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Monday, December 07, 2009

How much time should a job offer be open to avoid being thought of as "exploding?"

A friend/prawf at another school writes:  Do you know what is “normal” in terms of how long most schools leave an offer open to a candidate? Is two weeks “normal” or is that the equivalent of an “exploding offer”?  Seems to me back when I was on the market I got even less than two weeks.  But that was so long ago that now I’m not sure I remember correctly.

My own sense is that the answer to this hinges on a few different factors. The communication of the offer has to be separated from the time at which the person comes to visit the school (with sig other for a sell weekend) and from the time the dean has specified all the numbers and other aspects of the offer that the candidate cares about. I also think the timing of the holidays plays in here as well as other unique circumstances: e.g., did the candidate have a long-standing wedding/honeymoon planned?

Assuming the faculty votes in early December and the dean communicates the offer with all the relevant details (teaching load/package; salary; issues re: trailing sig other) within a week of that, I would think anything less than 3-4 weeks after the full details of the offer have been made would be "exploding." I think "normal" is probably 2 months or more, but fwiw, I'm not sure "normal" is a good practice. (Prawfs/wannabees: please feel free to weigh in with your information so we can have a better sense.) 

Indeed, I'm not sure all exploding offers are bad or "coercive," especially if the candidate is told in advance of doing the interview that such is the practice of the school. The practice itself may not redound to the benefit of the school but barring unusual circumstances, it's not so manifestly unjust as to be condemnable outright. A school's choice in this regard should be driven by good and publicly explainable reasons: if there is only one slot and a few appropriate candidates, that might counsel in favor of shorter deadlines; if there are many slots and it's already near the end of the hiring season, that might warrant greater flexibility. 

I've often wondered about a related problem: ie, how schools should handle the situation where they have a number of spots that they would very much like to fill. If a school has 5 spots, for example, is there anything wrong with making 10 "conditional offers" and informing all the candidates/offerees that the first 5 to accept will get the job? Sure, the school might not get the "best" 5 of this group, but assuming all 10 offerees are good enough, does anyone see anything wrong with that? Perhaps technically, the dean would be conveying a "letter of intent" rather than a real offer, but everyone would know what the score is. Thoughts?

Posted by Dan Markel on December 7, 2009 at 12:15 AM in Getting a Job on the Law Teaching Market | Permalink

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» Exploding Offers are Evil from Discourse.net
Ive been meaning to write about exploding offers for some time; now it seems Dan Markel has beaten me to the punch except that I disagree with much of what hes written. He starts by saying that, I think normal is probably 2 months or more, but fwiw, I... [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 7, 2009 8:14:10 PM

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The conditional off idea is a very interesting one. It is unheard of in academic hiring as far as I know, but quite common in judicial law clerk hiring, especially among top-tier and feeder COA judges. It would be an interesting way to get around some of the gamesmanship involved with rank-ordering for preferences of multiple offers (see Ethan's thoughts here: http://prawfsblawg.blogs.com/prawfsblawg/2009/11/voting-your-preferences-in-faculty-governance-contexts.html) as well as some balance between decanal authority and faculty marching orders. It might give you some sense of who really wants to be there.

One other factor to consider with whether an offer is "exploding": Was this a stand-alone offer, one of many offers voted by the faculty seriatim, or was it an offer made along with several others, after consideration of all the candidates after all the interviews were done? It seems to me that a "normal" fuse is shorter in the former situation than the latter, because the school must gear up to possibly due more interviews and certainly to hold more votes, if necessary.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Dec 7, 2009 1:06:50 AM

So if a candidate is given an exploding offer (say 2 weeks) asks for more time and does not receive it, and accepts the offer only to find out at week 3 that their top choice has extended them an offer, what is to stop them from changing thei mind? I imagine reputational issues with the first school, and similar issues with the second school. But, beyond those issues what is the harm? If a school wants to behave unreasonably and make exploding offers then they run the risk of similarly opportunistic behavior on the part of the candidate. So long as the candidate is up front with their ultimate hiring school, I don't see a big downside to a candidate behaving this way, but I'm open to arguments.

Posted by: Secondhand | Dec 7, 2009 7:42:00 AM

Dan, I can't think of any other business or profession where potential employees are normally given an option on a job that extends for as much as two months or more - such extended courtships occur, but not as a rule. That is, all offers "explode", the only question being where on the time continuum. It's not clear to me why incoming law professors should be any different.

