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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Law School Hiring Observation II: Dante's Refining Purgatorial Fire

Professor Kaimi Wenger gives some advice about getting into law teaching without having graduated from a top 5 school.  It's all very good and useful, and well worth checking out if you are in the position that he describes. 

I graduated from Boston University School of Law, and while my experience there was absolutely terrific and I think back on law school very fondly, I think it not unfair to say that BU does not produce many law professors and that there are special challenges facing someone whose JD is not, to say nothing of the top 5, from the top 15 (or 18 or wherever the "elite" label terminates).    

Here then is another occasional observation about the law school hiring process.  If you are one of the souls who is considering the market with a non-elite JD, perhaps you might think of yourself as being thrust into Canto XXVI of Dante's Purgatorio, right alongside Arnaut Daniel.  Daniel, a 12th century provencal troubador of unusual talent, sings now through his tears as he atones for his past follies (sins of lust) and hopes upon hope for redemption.  When one is in Purgatory, redemption comes, but at some quite indeterminate future point.

Arnaut's manner of suffering is exquisite.  Dante writes: "Poi s'ascose nel foco che li affina."  After his words with Dante, Arnaut "hides himself in the fire that refines him."  He will stay there, purifying, purging, refining, until he is ready.  He will remain there for many years.  And that, I think, is what people with non-elite JDs are taken to need. 

It may well be that sufficiently voluminous writing will help, as Professor Wenger suggests, particularly if sufficiently well-placed and so on.  But people with non-elite JDs as a general matter will require more than "time to write" to ascend to the Celestial Rose.  They will require years spent in the purgatorial fire.  That may mean a Ph.D. or an advanced law degree at a very pretigious school or a fellowship or VAP (or two, or three).  It will almost certainly mean coming to know prominent and not so prominent law professors well enough that they know you, that they will have seen your purification at work in fires created especially for you.  The pace of ascent will be slower than that of your elite-JD peers, and there is always the unhappy possibility of remaining in Purgatory forever.  Dante was rather forgiving by comparison.  Difficult as it may be, then, it's worthwhile to come to love the fire, to be grateful for its refining properties.  It may even be that when you finally do make it to Paradise, you will continue to crave the fire.  

As before, this observation is almost certainly not generalizable in any systemic way; and it is surely true that factors like what one wishes to write about (public law probably adds an extra tricky little degree of difficulty) and what one's other, non-academic background adds to one's candidacy are extremely important.  So, too, will be many others.  I therefore disclaim any intention to offer this observation as "advice," lest I be cast down to the Infernal depths with Ulysses, Diomedes, and the other fraudulent counselors. 

Posted by Marc DeGirolami on May 14, 2009 at 02:44 PM | Permalink

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Amen to the importance of serendipity in the process. The only parts of the process that most candidates have control over are working hard and producing quality work. My very strongly held belief is that, for the vast majority, that hard work MUST at some point intersect with good fortune. I've been on the hiring side of the meat market interview room a few times now and I am constantly amazed at how the planets have to perfectly align for a particular individual to get a tenure track offer at any particular school. At times, the seeming randomness of it all is disconcerting. The randomness stems from the fact that there are so many highly credentialed and qualified individuals competing for any available opening. Choosing one person from out of that pool is like throwing a dart at a dart board several miles away. While blindfolded. I think back on the lucky break I received which opened up the faculty slot I eventually landed and it makes me shiver as to what the future may have been if that break hadn't occurred.

Posted by: David Case | May 18, 2009 10:46:49 AM

To both Davids, thanks very much.

David C: I must say that your piece was a source of great insight for me. I also think that the orientation of the piece -- which was exactly to highlight the centrality of personal experience, anecdote, perseverence, and serendipity in this process -- is perhaps a bit undervalued in discussions of this nature, as the focus tends to turn too much toward an analysis of what the odds might be if one pursues this or that course.

David Z: The point is very well taken. As in cooking, there's a kind of balance that must be struck between adequate seasoning and the vivid explosiveness of a fresh ingredient. Tastes will vary from school to school.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | May 17, 2009 10:58:13 AM

This is one of a bunch of great posts from you. I'd only caution that you don't want to stay in that purifying fire too long. Youth is prized! VAPing tolls most, but not all limitations!

Posted by: David | May 17, 2009 9:38:01 AM

Great suggestion -- but where are the stats? In the last 2-3 years, what percentage of new hires were from the top ten schools (way over half, right?), and what percentage followed the path described in the post? My guess -- and this certainly isn't based on data -- is that the path is real but that there are very few slots open for those people.

