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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

What I Told the Aspiring Law Professors

It was absolutely great to be at ASU for the Aspiring Law Professors conference this past weekend. My hosts were terrific and it was wonderful to meet the aspiring lawprofs and the faculty members from near and far who came to help out with the conference. Given the interest in the aspiring law professor thread here and the fact that not everybody went or could go, I thought I'd add a few words of summary from my talk. 

By way of preface, the audience was roughly divided between those with strong conventional qualifications (which I took as a given, while noting that I'd be perfectly happy if law schools adopted other qualifications besides the usual ones) who are already in or about to enter the job market, and lawyers with some interest in learning about the job market but who may not have conventionally attractive qualifications. It's difficult to speak to both groups! One wants to be supportive but not falsely encouraging. Again without agreeing with the usual measures and qualifications, it seems true to me from my experience on hiring committees that the idea that an applicant is competing with several hundred other applicants is somewhat false; a first cut at the first distribution results in rejections for a substantial number, and more serious consideration of many fewer applicants. That's good news for the conventionally qualified, but should give great pause to those who don't have those qualifications but apply anyway. Given the time and money they put into the process, it's important for them to learn about the process up front and to think hard about whether to go forward anyway. That doesn't mean people with unconventional qualifications can't get jobs: I did, despite some unconventional aspects to my resume, and so did one of my main hosts at the conference. But it's important not to go into things blind (which I take it was one of the primary, and saluatary, reasons for the conference itself). Some of those candidates may want to reconsider altogether, while others may want to think about how they can retool their qualifications and writing before entering the market.

Having said that, one of the main themes of my talk was the idea of "vocation." I take the idea of a vocation as a law professor very seriously, and I think that one who has a genuine vocation and some good reason to think they might succeed at it shouldn't throw it away lightly. To that end, I pointed out--and I'm not sure whether this was a good thing for the keynote speaker at a conference for aspiring law professors!--that I ended up having to go on the market three times. Some of that has to do with the vicissitudes of given years and hiring needs and so on, and some has to do with personal vicissitudes: the first year I was on the market, the conference came three weeks after back surgery, I was in a brace and drugged up, and I'm sure my interviews showed it. It also had to do, frankly, with not being quite ready. My job talk was not where it should have been and I wasn't as ready to talk about my work and my agenda as I should have been. I would have been better off waiting another year. My broader point, though, was that while people need to think strongly about whether they really have a vocation and qualifications, if they do they should not give up too readily, and should take some sustenance from knowing that others have succeeded on the market despite initial failure.  

My talk obviously covered a good deal of general advice about the application process, the meat market interview, and the job-talk. I won't reiterate all of that except to add that I emphasized the importance of fit with a particular school and its location. I argued that just having canned knowledge about a school based on brochures etc., while nice, isn't enough. Among other things, that information can be misleading: if you say to a committee, "I really, really want to come to your school because of your Center for X," it might turn out that that Center really consists of a single professor and that the school has no real interest in hiring more people in that field. It is also the case that many people come through schools like mine (Alabama) with questions about living in that area that either 1) end up asking the equivalent of, "How much New York is your location?" or 2) come off like anthropologists investigating the quaint custom of the natives. I argued that more important than getting a few facts straight about the school is asking that school what it considers its foundational strengths, where it is hoping to go, and how you can help. A similar attitude toward living somewhere new works as well. In short, you should imagine yourself making a life there, and ask how you can make it a better one, both for yourself and the school. Personally, I don't mind interviewing talented people who might be poached by lateral offers; to the contrary, I like it. But I do mind interviewees who make it clear they have little long-term interest in being at your school and view it as a short-term resting place; I want people who are going to be committed to the institution as long as they're there, who will make sure that any personal glories they enjoy redound to the benefit of their school as long as they're there, and who will think and speak kindly about the place once they leave. The other broad thing I said about the market is that committees are looking for prospects who are, in a sense, already tenure-ready: not in the sense that they could or should get tenure tomorrow, but in the sense that they are already confident about where they're going, and it's evident that they won't stop working once they get tenure. I also couldn't help referring the audience to Martha Nussbaum's great piece Cooking for a Job, which points out the ways in which the law hiring process rewards glibness over thoughtfulness, and urging them to keep it in mind, at least for when they're hiring themselves.

