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Friday, October 16, 2009

The Bird in Hand Problem

I'm in Phoenix preparing for ASU's conference for aspiring law professors, which promises to be terrific.  I am going to discuss the bird in the hand problem.  Assume an ambitious, qualified attorney committed to an academic career, who wrote a paper, consulted with mentors, and otherwise properly prepared, and gave the meat market and the callbacks their best effort.  What to do if the process results only in offers (or, an offer) on the less preferred side of the distribution?  Take the job and try to write your way up, if you still want to, or go to the AALS next year?  Except at the margins, this is not a simple question, because if you want to get to the top, it is almost certainly easier to start there than to work your way up.  Nevertheless, I say: Take the best offer rather than waiting until next year.  Better to be a tenure track faculty member at a 4th tier school hoping to lateralize than an AALS FRC repeat attender.  Why.

You are not getting any younger. Schools know if you've been on the market before.  They will wonder why, as one colleague put it with respect to the junior lateral market, you were not hot last year but should be regarded as hot this year.  That thought may even cross the minds of your references, who have their own reputational capital at stake.  Of course people do it.  But, like taking the bar more than once, it is best to avoid it.

Gracious rejections are unreliable indicator that you came close to an offer.  When a dean calls after a visit and says "you were terrific", "you had a lot of support", or even "I, for one, would love to work with you" make sure you pay attention to the "we are unable to pursue your candidacy further" part.  It may be that you came in second in X interviews at dream schools, or it may be that you were not in the running because you were perceived as not far enough along.

Many things that people do with that additional year do not materially improve their attractiveness.  Candidates don't get rejected from top schools for want of an additional year of law practice, or because they don't look as good as candidates who taught another semester of legal writing.  A really good paper is what gives you a shot at an excellent school; if you didn't close, it may well have been because readers (or listeners) weren't sold on your paper.  Another year on the market will mean looking for a job, probably in another city, while doing some other job.  These sorts of demands may not be conducive to doing a lot of high quality writing.

People are hired based on a prediction of how good they will be as mature scholars.  That's based on an extrapolation from how good they are now.  Two or three years at a lower ranked school may provide the opportunity for scholarship, mentoring, conferencing, etc. that will let you write the best paper you can, a paper that will let hiring committees think you are under-placed, and fantasize about how great you will be in the years to come.

Posted by Marc Miller on October 16, 2009 at 08:07 PM | Permalink


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Also, let's not forget that it's a really great job pretty much no matter where you do it. Thus, as my mother used to say, "You should have that problem."

Posted by: BDG | Oct 16, 2009 8:20:49 PM

Interesting dilemma, and I agree with your conclusion. But one critique of your premise. Yes, it is probably easier to start at the top than to work your way up there, if by that you mean that the people who end up at the top usually started near the top in their first entry-level job. But that is not an entirely apt comparison. The people who end up at the top may have started near the top because the entry level market is efficient and picks the good people right from the start. The more relevant comparison is whether a really good scholar has a better shot of getting an offer from a top school if he is currently tenure-track at a lower ranked school, or has no tenure-track position at all. Phrased that way, I think your chances are better if you already have the job.

There is the possibility that, if you are really a terrible scholar, you might strike the jackpot in the AALS lottery; and would not be able to do so in the lateral market. Theoretically, tenure denial is meant to deal with this problem. More to the point, trying to get to the top by sheer luck is not a strategy anyone should bank on.

Posted by: TJ | Oct 16, 2009 11:03:27 PM

Additional reason that Jack speaks the truth: you may take the position at the dreaded lower-tier school and find that, because rankings are weak proxies for identifying workplaces where you'll fit in and be productive, you are in fact scandalously happy. This may seem farfetched, but it actually happened to a guy I know who comments occasionally on this very site.

Posted by: Dave | Oct 17, 2009 5:44:47 AM

I don't disagree with Jack's conclusion, but I would add one caveat: doctrinal VAPs change the equation somewhat. They give the best of both worlds--a person walks into a full-time doctrinal teaching position, and all the time it provides for scholarship, from which to go back on the market. So if the choice is between a tenure-track offer at a 4th-tier school and a one- or two-year VAP at a better school from which to retry the market, perhaps the VAP is worth the risk.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Oct 17, 2009 6:54:37 AM