I've often thought that it's the nature of lawyers (and even more, academics, and even more, legal academics) to attempt to maximize their utility when faced with choices, rather than to satisfice. In the perfect world of maximizing or a world of perfect cooperation (notwithstanding the anti-competitive nature of it), you'd get all your offers at the same time, and have perfect information in the exercise of your options. Let's self regulate (or cartel), then, to the point that no school makes an offer before November 30, all schools make their offers on November 30, all give X weeks for consideration, and then move to the next round. I think your idea is an attempt to regulate between this and "dog-eat-dog," based on the relatively uniform hiring schedule created as a result of the school year calendar and the AALS FRC.

The idea that one can't make a choice in two weeks seems odd to me, and that kind of time pressure is likely the norm that our students are going to face out in the real world. I'd be loath to have expectations of a privilege not extended to them or others.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Dec 7, 2009 8:00:15 AM

Jeff -

Without commenting on the merit of exploding offers, I can think of all sorts of reasons why two weeks are not enough:

1. Hiring often happens around the holidays, when travel plans are not in place.
2. It is also compressed, so that there are callbacks, second visits, etc., happening at one time - there are only so many days that can allow for travel.
3. The second visit also includes the family, which may be more difficult to schedule
4. Academic hiring almost always involves a move to another city, and making that decision is more difficult than just satisficing with little study
5. On a related note, the lateral market is also very selective, such that the first job could be the last job, which make items 1-4 above even more important to consider.

So, while I think most can make a decision within two weeks, this is not your ordinary job search.

Posted by: Michael Risch | Dec 7, 2009 10:01:31 AM

Mike, I'm still not persuaded (having been in both markets) that it's that different. Each of your points can apply equally to somebody in the non-legal academic job market. I didn't mean to get hung up on two weeks. It was the two months plus that struck me as unusual.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Dec 7, 2009 10:29:09 AM

The idea of extending an offer to 10 candidates for five jobs sounds very similar to a posting in the hiring thread about what Phoenix Law was doing with FRC interview slots. From what I remember, the responses seemed to indicate that this reflected poorly on the school. I could also see potential problems with the "first in time, first in right" approach. Suppose two candidates were recorded as responding at the same time, each as the fifth responder. Would the school give the jobs to six instead of five? Would the two fives each work half time?

Posted by: Gidget | Dec 7, 2009 2:35:26 PM

I suspect the first person to reach the Dean via phone would be fine; I also bet that the school, if pressed in such a situation, could ask the Provost for another line and something would likely work out...

Posted by: dan | Dec 7, 2009 3:00:35 PM

Extending extra offers subject to a condition subsequent has another problem: some people are, for good reasons, not able to make decisions as quickly as others. People already in the same city as the law school or who have lived there can respond more quickly than those less familiar. Those with spouses who have tricky job placements will generally take longer than those with more easily-placed spouses, with spouses willing to take a leap of faith, or no spouses at all. Those with children will probably take longer than those without (and not planning any), given the need to investigate schools and allied programs. Those with special health needs versus those more robust, those who are members of some minority religions versus those not thus affiliated, those with parents to take care of versus those without . . . well, I could go on. I can easily imagine that these factors could make a significant difference at the margin. Either the candidates who need more time would lose out or they would accept offers without having completed their due diligence. Neither seems to me consistent either with a happy professoriate or with a happy hiring school, given the possibility of hiring lower choices or less happy ones. I suppose one could have two sets of offers, one for the relatively unencumbered, one for those not so favored, each with its own reserved slots, but I would think that very difficult to manage.

In a minor way, many schools already do something like this -- say, making four offers for three slots, though without that key condition subsequent. At least in my limited experience, they normally do so only when they can accommodate the n+1th hire if they have an unusually high yield -- though I do recall a dean who took the chance on a fairly large surplus of offers over slots. I think the chance paid off, at least in the sense that the school didn't find itself deluged with acceptances.

Posted by: Larry Garvin | Dec 7, 2009 4:53:02 PM

Just to echo Larry Garvin, from the perspective of an applicant with a partner, the "conditional offer" plan is just insane. It's the equivalent of announcing, "There are 10 of you we like, and five jobs available, so we'll just take the five of you who are less encumbered with significant others who have careers -- or with any other factors that would make your choice more complicated. We'll just take the single ones or those whose trailing spouses REALLY trail."

