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Monday, April 22, 2013

How Many Years of Famine to Follow Seven Years of Feasting for VAPs?

I was guest-blogging at Prawfsblawg seven and a half years ago when I wrote a post about trends in law professor hiring.  As that post described it, VAPs and JD / PhDs were taking over the academy.  People with a profile like mine (JD to clerkship to big law firm / government to tenure track teaching position) were becoming rarer and rarer.  Top schools were interviewing people with fellowships or PhDs, and in many cases both fellowships and PhDs.   I talked about the benefits of this shift, and encouraged candidates interested in law teaching to think about fellowships, ending my post with the words of advice: Do as I say, not as I did.

I think it is time to update that advice.

As various posts have made clear, a number of candidates on the entry level hiring market struck out this year, and they are scrambling to land other fellowships or transition back into legal practice.  I am very cognizant of the privileged position I occupy as a faculty member at an elite school.  The Bigelow Program's track record of placement into tenure track jobs is unusually good, even compared to fellowships at other elite schools, and that has always enabled the school to cherry pick aspiring academics.  Each of the five University of Chicago fellows on the teaching market this year have accepted excellent tenure track offers or are still weighing elite school tenure track offers.  But the contracting market raised anxiety levels for many of them (and for those of us who were advising them).   

Nobody knows what law professor hiring will look like seven years from now.  We can be pretty confident that next year will be a buyer's market, though.   So candidates thinking about going on the law teaching market in the next few years need to be very selective about the sort of fellowships they are willing to take.  Taking a fellowship, even at a fancy school, is risky because the professional doors a fellowship closes may be as significant as the academic doors it opens.  In a market where permanent faculty hiring is substantially constrained, the question "can this applicant develop into someone who will be hired into a tenure-track job two years from now?" has taken on increased significance among those who decide who gets hired into the best fellowship programs.

In this sort of market, those of us who are involved in hiring fellows and VAPs ought to ask ourselves at the time of hiring whether a candidate is sufficiently promising to enable us to predict with a high degree of confidence that the candidate will be able to transition into a tenure track position at the conclusion of the fellowship.  Tenure track hiring is a grave responsibility, and fellowship hiring ought to be as well. A vote of confidence from the fellowship programs that combine high hiring standards with extensive due diligence ought to entice good candidates to take the leap from practice into a fellowship. A fellowship offer that follows little vetting or minimal outreach to existing references ought to set off alarm bells for the candidate who receives it, at least if that candidate has other options for gainful employment.

In a world where promising but risk-averse candidates might still worry about taking a fellowship, schools with the resources to hire that have shied away from hiring "straight from practice" law professors in the past might need to re-calibrate their expectations so they can identify unpolished talent.  Perhaps they might even go back to reading published student notes / comments again and taking them seriously as an indication of scholarly potential (or lack thereof).  If one result is more practice experience among newly minted assistant professors, few will bemoan the trend.

In recent years, a fellowship has become a proxy for candidate quality, but that may no longer be as true a few years from now.  By then, having a fellowship on a CV from a program that isn't quite elite might merely signal some combination of commitment to the scholarly enterprise and tolerance for risk.  Decreased interest in such programs, combined with budgetary constraints, might kill off less-established fellowships.  A process that begun this year could accelerate next year.

In the short term there will be fewer tenure track positions.  In the medium term, tenure track positions may be filled by a more balanced mix of candidates with elite fellowships and no fellowships.  And for aspiring professors currently in law school, the importance of finding the right topics to write about, finding the right mentors, and finding one's voice while still on campus may become more important than ever.

 

Posted by Lior Strahilevitz on April 22, 2013 at 09:31 AM in Getting a Job on the Law Teaching Market, Life of Law Schools, Teaching Law | Permalink

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Great post, Lior. You focus on VAPs, and I gather the advice is similar for those thinking of getting a Ph.D. in anticipation of trying to be a lawprof. As you suggest, fewer spots means higher risk, which at the margins favors cautious strategies that leave other options open if it doesn't work out.

