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Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Ten Tips for Aspiring Prawfs

Many thanks to Dan for the opportunity to guest blog for the month of August.  By way of introduction, my teaching and research focus on constitutional law, civil rights, national security, employment discrimination, and education law.  This inaugural post is not about me, my scholarship, or the law -- it is dedicated to candidates on the entry-level “meat market.”

A year ago, I submitted my FAR form to law schools around the country in hopes of securing a tenure-track faculty position.  Today, I am settling in to my new office at the University of New Mexico School of Law, excited to be part of this institution and the broader legal academy, eager to help students enhance their understanding of the law, and hopeful that I will be able to make meaningful contributions to the academic community and to society more generally.  Getting from there to here is a long process.  Though I now find myself on the tail end of it, I remember what it was like to get excited when a number with an out-of-town area code popped up on my cell phone, to check this web site regularly for information and insights, and to contemplate living in areas of the nation I had never visited -- or even thought of visiting.  I can relate to those just starting out on the brave path to a faculty appointment. 

Below, I synthesize some of the useful guidance I received along my journey through the hiring process, and supplement these tips with some thoughts of my own.   

1.  Framing: The most helpful suggestion I received was all about perception.  There are obvious benefits to a tenure-track faculty position, such as a good salary and the ability to change the lives of students and others through teaching and scholarship.  And there are benefits of a more intangible nature, such as validation and respect.  In other words, a lot hangs in the balance.  The tendency may be, for those on the market, to focus on the gatekeepers in the process -- initially, these are professors on the faculty appointments committees who sift through the hundreds of FAR forms and interview selected candidates at the AALS Conference.  It can be intimidating and stressful to focus on them.  Indeed, these professors stand between you and the aforementioned professional and personal rewards of a career in law teaching.  And, compounding the situation, these professors may have many years of experience, be prolific scholars, be graduates of top law schools, and/or be former Supreme Court clerks.  They're a barrier to entry and an imposing one at that.

As I was told, however, the focus should be on you, not them.  Candidates likely seek a faculty position for personally stimulating and fulfilling reasons, for example, because they enjoy exploring some aspect of the law or assisting students grow into effective practitioners.  Interviews at the AALS Conference are an opportunity for you to demonstrate that excitement and to showcase what you believe you can bring to the table.  You’re already a serious thinker about the law -- while your CV may indicate this, you should give life to the bullet points.  Take advantage of the opportunity to grip a receptive audience with your demonstrated and growing commitment to and interest in the law.  

(To be sure, this is not to justify or encourage arrogance or overconfidence on the part of the candidate. It is only to reorient a candidate’s perspective such that he or she may draw inspiration from and find a source of comfort in his or her existing qualities rather than be frozen by the specter of facing a room of seasoned and esteemed professors.) 

2.  Control: If you don’t receive a call for an interview, a call-back, or an offer, don’t instinctively take it personally.  As qualified or as impressive as you may be, getting an interview, call-back, or offer is not as simple as the gatekeepers recognizing that you have promise as a scholar or teacher.  There are a number of factors, most of which are not under your control, which go into determining whether the faculty can act favorably on your application.  These include, but are not limited to, how many professors a school can hire given their budget and related administrative considerations, whether any faculty are leaving the school and if so in what area(s), whether a school has a curricular need in your area(s) of specialty, and who else is on the market such as a lateral with more experience and an established reputation.

There’s no point in worrying about all the different moving parts involved in faculty appointment decisions because a lot of them having nothing to do with you personally.  Accordingly, appreciate how much is not in your hands and relax as a consequence. 

3. Excitement: The faculty appointments committees at law schools review hundreds of applications.  They invest significant time into the appointments process, even though they have many other commitments and obligations, including teaching a normal caseload and working on scholarship.  They are an overworked bunch.  Then, they come to the AALS Conference where they conduct a number of 30-minute interviews back-to-back over the course of two consecutive days. 

Candidates interviewing at the AALS Conference should bring some energy to the room.  If you are not excited about your work and activities, it is not likely that the committee will be either.  Be passionate about your experience, what you hope to accomplish, and the law school you are appearing before.  To help me get “psyched” for my interviews, I listened to my iPod and specifically to songs that I knew were going to get me in an energetic mood (for me, Lil’ Wayne’s “Right Above It” and Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” did the trick). 

4. Environment: Listening to music speaks to another key element of the AALS Conference, namely maintaining a positive environment around you that is conducive to bringing out your best and that eliminates or reduces any adverse stimuli.  For example, last year, at the candidates’ lounge, I found three faculty hopefuls debating Bush v. Gore seemingly to impress or intimidate each other rather than to discuss genuinely the merits of or problems with the opinion.  I am not a fan of such posturing and as a result located a quiet spot on the second floor of the hotel where I could rest in relative peace between my interviews.  (On the topic of time between interviews, the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, where the AALS Faculty Recruitment Conference is held, is expansive and its layout can be confusing.  As a result, it is recommended that candidates schedule their interviews to give themselves enough time to get from one room or tower to the next.)

5.  Homework: Be prepared to answer some questions that are fairly common during the interviews, including what would you like to teach or what is your ideal teaching package; why are you interested in our school; what is or what will be your teaching style; what is your research agenda; is there a theme to your scholarship; do you anticipate your scholarship going in a new direction; etc. 