Posted by: anon | Dec 7, 2009 5:35:10 PM

Jeff, are extended courtships really so rare? Maybe at the entry level employment market, but are they as rare at the mid-career executive level? And doesn't the fact that it is a mostly artificial and regulated market in which everyone applies centrally at the same time and is hired at the same time (barring off-meat-market hiring by top schools and lateral hires, which even so are typically done in a compressed time-frame) make this dissimilar to the general business hiring market? Or perhaps, a la med school, we could go with a matching program....

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Dec 7, 2009 5:47:56 PM

Paul, I think I'm right on the extended courtships, but I will accept that the best arguments for a distinction are the structural ones you raise, rather than some unusual considerations (to visit, decide, move, etc.) on the part of academic entrants. The structural issues are not just the meat market, but also the faculty vote, neither of which have a parallel in the non-academic world. In the business world, you operate by consensus in hiring, not by formal vote (secret ballot yet!) The other distinguishing factor is that, unlike the business world, you aren't hiring for a present need, but for next fall. It's not like the school is operating without a CFO, or a brand manager, or a general counsel this minute, which is what motivates the company's hiring.

I'm sure my views are shaped by 26 years of not being in this kind of structure, and the competitive juices that I felt in the hiring process (as hirer), as well as my desire, always, to close the sale. Nevertheless, I think that in this arena there is generally more of an ethos of entitlement to maximize than to satisfice on both sides of the hiring decision.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Dec 7, 2009 7:04:29 PM

My law school has seriously considered the conditional offer route, and would do it if need be, but is hasn't been necessary yet.

Posted by: JD | Dec 7, 2009 8:42:54 PM

As I've mentioned before, I think the substantive criteria of reasonableness need to be satisfied for any offer to be fair, and that includes time for spouses/families to visit, explore options, etc. That said, and again, without endorsing it, just wondering here, what if, in the context of the conditional offer hypo, the dean told 8 people, "You have five weeks before you can indicate a willingness to accept an offer during which time you can come visit with your families at our expense. After that, the first five people to so indicate (ie, accept) will be able to join our faculty (assuming there's no problems in "recording" an acceptance." Does that alleviate the concerns raised (and again, putting aside the legal contract mumbo-jumbo of conditions subsequent, etc).

Btw, if you follow the trackback above to Discourse, Prof. Michael Froomkin has a more hostile take on short-fuse offers, and fwiw, paints me as taking a more extreme position than I actually have. As I explain in the comments there, I'm not "perfectly comfortable" with them in all cases. Indeed, in most cases, I doubt there are good reasons to do them; that said, I can imagine some situations--and apparently Michael can too--where they might be permissible and even appropriate.

Posted by: dan | Dec 7, 2009 11:15:46 PM

dan or anyone else -- if you get an interview and an offer from a school before the meat market, do the schools typically give you the same deadline as they would give someone who received an offer post-market? or do schools typically as you to decide by the time of the meat market (so as to prevent you from looking elsewhere)? thx.

Posted by: andy | Dec 8, 2009 3:00:21 AM

Short answer, Andy, is that different schools do different things.
Btw, thanks to Paul Caron for noting that this discussion has been had before in a sophisticated fashion. Here are some other links:
Dan Filler (Drexel), Are Exploding Offers So Bad?
http://www.concurringopinions.com/archives/2006/01/exploding_offer.html
Jennifer Mnookin (UCLA), Law Teaching and "Exploding Offers"
http://lawculture.blogs.com/lawculture/2006/01/law_teaching_an.html

One more addendum:
While it's easy to think of hypos where an expiration date of 2 weeks from the detailed offer seems very fast and perhaps coercive, I was wondering if there'd be more agreement about some situations where it doesn't seem too unreasonable. For instance, say you live on the Upper West Side of NYC and teach at St. John's, Pace or Hofstra. All of a sudden, Columbia makes you an offer that offers a raise of 50% and housing/tuition for kids to boot. Does 2 weeks seem all that crazy there? I suspect not. While this situation may be quite rare (perhaps the more likely scenario is the person moves from Fordham to CLS or CLS to NYU or NYU to Columbia, or BLS to Cardozo or ...), would 2 weeks really be so terrible there? Probably not. Most of the due diligence has probably been done up front. Again, the 2 weeks or less deadline is not advisable on my account in most situations, but, as I mentioned before, probably not condemnable as "evil" if the school has good and articulable reasons for doing so where the mental/physical transaction costs to the move are lower.

Posted by: dan | Dec 8, 2009 10:28:14 PM

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