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Saturday, December 22, 2012

Filling out the FAR Form: Reflections from a Newbie

I've previously blogged about (here) my experience as a first-time member of the Appointments Committee at my school and the lessons I learned.  I now want to transition into a discussion of some of the common "mistakes" I observed candidates making either through the FAR form, the D.C. interview, or the callback interview. I'll begin with the FAR form.

I have also blogged about (here) the problems with the current FAR form and the need for changes.  Nonetheless, it is the current form that we now have to deal with, and I would like to offer some observations about how members of an Appointments Committee might use that form -- as with any writing, understanding your audience is crucial to communicating most effectively.  Obviously, I cannot speak for everyone who reviews those forms as different people and different committees focus on different things; however, what follows are some areas where I saw candidates making certain choices that I think would hurt their candidacy at almost any school.

1)  "No" Scholarship -- It was quite shocking to me the number of people who left the "Publications" section of the FAR form blank when, in fact, they had publications.  Candidates, when we search the FAR, we get a list of candidates who match whatever search criteria we used.  Next to each candidates' name is a link to that person's FAR form and resume.  Given that the FAR form is supposed to provide "one-stop-shopping" for your credentials, many of us (myself included) will only look at it to determine whether you're a yes, no or maybe.  If it's a no, I'm likely not going to read the resume.  And . . . if your FAR form lists no publications, then it likely is going to be a "no" and your journey is done at our school.  Several times this past season, the committee would assemble to discuss who to interview in D.C. and someone else would bring up a name of a candidate.  When I would respond with "Yeah, but he hasn't published anything," I was then informed (by a much more thorough member of the committee than I) that, "Well, if you read his resume, you'll see he's written 2 articles."  How lucky for that candidate that someone was willing to go beyond the FAR form. Nonetheless, I think it's a fair assumption that most folks aren't going to look beyond the basic form; thus, it would behoove candidates to ensure that the form can stand alone as an adequate summary of their qualifications.  

2)  Teaching "experience" -- My view on teaching experience is that it's great if you have it, but not fatal if you do not so long as you seem to put some thought into what it means to be an effective teacher.  However, it seems that candidates are, by and large, quite reluctant to leave the "Teaching Experience" section of the FAR form blank.  Instead, they'll list anything that is arguably relevant, ranging from serving as a mentor to young associates at their law firm to such things as teaching Vacation Bible School while in the 11th grade.  Not to disparage any of those experiences, but when I see them on the FAR form it just highlights for me the fact that the candidate has no law-related teaching experience.  And, if the experience is too much of a stretch, I might question your understanding of what it is a law professor does--not to mention your judgment in including such irrelevant things in the first place.

3)  Geographic Restrictions -- I have to admit, I really don't understand why anyone lists geographic restrictions on the FAR form.  On one hand, I really appreciate a candidate letting me know up-front that she would never want to work at my school, but by the same token, even when my school satisfies the restriction, such limitations make me question the candidate's understanding of the process and also her own self-assessment.  As to the process, as any candidate knows, it is extremely hard to get a law teaching job.  Further, to get one in the few places you deem ideal is next to impossible.  Thus, when I see restrictions, I immediately think "Well,that's not really how this works if you're serious about it."  Instead, it can give the impression of "Well, a law teaching job might be nice, but only so long as it fits in with my current life."  Second, it can come across as a bit arrogant, giving the impression that the candidate thinks his qualifications are so outstanding that he'll basically have his pick of jobs.  Now, I fully understand that there are people who are quite passionate about law teaching who, unfortunately, are limited in where they can move.  But, why not just leave off the geographic restriction and instead, turn down any interview requests from schools that aren't a fit for you?  That way you don't risk sending any of the negative signals I mentioned above, and you can make decisions based on the individual schools instead of having already eliminated every single law school located in certain state(s).  And, of course, the more restrictions you have, the less likely you are to get any position anywhere.

4)  The "Comments" section -- Like "Teaching Experience," I think this is another section one should feel comfortable leaving blank absent some compelling nugget of information that a committee might benefit from knowing.  Examples of helpful "comments," include "Please see my resume for a more complete picture of my publications"; or "Although I do not have formal teaching experience, I have served as a mentor to many associates in my firm"; "The reason I can only take a job in the Pacific Northwest is because . . ." or even "My husband and I are both on the teaching market and would like to find a job working at the same school."  Such information can be extremely helpful.  What is not helpful are "comments" like: "I think I'd make a good law professor"; "I am willing to publish articles"; or "Glee is my favorite TV show."  These are made-up examples, but the first two appear a lot in one form or another -- and, bottom line, we have already assumed that you are willing to publish and that you believe you would do a good job -- why else would you have paid over $400 to put your name in the FAR.  Thus to read that is 1) a waste of our time and 2) an indication that you don't quite understand the nature of the position you're applying for.  As for the final example I gave, I guess the "comments" section can help humanize you a bit and provide us with a glimpse of your personality, but at the time we're reviewing the FAR form, we're just making initial determinations as to who to see in D.C. -- it's at the interview that I'd start worrying about letting my personality show (after all, when you have a live audience, you have a bit more control over the impression you're making).

