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Friday, November 20, 2009

Best Practices for Appointments Committees

Though it's been a few years since I had to go on the meat market, I'm still pretty keen to make the process for newbies as relatively painless as possible, and this blog has been one way to try to facilitate that goal.  I know a number of my perma-prawf colleagues are either veterans of or currently sitting on their schools' appointments committees (appcomm); the same is true for many guest writers and readers of the blog. To that end, I'd like to draw on the collective wisdom of folks here to compile a set of best practices for appointments committees for law school hiring, and to get the ball rolling, I've offered some thoughts below. 

In no particular order, I can think of 12, some of which are drawn from the queries/complaints in the job market threads we've been running on the blog. They can be found below, after the jump.

1.    Once you have asked a lateral candidate to see if they are interested in being considered, ask the person which three pieces represent their best work that they'd like the appcomm to read. Also ask which pieces signal which direction the work of the person is likely to take in the future. If the candidate is a rookie, ask the same thing if they have multiple pieces, and ask for a research agenda too.

2.    If you bring a lateral or rookie candidate in for a job talk, follow-up with an email or call to a) thank the person for traveling and doing the job talk, and b) let the person know when they can expect to hear any news. Set a default rule: if you don't hear from us within X weeks or Y months, you can assume we've moved on to other candidates. 

3.    Backgrounding: This is something I'd like to solicit feedback on. Some schools probably check only the references provided by the candidate. Other schools are more aggressive (or perform more due diligence?), and many people (both on the committee and off it) will make phone calls to people who know the candidate. These reports are then shared informally or formally at the faculty meeting, leading to discussions of personality (or background--are they likely to come? do they have family or friends in the area?) that may go beyond whether the person would be a good colleague.  How much backgrounding is enough or too much? How much prodding should people perform to see if the candidate? Are there good proxies to assess collegiality for laterals, e.g., the number of times they are thanked for reading other people's drafts? the number of times they've taught classes for sick colleagues?

4.    If you are inviting a rookie, let them know that you'll reimburse the rookie for all expenses associated with the travel to visit the school, including meals, parking, and other normal incidentals, (including internet at the hotel?).

5.    Before the meat market, Appcomm should ask all rookies they are interested in to send them a job talk paper to review before deciding whether to interview them at the meat market. Appcomm should be focused on whether the job talk paper is likely to impress their colleagues prior to deciding to spend 30 minutes of time with them in DC. Making sure the Appcomm only interviews people with papers prior to the meat market will also help Appcomm sift who is likely to be ready from day 1, at least from a scholarship and fire in the belly perspective. The offset to this point is that it assumes the transition rookies are making is from a place where they were able to prioritize writing. This is not true for all candidates obviously. But part of being a successful legal academic (qua scholar) is showing a passion for writing and ideas, and so if you're not in a position where you can write and read scholarship, it helps for you to find that time at the beginning of the day, or evenings, or weekends, etc.  You'll often hear that successful scholars are the ones who are thinking of writing and articles in the shower or buying groceries...

6.    Give people a reasonable amount of time to decide to accept the offer, but explain to them if you are budget-constrained or timing-constrained because you need to do a lot of hiring and can't necessarily wait for them. Consider the following strategy: Your offer (and proposed course package) is good for a month. However, if you can't accept within that period, check back with us later on, as we might still be interested, though if we are, it's possible your teaching package might have to be altered somewhat.

7.    If your school is open to lateral hiring, it's probably better to assign the Appcomm responsibilities from Feb/March to Feb/March rather than July/August to July/August. This allows Appcomm to do a good job of setting hiring priorities before the spring semester is finished and allowing them to scout for laterals (or perhaps misplaced rookies) to bring in for late August, September and October. If the scouting has been done by June for laterals, it still allows appcomm to go through the sheets in August and select which rookies to meet with in DC.

8.    If you're not in an intensely geographically desirable location for non-prawf spouses, consider hiring more couples (or trios, etc) on the market.

