Faculty Post: WORKING AS A TEACHING OR RESEARCH ASSISTANT

By Professor Daniel A. Austin

Law school can seem like a pie-eating contest where the reward is more pie. If your diet of coursework, research, and writing leaves you hungry for more, consider working as a teaching or research assistant for a professor during your 2L and 3L years. The pay is not great, usually only $15 per hour max, but it’s a good resume-builder, and you get a close-up view of the teaching or research side of law. Plus, you will probably become better acquainted with the professor than if your only interaction were as a student in her/his class. This can be a good resource at bar admission or letter of recommendation time.

Depending on their teaching and research schedule, professors may be looking for teaching assistants (TAs), research assistants (RAs), or a combination of both. One popular professor (not me, but good guess) hires an upper-classperson TA for each of her/his large first-year classes. The TA holds regular office hours to answer questions, explain course material, and teach review sessions. TAs for another professor create quizzes, research problems, and online material. Other professors hire RAs for research work, which can include reading and summarizing cases, writing or correcting citations, empirical research and analysis, and in some instances, even co-authoring pieces. It’s an open secret that some professors are techno-challenged, and although they likely won’t admit it, many rely on digital-age students for computer-based work. Not me, of course. I created and operate my 5,000+ bankruptcy case Excel database all by myself. All. By. My. Self.

So how do you get one of these tight TA or RA jobs? Different professors hire in different ways. Some quietly notice which students are particularly adept with the material or with research or writing, and contact the student directly. Others advertise on Blackboard (NUSL’s online academic portal), announce in class, or post a notice outside their office. You can also try contacting the professor yourself and ask if she/he is looking for a TA or RA. Be sure to have your CV, evaluations, and a writing sample ready in case the professor asks to see them. Keep in mind that it is easier for a professor to hire you if you are federal work-study eligible. The professor may have access to other funds if you are not eligible, but it can be more complicated.

Once you’ve landed the job, the professor is looking for accuracy, timeliness, initiative, and a finished work product. Communication with the professor as scheduled or when necessary is important for a successful TA or RA, but professors will appreciate thoughtful initiative on your part to resolve issues. However, your professor will not want you to reformulate the task unless you ask first.

A successful TA or RA experience is one in which the student treats the project as a professional engagement. Professors know that student assistants sometimes make mistakes, misunderstand or not fully grasp the issues, etc. But as a lawyer, your client’s work is important to you because it is important to the client. A TA or RA who brings this attitude to her/his assignments can expect more assignments, acknowledgement in the published piece or on the brief, and a ready letter of recommendation when the time comes.

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