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Sunday, September 24, 2006

Meat-market ethics (or not)

Jim Chen and his Moneylaw crew have been discussing the value of certain credentials to appointments committees, a topic that’s been blogged about, and even written about, before. Much of this discussion’s focus has been on the relationship between various credentials and a candidate’s expected future success, and how those credentials in turn have value among market employers. The “moneyball” angle is that certain credentials are over-valued by employers and others are under-valued, and the entrepreneurial employer who cannot afford to compete for candidates with over-valued credential needs to pursue a strategy based on identifying candidates whom the market will under-value.

I’d like to view this process from the reverse angle. Imagine, if you will, that you are a candidate with a sufficiently strong package of the “right credentials” that you’re getting invitations to on-campus interviews at [fill in a top-20 but not top-5 law school] before AALS, and your meat-market dance-card is filled with other elite top and less-elite top schools. You're hot, you're smart, and you're sufficiently slick to give you a better than even chance of ace-ing, or at least not-bombing, a job talk. (Congratulations!) Law school ranked #75 (this is a hypo -- I have no wish to call out this year's #75 for this) calls you for a meat-market interview. It’s located in a place that is unattractive to you for some reason. You wouldn’t take a job there if you had other options, and probably even if you didn't; indeed, chances are quite good you might not even go on a campus interview except to practice your interviewing skills and job-talk, and perhaps to try to leverage an offer from Law School #75 at another school. (I could change the facts a little to say Law School #75 called you early for a AALS interview, you accepted, and now you're wondering whether you shouldn't just call back and cancel.)

Question: precisely what responsibility, if any, does a candidate whose credentials lead to “hotness” in the market have to their suitors?

I’ve come up with three possible answers, and I’d be interested in hearing comments or being told that I’m missing something:

One answer: You have no responsibility. If the suitor wants you and knows, or should know (based on your credentials), that you’re hot, then it’s up to the suitor to decide to invest a meat-market spot and an on-campus interview on the (false) hope that you’d accept an offer.

Alternative answer: Some responsibility to Law School #75. The school has embarked on an effort to recruit you in good faith. If you honestly have no interest in accepting a job from it, you shouldn’t be wasting its time. This is a version of the law review game where authors (not me! I swear!) submit to every journal in the known universe in hopes of trading up to the small number of journals at the top of their preference order with no intention of publishing with anyone outside the top ranks of his preference order. I think it’s ethically suspect (and as I recall, Eugene Volokh has made this point) to submit to a process whose outcome you have no serious interest in accepting. Of course, note the irony: Here’s a law school faculty crying when it’s the victim of a game that its own faculty might play when it’s law student editors, not themselves, who are poised to be taken in. More persuasively, though, I think if the law school has chosen to invest its resources in recruiting you, it should have to deal with the consequences that its efforts will fail. In this scenario, the exploding job offer seems not only rational but perhaps even ethically defensible. How else can a school reveal the preferences of a candidate it really wants when it’s afraid that its desire is unreciprocated?

A different alternative answer, and to me the one that’s most persuasive: Some responsibility but only to the candidates who may not get the meat-market interview and/or the on-campus interview you don't want because you have wasted the school’s time and attention. One question, obviously, is whether this actually happens -- so do me the favor of assuming that this does happen or might happen. Again, there’s little reason to feel sympathetic for Law School #75. The meat market offers a significant number of slots for schools that plan to attend both days. There’s no real harm in a school using a couple of those slots for candidates that represent a “reach” for it, in the hope either that you actually have a reason to be interested in #75 (maybe you have family there) or that they can sell you on the school or that you may ultimately get no offer that you'd prefer more to theirs. But it may get tricky if you get an early call-back and you get an offer that you let sit for a long period of time, stringing Law School #75 along while you attempt to trade up to a school you prefer. Here, I can imagine scenarios where a very worthy candidate who would love to be at Law School #75 is ultimately frozen out because of another candidate who’s sitting on a job offer. In that instance, there may be reason to feel bad for the other candidate, and to consider your actions to be questionable.

Posted by Mark Fenster on September 24, 2006 at 04:52 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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I agree with Mike's "no possible way that the candidate would accept an offer" standard. There's nothing unethical about hot candidate using a mid-ranked school as a "safety" option, in part because the hiring cmte at the mid-ranked school is almost certainly well-informed enough to know they're a safety choice for the "star" candidate.

