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Monday, November 30, 2009

Information Asymmetry, Bruised Egos, and the Law Professor Job Market

Thanks again to the folks at Prawfs for having me this month. In this last post for this stint, I would like to comment on some of the discussions in the comments associated with the various law teaching hiring threads over the past month. I could have posted this in the comments, but I've got guest privileges so I might as well use them.

While I think that the threads are a valuable service to the community and fault no one for following them, my view is that the information contained therein is mostly useless. I realize that it is incredibly frustrating for law schools to have all the information, but that does not mean that candidates are aided by having the information.

I explain why below.

First, even assuming that all postings are accurate, the information is markedly incomplete. For example, the first day my school scheduled AALS interviews was long before it appeared in the appropriate thread. Additionally, we are listed as not yet making callbacks; this is simply inaccurate. Thus, information about the schools making callback, what areas, and when is full of gaps that make it impossible to know the completely true state of affairs.

Second, more broadly, the primary effect of this information is to bruise egos. The people getting the calls don't need the information, they got the call. Thus, the information's primary value is to convey to those not getting the calls that their time may have passed. There is some value to this information, as I discuss below. However, not getting the call is a real bummer. Here are some of the stages:

  • Schools are calling, but not me. OK, this one is easy to accept; schools have different needs.
  • Schools are calling in my area, but not me. This one hurts. Schools are calling people in my area, and didn't think of me. Well, maybe they only called one person in your area if they are a "best athlete" school, or maybe your background doesn't suit the school's needs. That said, I think that this stage is the toughest to swallow.
  • Schools are making callbacks in my area, but not me. The same best athlete issues apply here, and even then, it is a really competitive market. Knowing this information hurts, especially when jobs are on the line.
  • Schools have made offers, but not to me (assuming a callback). Though I wouldn't like it, my ego can survive losing out to other quality candidates in a callback situation - there are some really talented people out there, and they can't all get hired. Even so, the offer slams the door (unless there are two offers?).

My point is that sometimes ignorance is bliss. Where the information will not help get a job, not knowing that schools are interviewing in your area but passed over you might a good thing.

Third, this leads to an important point that I think gets missed in the discussion about appointments chairs not responding to calls and emails. There is an important norm that I have learned of in legal academia -- one that I do not follow but have learned to accept without judgment. It is this: people often don't respond to emails. Sometimes ever. And not because they don't like you. I've sent emails to friends in the academy -- even at my own school -- that go unanswered for days, sometimes weeks, sometimes forever. And that's OKAY.

It's unclear why this happens. Perhaps people are busy. Or they are disorganized. Or they get way more email than I do. Or they don't feel like responding. Or they yearn for control over something in their lives, and email is it. Whatever the reason, I've gotten used to lack of email response from people who I know and especially people I don't know. And it doesn't stop at professors - law reviews quite often fail to respond to publication submissions.

My point is that while it might be nice for appointments chairs to respond to you (I would certainly like a response if it were me), you simply cannot read anything into a lack of response. It may be that you are not in contention. It may be that there is no new information. It may be that they are busy. It may be that they lost your email and you need to follow-up in the future when you need information. It may be that they are rude. It may be that they are on vacation. It may be that they are at a conference. It may be that they are busy scheduling callbacks for others. It may be....

If you don't accept non-response as a fact of life, you may be in for a frustrating time, and you will certainly have a bruised ego.

Fourth, this leads to my basic point. Because of all the reasons why you might not be getting called, knowing that others are getting called adds little to the mix. You could be out. You could be on the B-team for later hiring. The school could be spreading out the process. You just don't know, and if you try to act on a guess, you risk looking foolish. Instead, you wind up suffering in silence, and that's not helpful.

That said, there is one time that you might need this information for something productive. My recommendation (which I am certain will be ignored, and which in fact I would likely not be able to follow if I were on the market) is that you only look at these threads at this one time.

That time? When you need to make a decision. If you have an exploding offer from School A, then it is helpful to know whether Schools B-D are making callback. Even then, you could probably just call the other schools, tell them you have an offer (this is information they might want to know) and ask whether there is a likelihood at their school. The information about callbacks helps assess the amount of waffling in the response and your likelihood of getting a callback or offer there.

In short, knowing where you aren't getting interviewed is the kind of asymmetrical information that is only helpful when you might lose a bird in the hand, and not before.

I enjoyed my time blogging this month, and wish you all luck on the market this year!

Posted by Michael Risch on November 30, 2009 at 07:06 AM in Getting a Job on the Law Teaching Market | Permalink


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Michael, I don't really disagree with your logic, but let me make a limited defense of the threads and people participating in them. In short, being a robotic pragmatist is not necessarily desirable in a human being, and moreover does not describe real human beings. Sitting around without any information is extremely frustrating, and I still remember the experience (and, as you point out, regularly relive that experience every law review submission season). This remains true even if one cannot do anything with the information after receiving it, except to curl up in the fetal position. I don't expect law reviews to keep me updated or to send rejection letters; but I sure would appreciate it if more did.

Posted by: TJ | Nov 30, 2009 10:36:12 AM

Thanks for the comment. Like I said - I would have trouble following my own advice!

Posted by: Michael Risch | Nov 30, 2009 10:39:30 AM

TJ is certainly right that sometimes more information is indeed helpful; as where you're waiting for the DC subway and you can see the signs that count down the minutes until the next train arrives. This information helps you be more patient, and (if accurate) to plan your time well (no need to break out a book if a train's coming in a minute).

But this isn't really true of the information circulating around on the job market. For one thing, it may not be accurate, and that could lead to misunderstandings or (worse) bad decisions. But more than that, it doesn't really have an upside. If a school has called you, you're aware of it and that will make you feel good; if you learn that a school hasn't called you from an internet thread, that will be disappointing.

The peculiar thing about the hiring process is that even when it ends up with a good result, getting through the process entails much more disappointment and ego-bruising than success (at least it was so with me). As a result, I think the smartest strategy is to minimize that disappointment and ego-bruising, though I can see why the temptation to peruse hiring threads would be hard to resist.

Posted by: Dave | Nov 30, 2009 12:50:05 PM

Dave, I agree that getting the information has little tangible upside. Except the in case of having an offer-in-hand, the only thing that getting information about a rejection can do is tempt on to curl up in the fetal position.

But getting the information also has little downside. Yes, rejection is ego-bruising. But looking on the internet doesn't get you rejected, it only allows you to learn of them faster. The same rejection is equally ego-bruising whether one gets the rejection (1) from the school itself, (2) by inference from the internet, or (3) by inference from months of silence. Leaving inaccurate information as a problem aside (which I take to be the premise here), the difference then is only the speed and forum by which one learns of rejection. And even without tangible differences in ability to plan for the future, I think it is a benefit to find out earlier to reduce the period of mental anxiety. The trade-off is a corresponding acceleration of ego-bruising and disappointment -- but that will eventually come no matter what.

Posted by: TJ | Nov 30, 2009 9:52:44 PM

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