Again, these are just my thoughts, and I share them here in an attempt to be helpful and also to encourage others to share their FAR form pet peeves.

Posted by Michael J. Higdon on December 22, 2012 at 01:58 PM | Permalink

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"But, why not just leave off the geographic restriction and instead, turn down any interview requests from schools that aren't a fit for you? "

I would think the answer is courtesy and thoughtfulness. If you have specific geographic restrictions -- say, a spouse who cannot move -- you are wasting the time of the appointments committee at schools you could not consider. If you can avoid doing that by letting them know your restrictions, it is a nice thing to do. On the flip side, I'll agree with you about the bottom line: If you're the candidate, such thoughtfulness and courtesy is out of place and can only hurt your candidacy.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Dec 22, 2012 3:04:49 PM

How fatal/significant is it to see a lack of law school honors be for someone who has other indicators of academic excellence - and if not graduating with latin honors is it better to list annual recognitions like dean's list or awards won during law school or is better to just leave it blank?

Posted by: Anon | Dec 22, 2012 7:18:21 PM

err apologies for the missing words in the prior post.

Posted by: Anon | Dec 22, 2012 7:19:13 PM

If you have more than three publications, does it make any difference which three you pick to go on your FAR form? Should it be the three you like best that you most want read, the three most recent, or the three with the best placement, or that seem most marketable?

Posted by: Anon | Dec 22, 2012 7:23:28 PM

If you have more than three publications, does it make any difference which three you pick to go on your FAR form? Should it be the three you like best that you most want read, the three most recent, or the three with the best placement, or that seem most marketable?

Posted by: Anon | Dec 22, 2012 7:23:29 PM

Anon #2, additional publications is an extremely good use of the "comments" section. Personally, I'd list the three best/most appealing (which will usually be best placed) ones in the actual publication section, and use that as bait to get appointments committee people looking at the full c.v./comments section for the rest.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Dec 22, 2012 7:59:15 PM

Michael, thanks for the interesting comments. I will say that my "teaching experience" is probably of the type that you would deem not worth mentioning and a waste of FAR space-- not law teaching experience at all. But a solid number of the schools that interviewed me wanted to discuss, both at AALS and during callbacks, my teaching experience with high school students. While it isn't as impressive as law teaching experience, it did seem relevant to many committees that I had designed appropriate curriculum, commanded a classroom, dealt with struggling students, etc.

Posted by: baby vap | Dec 22, 2012 8:52:15 PM

Mentioning your spouse is a near automatic disqualification. Do not reveal that you are looking for two jobs in the same city. As someone who was told to be upfront and did tell schools, it was a disaster. My advice: Lie until you have an offer.

Posted by: Bitter Experience | Dec 22, 2012 9:42:37 PM

Bitter, sadly, I think you might be generally correct. However, at Tennessee this year, we made an offer to someone who put in the "Comments" section of her FAR form that she was looking for a city where both she and her husband could find teaching jobs.

And, baby vap, I think high school teaching would be perfectly appropriate to list -- in fact, any full-time or part-time job would be fair to list so long as 1) the job was academic in nature; 2) you were an adult at the time of the job and 3) you had the title of teacher/instructor/professor.

Posted by: Michael J. Higdon | Dec 22, 2012 11:10:33 PM

My views on # 3 (geographic restrictions) are evolving. When I went on the market more than a decade ago, the advice I got was to absolutely not reveal any geographic limitations, because it would come across as not being truly serious or committed to law teaching or to not "getting" what the job entails--that I think I'm so good I can refuse any job not in Washington, D.C.

That said, the nature of the market has changed just in the last 12 years that our views of geography must at least soften a bit. We are seeing more and more two-career, two-academic, and two-legal-academic couples, where geography is an issue to at least be dealt with. We are seeing more women on the market, who are even more likely to have a trailing spouse with a career. So when I see a geographic restriction now, I no longer see arrogance; I see genuine family issues--tricky to deal with, but sending a different message.

That said, I agree with Michael that it would be better to leave the restrictions space blank and simply turn down non-desirable interviews.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Dec 22, 2012 11:23:14 PM

One reason to mention genuine geographic restrictions is to get the attention of schools within the targeted region. A school may not bother interviewing a superstar that is perceived as way beyond their reach. But if this superstar is bound to the area, it's no longer a reach. Net net I agree with Michael and Howard, but it's still a possible scenario. My advice to this superstar would be: mention no geographic restrictions on the FAR from, but send letters to schools in the targeted region explaining your particular interest in them.