Right on, Dave. And to combine your comment and Howard's, we need a little more nuance to Jack's post. As between a high-ranked VAP and a "lower-tier" offer, much depends on the institutions in question. Is the VAP one that leads to good teaching jobs? Does its faculty help and encourage the VAPs, or shunt them off to the side? Can you afford it financially? And is the "lower-tier" school one that deserves its low ranking, or is its rank unreflective of its virtues? Is it an academically energetic place? Are its young faculty strong? Does it have a recent history of juniors lateraling to "better" institutions? Does it offer strong support for junior scholars? Does it have a better reputation in the academy than its ranking suggests, or is it in the process of building one? Or is it a moribund place with an indifferent faculty? Finally, and quite importantly, would you be happy there if you ended up staying? For all these reasons, a "lower-tier" school can be a fine place to be, for the short or long run, and better professionally and personally than a VAP, although in some cases there might be sense in going with the short-term option over the tenure-track job. One question is whether folks at higher-ranked schools understand this or still just lump schools into a high-status or low-status category without considering sufficiently these kinds of facts, and that possibility may impair one's ability to move. But the fact remains that a very enjoyable and rich career can be spent outside of a select few schools, whether those schools know it or not, and movement is by no means impossible.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Oct 17, 2009 1:23:42 PM

I'd like to ask about the "except at the margins" phrase and what it means. For the meat market, I've had a couple of top 50 nibbles, 2 more from other top 100 schools, a few more from 110-120ish schools, and then I've got 4 interviews with schools that are in the very bottom of Tier 4 according to the peer reputation/judge-lawyer assessments rankings over at Paul Caron's TaxProf. (My fields aren't tax or commercial law or anything in exceedingly high demand.) Three of those four bottom-tier schools really concern me because most of the profs at those schools rarely publish outside their own school's law journal and a not insignificant portion of these schools' faculties graduated from the schools where they are teaching. It is my gut feeling that--even in this non-robust hiring year--there's a line I don't want to cross and that these schools might be below that line. Anyone have any thoughts on "the margins," where it might indeed be a simple question?

Posted by: anon | Oct 18, 2009 12:15:09 AM

Anon, first of all you are right to distinguish among the four Tier 4 schools; they may all rank the same, but that doesn't make them the same. I can't advise you on what to do, or on the broader question when it makes sense to take an offer and when it doesn't, but you might want to find out something about how those schools are doing, whether they're in any danger of losing AALS accreditation, what kind of hiring they've done in the past five years, whether there's either a new dean or a new vision at the school, and so on. As I said earlier, some schools do seem to be genuinely moribund, but some schools do try to wake from that slumber.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Oct 18, 2009 10:11:33 AM

Correct. Some Tier 4 is awful for publishing. Of course, no one can realistically tell before going to the place. Yes, you can ask questions when interviewing, but you probably cant tell what it all means until you show up.

Better to go, teach and publish, and then you've maximized your chances.

Posted by: anon | Oct 18, 2009 12:44:58 PM

I too have a similar line-up of interviews as anon above, 1 top 50, handful of top 100, and 4 Tier 4 schools. I'm wondering if someone can help me learn more about the Tier 4 schools, things I should look at as indicators of a place I might want to teach. I've looked at faculty bios and pubs and I'm seeing a lot of competitive new hires with some older faculty with less distinguished credentials (but it is my understanding this is common at many schools). Is there a way to figure out what percentage of faculty lateral out or how the school is doing otherwise (someone above mentioned whether a school was in danger of losing accredation - how would I find something like that out?) I am reluctant to move my whole family to a small town only to find that the school is sinking! Any tips toward finding info would be appreciated!

Posted by: anon | Oct 18, 2009 2:49:22 PM

I think some of the Tier 4 schools that are up-and-coming should be given a serious look at. Regardless of their peer rankings in US News, the newly ABA-accredited schools (with the certain exception of UC-Irvine when it gains accreditation) will always be ranked toward the bottom by virtue of their lack of alumni base and reputation. I think a good indicator of potential, aside from publishing by current faculty, is the quality of new hires - do they look like the usual suspects in terms of tenure-track hires (T14 schools, VAPs, fellows)? If so, I think that is good indication that, regardless of the US News assessment of a school, that there has to be something good going on at a school. Presumably, persons with those credentials will not settle for an offer from a school that is a sinking ship and/or will not advance their careers (or am I wrong about that)?

Posted by: anon | Oct 18, 2009 4:24:42 PM

These are really good questions and ones that are unexplored by other law professors; I assume this is because no one within the academy wants to alienate others by directly or indirectly disparaging their school. But how to sort out the 4th Tier schools and unaccredited ones that are worth a go is indeed a real-life quandary that I have not seen discussed anywhere.

Posted by: anon | Oct 18, 2009 9:56:47 PM

Anon dude/ette, can you please post the link to this: "peer reputation/judge-lawyer assessments rankings over at Paul Caron's TaxProf."


Posted by: anon | Oct 19, 2009 5:47:40 PM

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