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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Conglomerate on Interview Questions

A lovely discussion at the Conglomerate about interview questions during the law school hiring process.  Gordon Smith suggests that interviewers ask about law professors who serve as a model for their career, a question I recall expounding on at some length during my own job search.  A similar question could be, what course influenced you the most, intellectually and/or pedagogically, and why. 

Jim Chen, in the comments, writes:

One question I like to ask is this, "Is there a book or law review article you wish you had written? Do explain why." A shocking number of candidates have no meaningful response. Those who do respond in a nondisqualifying way reveal useful information.

Actually, I'm not sure I'd find the number of "no meaningful response" answers that shocking.  For law professors, who are born parsers, there are all kinds of ways to interpret this question, at least some of which call for a level of candor that most can agree is neither sought nor welcome in the legal academy.  Although I am not a law and economics scholar, could I be blamed for wanting to have written "The Problem of Social Cost," for no other reason than that magnificent careers are made of such articles?  On the other hand, even if we all agree to play by the rules of the same game in answering the question, it still seems hard to distinguish on the spot between articles we have found greatly influential or important in developing our own agendas, and articles we actually wish we had written ourselves.  And in the latter category, there are the articles we wish we had written because they are like our own writing, only so much better, and those that are so different from our own work that to have written the article would entail being a different person altogether. 

Ponder the question a while, if you like.  In the meantime, if you happen to be interviewing this fall, keep in reserve two potential answers to this question, in case you're stumped.  1) "I admire so many of your articles that it's hard to choose just one."  2) "The Vertical Dimensions of Cooperative Competition Policy."  [Warning: This answer may only work for a limited number of interviewers.]

P.S.: Blasi, "The First Amendment and the Ideal of Civic Courage: The Brandeis Opinion in Whitney v. California."  For starters.

Posted by Paul Horwitz on August 22, 2006 at 12:33 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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I agree with Scott Moss that we should be reluctant to find a candidate's struggle with (or unimpressive answer to) a deliberately challenging interview question "disqualifying." I assume (with others) that the point of the question is to get the candidate to talk about scholarship she/he admires -- and that is doubtless a useful inquiry -- but I find the way it is worded off-putting in the extreme and it's possible that others would as well. There is a LOT of legal scholarship that I greatly admire, but I don't "wish I had written" any of it, even though some of it might have been funnier if I'd been the author. (Indeed, I'm not sure I think it's a healthy sign for a scholar to wish she/he'd been the author of someone else's work, but I suppose there are far weirder academic fantasies.) If I'd been asked that question as an entry-level candidate I might well have struggled to find a gentle way to make that point before attempting to address (what we take to be) the actual point of the question. All of this is a very long way of saying that we need to remember that what we intend to ask and what they actually hear might not be the same thing -- particularly in the stressful setting of a teaching interview -- and so perhaps the answers we generate ought to be accorded a bit more interpretive generosity.

Posted by: Michael Fischl | Aug 24, 2006 4:21:03 PM

I think one fair response to this question would be: what is
the book or article you want me to say I wish I had written?

The process is stressful enough without being forced, in what is
ostensibly a conversational setting, to come up with some strategic
reply that's both edgy, important, novel, nonoffensive, etc.

Posted by: Frank | Aug 24, 2006 12:08:00 PM

I got that question, though I'm not sure I got it from Jim Chen. My answer, for what it's worth, was Crystals and Mud in Property Law by Carol Rose.

Posted by: Rebecca Tushnet | Aug 23, 2006 10:31:48 PM

Personally, I'd be tempted to name an article I actually did write, and then say, "oh, sorry -- I guess I wrote that... How about XYZ -- no, wait, I wrote that too..."

Posted by: Scott Moss | Aug 23, 2006 10:04:00 AM

Easy question. Pomobabble! Runner up: How not to succeed in law school.

Posted by: Positroll | Aug 23, 2006 5:41:51 AM

I agree with Scott. That being said, Hart's dialectic. No question. It's not just the substance; it's the... for lack of a better word... gumption, in the means.

Posted by: Steve Vladeck | Aug 22, 2006 2:14:04 PM

I'm just not a fan of the idea that if a candidate gets stumped on a tough and hard-to-anticipate question, that should be disqualifying. Even the quickest thinker and most thoughtful person can at times be stumped by a question that, because it's pretty clever, comes out of left field.

In my book, if a candidate struggles with a tough question, take it for what it's worth, but no more. Are there other signs the person is slow on his or her feet, wilts under pressure, etc.? Or is this just someone having a tough time with a question that's designed to be tough?

Posted by: Scott Moss | Aug 22, 2006 12:56:30 PM

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