Posted by: P | Dec 23, 2012 1:08:09 AM

I agree with the advice to leave the geographic restriction area blank. If you do have geographic restrictions, or strong geographic preferences, you can always send targeted packets to schools in your preferred region. A targeted packet would send the signal P mentions, but would not scare off other schools.

I just finished my third semester as a tenure-track professor, so I would be interested to hear if others, especially those with more experience, appreciate the targeted packets. I imagine opinions vary, but I found the targeted packets somewhat helpful in getting the attention of schools in my preferred geographic region.

Posted by: Haskell Murray | Dec 23, 2012 8:18:43 AM

Re: geographical restriction. What's wrong with a candidate who doesn't know "how this works." Aren't you trying to hire the best scholar and teacher? From what Higdon says under 3), it sounds like the main criteria is knowing secret handshakes.

Posted by: Wants to Know | Dec 23, 2012 9:09:47 AM

Wants to Know,

The concern is with commitment, not inside knowledge. Because pretty much everybody gets tenure in law schools, any person who is hired at the entry-level is essentially hired for life. Some people who list geographic restrictions are interested in being a professor for a few years only if it's convenient; they don't really have a long-term commitment to the job. Those kinds of candidates tend to be the worst hires: After they get the entry-level job, they will write the minimum for tenure and then completely check out for the next four decades. They won't write, they won't care about teaching, and they won't participate in the life of the school. So the point about getting "how this works" is not about knowing inside rules, but about knowing that being a successful academic who is valuable to a school requires a passion the job -- and that they have that passion.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Dec 23, 2012 1:41:20 PM

Well, this makes the case for committed hires but does not answer the "Wants to Know" question, unless the mark of commitment is dedicating one's time, talent, and intellectual firepower to learning the secret handshakes. I can think of a few other areas -- within academia --where these resources would be not only be better spent but serve as more valuable proxies for commitment to the teacher-scholar's life. But that's just me.

Posted by: Ann Marie Marciarille | Dec 23, 2012 3:10:26 PM

Orin, I think that your response is half truth, half rationalization. We like to think that the reason we prefer candidates who come off as knowledgeable about the law professor world is because it shows commitment, and to some extent it is true. But I also think there is a major element that we simply are more comfortable with that kind of candidate.

I should add that this is not necessarily an illegitimate reason, or at least not as illegitimate as the reflexive reaction that "Wants to Know" seems to suggest it is. To take a trivial example, everybody wears a suit to the FAR interview, and indeed to any job interview. Intrinsically speaking, wearing a suit to the interview has nothing to do with your ability to write or teach, or really with any other type of job. But people wear the suit because it is expected and it makes you look more polished than wearing jeans. Appearances matter. Coming off like you know the law professor code is a matter of keeping up with those appearances. In some sense it is form over substance, but it is hardly unique to the law professor market.

Posted by: TJ | Dec 23, 2012 5:35:43 PM

Rational use of signals. Those who know the don't-list-geographic-restrictions rule are more likely to know other norms of the academy too (it's very cheap to learn that rule for those who have invested in all that other knowledge); those people in turn are more likely to be prepared (both in disposition and in skill development) to do the things expected of faculty. In a world where more nuanced information about any given candidate has (opportunity) costs that's a perfectly reasonable heuristic.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Dec 23, 2012 6:42:39 PM

It's not about secret handshakes. It's about commitment to teaching, which does include going wherever one may be fortunate enough to get a job. Many of the best schools and jobs are in, for many people, less-than-ideal geographic locations. And most of us can't control this one aspect of the job. But a candidate who really wants to do this (and thus, as Orin says, warrants the essentially lifetime hiring commitment) will make that geographic sacrifice.

Let me repeat (as I said in my prior comment) that this was the prevailing attitude that was passed down to me by mentors in 2000. Given changing demographics, I am not sure it still holds.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Dec 23, 2012 10:04:29 PM

AALS appears to have something to say on how to address the geographic limitations question:

Third, take seriously the geographic location questions. On the one hand, leave the "preferred"/"not preferred" lines blank if you truly would consider an invitation from a school in the Deep South, in Giant Metropolis, or Smallburg, U.S.A., or 2,000 miles from your family or from your spouse's current job. On the other hand, if there are indeed locales you would not seriously consider, be forthright and save everyone the embarrassment and time and money drain of finding out the hard way. Both of you should assess locational preferences and mismatches. You should recognize that dual careers have become something of a norm in faculty interviewing. Unless you are serious about a bicoastal relationship, a geographic veto from either party should control your geographic preference line. http://www.aals.org/frs/jle.html

Perhaps it is time for those in the hiring seats to share their reasonable heuristics with those tasked with guiding the uninitiated through the AALS hiring process.