Posted by: taught law | May 15, 2009 6:48:32 PM

Marc -- thanks for the kind words. As I was reading your post (before seeing the reference to the Memphis article), I was thinking that your purgatory references so aptly described the journey I took over the 12 years between deciding I wanted to become a law professor (notwithstanding the extremely long odds created by having a J.D. from a mid-tier law school) and finally landing an entry level, tenure track job. The just completed academic year was my tenure application year and I've thought a lot about how much my experiences over those 12 years helped me to successfully navigate the tenure track itself. As long and arduous as the journey was, I most certainly did come to "love the fire," and am indeed "grateful for its refining properties."

It's easy to say this now -- and I'm not sure I would have been capable of realizing it during the journey itself -- but I wouldn't trade the experiences necessary to get that first tenure track job for anything. (I would, however, trade the debt necessary to pursue some of those experiences in a heartbeat.) My academic career has been and will always be the better for having gone through the purgatorial fires, which is an understatement of monumental proportions.

Posted by: David Case | May 15, 2009 12:20:16 PM

Very nice Dante mention. Add one more layer: note that "traitors to benefactors" are at the very bottom of the hellish heap. The lesson for students at top schools is clear: your benefactors want clones of themselves. Don't think independently; simply write what they would have written had they had enough time.

Posted by: CloneZone | May 15, 2009 11:05:10 AM

Xanthippas, thanks. I should also say that an absolutely wonderful take on these matters was written by Ole Miss Professor David Case a couple of years ago in the Memphis law review -- it is called "The Pedagogical Don Quixote de la Mississippi" and is beautifully written. Cervantes offers a perhaps cheerier source of inspiration than Dante, though not by much. Well worth a read. Here is the SSRN link:

http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1015090

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | May 15, 2009 7:47:10 AM

Prof. DeGirolami-

I read Prof. Wenger's post, and I think yours is an excellent follow-up. The straight talk is most appreciated! As a graduate of a way-way non-top tier law school, I know the odds of ever cracking into academia are long at best, and impossible at worst. Still, I think I might rather enjoy the process of attempting to get there, and your somewhat tongue-in-cheek post makes the thought of putting in a massive amount of effort for little or no payoff somewhat more tolerable...at least for those who can retain their sense of humor. I have a feeling I will be revisiting Dante's work many times to come over the coming years.

Posted by: Xanthippas | May 14, 2009 8:31:16 PM

It is *certainly* possible. Many (the vast majority) have done so quite successfully. But looking at Professor Solum's data, it appears that a considerable number of entry level hires had LL.M.s. My own experience was that this path was absolutely critical, for the reasons I gave in the post.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | May 14, 2009 4:21:29 PM

Thanks for your response. You were perfectly clear in the post that you weren't trying to be glib by not offering advice. I guess the question that remains is whether it's possible to develop your voice outside of an LLM/SJD program? It will be a hard slog either way.

Posted by: anonymous | May 14, 2009 4:09:12 PM

Anonymous, thank you for your question. I want to make clear that I am not offering advice not because I am trying to be coy or sneaky, but because I really do not know whether my own experience is generalizable. I simply am too new at this to know.

My own experience was that of being extremely lucky. I was able to find very devoted and rigorous mentors at Columbia with whom to study and learn in the fields that interest me -- the religion clauses of the FA and criminal law. It may even be right to say that first I found my mentors, and then I discovered my interests. Spending years with these professors, getting to know their work intimately and the intellectual spheres in which they travel, and having them get to know me and put my work through organized trials of various kinds (trials which are ongoing even now), was the crucial element, I think, in what ultimately was a success. One needs to *really* get to know them -- not so that they will "go to bat for you" or any other such nonsense. One needs it because intellectual fathers and mothers are deeply important in one's intellectual formation. The pedigree is a side-effect, but an instrumentally important one.

It isn't right, though, to say that this kind of relationship is *only* about pedigree. Pedigree is, as I say, a side-effect. The true value to me is that I really did need, and continue to need, a refining academic fire, and these wonderful people provided it. What one needs -- what I needed -- is fertile soil for one's intellectual roots to catch hold and dig in deep.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | May 14, 2009 3:24:23 PM

Hi Professor DeGirolami:

I understand you're only writing observations, but I'm going to put you on the hot seat anyway. I'm another BU grad who is interested in academia. The decision that I struggle with is whether to pursue an LLM or SJD. Is it really worth the loans, especially if your academic job prospects may not be any better after obtaining an advanced degree?

There's so much bad legal research out there. I'd like to believe if a candidate is able to produce research of merit that the candidate's pedigree becomes less important; that people put away the resumes when you've shown your work is on par.

Or is this not the case?

Posted by: anonymous | May 14, 2009 3:04:57 PM

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