As for whether schools will adjust their hiring strategies accordingly, I think that's harder to know.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Apr 22, 2013 9:48:29 AM

Thanks for these thoughts, Lior. I'm curious, from a hiring perspective, what you think of a TT candidate who did a clerkship, then a prestigious fellowship (but not Bigelow or Climenko), and then practiced for a year or two before braving the TT market?

I feel like this fall would be a risky time to go on the market. But does it show a lack of commitment to an academic career if one practices for a year or two after completing a fellowship?

Posted by: Fellow to Practice to TT? | Apr 22, 2013 10:26:35 AM

Thanks, Orin. JD / PhDs are potentially in a different category. It seems that the academy increasingly expects candidates to earn a JD, and a PhD, and then to do a fellowship before becoming a tenure track professor. Increasingly, faculties seem to expect JD / PhDs to practice law too, and I think this is becoming especially true of hiring at non-elite schools.

A JD / PhD ought to have enough writing upon completing both degrees to practice law for a few years and then jump directly into a tenure track position. Unfortunately, I have seen many JD / PhDs do dissertations that lack compelling legal hooks or just get bad advice from their faculty mentors, with the result being that they need to pursue a fellowship to be competitive for tenure track positions.

JD / PhDs typically have already doubled-down on the academic path, so pursuing a fellowship still probably makes sense if the jump directly from practice is unlikely to produce attractive offers. But it is costly and risky to do a fellowship at the expense of legal practice. And doing two degrees, plus practice, plus a fellowship is a path that will not be viable for some candidates in light of their family circumstances.

In any event, it is hard to tailor general advice here. The JD / PhDs who are competitive for elite school hiring should get very different advice from those who are not. Any aspiring law professor needs mentors who are both detached enough to assess a candidate's prospects accurately and caring enough to level with the candidate about what is realistic. Remember that thing I said about fellowship hiring being a "grave responsibility?" The same is true for professors who take JD / PhD students under their wings.

Posted by: Lior | Apr 22, 2013 10:35:09 AM

Fellow - It's really hard to answer those kinds of questions in the abstract. So much depends on your writing, subjects, geographic constraints, teaching evaluations, etc. Personally, I don't think commitment to an academic career is something that matters much in the hiring calculation. It's not like people become academics as a stepping stone to something else. Faculty understand that this year's market has been tough, and a candidate who practices after a fellowship might correct a lack-of-experience weakness that prevented her from getting a tenure track job immediately after the fellowship.

Posted by: Lior | Apr 22, 2013 10:54:15 AM

Lior, thanks for the response. I suppose I was thinking of someone who has a JD and is thinking about getting a PhD, rather than someone who already has "doubled down" (as you say) with a JD/PhD. A few years ago, some candidates who had a JD but struggled on the market could add a PhD and would reliably become very competitive for a good teaching job. I'm not at all sure that's true anymore.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Apr 22, 2013 11:30:43 AM

The "grave responsibility" that you allude to highlights the problem with a hiring system in which candidates face long odds of getting a foot in the door, but once hired in a TT position are nearly certain (barring a major unforseen problem) of obtaining life-long employment within a few years. It seems like a much more rational way to go about things would be to assume a significant error rate in entry level hiring (some promising candidates will end up being scholarly duds, while others who initially did not garner much attention will end up being stars), hire more people, but weed more people out by denying tenure more frequently.

And I say all of this against my own interest, as I am one of the fortunate ones who has landed safely on the other side of the entry level hiring process.

Posted by: Anon First Year Prof | Apr 22, 2013 12:30:15 PM

It would be interesting to study placement outcomes based on where candidate do their VAP/fellowships. Put differently, I wonder if you could show which VAP programs produce better employment outcomes, controlling for other credentials. Having been on appointments for several years, my sense is that only the Bigelow program is "prestigious" in this sense -- that having done the program translates into better employment outcomes, controlling for other credentials (even with the Bigelow program, it is possible that the Chicago folks simply do a better job screening for potential, and therefore the Bigelow label itself is not doing much work for those candidates as measured against an opportunity to write for two years at a generic law school). Outside of the Bigelow, my anecdotal sense is that it doesn't much matter where you VAP in terms of employment outcomes, again controlling for other credentials. The big dud in VAP programs, in my experience, is the Climenko program. Labeled "prestigious" because of the school that houses it, my sense is that its employment outcomes are in recent years well below what one would expect.