At the very least, the uninitiated should be told "you are on your own." Improved transparency in academic hiring, of course, drove the creation of the current AALS hiring process. Transparency's moment may have passed -- or not yet arrived -- in some places but AALS surely ought not be giving cross signals.

Posted by: Ann Marie Marciarille | Dec 23, 2012 10:42:17 PM

TJ, you misunderstood my comment almost 180 degrees. My point was that we value professors who actually have passion for the job, not that we value professors who have enough inside knowledge to do things that create the impression of having passion for the job. Indeed, I disfavor candidates who have inside knowledge: The more a candidate has been "prepped" for the process, the more I presume that the candidate is all form and no substance. In contrast, the candidates who are bit clueless about the process and don't quite get the norms are much quicker to have my support: If you can succeed when you don't know the norms, you're succeeding based on substance; you're likely to be a fantastic academic once you're on the inside and the norms come naturally.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Dec 24, 2012 1:10:16 AM

Orin, I don't think I'm misunderstanding you. I understood you to be saying that the reason a penalty is applied to candidates who "don't know how it works" is because it reflects a lack of actual passion for the law professor job, and that this is the sole reason a penalty is applied. I just don't think that is descriptively accurate as a general observation about how the academic hiring market works. Perhaps YOU personally really conscientiously eliminate all your subconscious biases and therefore make your decision based on no factor except those which ought to be valued in hiring, including applying a suitable discount for "prepped" candidates. But the prepped candidates end up doing pretty well, so form matters much more than your initial comment made it seem.

Posted by: TJ | Dec 24, 2012 8:02:21 AM

TJ, there seems to be confusion about what we're discussing. I was discussing paragraph 3 of Michael Higdon's post, in which he offered his personal reaction to geographic restrictions in FAR forms; I was clarifying what I took to be a misunderstanding of Michael's comment. In contrast, you appear to be discussing "a general observation about how the academic hiring market works," in which you perceive that the market generally is biased towards those who have an insider's knowledge about the process and its norms. The two points aren't inconsistent, though. I agree with you that the market is unfairly biased on favor of those who have that knowledge as a general matter. I just don't think that his related to Michael Higdon's objection to geographic restrictions on FAR forms.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Dec 24, 2012 11:52:52 AM

Orin,

It seems we have been talking past each other (somehow this seems to occur particularly frequently between you and me in comments on prawfsblawg, though in your other blogging I don't have the same problem). Yes, I agree that the better interpretation of what Michael was actually trying to say is that he is making the argument that listing geographic commitments will hurt you because it shows a lack of commitment. But I interpreted the commentator "Want to Know" as accusing the market of being irrationally biased against non-insiders and that the contradictory messages about listing geographic restrictions (non-insiders will assume that since there is a box for it they should be honest and fill it out, insiders know better) is a trap for the unwary. To the extent that your response then seemed to argue that there is no irrational bias against non-insiders and the commitment theory is the only reason for the penalty for geographic restrictions, that is where I misinterpreted what you were saying and disagreed with the argument.

Posted by: TJ | Dec 24, 2012 4:22:45 PM

Got it, TJ. Yes, I agree that the market is biased towards insiders: It's a lot easier for faculty to focus on superficial questions than substance. I see blogging about the process as an important way to eliminate the insider's advantage: If anyone with an Internet connection can learn the same secrets, then there are fewer secrets and the process can focus (marginally) more on merit.

When I was on the appointments committee at GW, I was particularly suspicious of what I thought of as "the Yale resume." The Yale resume belonged to the recent Yale Law grad who had been a research assistant with prominent professor X and was then groomed for an academic job starting quite early in their law school career. The candidate received a great clerkship thanks to a recommendation by prominent professor X, and then wrote one or two articles based on the scholarship of Professor X. The candidate's research agenda was to apply the theories of Professor X to some new problem. Professor X would then give the candidate his absolute highest recommendation and urge us to hire the candidate. A lot of professors were quite impressed with "the Yale resume," as those with the resume had checked several of the traditional boxes -- top school, top clerkship, publication, personal recommendation by bigwig, etc. But I was deeply skeptical. Of course, Yale produces lots of great legal academics. But at the entry level, when candidates had this specific resume, you had no way to tell if the candidate had any substance. After getting into Yale and attaching themselves to Professor X as a 2L, such candidates had done nothing of any individual merit beyond following what the connections of Professor X had provided. (I'm sure this can happen at other schools, too, but it seems to happen much more often with Yale graduates.)

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Dec 24, 2012 5:37:58 PM

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