The last part of the talk returned to the matter of vocation. For me, at least, the sense of vocation means that one ought not only consider the pleasures of working in the legal academy, which are great, but also its duties. That means, at the least: 1) thinking about your students and what you can and should be doing for them, both in terms of teaching and in terms of job-hunting; 2) as a corollary to the last point, it means that even though you may have come to your school from some distant place, such as New Haven, you have an obligation to learn about the local legal market and its needs, rather than just assuming that your job is to send the top one percent of your class to big firms in New York or DC; 3) thinking about your school and how you can make it better, and not just getting wrapped up in your own work; that includes an obligation to speak up about local law school reform issues even if you're still untenured; 4) thinking about the larger profession(s), both the legal academic profession and the legal profession itself; that means that you have an individual duty to think about "law school crisis" or "scam" issues and to address them, both at your own school and in the broader environment; and 5) thinking about what you can do, once you're a professor, to pay back your debt to the many people who helped you get your job, by spotting, encouraging, and helping promising and talented academics or potential academics.

I'm not sure talking about these duties will help anyone get a job, although I suspect interviewees will get more and more questions this and next year about "law school crisis" issues. But I doubt I would have agreed to give the talk if I hadn't had an opportunity to talk about these issues. I take the idea of vocation, and the duties attached to it, very seriously. Although this is changing with the rise of JD/Ph.D's and VAPs, many entrants to the legal academic profession haven't had much of a chance yet to think about what it means to be a teacher or scholar and what duties go along with it. Once they put their heads down and start chasing tenure, it may be years before they look up again and think about these matters. I think it's important to think about those duties--especially the duty to think about one's students, and about the profession(s) as a whole--and take them seriously, right from the start.

Again, it was a complete pleasure to be at the conference and to meet some new people. I wish them luck in whatever path they take and I'm happy to hear from them via email or comments.   

Posted by Paul Horwitz on September 18, 2012 at 10:34 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink

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"a first cut at the first distribution results in rejections for a substantial number, and more serious consideration of many fewer applicants."

Paul -- I have a few me-specific questions about this. Mind if I email?

Posted by: Curious | Sep 18, 2012 11:56:34 AM

Did you discuss the rampant political bias that's in the legal academy and how it affects hiring decisions?

Posted by: da | Sep 18, 2012 11:57:04 AM

Also, did you discuss the bias against ideological hacks and morons?

Posted by: Brian | Sep 18, 2012 2:34:05 PM

Yes, no, and no, respectively.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Sep 18, 2012 2:42:33 PM

Yes, no, and no, respectively.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Sep 18, 2012 2:42:35 PM

OK, now I'm confused -- yes you mind, or yes I can email? (And no worries if it's the former.)

Posted by: Curious | Sep 18, 2012 2:46:00 PM

Email me, by all means!

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Sep 18, 2012 2:54:20 PM

Brian,

I'm not Paul, but I was at the ASU conference, and I can tell you that the topic of ultra-liberal candidates did not come up.

Posted by: ASU attendee | Sep 18, 2012 3:15:08 PM

Great post, Paul. Really helpful to all, and generous of you to write.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Sep 18, 2012 4:36:53 PM

Thanks to Paul very much for all the insights. The Aspiring Law Professors conference was wonderful. I am a research attorney by day and have taught commercial law and business organizations as an adjunct and enjoyed hearing what it may take to segue to teaching full time.

Posted by: Barbara Burke | Sep 18, 2012 8:23:04 PM

Paul, thanks in particular for your discussion about the specific duties attendant to working in the legal academy. Well said, and worth keeping front of mind.

Posted by: Bruce Huber | Sep 19, 2012 7:51:09 AM

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