9.    This is primarily relevant to point number one. If you are looking at a lateral candidate, it is probably best to first reach out and ask if they are interested in being considered by your school (in terms of subsequent reading of the person's scholarship), rather than appcomm reading first and then contacting, when the person might not have been interested in being contacted. 

10.     Related to 1 and 9: lateral prospects will be less offended about being declined pre-campus visit than post-campus visit. Equally important, it is far better for your colleagues to be spared the cost and time of bringing someone to campus if the committee is not already enthusiastic about the work before the on-campus visit is scheduled. In other words, if a lateral is being invited, it should be because the committee fully expects to support that candidate based on their own views of the work and/or teaching evals, etc--and not wait to form those views based on "temperature reads" after the on-campus visit. If the committee doesn't do its homework up front, it costs the school a substantial amount of time and money. My sense is that each on-campus interview requires at least 125 person-hours for a faculty of 30-40 people, including committee time, candidate time, time at the faculty lunch, time preparing to read the person's work, informal post-visit chats, formal post-visit deliberations. The committee, which is already heavily taxed in terms of its own time, should be leery of bringing in people with any unknowns that are knowable; that is, the committee should recognize that the patience of the faculty is thin and the currency of persuasion with the faculty is subject to depletion.

11.    Related to 9 and 10: If you're contemplating looking at junior laterals, be clear up front about what your tenure clock rules are at your school and at the candidate's school. If your school requires time in rank before tenure of 5 years and you can't give more than 2 year's credit to the tenure clock, don't bother looking at people who are in year 3 or 4 at other schools. The odds are very high that they won't be interested in sitting at your school for an extra year or two, but chances are they won't want to broach this subject up front; perhaps they'll discuss it with your dean at the on-campus visit, but at that point, you've already potentially wasted 125 person hours...

12.    If slots are few in number, it might make sense to have just one large faculty meeting after all the relevant callbacks have been performed, and then have some kind of cumulative voting scheme in place to measure faculty intensity and preferences (something Ethan mentioned the other day in a post) and to rank the candidates in order. If there are more than 4 slots available, chances are it will be fine to have several waves of offers and meetings should be more frequent. 

Ok, I'll stop here. Tell me gently if you think I'm wrong, and please add others in the comments.   

Posted by Administrators on November 20, 2009 at 10:36 AM in Dan Markel, Getting a Job on the Law Teaching Market | Permalink


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I think it's fair to say that many candidates may WANT to meet with the dean, even at the callback stage. The dean-candidate interview can be an important factor in deciding whether to continue the courtship.

Posted by: anon law prof | Nov 22, 2009 7:20:10 PM


Good thoughts, especially about the benefits of office interviews. My question was less about the necessity of the dean playing a role in the callback than how to have her involved when she wants to be involved. Is there a good reason (sounding in faculty governance or similar concerns) for channeling/focusing the dean's interactions with the candidate in favor of more faculty interaction?

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Nov 22, 2009 7:10:37 PM

As a candidate with several promising interviews at AALS but no immediate callbacks, I can say I'm grateful at this stage to the schools which have let me know they are still in the process of deciding call backs. Most of us on the market are smart enough to realize that schools' hottest prospects might get called back right away, but that there's certainly some opportunity to remain in play over the weeks to come--we do treat amount and tone of communication as an indicator of our likelihood of remaining in said play at a given school.

Posted by: anon | Nov 22, 2009 5:16:17 PM

I thought I'd weigh in on a couple things mentioned in the comments. I hadn't intended for my suggestion of one-month hard offers (with some soft possibility for later) to be thought of as a best practice, especially b/c circumstances differ for schools regarding when the offer is made (early vs late in the year) as well as how many slots are open and how many viable candidates for the positions there are. That said, it looks like there is some preference for candidates to have offer windows be reasonable and not protracted, at least when candidates are choosing ex ante.

