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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Law school hiring observation III: the Prawfs hiring thread

This post is not so much about the hiring process itself as the hiring thread that Dan and the other co-bloggers were gracious enough to organize and host.  As before, these are only my own thoughts and I think it worthwhile in this context especially to emphasize that they may well reflect the point of view of exactly one person.

The first time I had a go at the market a few years back, the process felt quite opaque to me, and it was discomfiting to feel that events were happening, people were being phoned, interviews scheduled, and so on, without my having the foggiest idea about any of it.  This past year, the thread helped to alleviate some of these anxieties.  But it was also a comfort to see in the thread that other people were feeling as I felt -- in the dark and not knowing what might or might not happen.  There was a kind of camaraderie that I felt with the anonymous throng -- and when one feels alone, camaraderie with a nameless and faceless horde of competitors is better than one's own special solitude.  Actually, the second time around, I was lucky to have friends who were going through the process with me and I knew a few people in the academy already who also knew that I was at it and alleviated that sense of alone-ness. 

I gathered from some comments and other responses to the thread that some of those who thought it a good idea did so because of the commonly-voiced and faintly metaphysical notion that "Information wants to be free" -- that just because data was available, it ought to be known to all and that was reason enough.  I have never agreed with this view.

Information does not want to be free.  Information does not "want" anything.  The possession of information is not inherently good or right or deserved, and it is not true that if information exists, everyone necessarily benefits from having an unceasing supply of all of it.  It is people that want information, not the other way round, and people ought to want information for particular reasons -- reasons that they should be able to articulate and explain.  Otherwise, the unabating glut of information, coming in wave upon towering wave, can become just as alienating -- just as lonely -- as the total absence of it.

For me, the thread was valuable insofar as it communicated to people what was happening with the schools in which they had interest.  That seemed important since sometimes it can happen (no, say it ain't so!) that a school is not, shall we say, as prompt about keeping a candidate apprised about the path of his or her candidacy as might be ideal (at least, from the candidate's perspective).  This is only to be expected, of course, since there is absolutely no way that any single school could possibly manage to keep all of its suitors perfectly informed (even should it want to), and a candidate's thirst for information borders on the unquenchable. 

But consider this thought experiment.  Imagine that the schools in which one was interested did keep one adequately apprised of one's progress.  Let's say that a candidate who was curious could, with no adverse consequence to her candidacy, call in to the school and get exactly the same information that was conveyed on the thread.  For example,"Yes, candidate X, we've extended 15 AALS interviews and 4 pre-AALS interviews," or "we've scheduled 3 callbacks in the areas of corporate tax, criminal law, and your area, torts."  If this were acceptable practice, would there be any point in having the thread?  Would there be any additional advantage to accessing all of this extra information?

I can think of at least two, though there may be more.  The first is that the thread can give a candidate a more general, indirect sense of the strength of his or her candidacy.  If my area is civil procedure, and I see that lots of schools are scheduling civ. pro. callbacks but no one has called me, I now gain a better sense for the way in which my candidacy is being perceived.  Admittedly, it's an imperfect indicator -- I don't know for sure that I wasn't called back because my candidacy was weak -- there might be other reasons.  But I do get some sort of unfortunate, but probably necessary, critical appraisal, and my expectations can begin to shift gradually, as can my plans.

But the second reason is the one that I alluded to above.  The thread can itself be a comfort in what is an otherwise quite solitary process.  It can be a wildly imperfect substitute for "friends" with whom to share the experience -- albeit faceless and nameless virtual friends (whom you don't know, and who don't know you right back).  And it can be a small help, a teeny tiny little comfort, to know about some fellow souls with whom to travel through this process.  Maybe the thread goes some small way toward that end as well. 

Posted by Marc DeGirolami on May 23, 2009 at 03:50 PM | Permalink


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James, thanks for the comment -- both the geneaology of the phrase and its current meaning. I am importing from a context within which you are expert and the phrase is at home.

To me, and in the context of the hiring thread here, the phrase implied that we would all be better off if we embraced the fact that the truth will out, so to speak -- that because information exists, everyone would be better off -- happier -- if we stopped resisting the urge to have as much of it as we possibly can and just drink it all down. It seemed to me to become its own argument for the thread, with no other explanation needed.

I disagree with that meaning because I think that people ought to think about whether information is worth having. Information is not its own reason. And I am pleased to learn that this connotation is a corruption of the original meaning of the phrase.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | May 23, 2009 6:07:32 PM

"Information wants to be free" started out as a claim about price, not availability. The full Stewart Brand quotation was:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

Over time, the phrase changed in two ways. First, the "expensive" part went by the wayside. And second, people started thinking about information's desire as being directed towards unlimited distribution, rather than towards zero cost (though the two are obviously related.)

I've always understood the phrase, in this newest and most common usage, to be talking about the futility of keeping information closely restricted. Because copying has become so cheap and easy, artificial restraints on the flow of information are almost inevitably defeated. Everything leaks out, sooner or later, and winds up on BitTorrent. Note that this isn't a claim that the world is necessarily best off when all information is free, just that the natural tendency of information is to spread, just as the natural tendency of water is to flow downhill.

Posted by: James Grimmelmann | May 23, 2009 5:14:14 PM

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