To Orin's point about PhDs, there is a major difference between most VAP programs and PhD programs: PhD programs involve the development of a research agenda and a research methodology. Most VAP programs are, more or less, the opportunity to hang around a law school for a couple of years and write and teach. My sense is that the extent to which one receives mentorship that results in a well-thought out and formulated research agenda varies widely. Many "prestigious" VAP programs lack significant institutional support from the faculty of the kind that one would find in a top-flight PhD program. My expectation would therefore be that PhDs will outperform VAPs on the market unless VAP programs start to evolve more into graduate programs aimed at producing scholars. Of course, many PhD programs are not high-quality, and the opportunity cost of a PhD program is much higher than that of a VAP so the contracting market may deter folks from seeking PhDs in the first place. But my expectation would be that those that do obtain top-flight PhDs will continue to thrive.

Posted by: anonprof | Apr 22, 2013 1:13:52 PM

The point about the personal & financial costs of VAP's are well-taken. But isn't that precisely what makes them most useful? It would be great to have a system in which candidates could costlessly and credibly reveal their quality. But we are hiring for a profession in which effort and quality (whether of teaching or writing) are very difficult to monitor and incentivize. This puts a premium on ex ante identification of candidates who are internally motivated to succeed. (Tenure-standard reform would help, but is hardly a panacea for the 20+ years that follow tenure). So the suggestion that we shift to relying on less information, or less-revealing information (such as the quality of the student note), seems unlikely to have good outcomes for the hiring school or the profession long-term.

Admittedly, it is a tough question how to balance the need for credible signals of academic motivation and ability against some schools' desire to get candidates with more practice experience. As someone who offers what I think is good instruction on structuring deals without having ever done them, I'm not someone who thinks specific practice experience is essential. But I also think it can potentially be useful, and so I would welcome thoughts on how to do that balancing I mentioned.

Posted by: BDG | Apr 22, 2013 2:07:23 PM

(1) I don't think anyone has given Lior credit for the brilliant title to this post. I will. It's awesome.

(2) I've heard for years that the pendulum would swing and those coming from practice would get a closer look, with an appreciation for the fact that they didn't have two years of time to just write. I haven't seen it, but I hope Lior is right.

Posted by: Anon | Apr 22, 2013 2:07:38 PM

The way the legal hiring system works is backwards. Law professors value pedigree above all else (partially because this is what they were taught to value). They don't usually look to the qualities of a good teacher/scholar when making hiring decisions. Of course, they use proxies to predict who will be a good teacher and scholar. But usually the most important proxy is JD institution. It is fashionable to say how important writing is, and how the hiring process has changed by paying closer attention to practice experience. I think those observations are not wholly inaccurate. But at the end of the day, the profession and the academy are both obsessed with pedigree, and they are the poorer for it. If writing, teaching, and experience mattered half as much as people claim they matter, then the list of hired candidates would look different.

Posted by: anon | Apr 22, 2013 5:22:07 PM

There's another way to reduce false positives than denying people tenure ex post. Require everyone to adjunct. Some of the fanciest VAPs don't require teaching and people coming from practice are told to publish, not teach.

Posted by: To Anon First Year Prof | Apr 22, 2013 7:54:25 PM

"If writing, teaching, and experience mattered half as much as people claim they matter, then the list of hired candidates would look different."

Just to flesh this out a little. I went on the market this past year. My credentials: Top 5 JD with good (right at top 20%) grades; federal clerkship; roughly a decade of practice experience, split between a big firm and high profile government agency (not DOJ, but close to it given my field -- think like a criminal prof who worked at the Manhattan DA office); a half dozen publications (though half of those were trade publications), including recent articles in USNWR 20-30 and 60-70 mainline law reviews. I've been lead counsel in cases at every level of the state and federal court systems except SCOTUS (where I was the second or third name on the signature block).

My results? A handful of AALS interviews. No callbacks. I sent out a handful of VAP applications. Not even a sniff.