Howard suggests any backgrounding is permissible subject to various exceptions; my concern with this is that there are no ways to check the motive and veracity of the person purporting to do the backgrounding such that the exceptions are the rule. Suppose someone off the committee doesn't like Candidate X b/c of something she's written (or the way she came across). What's to stop Faculty Member Y from saying at the meeting, Oh, I spoke to X's former teacher/co-author/co-clerk/room-mate/neighbor/lover, and they all say she's horrible for Q, R, S reasons (all of which are basically unverifiable at the time of the faculty meeting). Perhaps there should be some mechanism to restrict what backgrounding gets done through the committee so that there's a pre-meeting check about what can be said about things aside from the work or the campus visit.

As to the scheduling of meetings with candidates. I like the fact that at FSU there are scheduled meetings (usually 6 slots) at people's offices. When the meetings occur in the faculty lounge, the candidate doesn't get a chance to see the variety of offices (denying them the chance to better figure out what would working here be like?); also, it's one thing to ask or answer the same questions at different meetings with different persons. It seems worse to make a faculty member who showed up on time to a meeting to have to repeatedly hear the candidate's answer to a question that is subsequently raised by a second or third faculty member who shows up later on to the "drop-by" in the same hour slot.

My general sense is that deans' time is very valuable and they should be out raising money and meeting with stakeholders. They should also be very actively involved in recruiting someone who's already received faculty vote for an offer. This suggests that it may not be necessary to have the dean at the first on-campus visit. An associate dean's meeting on the other hand might be very important at that on-campus visit so discussions about course packages and interests can be had.

Posted by: dan markel | Nov 22, 2009 1:09:49 PM

I've been on the recruiting and the recruited side in law firms, large corporations, and the law school process. Nothing in my experience is like the law school process in terms of the lack of transparency, i.e., NOT advising candidates where they stand (recognizing that it's not one size fits all among schools, but it's pretty close). Here's some off the cuff theorizing why. First, law schools (and I assume other faculties) do not use professional intermediaries, and thus there is no accepted set of protocols of professional conduct. It's inconceivable that a professional headhunter, and a professional in-house HR person would leave a candidate simply hanging. Sometimes courtships drag on, but it's not because of what I will get to in a minute, which is the difference between maximizing and satisficing. Indeed, compare most dean searches which have professional recruiters involved. You know if you are in the hunt (as a candidate) at the background check stage, the headhunter interview stage, the "airport/hotel meeting" stage, the campus visit stage, and so on. When you are out, you get a call.

Second, and maybe it's because it's by committee, but faculties (even in dean searches) tend to engage in what I would call maximizing rather than satisficing behavior. Most corporate searches are serial, in the sense that you may have several candidates under review at one time, but there's no such thing as a B list, in which the idea is that you are really going to have a slate and then maximizing among, from first choices down to second choices, and so on. When you are satisfied, in the corporate arena, that you've not found your candidate, you let the person go. When you have found your candidate, you hire him or her. You don't try to maximize by having all the data in front of you at the same time. Obviously, the meat market facilitates this, because of the uniformity of time and candidate pool.

I'd like to think it's as easy to explain the opacity as rudeness or discourtesy, but I think there's something more structural. Saying no to a candidate takes energy, time, and leadership in the form of decisiveness. When I was hiring lawyers for my staff, our decisions on people (which weren't unilateral on my part because it required a consensus of non-legal management) were pretty binary - either yes, or no never. Unless you have a streamlined process or an empowered committee chair, you can't do that in a committee structure that requires more formalized informational processes, and voting either affirmatively or negatively. In economic terms, the transparent "no" process entails substantial cost; it's pretty clear that you get along pretty well without incurring the cost. So the default mode is drift.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Nov 22, 2009 10:17:21 AM

You have to wonder whether it's coincidental that the same hiring chair who won't often respond to inquiries habitually finds it necessary to go to his C list.

Here's a thought on best practices: take a look at the practices schools and the AALS require of law firms interviewing students, and make those at least minimum standards for law schools interviewing potential faculty.

Posted by: anon | Nov 22, 2009 8:54:20 AM

"bruised egos", "lack of handholding", "no entitlement" - nice empathy for future colleagues, anon at 7:55:06 PM. Maybe its just that derisive, dismissive attitude that results in the type of communications breakdown these commentaters object to. Or maybe you just dont remember what it was like to be the candidate, especially in this highly-competitive, crazy market. Either way, basic professional courtesy and interpersonal norms would indicate that SOME response, even "I dont know", is an appropriate one to a direct inquiry.

