Why So Many Law Professors are Former High School Debaters:

Notre Dame [correction: University of North Dakota] lawprof Eric Johnson notes that many law professors seem to be former high school debaters and suggests that this may be a common phenomenon. For what it's worth, I'm a former high school debater myself (1 year of policy, 3 years of L-D). My anecdotal impression is that there is a high representation of ex-debaters not only among law professors but also among other social science and humanities scholars.

Why do so many former debaters end up in academia? For the most part, it's probably correlation rather than cause. Both debate and academia tend to attract highly intellectual people with an interest in politics, law and related subjects. But there may be a causal connection as well. Debate played an important role in making me comfortable with public speaking - which turned out to be very valuable in later years. And for reasons I discussed here, it also led me to work much harder in school, thereby rescuing my floundering academic record and enabling me to get into an elite college (without which I might never have made it to Yale Law School later). These experiences may be atypical. But I suspect they parallel those of at least some other debaters-turned-academics.

On the other hand, I have to say that at my school, unlike Johnson's, debaters didn't usually hang out with "the cheerleaders and football players." Whether that helped my later career as a lawprof or not is hard to say. On balance, I continue to believe that the real enemies of debaters and other highs school "nerds" were the popular crowd, not the much-maligned jocks.

Dilan Esper (mail) (www):
I know Erwin Chemerinksy was a former college debater, as was Laurence Tribe. (Both of them were among the very best debaters of their respective eras, I believe.)

I didn't do high school debate, I did do college debate, and my experience is lots of debaters go to law school (because we like argument), and some of us probably ended up as law professors.
10.10.2008 5:40pm
(American style debating isn't 'debating'. How does this affect our thoughts on the high school debate/law faculty linkage?)
10.10.2008 5:51pm
Mr. Greenbean:
There are many different types of debate, but policy debate is a natural fit for future academics. Much of the current subject matter is esoteric and theoretical, perfect breeding ground for people who like to pose and answer their own questions instead.

Also, debaters have a leg up in the legal field because of the emphasis on research tools like Lexis-Nexis, familiarity with law review articles also helps that many of the current mentors of debate have ties to the legal field.
10.10.2008 5:56pm
I'd be surprised if most lawyers in general weren't high school debaters. Debate is a popular elective at every high school I know that has it, including all the elite ones; Most of my law student friends were high school debaters; and many of my high school debate friends have gone on to law school.

Is it the case that people who go on from law school to other careers tend not to have been debaters? That would be strange. This is quite reasonable.
10.10.2008 6:03pm
I think the percentage of practicing attorneys who were scholastic debaters is also higher than for almost any other profession. Especially true for litigators and appellate lawyers, as being comfortable with public speaking is something of a prerequisite for the job. ERISA compliance jocks, not so much...

Let's face it: there's probably a DNA mutation that causes lawyers, whether practicing or academics, to love a good argument. No wonder so many flocked to debate when they were younger.
10.10.2008 6:14pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
It'd be natural for law. Not only learning public speaking, but the ability to organize an argument, to reason carefully, etc.. It gave me a great advantage as a 1L when analyzing cases.

Tho I detested the "spread" style which came in just before my time (I can just picture a voter keeping a spreadsheet on the presidential debates, and going for a candidate since he made 48 points and his opponent only answered 45) even it came in handy on occasion -- when paring arguments to stay within word count, and once during oral argument. (Death penalty case, when I sat down for the appellant the two minute card was up. I planned for about two minutes. When I stood up for the reply, a one minute card greeted me -- I must have just about used up the second minute. I switched on the fly and got in three solid hits and a fancy conclusion. Won it, too.)
10.10.2008 6:22pm
U.Va. Grad:
FWIW, Johnson teaches at the other UND--the one in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
10.10.2008 6:47pm
Thales (mail) (www):
Ilya, I appreciated your post very much, and agree with you about the natural enemies of high school debaters. In my school there was a certain grudging respect from the jocks for the debaters, but we were absolute freaks next to the popular crowd. Though there was the occasional crossover popular debater, and of course hostilities were suspended among all for consumption of alcohol and marijuana, which brought all enemies to the table (the best reason in my view to refrain from drug use).
10.10.2008 7:35pm
cirby (mail):
You have to admit a certain cause/effect relationship, but from the other direction.

My high school used to push people into debate if they thought they might like to be lawyers or study law in college.
10.10.2008 8:35pm
Bama 1L:
I think cirby has got it.

High school students who want to become lawyers are disproportionately likely to, in fact, become lawyers. Furthermore, high school students who want to become lawyers are disproportionately likely to go out for debate, because it lets them do what they imagine lawyers do. So a disproportionate number of lawyers were high school debaters.
10.10.2008 9:33pm
David Schraub (mail) (www):
I'm a former HS debater who wants to be a law professor, so that works I guess. The linkage is part because I felt like it seemed a natural extension of something I really loved doing, and partially because one my teammates' father (and thus, sometimes judge for us) teaches at Georgetown Law (Richard Lazarus) and it became quickly apparent he had the coolest job ever.

I'll also say that while at my school the debaters weren't popular, per se, we weren't unpopular either, and it wasn't a bar to popularity if you did other cool things. We had crossovers with the chess club, sure, but also with the frisbee team (those guys were best friends, actually).

