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Friday, October 30, 2009

Notes from the Aspiring Law Professor Conference at ASU

Last week I attended a terrific conference organized by ASU. More than a general “how to become a law professor”, the conference was aimed at how to make the transition from legal practice or other academic fields into legal academia with a target audience of visiting assistant professor (VAPs) and teaching fellows -- attendees are already well on their way to becoming law professors. The conference began with a panel discussion and the afternoon was dedicated for mock interviews and job talks for the attendees. ASU intends to hold this conference annually and having taken part in this inaugural event, I can say it is a valuable conference for those going on the market in the near future.


I will try and summarize below some of the comments of the panelists, as far as I can retrieve them from my memory. Importantly, beyond the formal discussion, one of the nice things about the conference is that it brings together VAPS and others who are at the final stages of launching their academic career and the meeting provides a good place for developing important networks and friendships among one’s academic cohort.

Brian Leiter began the morning panel by describing the various stages of the hiring process. He spoke about the significance of knowing the details of the process ahead of time: getting advice on filling out the FAR form; planning and practicing the interview in DC; knowing what is expected during a job talk and a two day callback; following up after the visit; making sure your references are doing what they can to support your candidacy. Brian talked about the rise of the VAPS/Bigelows/Climenko/other fellowship programs and how these have meant that entry-level candidates are expected to have a stronger publication record than in the past. In fact, the entry-level market is becoming more and more similar to the junior lateral one.

Brian advised with regard to teaching that it would be worthwhile having an idea about how one would teach their main courses listed on the FAR form; for example, having in mind perhaps a casebook you would want to adopt for your Civ Pro course and a reason for choosing that particular casebook. Brian also talked about when candidates should expect the call about a call-back following DC. Usually it will happen in the first two weeks after the recruitment conference although it could happen later. An important message in his talk was for the candidate to not try to figure out the black box of a hiring committee – there are simply too many moving parts in a committee’s decision-making that it is unhelpful (and often impossible) to know what exactly they are thinking – better to focus on all you can do to make the best case for yourself. Brian has written quite extensively on the topic of the law teaching market and his advice on various aspects of the process can be found on his blog The Leiter Law School Reports, as well as in an article that can be found through the University of Chicago Website. 

Marc Miller spoke about the significance of personal connections and preparation before the final stages of the hiring process. He talked about how to prepare for the job talk and to anticipate difficult questions. For example, he suggested that even if you do not have an opportunity to give a full fledged faculty workshop at the institution where you are vapping [yes, its become a verb], you can easily gather four or five friends and family to hear you speak about your project. I would add that, in fact, making sure your non-lawyer friends understand at least the gist of your talk is key to a successful job talk [call it “the mommy threshold”]. Marc had a great suggestion about how to deal with hostile comments during a job talk/interview or in fact, any presentation: take every hostile comment as an invitation to co-author. I love that.


Jack Chin spoke about avoiding “overselling” your article and having appropriate expectations. At the same time he warned: avoid “underselling” your arguments and losing hope with too little expectations. Here is how he put it: a common mistake of entry level folks is to say they are about to solve in their job talk the mysteries of a field upon which people have been reflecting for decades. Don’t do that, unless you are absolutely sure you can deliver. A mirror common mistake of entry levels is to have too narrow of a topic or an overly doctrinal dry analysis – a topic that is basically similar to a memo or a brief on the state of the narrow legal question which you would prepare while in practice. Try aiming at something in-between those two pitfalls. Get a lot of advice.


Regarding expectations, Jack put it very well: the teaching market is highly competitive and not everyone will get jobs the first time around. And surely not everyone will get jobs at the very top of the law school food chain. Yet, this is a terrific career and if you are truly passionate about teaching and being an academic, remember that there are many law schools out there and each and every one of them has a lot to offer. At times, your mentors will have a skewed perspective and if they sound discouraging, it may be that they are thinking only about how to get a job at the very top. Be yourself and go with your passion. Finally, Jack mentioned that under certain circumstances an LLM may have some advantages over a VAP.


Orly Lobel, well that’s me, talked about the fact that schools are searching for new colleagues, which means that beyond the particular paper the candidate is currently writing and beyond the details of one’s resume, the committee is attempting to determine whether the candidate has what it takes to become a lifelong scholar and teacher. In my comments, I began by recognizing that this moment of going on the entry-level market is a stressful one, and, in particular, having to strategize about launching your academic career is not the most pleasant aspect of academic life. As academics we want the freedom to write and present and exchange ideas and in some ways, having to think about how to please others so they will hire you seems to run counter to this freedom. But I suggested that if there is a way to frame the process differently in one’s mind and actions, not as a disjointed high-stakes, high-pressure, one-shot moment, but rather as a point in time that is a continuing thread of what came before and what the future life in academia will look like, you are likely to a) find the process more pleasurable and b) do better. This is because part of finding a colleague is finding someone who senses and projects the joy of intellectual engagement. This is what I loved about Mark’s reframing of a hostile comment as an invitation to co-author: we are here for the long haul and  we love the challenge.

