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Saturday, July 09, 2005

Getting a Teaching Job: The Job Talk

Probably the hardest part about getting a law teaching job is the last major step: the job talk.   The job talk is a total mystery to most entry-level candidates.   I know it was to me.   With the usual caveat that experiences differ at different schools, I'll try to shed at least a little light on it.

The hardest part about job talks is that they are an alien form of presentation to anyone who is not already a law professor.   Here's a little background.  Law professors often present and refine their working drafts at "workshops," which are short paper presentations followed by extensive question-and-answer sessions.  For a full-time academic, giving a faculty workshop can be a terrific way to improve a draft paper.  You talk for about 20 minutes, giving the basic theory of the paper for those who may not have read it, and then you field questions and criticisms about the paper that can give you good ideas for how to improve it.

Job talks are basically workshops for teaching candidates, given on the day of the final round "callback" interview at the law school.  They harness the format of workshops, but the goal is less to help you improve the paper than  it is for the faculty to assess your scholarly abilities.   Most faculty candidates follow the workshop model and present a work-in-progress, such as a paper that has been (or will soon be) submitted for publication but is not yet published.  The school will  distribute copies of your paper to the faculty a week or two before the jobtalk, just as they do for workshops, although you can't be sure as to how many people in the audience will have read it  by the time of your presentation (this is true for workshops, too -- professors are busy people).

Most job talks happen over lunch.   The faculty comes in to the faculty lounge around noon, and the candidate sits there and tries to make pleasant small talk as the profs come in and get food.  After about 15 minutes of small talk (in theory the candidate is supposed to eat at this point, although most  are too nervous), the appointments chair will introduce the candidate to the assembled faculty for a minute or two, and then hand over the podium. 

Practices vary at most schools, but a good length for the presentation part of a job talk is usually around 20 minutes, at most 25.    I know what you're thinking: 20 minutes seems like an impossibly short period of time.  If you've just written a 60-page paper, you can talk about it for hours.   But the point of the presentation part of the job talk is not to tell the faculty all about the paper.   Substantively, the point is just to give them a good overview of your paper,  its goals, methods, and conclusions.   The short presentation makes sense, if you think about it;  the folks who have read the paper already will pretty much know what you're going to say, and the people who haven't read the paper are probably mostly lost anyway.

Now you're wondering, why do they give you 20 minutes to present the paper at all?  One reason is for the performance itself.  You are being considered for a job as a tenure-track law professor, and faculty members are likely to use your 20 minute lecture to get an idea of how you might be as a teacher and colleague.   Do you act like a professor?  Is your presentation clear?  Nuanced?  Fair?  Are you a good speaker?  Funny?  Arrogant?  Would you do well in front of a large class?  Do you hold the audience's attention?  Is the lecture well-paced, or are you rambling?  Do you finish on time, or do you go on for too long (perhaps until you are cut off by a frustrated member of the appointments committee)?   The presentation helps the faculty get a sense of these things.

The question-and-answer period follows the presentation, and on the whole is more important than the presentation part.   The q-and-a is usually a lively and interactive discussion about various aspects of your argument, often with a critical edge, and can go on for 40 minutes to an hour.   Some of the questions will be by subject matter experts who ask about very detailed issues; others will be by  people who have no background in the topic who have more basic questions or who want to know how your thesis might fit into their fields.  Lots of the questions will try to explore your topic in its broader context, to see if you can draw and assess connections between your work and that of other academics, papers, and scholarly movements.

Doing well in the Q-and-A part of the job talk may be the most important part of a "call back" visit to a law school.  Unfortunately, it's also very hard (at least for me) to come up with useful and  nonobvious advice on how to do well on it.  Here are just a few thoughts, which I hope will be seconded, supplemented, or trashed in the comment thread or on other blogs via trackbacks:

First, know your topic, both at a doctrinal and scholarly level. Know the surrounding scholarly literature cold, and if you're talking about cases, know the cases cold.   This is probably obvious. You need to know your stuff.   

Second, practice, practice, practice.  "Moot" your job talk with a live audience at least once, and preferably two or even three times, ideally with at least some full-time academics in the audience.  If you don't know any professors at local schools who might be willing to help you moot your job talk (I didn't, so I don't think this is unsual), talk to some of your former professors from law school to see if they have any ideas.

Third,  know and acknowledge the nature of your claim, and its limitations.    That is, recognize what "moves" you're making in your argument, the limitations of those moves, why you're making those moves and not making others.   Here's an example.  Let's say you're an election law scholar and you have written a paper arguing that Bush v. Gore was wrongly decided (seems a bit late to pick this low hanging fruit, but hey, it's just an example).  You need to be clear as to exactly what set of scholarly tools you are using to reason to your conclusion.  Maybe you're making a legal process claim that courts are ill-equippped to get involved in chad-counting questions; maybe you're making an originalist claim that the Equal Protection clause wasn't meant to cover this kind of question; maybe you have some other theory of constitutional interpretation that arrives at the same result.  Either way, you need to be very clear as to which analytical tools and methods you are using and why, and what other tools are out there that might point in the same or a different direction (e.g., in the Bush v. Gore example, are there public choice reasons to favor the Court's approach?).  This makes sense, if you think about it: the claim in your paper is just an application of a broader set of analytical tools, and lots of the interesting questions are why you picked those tools, what their limitations are, where those tools will take you on other questions, whether other approaches might have worked equally well or better, etc.