I'd add one additional point of ethics for the star candidate interviewing at the mid-ranked school: don't phone it in during the interview. "Star" candidates sometimes think, "they'd be lucky to get me, so this interveiw is about THEM convincing ME, not vice-versa." That attitude shows, and it's why "stars" sometimes do NOT get an offer from mid-ranked schools where they interview.

Posted by: Scott Moss | Sep 25, 2006 9:55:27 AM

The other complicating factor is that preferences sometimes change substantially while in the process. I was a hot candidate with a bunch of interviews in the top 10. I ended up scheduling some of my interviews at schools ranked 50-100 and declining others; my reasons were essentially random. I did not do as well as I hoped in the market, but still had a few offers to choose from. Though I had offers in the top 30-35, I ended up picking a school that was ranked somewhere in the 70's because I liked the people, was offered a great course package, and the location worked for my family. If I had ranked the schools I was interviewing at before Washington, the place I ended up might have been dead last, but by the end of the process it was in the top half of my preference list.

Posted by: Tier two prof | Sep 25, 2006 9:45:40 AM

A related question: What's the ethical obligation for a school in terms of who they interview? Some top schools interview even when they know they won't hire anyone; some interview lots of people just to get a feel for who is on the market even though they have no intention of hiring anyone.

Posted by: lawprof | Sep 25, 2006 3:01:47 AM

I largely agree with "on the market." There is one "ethical" obligation, in my view: If there is no possible way that the candidate would accept an offer from the lesser-ranked school, then one should not accept the interview request. Candidates should not use interviews merely as practice sessions for the interviews that matter to them, though it is of course acceptable to schedule the most desirable interviews later to take advantage of lessons learned in earlier interviews.

I think a stricter rule would be bad for both the schools and the candidates. Schools use interviews both as a way to screen potential hires and as a way of selling the candidates on the school. ("Is there anything we can tell you about our school?" "Isn't our campus pretty?") I think that if the candidate views himself or herself as subject to persuasion during an interview, the candidate should do the interview, and I think that the lesser-ranked schools would appreciate the opportunity to make their pitch. (If they want a frank assessment of how they rank in your mind, they can ask.)

The biggest practical factor, though, is that cited above: Candidates should accept interview invitations from all schools where they would consider working until their slots are full, because one should maximize his of her chances of being hired.

I would not care at this stage about exploding offers. One should not turn down an interview figuring that if an offer is made it might interfere with one's ability to be considered by a different school. If the exploding offer is truly unreasonable, that is grounds for rejecting the offer. I would not jump the gun, though, and skip schools that might be willing to allow a candidate a reasonable amount of time to consider options.

Posted by: Mike Dimino | Sep 24, 2006 7:03:22 PM

In response to "on the market"'s cogent comments, I've made the hypo more difficult: "#75" instead of "#35" (to make the school seem less attractive to a "hot" candidate) and "wouldn't take a job in that location" instead of "probably wouldn't take a job in that location."

Posted by: Mark Fenster | Sep 24, 2006 6:46:07 PM

Perhaps I'm overly naive, but as someone going on the market for the first time, my sense is that the process seems too murky and chaotic from this side for candidates to act as strategically as you suggest. I have a fair number of interviews scheduled, but does that make me "hot" according to your definition (and thus subject to concomitant ethical obligations)? I'm not sure. I do know that I'm aware of plenty of past candidates who've gotten interviews at Harvard and Yale yet ended up at schools ranked #35 or so. In such a competitive and unpredictable market, it seems wise not to rule out any options, and in deciding which interviews to accept, I've asked myself not "are there other schools I like better?" but "would I accept School 35's offer if it's the only one I end up getting?" The answer to that question is generally yes, and so I tend to err on the side of giving School 35 a chance (and I'm sure I will do the same at the callback stage).

I'd imagine the phenomenon of candiates sitting endlessly on job offers is a bigger problem, and imposing deadlines for accepting offers (hopefully reasonable ones!) seems like a fair solution. But at the interview/callback stage, you'd have to be awfully sure of yourself to limit yourself in advance.

Posted by: on the market | Sep 24, 2006 5:31:02 PM

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