Of course, my school was all about academic rigor and overachievement (we are The Overachievers of book fame, though I think that the book is overstated), so that might change things a bit.
10.10.2008 10:46pm
David Warner:
"the real enemies of debaters and other highs school "nerds" were the popular crowd, not the much-maligned jocks."

I'm thinking more likely candidates would be the opposing debate team or the possibility of being made to look like Palin on Couric...

Or, for the best debaters, the administration of the school.
10.10.2008 11:56pm
Cro (mail):
I did policy (CX) debate, and I deliver the mail.

Jocks were never a problem. They were good at what they did. So was I. The popular people were good at being popular. I think that was the problem. You can't be popular in High School with other people being unpopular.
10.11.2008 1:16am
David Chesler (mail) (www):
My high school didn't have a football team, though we did have a national championship Ultimate team.
It seemed perfectly reasonable that the academic elite in wet sciences went on to medicine, those in math and physics went on to computers, and those on the championship speech&debate team went on to law.

It took a classmate of mine who was both a mathie and a member of speech&debate a couple of years as an engineer to realize he should have gone to law school, which he did, now combining that with his native quantitative skills.

I had the disadvantage of strong family pressure to be a pre-med so that by the time an advisor in college asked me for the first time "Do you want to go to medical school?" it was too late to figure out what I wanted to do, so I fell back on math and CS; by the time I got around to applying for law school it was time to start a family and I decided not to give up what seemed to be a promising engineering career.
10.11.2008 4:13am
Eric Muller (www):
Can somebody please explain what college "debating" has become? (I ask this as a person who never debated in HS or college, even though on occasion people have called me a "master debater," or something like that.)

Take a look at this video, starting at around the 4:30 point. Or this one, at various points throughout.

This is debating? Seems more like a poetry slam or some kind of performance art. Weird.
10.11.2008 10:39am
David Warner:
Eric Muller,

"This is debating? Seems more like a poetry slam or some kind of performance art. Weird."

Or Glossolalia. Palin has already infected the minds of even our most lawyerly youth! Is no one safe?
10.11.2008 3:06pm
Most of the high school debaters I knew became lawyers, though my debate partner went to med school. I learned debate under Chemerinksy at Northwestern's summer debate institute--yes I went to "debate camp", twice actually (went to Georgetown's program the year before). I was also on the chess team, but I was not considered a nerd. I was a "geek" which was one (okay,a half) step higher on the social ladder. Geeks are somewhat similar to nerds in interests and pursuits, except they dress normally and have some social skills, although on occasion they will use "big words." Hence they are geeks. While they can discuss the technology of Star Trek, they do not go to conventions or study Enterpise blueprints. They play D&D, but don't dress up as their characters. They are nerdish, but not nerdly. They are bilingual, in that they are able to speak the language of nerds and non-nerds. In nerd-tongue, geeks are multi-classed characters. In other words, on a good day, they can pass. The best left-handed compliment I ever got was, "Wow man, I never knew you were smart." Thank you, and ouch!

Still it never made for popularity. Luckily, I went to a huge high school with about 5000 students, so social divisions had a minimal impact. There was always a comforting degree of anonymity and plenty of "B" and "C" groups to hang out with. Unless one followed the doings of the glitterati, who seemed to be jocks and the girls with the right clothes and from the right part of town, they could be ignored.

I was never a law professor, but I did teach brief-writing and oral argument for a while. And, I think it is in this area that debate experience is most helpful. The practice of structuring and supporting an argument that is inadequately taught in English Comp courses (for legal purposes) is drilled into you by debate. For most law students, the use of the outline form and the explicit labeling of arguments in headings is something new, as is the instinct to never "drop" an argument.

As for the nature of debate today, I would like to see some moderation or counter-movement to "the spread." While I used and abused the spread as a high school debater, not every debate then was a spread contest. It seems that the tactic was not developed to the point it is today. It now appears to be universal and the sine qua non of competitive debate. This is somewhat surprising to me, as I was taught numerous ways to "beat the spread," without a counter-spread, even though it might require speaking at a somewhat accelerated pace. (E.g. pull out key winning arguments in overview, group opposing arguments, argue an underlying fallacy, heavy sandbagging, etc.) When I debated, the spread was a tactic rather than a method. I wonder if the pendulum will swing back, somewhat.
10.11.2008 5:33pm
CaDan (mail):

Most of the high school debaters I knew became lawyers, though my debate partner went to med school. I learned debate under Chemerinksy at Northwestern's summer debate institute--yes I went to "debate camp", twice actually (went to Georgetown's program the year before).

We were there at the same time. Remember the sandwich guy?

Cherubs, represent!
10.12.2008 2:22am
You bet I remember the sandwich guy. Wish he came around here everyday. That was a great summer.
10.12.2008 1:02pm
Cityduck (mail):
Just off the top of my head, law school professors I remember from my high school or college debate days include Prof. Seana Shriffrin of UCLA Law (whose college debate partner at Berkeley was Matthew Fraser of <i>Bethel v. Frazier</i> fame) and Prof. Abe Wickelgren of Northwestern Law (who debated for South Eugene H.S. quite successfully).
10.12.2008 8:04pm