One final piece of practical advice:  On the day of the callback, you may want to be a little wary about discussing your job talk in depth during your morning interviews before the presentation. Your morning interviewers will be in the audience during your talk, and it may interfere with your concentration during the presentation to realize that a decent chunk of your audience just heard you rehearsing it an hour earlier.   As a result, most candidates find that it is better to stay fresh and avoid discussing their job talk in the morning.   In general, morning interviewers understand this and don't expect you to preview the job talk.

Anyway, I hope that's at least a little helpful.  If others have other views or experiences, I hope you will share them.

Posted by Orin Kerr on July 9, 2005 at 12:30 PM | Permalink


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At Penn, at least, law students (such as myself) can sometimes attend these lunch-time talks, espeically if they know the person organizing them and have some real interest in the area. (They are not generally open to students, but students can sometimes attend.) If one is seriously interested in being a law professor it seems like it might be a good idea to attend a few such talks so as to get an idea of how they work. (Many of them are quite interesting in their own right, too.)

Posted by: Matt | Jul 9, 2005 1:04:53 PM

Excellent advice; I'd stress that responding to faculty questions can be very tricky, in that (1) some won't be very good questions, but (2) it's incredibly important to communicate that you respect the question and the questioner. Even a hostile question is an opportunity to gain the respect of the questioner; what you don't want to do is fall into litigator mode and "win" the argument but alienate the guy with a vote on whether you're getting a job. In that sense, it's a lot like answering questions from a judge in a motion or appellate argument -- a setting when too many lawyers make the amateurish mistake of trying to win the small arguemnt at the cost of the broader win....

Posted by: Scott Moss | Jul 9, 2005 1:20:04 PM


Great advice. Some additional, random thoughts:

1. Don't assume the professors know anything about the subject or the paper. It can be tempting to dive immediately into the details, in order to show your mastery of the topic. However, you will quickly lose a good number of the professors and come across as a confusing lecturer. Better to spend more time establishing the context, thesis, and broad structure of the paper, which will allow more professors to engage. The details will come out later in the Q&A.

2. Engage questions forthrightly; do not deflect or avoid. This is critical - professors quickly sense (and become irritated) when a candidate fails to answer the question. If you don't know the answer or have never thought of the question, it is usually better to acknowledge this. Failure to anticipate every angle is forgiveable (and may be quite understandable). An attempt to avoid and obfuscate is not.

3. Know the weaknesses in your paper. It's quite impressive when a candidate has already anticipated a certain line of critique, and after a professor offers it, acknowledges it and gives a thoughtful response. And if you don't know where the weaknesses are yet, don't worry - you will. (Note that this is a good reason to schedule the job talks at the more desirable schools later, as your talk will improve dramatically the more you give it).

4. Tone - try to establish an intellectually stimulating, collaborative tone. The goal should be, at the end of your talk, to have a buzz similar to the buzz after a really good law school seminar.

5. Try not to get too defensive. This can be very hard to do, especially if you are being vigorously attacked. But it is usually better to take comments and criticisms as offered in a constructive spirit (even if they are not). Demonstrate that your goal is not to be right on every single point, but to produce a better paper at the end of the day.


Posted by: Joe Liu | Jul 9, 2005 2:22:00 PM

Two additional thoughts:

1. I am not sure it is the norm for schools to precirculate the paper of a job candidate before the visit. Obviously, one needs to find out if that is the practice beforehand. But in the event the candidate's paper is not pre-circulated, the burden on the presenter is even greater, since now s/he must set out the central thesis and arguments in the allotted time (which varies from 20-30 minutes, depending on the school).

2. One piece of far more elementary advice, but one which many candidates I have seen either did not receive or did not heed: have a thesis and an argument (or arguments). Your talk should have a *point* or a *punchline*, and the arguments should support it. Nothing is more damning than to have the audience think "That was merely descriptive." Defend a point of view on the topic you are addressing.

Posted by: BL | Jul 9, 2005 6:10:09 PM

One thing that I've found is that some questions won't actually _be_ questions. There are two non-questions to watch out for:

1. Hostile, statements from junior faculty, for various internal political reasons. For example, Prof. X sees your talk as a chance to show that he participates vigorously in the service aspect. So Prof. X rolls out a hostile question or two designed pretty much solely to impress his colleagues.