Posted by: anon | Nov 22, 2009 8:32:39 AM

On letting people know where they stand in the process - I have to think that a law firm interviewing at any half decent school that didn't let candidates know the score after the student inquired after a call back interview to the firm's offices would hear from the school, and in normal times might get banned from on campus interviwing. I also think a firm that treated candidates like that would, over time, have a hard time getting the best people to interview. I think it's remarkable that hiring chairs think it's acceptable or meets minimum human decency standards to not respond at all to inquiries from people they've interviewed.

Posted by: anon candidate | Nov 21, 2009 9:45:09 AM

I tried to post this yesterday, but let me go in a different direction than contact:

Dan asks about backgrounding: There is no such thing as too much backgrounding, discounted somewhat by personal or political differences, axes-to-grind, etc. We typically divide backgrounding among the entire faculty to call the listed references as well as whoever individual faculty might know in connection with the candidate.

Let me also throw out some new issues that we (I am on appointments for the first time) are addressing:

1) How do you do faculty/candidate meetings during the callback: a) Faculty offices, with 2-3 faculty members and the candidate and series of 4-5 1/2-hour meetings in different offices or b) Central location (faculty lounge, seminar room, etc.) with the candidate remaining in the room and faculty cycling through during fewer, longer periods. I have interviewed and been interviewed in both. We historically have used (b), but are considering switching. Thoughts?

2) How do you use the dean and what is his role during the callback?

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Nov 21, 2009 6:56:34 AM

Let me just interject and state the obvious: there is a difference between not giving certain or clear answers and not responding at all to an email. while the first is often inevitable, the latter seems unnecessarily rude.

Posted by: Orly Lobel | Nov 20, 2009 11:16:05 PM

I'm not sure it is a committee chair that is acting like a jerk or pouting if a candidate is complaining about not hearing back where there are uncertainties that a committee chair is not authorized to discuss with a candidate. It really depeneds on the circumstances, and often committee chairs should be cautious about revealing too much to candidates. It is not in the institutional interest of a law school to prematurely reject candidates, and I see nothing wrong with leaving candidates in limbo where there is uncertainty because a candidate is a second or third choice and other offers have been extended. In such circumstances, a law school has no obligation to explain this to candidates and I would argue that it can be counterproductive and rather pointless to tell someone "we are still interested but you are our second or third choice," especially where future decisions are contingent on the will of the faculty and are not something an appointments chair can predict.

Posted by: anon | Nov 20, 2009 10:22:12 PM

No bruised ego here. But if committee heads wish to act like jerks bc they can, then so be it. If someone calls you out on it, you shouldn't, however, pout.

Posted by: anon | Nov 20, 2009 9:16:21 PM

"Categorically false. Much of history is filled with un-responded to emails directed at committee heads."

As a former committee chair I categorically do not respond to emails requesting information about our hiring process unless there is a very good reason for it. I have seen candidates go from the lower tiers of our list after their job talks to the top of our list weeks and even months later when other offers turn us down. Of course, if we have rejected someone I will let them know, but in my experience 50-75% of candidates remain alive until the end of the season.

So here's my advice for those among you who still have bruised egos from the lack of handholding from appointments chairs: If you receive an offer and have a deadline let a chair know. If the school is interested they will get back to you. If they do not get back to you accept the other offer and move on. It is good preparation for law review submissions, and for the lateral market too where you often will not hear back. In the lateral market, my school has not advanced hiring someone in one year only to come back to them a year later. Telling them they had been rejected after the first year would serve no purpose and would end the courtship altogether.

In both the entry level and lateral markets you simply have no entitlement to hear back where there is not a good reason and I can't imagine any other profession in which the norm is an expectation that candidates would hear back with clear answers about what is often an ongoing process with many variables that are unpredictable and which change over the course of a hiring season.