I give up. Not sure if I'm too old, or if the lack of a VAP/fellowship/PhD is fatal. Regardless, I've decided to try to go make some money. The good news is that firms generally seemed to be interested in someone with my background. We'll see.

Posted by: Failed academic wannabe | Apr 22, 2013 8:05:59 PM

FAW,
Your story is really unfortunate. Unless you bombed the interviews by saying something obviously sexist/racist/etc.--and given your background I highly doubt that--it seems like you are the type of person law schools should have always been looking for, and now claim they are looking for. It's a tough market for anyone, but you should be at the top of the game. If you really want to teach, keep trying. You sound awesome to me.

Posted by: Steve-o | Apr 22, 2013 8:35:51 PM

"If you really want to teach..." over everything else life has to offer? Not a chance. Not any more, at least.

There's a short answer to the question posed by the title. How many years of famine? Too many to make it worthwhile. And it's the academy's (and the students') loss. Frankly, the fact that the students lose is really the worst part of it, in the grand scheme of things.

As to the survey question posed by anonprof, we already did that. See TFL.

Posted by: another VAP out in the cold | Apr 22, 2013 8:53:14 PM

What aVoitc said. I spent the last three years holding a full-time job (albeit with the government) and then writing law review articles at night and on the weekends, mostly at the expense of spending time with my spouse and kids. I was good at it, too! It didn't work out. Maybe it's the market. Maybe the bias against people who have been out as long as I have is real. But regardless, I'm not going to chase the dwindling number of prawf jobs with a (probably) increasing number of hyper-credentialed wannabe prawfs.

The good news, I guess, is that I do have other options. I can stay with the government. A few "biglaw" firms have offered to take me on as of counsel with a partnership decision in a few years. My law school debt is paid off. So I'm much better off than the poor kids who graduate with a mortgage worth of student loans and no job. I won't be doing what I want to do (or at least what I want to do most -- I actually like practicing law!), but there are worse things.

Posted by: Failed academic wannabe | Apr 23, 2013 10:54:42 AM

I think saying that taking a VAP is a bad way to get a TT job in a law school is a bit like saying that getting a Ph.D. in English is a bad way to get a TT job in an English department. Few Ph.D.'s in English are getting TT jobs these days, but it's even harder, if not impossible, without a Ph.D. It's harder for VAPs to get TT law teaching jobs these days, but it's not clear that law schools are hiring non-VAPs, either. As compared to coming from practice, the VAP still seems preferable. But, as VAP programs have proliferated, this path, which seemed almost guaranteed five years ago, has become as fraught with uncertainty as the non-VAP path 10-15 years ago. I'm interested to see what happens from the institutional side -- do schools with low-placement VAPs discontinue them? Do applicants stop applying to low-placement VAPs? If the liberal arts Ph.D. world is a predictor, the answer to both is "no."

Posted by: Christine Hurt | Apr 23, 2013 11:57:07 AM

Christine -- I'm not sure that the answer is "no" in the liberal PhD world, or at least some parts of it. My spouse did a humanities PhD at a top tier program around a decade ago. They are seriously considering eliminating the graduate program (or effectively doing so) by not replacing the current tenured faculty members as they retire. The stated reason is that applications have slowed to a trickle because everyone knows there are "no" jobs (though most of the recent grads have gotten TT or long term contract jobs), so they are only admitting about one student a year on average -- and of course, many of those drop out. And it seems silly to the powers that be to have 3-4 tenured professors to support a PhD program that is producing a PhD every other or every third year.

Posted by: Spouse of a humanities prof | Apr 23, 2013 12:28:18 PM

The VAP/Practice issue is field-related, I suspect. In tax, for example, practice experience is effectively an unstated prerequisite (there are a few exceptions in the market each year, but they are the exceptions), while Vaping - not as much. It can help if you have both, but practice is the more important one. Personally, I'd prefer practical experience to be a must, except under extraordinary circumstances.