At the end of the interview, you likely will be asked if you have any questions for the recruitment committee.  You should have questions ready.  Be familiar with the law school in order for you to tailor your responses to the school and demonstrate credibly an interest in that school.  An absence of questions or an ability to relate your responses to the school may be construed as a lack of interest in the school itself.  Finally, be prepared to substantively discuss writings listed on your CV -- a professor on the committee has likely read one or more of your articles. 

6.  Don’t Rock the Boat: In your responses, you may be tempted to disclose some innovative way in which you want to change legal education.  The interview may not be an ideal moment to bring up your grand theory.  The faculty members with whom you’ll be speaking have been operating in an entrenched structure, and it may not be best for a mere candidate to propose, at this very early stage, say a radical idea that will alter the way in which law students learn.  ‘Get tenure, then change the system,’ so I’ve heard.  If you cannot resist talking about your breakthrough suggestion, add that you are nonetheless eager to receive the guidance and input of more senior faculty members who can help determine whether the idea is workable at this particular institution or elsewhere. 

Relatedly, you want to come across as a team player, one who works well with ohers and who is comfortable deferring to the veterans on the squad.  Indeed, if a school has called you for an interview, you’ve already met an important threshold.  To some extent, the interview is then about proving that you are likeable and someone the faculty will want to work with on papers, or have lunch with.  Be mindful of this overarching “human aspect” to the interview process. 

7. All You Need is One Partner:  The faculty recruitment process has been referred to as a high school dance in that law schools may want to know who else is interested in you, how many interviews you have, etc.  If you’re the equivalent of Johnny Football star, you’ll be able to let schools know, if they ask, that x-number of schools have interest in you.  Perhaps such popularity is a rough proxy for a candidate’s value or acts as an assurance that a particular appointments committee is selecting quality candidates.  If you don’t get many calls, don’t fret.  At the end of the day, all that matters is that a school likes you enough to take you to the dance.

8.  “Safe Spaces”: I am the first person in my entire family to attend law school, let alone join the legal academy.  Accordingly, in August of 2010, I did not feel as though I had an established network of support to help guide me through the process.  Several professors at my law school were very generous and their assistance gave me a good foundation of support.  Perhaps one of the most helpful steps I took last year was to attend the People of Color Conference’s Pipeline Program for aspiring law professors.  There, I met a number of professors who were delighted to share their views on how to obtain a faculty appointment.  I felt as though the professors were truly interested in seeing me succeed on the market.  I left the conference with an entire network of professors from around the country who cared about me and my progress on the market.  It gave me confidence knowing that others were there for me.  Those candidates on the market today should not feel alone at any point -- reach out to your law school and to others whom you admire or respect; and network at the POC Conference, the Aspiring Law Professors Conference at ASU, or similar events.  At a minimum, you can contact me.

9.  Self-Promotion: At the POC Conference, I expressed the (idealistic?) view that one’s merit should speak for itself and admitted my discomfort in openly promoting myself to others.  Professors there reminded me that I could play the "game" on my own terms (within reason, see tip #6 above), and that I did not have to participate in any strategies that did not feel "right" to me, such as telling professors I knew on a very limited basis that I was on the market specifically for the purpose of hoping they would put in a "good word" for me with their respective appointments committees.  While not actively promoting myself to a wide universe of faculty members may have hurt my chances at landing a faculty appointment, in the end I received an offer and did so without compromising myself. 

10.  Things Happen: Last year, I read stories of professors who, during the “meat market,” made a mistake or gaffe and subsequently thought they had no chance of being hired as a result.  “Not me,” I told myself, "I'm too smooth for that."  As it happens, in the middle of an interview with a law school, the professors and I began hearing some noise.  It became sufficiently distracting that one professor got up to see where it was coming from and to see if he could do anything about it.  I joked that perhaps the room next door was having a party.  I then realized where the noise was coming from -- my iPod in my shoulder bag.  I reached in, retrieved the iPod, and desperately tried to shut it off, while the professors looked on.  I apologized for the interruption, and we carried on with the conversation.  Despite the embarrassing incident, I received a call-back from the law school.  In short, things happen, and if they do try to take it in stride, remember that others have overcome disasters before, and that the faculty can be quite forgiving as they know what it’s like to sit in the "hot seat."

*    *    *

This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of suggestions, but merely some advice that I think would be helpful for someone on the market.  This advice stems from my experience and what some have told me; others surely may have differing experiences or views.  Talk to a wide-range of folks to get their particular thoughts.  If any candidates have specific questions or concerns either now or during the process, do not hesitate to email me.  I’m happy to be of assistance for a modest fee.   

I hope there is some value in what I’ve written here.  Law teaching is, as they say, the best job in the world.  It is an honor to have this position.

I wish the best of luck to all of you, and I hope to welcome you as colleagues next year.


Posted by Dawinder "Dave" S. Sidhu on August 3, 2011 at 07:53 PM in Getting a Job on the Law Teaching Market | Permalink

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Thanks, Dave. These are sensible and should be helpful to our readers.

Posted by: BDG | Aug 5, 2011 9:04:05 AM

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