Tuesday, April 08, 2008
Recommenders and the entry-level job market
In this, my second post on the entry-level job market, I thought I'd discuss recommenders. As I always, I would love others who have recently been on the job market, hiring chairs, etc, to add to or quibble with anything I've said. Beyond the actual content of your job talk and how well you answer questions, recommenders are probably the single most important determinant of how well you will do. Ideally you want a team of recommenders, with at least one of them serving as “quarterback” -- making phone calls to the chairs, talking you up, and giving you feedback as to concerns they are hearing about your candidacy.
So, how do you end up with good recommenders? Well, for those of you who are still in law school, it means taking seminars, going to office hours, being an RA, and taking directed writing credits with a faculty member. Note that the bar for how well someone must know you to recommend you is much higher here than in the clerkship market – sitting in a class and being a good student is insufficient to generate the kind of recommendations you need.
Most of you reading this and thinking about going on the market, however, will be post law school. If you are doing a fellowship there are great ways to make these connections while there, from something very simple like going to faculty workshops, offering to read people's stuff, trying to do lunches, etc.
It is essential to make sure that someone is willing to be a strong recommender for you before taking them on. A luke warm recommendation, even from a very prominent person, I think will ultimately dilute your application rather than add something (assuming you have a critical mass of recommenders).
That leads to the question of how many recommenders to have?
Views differ on this. I had nine, but that was a function of the fact that I do very interdisciplinary work (and wanted to have recommenders from philosophy departments and medical schools, beyond the legal ones) and having a very generous group of people who wanted to support you. My impression is that most people had 4-6. You may want to think a little bit about balancing your recommenders in terms of methodologies/approaches. A colleague whose recommenders included some prominent L & E folks, as well as some less methodologically identifiable recommenders, really benefited from that diversity. To the extent there are intellectual constituencies at the law school and on the hiring committee, having someone in the academic circle of more than one of them can be beneficial.
Well, you have your recommenders. What do you want them to do for you? The minimum is to answer calls and say wonderful things about you; but really, you want more than that. Ideally, you want them calling up hiring chairs and talking you up, circulating info on you with each new impressive job talk offer or job offer. How do you get that?
First, you really cannot push someone to do this, but there are ways of letting them know that this is what you’d like them to do. Harvard and Chicago collect the names of all hiring chairs for their grads on the market (others schools may too), and I know that other applicants got into small groups and collectively call up the institutions that they were interested and ask them for the name of the chairs and members of the hiring committee at each school. I brought these lists (along with emails) to my recommenders, and asked them if they knew anyone, if they could advise, etc. At that moment, to a one, they stepped in without further prompting and offered to email or call who they knew, or the places that were at the top of my list.
Other people’s recommenders asked for a list of email addresses and sent a more generic email message recommending the person to the chairs. My impression is that this kind of reaching out, especially to get the first FRC interview, can be hugely helpful. If people do themselves offer to help, whether to push more directly depends a lot on your relationship with the recommender. It is an awkward conversation, but one worth having as long as you think it won’t turn the recommender off.
Lastly, I want to suggest that beyond your "real" recommenders there are also an important and influential set of "shadow" recommenders. Having been a few years out of law school when I went on the market, I benefited from having a number of friends who were already placed at various schools. I also knew a number of profs from the ranks of my judges’ former clerks whom I had met briefly at a reunion or while clerking. I reached out to these people to get their advice early on in the process. Although this was not my primary intention, it had the nice side effect of letting people know long before FRC that I would be on the market, and causing a number of them to sua sponte reach out to offer to recommend me to their chair. My view is that these shadow recommenders can be really helpful in helping to generate buzz.
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Thanks for your post. I'm not sure I agree, though, that recommenders have the impact you attribute to them. If a candidate doesn't have publications and impressive academic credentials, I think a committee will rarely get as far as contacting the recommenders. In fact, I think there is a fair amount of suspicion about a candidate with so-so credentials but fantastic recommenders. Speaking just for myself, I think there is some sense that recommenders at elite schools are looking to get their grads into teaching and will push their students out of proportion to their quality. I'm curious to read what others think.
Posted by: Sam Kamin | Apr 8, 2008 11:06:55 AM
I'm with Sam. Recommenders in my experience have rarely made a difference on who we hire.
Indeed, the only time they have made a difference is when the recommendation is LESS than extraordinary. Damning with faint praise seems to be the perfect expression there.
Posted by: Paul Secunda | Apr 8, 2008 11:29:31 AM
Sam and Paul, thanks for your comments. Maybe you could tell us a little more about how you pick your FRC interviewees? Do you look through the 100s of applicants, or scan by subject matter? To what extent does buzz figure in at all, i.e., hearing that someone is a hot market, or getting phone calls from several people who actually know you telling you take a look at someone?
Posted by: Glenn Cohen | Apr 8, 2008 11:55:33 AM
I think recommenders have a very significant role in entry-level hiring at the very "top" schools, and a much lesser role elsewhere. So while of course it's great if you have top recommenders who are willing to go to bat for you, most successful candidates outside the top 10 or so schools don't have the benefit of this.
Posted by: Orin Kerr | Apr 8, 2008 1:43:31 PM
Even if recommenders don't carry the day at most schools, my experience has been that they can at least get your application materials pulled out of the pile and considered on the merits. With so many applicants, it is easy for good people to get lost in the shuffle of paperwork. I think appointments committees appreciate those tips; and I have been privy to a few instances where a qualified candidate's materials would have fallen through the cracks without a recommender phone call or email.
Relatedly, I think many recommenders would prefer only to call people they know at schools in which a candidate has a particular interest. As an entry-level candidate, I made a list for my recommenders of the schools that were at the top of my list. Now, as a recommender, I generally ask the candidates I am recommending for a list of their preferred schools and why they are targeting those schools. I feel it adds value to a hiring committee if I can tell them not only that the candidate is great but also that he/she is particularly interested in their school because [insert reason here]. Also, I don't end up wasting a committee's time with a candidate who isn't really interested in their institution and is unlikely to accept an offer for geographic/family/other reasons.
Posted by: Kristin Hickman | Apr 8, 2008 2:13:30 PM
I know that this post is in the ancient past, but since at least a portion of it is extremely timely now, I thought to take a chance that someone knowledgeable (perhaps even Prof. Cohen) is out there listening:
Given that the first distribution of the AALS forms is not until the 18th (and assuming one is in the first distribution), what is the ideal time to bring one's list of schools to one's recommenders, so that they can contact hiring chairs or relevant others at the optimal time?
Thanks for any advice that comes of this shot in the dark.
Posted by: anon | Aug 2, 2008 4:50:54 PM
Anon, I think now (early August) would be a good time to bring the list to your recommenders if the list is done. If not I think it can wait until mid-August as well. As for when is the best time for your recommenders to make the calls, I would say that is shortly after the first FAR distribution. That way, once the hiring chair is "tipped off" about you as a hot prospect they can bring up your FAR form and, if you are sending that school a package, they can pick that out of the pile as well.
Posted by: I. Glenn Cohen | Aug 2, 2008 9:15:34 PM
Fantastic, Prof. Cohen. Thanks so much for the response. The blogosphere is a beautiful place.
Posted by: anon | Aug 3, 2008 7:09:10 AM