Also, I have always viewed VAPing as our weird way of compensating for the fact we are the only academic filed in which a graduate research degree is not a prerequisite for a TT position. VAP is an opportunity to gain some teaching and research experience one would otherwise get as a doctoral candidate. Which, BTW, makes VAPing completely redundant (and as far as I am concerned even a negative signal) if you already hold a PhD or JSD. In other words, you better finish your VAP with one (preferably two) good article placements, or you have essentially wasted your time.

And a final note - a practitioner who was able to write and publish while practicing is, for me, a much better candidate than most VAPs who went straight to Vaping post JD/clerkship.

Posted by: AnonAsstProf | Apr 23, 2013 1:46:53 PM

This is just one person's view, but I've served on hiring committees at both University of Michigan and Wayne State for at least 15 of the past 25 years. The credential value of a VAP was not particularly important to any of us on any of those committees. What we cared about was the quality and quantity of publications and the likely quality of teaching. VAPs can help with the first when they give candidates an opportunity to write an excellent article or two. They can help with the second when they give a candidate an opportunity to earn good teaching evaluations. (I can recall a couple of cases where committee doubt about an entry level's likely effectiveness as a teacher was resolved by excellent teaching evaluations earned during the VAP.) VAPs can also, in theory, bring candidates to the attention of a wider range of potential recommenders who can speak with hiring committees about her or his strengths. I don't recall a single case in which that made a difference, though there may well have been one. Finally, VAPs can help candidates gain savvy about the norms of legal academe, and that can help a fair amount in the interview process.

Posted by: Jessica Litman | Apr 23, 2013 3:18:10 PM

Sorry, TT = top tier? If that's the case, what does that generally include? Top 50? Top 100? I'm sure everyone has their own definitions, but I'd like to get a general sense.

Posted by: anonclerk | Apr 23, 2013 5:01:42 PM

anonclerk -- TT means "tenure track." At any school.

Posted by: Anon | Apr 23, 2013 5:08:27 PM

Whoops! Well that makes this all that much more terrifying.

Posted by: anonclerk | Apr 23, 2013 5:38:45 PM

Suck it up law school pigs, you professors got fat on the fees you charged your doomed students, why dont you all become top tier partners instead?

Posted by: desr | May 5, 2013 10:36:59 AM

To All Dear Profs,

I value any comments or advice you may give me. I am currently in practice but I feel interested in joining the legal academy. I have a JD and I'm thinking about whether I should go back to school for a Ph.D. I've only been in practice for a short period of time, which makes the risk of moving in the academic direction perhaps even greater than for others that have been practicing for some time, because if I give up on my job now, I will likely end up without both (I imagine that going back into practice after a Ph.D. would be very difficult).

The one big reason why I want to go into academia, my one motivation despite all the risk and uncertainty, is that I REALLY like teaching and writing. Theories are all I think about when I have free time.

Because I'm on the brink of actually filling out applications for schools, do you think I should contact professors at the schools where I am thinking of applying and ask for their advice of whether going down this path is worth a try (providing profs with some writing samples)? Being professors, if a prospective student contacts you for such advice, would you ignore them / hate them?

Best regards,
not-a-prof

Posted by: not-a-prof | Jun 18, 2013 5:19:04 AM

You should definitely ask. You should also reach out to your former professors and ask their advice. In many ways, you'll benefit from having mentors who are already in the academy.

Also, you might consider simply going on the market this year. I think the FAR forms are due on August 18. http://www.aals.org/frs/far.php

Finally, practice experience seems to be more highly regarded than ever before. Do give that some thought before you leave to get a PhD.

Good luck! It's a tough time to be looking for a job as a law prof.

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Jun 18, 2013 10:17:13 AM

NAP --

I have a comment and a question. First, you haven't provided enough information to allow someone to predict your chances with even a shred of accuracy. For example, if you have a JD from Yale, a federal COA clerkship, and your PhD is in econ, you're probably as close to a shoe-in as you can get. Conversely, if your JD is from a non-top 10 school, you haven't clerked, and your PhD isn't in a "hot" field (say like English), then you're probably fighting an uphill battle.

The question: What's your Plan B?

Posted by: Failed wannabe academic | Jun 18, 2013 10:55:05 AM

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