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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

At the Other End of the (Hiring) Telescope

Below are some random and not terribly profound observations about being the chair of a law school hiring committee in the wake of the DC conference.  Caveats: this is not about giving advice to candidates, and I’ll try to keep complaints to a minimum.  Many folks have given better advice than I can (experience on the hiring end has actually diminished my confidence that I understand it).  And complaining about how tough it is to do hiring is much like complaining in front of students about how miserable it is to grade.

First, the talent available is extremely impressive.  All of the folks we met with in DC were great, and I’m not just saying that to be nice.  I leave these events feeling lucky to have a job.  However one measures ability or potential – and there are varying theories, especially re predictions for publishing records – it’s a very deep pool.

Second, the “dating” metaphor.  The hiring process on both sides is often analogized to dating. While there’s something to that, when you’re on the hiring committee you’re keenly aware that decisions on your end are made not just by the hiring chair (it would be simpler if I had unilateral authority!) or even the hiring committee, but by the faculty as a whole.  So it feels like dating would feel if a few dozen other people got to discuss and vote on whom to date.

Third, teaching skills.  The “moneyball” and other theories of hiring I’ve seen go to publishing potential, and that’s important at our school.  But we also very much value good teachers, and potential in that area is harder to spot.  I know there’s a recurring debate in legal academia and academia generally as to whether publishing is privileged too much over teaching.  The hiring conference always reminds me of this, especially when I talk to my friends outside academia about the hiring process.

Fourth, similarly, my friends outside academia are always struck by how extended periods of practice experience often don’t count as positives and indeed can be seen as negatives by some folks doing hiring.  I wonder about that too.

Finally, if you ever get the chance to serve on your school’s appointments committee, do it.  Yes, it’s time-consuming.  But you get to meet fascinating people.  Before my first time interviewing, I worried that doing 20-30 half-hour sessions in two days would be painfully repetitive.  It’s really not, because the candidates are bright and interesting in significantly varying ways.  Also, you can help build your school.  And you are forced to think again about what legal academics should be like, and why.

Posted by JosephSlater on November 29, 2006 at 02:44 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink

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Thank you for those comments, Joseph. They are characteristically wise.

Posted by: Alfred L. Brophy | Nov 29, 2006 9:05:16 PM

I'm not sure that moneyball hiring is at odds with teaching ability. You would simply apply the same concepts to predicting teaching ability. The best indicator of future teaching ability is past demonstrated success in teaching. Candidates who offer past evaluations from adjunct teaching, VAP stint, or other teaching experience provide you with better information than you have from a 30 minute interaction or just assuming that someone from a top 10 school will be better because they went to a top 10 school. So, to recap, under moneyball the most sought after candidates should be those that have demonstrated research ability (through past publications) and have demonstrated teaching ability through good teaching evaluations. It's simple really - yet not followed.

Posted by: anona | Nov 29, 2006 9:52:30 PM

Alfred: Thanks.

Anona: The problem is that the clear majority of entry-level law profs haven't taught before. Sure, if they have, we look at evaluations. But most haven't.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Nov 29, 2006 9:59:46 PM

Joseph - that's not responsive to the point; certainly the majority of candidates dont have prior teaching experience, however a certain percent do have such experience - if moneyball hiring were being used, then it would show up in the cases in which such indicators (prior research and teaching experience) do exist - these would be the most sought after candidates - this is not what is happening. It's not necessarily wrong - it depends on what you value - but it's not moneyball hiring.

Posted by: anona | Nov 30, 2006 7:56:31 AM

Anona:

If I understand you correctly, on one hand, I'm sure it's true that law schools value one or two good publications over one or two years of teaching with good evaluations. And that preference could fairly be debated. On the other hand, I still think it's very relevant here that only a very small percentage of the entry-level teaching market has any teaching experience.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Nov 30, 2006 11:21:18 AM

I don't think that I'm getting this across. The small percentage of entry level market teaching experience isn't really that relevant if schools aren't playing moneyball and valuing it in the incidents in which it is present. Perhaps an example will illuminate my point:

Candidate A - top 50 law degree; 4 publicatons (post law school) in good outlets, teaching experience (with good evals)

Candidate B - top 5 law degree; 1 student note or comment in law school, no teaching experience.

The vast majority of schools will hire Candidate B - if you believe otherwise then you're just kidding yourself. They are not playing moneyball when they have the opportunity.

Posted by: anona | Nov 30, 2006 12:04:26 PM

Anona:

Your example of Candidates A and B seems designed to show that law schools give irrational weight to graduating in the top 5 law schools. You set up 3 criteria, school, publishing, and teaching, and make candidate A superior in the latter two.

I heartily agree that law schools overvalue the significance of graduating from a very tiny group of law schools. I personally would take your candidate A over your candidate B in a heartbeat (all else being roughly equal).

But candidate A's qualifications are quite rare in the pool of those of seeking an entry-level professor's job. Few people in practice have written four law review articles, and to have teaching evaluations as well, they would have to have at least adjuncted also (unless you want to count evaluations of TAs in PhD programs, which are not exactly the same thing).

Candidate A's qualifications are much more likely to be found in the lateral hiring market. There are rational reasons a school could prefer entry-level folks over laterals for certain positions. And in any case, it's mostly entry-level folks who go to hiring conference.

Maybe I misunderstand "moneyball." But to the extent it means something like "paying for proven performance," if you want to hire entry-level folks, there are so few who have teaching experience that most law schools will feel that requiring demonstrated good teaching excludes too much of the field.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Nov 30, 2006 1:36:48 PM

I've been curious for years, Joseph, about the "rational reasons a school could prefer entry-level folks over laterals." I've never heard anything remotely convincing on this score. I apologize for taking this post somewhat off-track, but could you offer a few of these reasons? By the way, assume for the sake of argument that the lateral person at issue HAS gone through the same process as entry-level folks (so the faculty can get a sense that the person is friendly and "collegial"), has the CV described by Anona's Candidate A (with very solid pubs and teaching evals from his or her prior appointment), and proposes to teach bread-and-butter courses.

Thanks!

Posted by: Jason Kilborn | Dec 1, 2006 11:07:30 AM

Jason:

Your question is a fine one and not the least bit off-track. My answer may not be as good, but here goes.

Two initial caveats. First, ask yourself the same question about law firms (or employers in any other profession): the reasons law schools want at least some entry level folks is pretty much the same. Second, I'm not saying schools should *always* prefer entry level folks: in some cases, it's rational to prefer laterals and in many-most cases, it's rational to keep your options open. But the argument that one would want entry level folks in some cases is as follows.

Reason one: laterals are more expensive. It might be that a school has X amount of dollars for hiring, and that's enough to get an entry-level person but not a lateral, or maybe it's enough to get three entry level people but only two laterals.

Reason two: if the lateral is *tenured*, the school is making a *big* commitment hiring him/her, and not just financially. And at least a good chunk of potential laterals are already tenured.

Reason three: there are lots of entry-level folks with incredible potential to be great teachers and scholars, and why pass on them when you could get them for your school?

Reason four: some schools want to "train" new hires or at least get them committed to the culture of their particular school. Profs. get more stuck in their ways the longer they teach, especially after tenure.

Reason five: schools might value folks who have graduated more recently and just left practice more recently on the grounds that such folks are more on top of the most recent trends and practices.

Again, these aren't dispositive reasons to always look for entry-level folks, and there are reasons to prefer laterals in some situations. But hey, somebody has to give everyone their first teaching job, and while there is often a learning curve, especially re teaching, that sort of thing happens in all types of work.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Dec 1, 2006 11:28:39 AM

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