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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Role of References

Hi all.  Here's another installment of my views on getting a teaching job.

In case you are wondering what you should be doing NOW (in addition to writing, writing, writing), you need to think carefully about your references.

How much do references matter?  They can matter more than you think.  And, hopefully to prove the point, I'll use myself as an example.  When I went on the market, consider these facts about me:  I graduated from Penn (not Yale); I was Coif (but not magna or summa); I was law review (but not ed. board); I had a fed clerkship (but only district).  From everything you've been reading on the internet that should be four strikes against me.  How did I wind up here?  Well, certainly it had something to do with my publications, my teaching package, and my work experience, but I also think it had something to do with my references.

I was extremely lucky on this front.  My references were/are at the top of the field -- They were my teachers and mentors in law school.  It was as if I followed the advice, "Have the leaders in your field as your references.  Have them know you and your work very well, and have them ready to say terrific things about you."   I think my references were more valuable than a law review board position and being first in my class would have been (combined!) because they truly spoke to my potential as a scholar.

Think about it this way.  References are not people who are merely called after you've almost landed the job.  Whom you list on that form says a lot about you.  Remember the FAR form is all that most people will look at, and they will use it to assess your value.  Pick a weak reference, and folks will assume that you are weak (either because a strong person wouldn't recommend you or because you value the scholarship of the weak ref).  Quality, methodology, even your personality -- the assumption will be "birds of a feather."

Haven't given much thought to this yet?  Some advice below the fold:

I think readers are likely to be in one of two positions:

First, you may have a set of mentors from law school.  Great.  Use them.  And, if you can pick among them, consider (1) how well known they are, (2) how likely they are to say something nice about you, (3) what their outside rep is and how that fits you.  (Obviously, all of these factors matter.).

If you have mentors from law school, try to get their help:

Don't worry about whether they will make phone calls for you.  Having been on the receiving end of calls, emails, and letters, the bottom line is that there are so many of these sorts of recs, that unless a faculty member has a friend at another institution AND the school is hiring in your field, it isn't likely to get you that far anyway.  (At the very top schools, I have no doubt that there is a stronger network function, but if you have those kinds of connections, you don't need to read this!)  (You do, however, want the reference to say nice things about you if she is called.  In some cases, schools will call your references before scheduling the AALS interview -- "Is she the real deal?"  "Is she out of our league?" "He doesn't have much any real writing listed.  What do you think of him?"  You want someone in your corner when those calls come.)

But there is one thing your reference/mentor can do for you: try to get your mentor to arrange a day of mock interviews and a job talk.  Penn did this for me.  It was fantastic.   No amount of internet advice can substitute for one day of a real run-through.

If you don't have mentors, now is the time to get them.  There is a noticeable difference between folks who have been "groomed" for the teaching market and those who have not.  What you need is someone in your corner (someone to get you that mock day of interviews.)

First, start with your school.  Reach out to profs in your field.  Ask for advice.  Send them your work.  Get them to help you with this process.  If the prof is your field is unlikely to help you, go see your favorite prof, whoever it was, and ask for advice!

Second, send your work out to other scholars in your field.  Some folks will be extremely generous; others won't return your emails.  But send your stuff out, and start making some connections.  It's a bit of the chicken or the egg, but you need to begin your professional career before you land that first teaching job.

Third, don't rely on law firm partners or even your judge for references (unless you clerked for the Supreme Court, or a handful of app. judges (although, in that event, it is unlikely you need to read my posts!)).  I don't care what prestigious NY law firm you are working at; law profs want to hear from other law profs that you have law prof skills.  USE A MAXIMUM OF ONE PARTNER, JUDGE, OR OTHER NON-LAW PROF ON YOUR FAR.  In this buyer's market, schools can afford to pick individuals who are already in the scholarly loop.  There are VAPs, and PhDs, and folks who went to law school with the dream of teaching.  So, a school doesn't need to take a risk (even a 20 min interview risk) on someone who hasn't made any professional contacts yet.  Make those contacts.

In closing, I'd be curious to hear what other folks think about how to get quality references and how valuable they are.  I have to say that in my view, if you can't list anyone but law firm partners, you shouldn't  go on the market yet.  Wait another year.  Make connections.  Send out your work.  Go to conferences.  Get in the game.  But perhaps others think otherwise...

Posted by Kim Ferzan on July 10, 2007 at 12:43 PM in Teaching Law | Permalink


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This is great advice, Kim. I'd just add a few more thoughts:

(1) One of the reasons that you see fellowships and pre-tenure-track teaching jobs expanding, in my view, is the need to find mentoring. I'm sure Kim's comments are causing panic for many who did not have the foresight and/or fortune to cultivate top scholars as references. One of the reasons to consider a fellowship is the chance to work with scholars who will provide mentoring of your scholarship and of your approach to the market. So I would recommend that if you are looking at fellowships or a legal writing teaching position, see if you can find a school that has someone in your area that can serve as a mentor. You may even consider approaching that person or persons before you take the job, so that you can have the basis for a relationship established ahead of time.