I also talked about how foreign and advanced degrees are much more common and attractive on the market than in the past. There are still probably higher hurdles to pass when your first law degree is from a different country and when you haven’t practiced much law in the United State. But these can be overcome with a showing of a strong commitment to becoming an academic. Again, the more general point of this is that what is important is to recognize rather than be defensive about who you are and what you bring to the table. Finally, I mentioned that as someone serving on appointments for the first time this year, I notice how much noise there is in the system and one can signal by a direct letter/email to a school that they are truly interested for various real reason in that particular school, especially if the school is not ranked in the top 10 and not located in NYC, they can increase their chances of being noticed.


Brent White spoke about making personal connections and being persistent. He spoke about sharing your work with others and following up with people in your field once you’ve made their acquaintance. The purpose of such exchanges is twofold – first, getting comments on your drafts is an indispensible part of writing academic articles. There is simply no way to do it alone in a vacuum. One must share drafts, be open to comments, revise, present and learn about the audience to which the article is intended. The second purpose is to build connections within your academic field, so that even before going on the market, there are a few people beyond your former professors who can speak about your writing and intellectual abilities. Brent mentioned that many people on the market do not have the traditional credentials but can make up for that with a couple of years as a visiting professor and a strong publication record.


Carissa Hessick spoke about the various stages of the process, and how you shift as a candidate between a “selling” mode to a “buying” mode. When you are at the DC meat market, you are in sell mode and the main goal is to get a callback, so you do not at that stage raise all sorts of questions about whether the law school is located in a big enough / small enough / fill-in-the-blank-enough town for you. At the stage of the callback and definitely at the stage of the offer, you shift to a buying mode, and at that stage you must ask all the questions that will help you decide whether the school is right for you. At this point you ask about support for junior faculty, about helping with a dual-career issue and so on. She spoke about how one should be open minded when they look at various schools. It may well be that a place you didn’t think would be your first choice reveals itself as a perfect fit for your scholarship and as a new home.


Marcy Karin spoke about going on the market as a clinical law professor. This a rising part of the teaching market – tenure-track clinical positions. Here too, VAPs can be invaluable as a step toward the permanent position. Marcy spoke about the need as a clinical candidate to sometimes educate some of the school’s faculty members about law school clinics and clinical teaching. She recommended reading the Carnegie report which recently came out about legal education.


Andy Hessick spoke about the differences among different VAPs. Some programs like the Climenko and Bigelow fellowships have reached a prestigious status and are clearly designed to give the fellows time to write, network and transition into a permanent academic career. Others are more focused on filling teaching needs of the school and with those visits, the VAP [yes, it’s a noun as well] must make sure that they are being proactive in getting to know the faculty, finding opportunities to share their work, into a permanent position. He spoke about how doing two VAPs consecutively can help build your case before transitioning into a permanent position, but probably more than two might start looking like a negative. Andy also mentioned that it is important to understand what type of VAP one is entering – while some have a strict policy against hiring their own VAPs, other schools think of it as an opportunity to get to know you closely, a 9 months job interview if you will.


Doug Sylvester, the energetic organizer of the conference and a very entertaining moderator did a great job at summarizing the pointers: network; find a mentor; be prepared. Doug promised this will be an annual event at ASU and as I mentioned above, I think ASU has put together a terrific program and service for aspiring law professors. Feel free to continue the conversation in the comments below.


Posted by Orly Lobel on October 30, 2009 at 07:50 PM | Permalink


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I did not attend the conference but it sounds very helpful. Having taught law school for 21 years after having been a history academic, I would add that a lot of candidates on the market do not grasp that the schools are looking for people who are seriously interested in scholarship on a long-term basis. Too many people think that the job is only about interacting with students in class Kingsfield-style; law school itself does not prepare people to research and publish the way graduate schools do. My advice is to go into your interviews not only with a couple of current projects to discuss but with a research program and book (s) in mind as well. An LLM isn't bad, but a Ph.D. is much better because it demonstrates seriousness. Peter L. Reich, J.D., Ph.D., Professor of Law & Director, Mexico City Summer Program, Whittier Law School.

Posted by: Peter Reich | Nov 2, 2009 8:00:26 PM

Thanks both to Orly and Josh for the recap.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Nov 1, 2009 11:48:46 AM

Orly, as an attendee, I found the conference extremely insightful. I wrote a recap of the event at my blog.

Posted by: Josh Blackman | Oct 30, 2009 11:39:27 PM

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