation for future understanding is key. So, in that way, it's a skill that you either have or don't - I don't think it's something that can be learned. Patience and the ability to understand that students learn things differently is super important in this job."

Finally, he said, law professors have to have a commitment to the service part of their work.

"Importantly, this means viewing yourself as not just someone who teaches the law but also someone who tries to have an impact on it," Odinet said. "This is usually done through advocacy work. For me, that's through research and scholarship. A good faculty member strives to ensure that his or her legal scholarship has strong theoretical heft, but also aims to help the law in a given area develop and progress in a way that's practical. Service also means getting out of the classroom, and into the legal and larger community by giving talks, doing (Continuing Legal Education), being involved in the law institute/law reform, and making sure that the work of the legal academy stays connected to the work of the bench and the bar."

The advice of Gail S. Stephenson, Louisiana Outside Counsel A.A. Lenoir Endowed Professor and director of the Law Center’s Legal Analysis and Writing Program, was directed toward the heart of law in academia.

"My advice for attorneys who aspire to academia:  Enter academia only if you love both teaching and writing," she told the Louisiana Record. "Do not enter academia because you think that you will get rich or that it is a cushy job. I've been practicing law for 32 years, and I make half of what my students with academic credentials similar to mine make starting out."

Stephenson's research focuses on culturally diverse teaching, Louisiana civil procedure and civil law notaries.

"Last semester I was in the classroom six hours a week, but I spent another 50 hours a week on class prep, grading, committee work, service to the law school and scholarship (research and writing)," she said. 

"But I wouldn't trade this job for one in private practice because I love getting to know the students and witnessing their 'aha moments,' I like the flexibility of a teaching schedule and academic year, and I get professional fulfillment from research and publication. 

Stephenson cautioned that jobs in academia are hard to come by right now.

"If you are interested in getting a job in academia..., write and publish as many law review articles as possible because law schools are looking for professors who are scholars," she said. " If you have to choose between getting teaching experience by working as an adjunct professor and having the time to do scholarship, choose the scholarship."

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