(2) I think you should approach your school, rather than your mentor, for the mock interview thing. Many schools now have programs that offer mock interviews, mock job talks, and other such prep. Start with your school -- if they don't have anything, then approach your mentor. I just think that the mock interview might be a bit much to ask of a mentor, especially if your school provides the service.

(3) I agree with the one non-prof reference, at most. I would say: three prof references, and then maybe a judge or partner reference in the "comments" section. Two or three non-prof references on your FAR says that you haven't gotten enough experience before applying.

Posted by: Matt Bodie | Jul 10, 2007 1:11:33 PM

I agree this is good advice, though I followed very little of it myself (mostly out of ignorance). Here's one qualification about references though - it's not possible that Ian Ayres or Akhil Amar knows everyone well who lists them as a reference. When I served on appointments, I swear that 1/4 of all the applicants listed one of those 2 names. If you really know someone like that reasonably well, by all means, list them. But I think it's better to list someone who really does know you and your work than to list the 3 biggest names you can come up with. At least for candidates that aren't slam dunks (and there are very few of those, so don't be too quick to count yourself), it's much more impressive to talk with a reference who can really say something substantive about your work and talk about your development.

Posted by: Mark McKenna | Jul 10, 2007 1:38:17 PM

This is a great post and part of a great series. Thanks!

Posted by: Steve | Jul 10, 2007 1:50:03 PM

I was wondering about using the primary advisor on a PhD dissertation (for example, in political science) as a reference. As a joint degree student, I always worry that I don't look enough like a law professor and that highlighting my PhD (and the stereotypes associated with it) only hurt my cause. Any thoughts (on this and general joint-degree pointers) would be much appreciated.

Posted by: Mike | Jul 10, 2007 4:24:22 PM


I would absolutely list your PhD advisor. The schools that value your PhD will also want to know that you can do good interdisciplinary work. (I would list two law profs first...)

Even if you are inclined not to use your PhD, I still think that someone who can talk about how you worked on a sustained research project is a good thing.

I generally think that PhDs help more than hurt, but I'll certainly give it some thought and see if I have anything useful to post!


Posted by: Kim Ferzan | Jul 10, 2007 4:38:35 PM

I agree with just about everything above with one caveat--while I agree that you should list almost entirely academics on your FAR form, I think it is crucial that on your fuller resume/cv you list the judges you clerked for and other non-professors who would seem to know you particularly well based on your employment history. There are two reasons for this. First, some schools--and it is hard to tell who--really care how well you worked with others or how well you communicated ideas in a professional setting. Second, it raises a red flag if you leave off someone who, based on your work history, ought to know you particularly well.

Posted by: Andrew Siegel | Jul 11, 2007 5:38:08 AM

I appreciate this post and this series; it's eye-opening and helpful. However, I'm left a bit confused by the advice in this post. Like Mike, I have folks in a related field to draw on for references. Specifically, there are four professors from my dissertation committee who know my work very well and would provide enthusiastic references. They are also leaders in their field, and would be recognized by many law professors.

I also have several law professors who would provide enthusiastic references (they wrote recommendation letters for my clerkship applications). However, the law professors simply have nowhere near the familiarity with me and my work that the dissertation committee has. They are all productive scholars, but only one could be considered a leader in the field.

Thus, the maxims that references should (1) know one's work, (2) be leaders in the field, and (3) be law profs seem to be in tension in my case.

So, it seems clear that I should use (1) the clearest choice law prof (field leader, enthusiastic recommender, and was outside committee member for dissertation) and (2) my dissertation advisor. My question is whom I should use as a third reference on the FAR form: a law prof who knows my work less well and is perhaps not a field leader, a (non-law) prof very familiar with my work who is a field leader, or the judge for whom I clerked. Of course, I'll list all these folks in my CV (as per Andrew Siegel's suggestion).

Finally, as an aside, this post discusses making connections in addition to references. Is this a means of generated future references? For example, I have a couple of such connections, and have gotten some feedback on my work from them. However, I don't see that they would be good references.

Thanks for the posts, and thanks in advance for any further advice.

Posted by: Paul | Jul 11, 2007 8:03:04 AM

Kim or others, any thoughts on choosing someone as a reference in your field versus out of it. Imagine that you want to teach IP, but the law prof who mentored you and knows you best teaches Securities Regulation?

Posted by: U.N. Owen | Jul 11, 2007 9:55:38 AM

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