The key here, I think, is to acknowledge the question in a way that doesn't insult Prof. X, but also defend yourself enough that it doesn't look like you're letting X bully you.

2. The statement of support from someone who likes you. Prof. Y raises her hand to say essentially "that's such a neat idea." That question is a huge softball, and the faculty know that. So what do you do? You can use it as a chance to reiterate your points, touch on things that you had to go over too quickly, or roll out cool facts that you kept hidden during the talk itself. Or talk about how your paper fits into your agenda ("I'm glad you liked it -- it's actually the first of three planned articles on this topic.")

Posted by: Anon | Jul 9, 2005 6:29:02 PM

Thanks for the helpful advice. A question. Suppose you don't have a paper that's ready for distribution in time for the call back, but you do have a prior published work. Is it better to use what's already published, or are hiring committees more interested in current research?

Posted by: Would-be candidate | Jul 9, 2005 6:41:34 PM

Great post and comments. I wish this was around last year when I was going through the process.

A few additional points:

1) I agree with what Anon had to say about Junior Faculty. I think I was "challenged" by a Junior Faculty Member at every job talk I gave. These questions also tend to be marked by hostile follow-up questions, so you may want to anticipate that.

2) If you have a few potential papers to discuss, be very careful about which you choose to present. I had two, one doctrinal and straight-forward but, to my mind, boring; the other esoteric and theoretical, but closer to my research agenda. I had planned to give the esoteric one throughout, but twice my "handlers" called me in advance and recommended I give the doctrinal paper. Both times, the handler expressed concern that my other topic would lose the audience. The advisors sheperding me through this process were surprised to hear this happened to me, but it happened twice.

End result? The doctrinal piece was too simplistic and the audience quickly grew bored. On the other hand, the theoretical piece was not too difficult to follow (these tend to be very intelligent people, after all) the few times I gave it, it made for a much better experience.

3) If you're fortunate enough to have more than one invitation back, try to schedule one or two schools that interest you less first. Even if you have a moot scheduled, there's nothing like the real thing to help you prepare. (NB: I accepted an offer from the first school I visited -- my "warm up" talk.)

4) The biggest mistake I made was this: Don't expect that the professors want to engage in an hour-long, free-form exploration of hard questions. You're not aiming for the performance you used to give in your seminar class. Rather, they want to be impressed at how damn smart you are and how well-cooked your idea is. This doesn't mean you shouldn't "seed" a couple of loose ends in your presentation that you can skillfully tie up in response to a question (although sometimes the opportunity to revisit the point may never come again, so be careful; on several occasions, I caught myself saying in response to a late-arriving question, "that's a great point professor X, and reminds me of this related thought...")

Good luck!

Posted by: Recent Hire | Jul 9, 2005 8:23:50 PM

I'll add my thoughts. Remember that no Committee ever calls a candidate back hoping that the candidate will suck. They WANT you to succeed or they wouldn't have called you. So feel free to ask them in detail about exactly how a particular school handles things. At my school, we tend to evaluate scholarly ability by reading the articles, while the job talk is designed to assess your teaching skills. We tend to have relatively few questions, and those tend to be either prompted by genuine interest or probing at weak points in the argument to see how the speaker responds.

Very few of the faculty members who go into your job talk hoping that you'll fail. Most of them WANT to be wowed -- but many of them have the attention span of my 6-year-old, so you need to get off to a strong start.

As for whether to do Work in Progress or something already finished, ask the people who are bringing you back. Some schools will be offended if you do something you've aready done; my experience is that most don't care. If you don't get strong advice to do WIP, then do whichever one you think you can do a better job presenting. It's better to have them kvetching that you're doing old stuff than to have them pointing out you weren't very good.

A point that lots of folks tend to forget is that those who aren't in your field not only don't know your subject, they have no idea what's important and what isn't. So make sure that early in the talk you make very clear why the thing you're talking about is important. If you don't think it's all that important, then you're working on the wrong stuff.

Finally, don't get too snooty about your callbacks. Nowadays even Fourth Tier schools have no trouble hiring folks with Ivy League degrees, good clerkships, a few years on Wall Street. and an article or two. Dance with everyone who asks you. Good luck!

Posted by: Frank Snyder | Jul 10, 2005 12:32:18 AM

Comments are closed in 2015 so I am posting this here: one other feature of call backs and particularly job talks to keep in mind - law school faculties are filled with factions representing different political points of view. You have to navigate these with caution. An entry level candidate will often be forgiven crossing hidden ideological boundaries and hopefully the initial interview(s) and callback selection process have already sorted these out for the most part but not always. as an example one dominant divide is between "law and economics" versus "anything but law and economics" while another is empirical scholarship versus "anything but empirical" (the latter is often a way of restating the former divide but not always). So while one commenter above says the committee wants you to succeed in the call back that may be true but success in the call back does not mean you get an offer.

Posted by: AnonProf | Oct 19, 2015 10:01:47 PM

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