Posted by: anon | Nov 20, 2009 7:55:06 PM

"Second, for those who want an email or phone call that says "you are still under consideration" I would be surprised if you did not receive such information if you needed to make a decision and asked. "

Categorically false. Much of history is filled with un-responded to emails directed at committee heads.

Posted by: anon | Nov 20, 2009 7:23:44 PM

I am not sure such "best practices" for every school and every circumstance.

First, on deadlines, I think different candidates, different times of the year, and different hiring strategies probably require different deadlines. That is the reality. Sometimes a deadline of even less than a month is entirely appropriate to an institution and its need top make multiple rounds of offers to close deals. Deadlines serve a lot of important functions for schools, including helping sort out which candidates are serious and allowing for multiple rounds of offers.

It strikes me as ridiculous that budding legal academics think that they have an entitlement to take as long as they'd like to evaluate offers. It does not work like this in any other field or profession that I am aware of.

Second, for those who want an email or phone call that says "you are still under consideration" I would be surprised if you did not receive such information if you needed to make a decision and asked. Why should you expect appointments committees to make all of the efforts to stay in touch with you when they don't know what the future holds from their end? You are much better positioned to let them know of changes in circumstances if you should receive an offer from elsewhere.

Many of these best practices appear to me to be the expectations that no other profession or academic discipline I am aware of would afford to candidates.

Posted by: anon | Nov 20, 2009 6:27:46 PM

The question of exploding one-month offers turns on when they are made. Some schools have gotten themselves into some trouble (I think) by making early offers trying to jump the market. A one-month deadline in October or November is pretty different from one in late december or January, no?

Posted by: dave hoffman | Nov 20, 2009 6:13:07 PM

" Put simply, in most cases silence implies you are still under consideration."

This is categorically false. And if schools are still considering a person, they should say "You are still under consideration."

Posted by: anon | Nov 20, 2009 5:33:54 PM

then write the candidate an email saying: "You are still under consideration." It's not that hard.

Posted by: anon | Nov 20, 2009 5:32:09 PM

Based on my own experience one reason for silence is that frequently appointments committees have multiple possibilities under consideration and wish to prioritize and leave possibilities open until the end of the hiring season. They simply don't know what is going to happen. Candidates can't always expect closure within a month of a job talk and it would be silly for them to ask for this. In my case, I received an offer three months after giving a job talk. It happens, even though it is not the norm. Circumstances change in terms of resources, priorities, and whether the top choices of a committee are available. Frankly I am not sure an appointments committee should share such internal information with candidates. Put simply, in most cases silence implies you are still under consideration.

I do agree, however, that if it is clear that you are no longer under consideration that should be communicated, but keep in mind that many commmitees do not affitmatively decide to reject candidates but keep them in pool for possibile consideration later in the year. Sometimes there will be no rejection until February or March.

Posted by: anon | Nov 20, 2009 5:01:51 PM

Seriously - responding to a email or voice mail inquiry by a candidate is NOT too much to ask. Even a "we dont know yet, but I got your message" is better than the all too common silence.

Posted by: anon | Nov 20, 2009 4:36:32 PM

I was a lateral candidate on the market last year. After callbacks with a few schools, I never heard a word from them. While I think that if a school interviews a candidate during the AALS conference, then the school should make every effort to give each candidate a formal response from the school. However, having served on the appointments committee, I have an understanding of how some people in the B group can fall through the cracks and not receive a response.

Callbacks, however, are very different from AALS interviews. They are much fewer in number and require a lot more of the candidate. If a candidate spends his or her time and flies to a school, presents a paper, and has dinner with faculty members, then a school should formally convey a rejection to the candidate either by e-mail or by U.S. mail. If the school is not able to get back to the candidate within a month, then the school should reach out to the candidate and explain the circumstances.

Posted by: untenured prof | Nov 20, 2009 1:37:28 PM


This is great ... two points I'd add:

First, regarding #9, I agree that it's wise to feel laterals out to gauge general interest level. But if Appcomms take your advice, I think they should be seen as at least commiting to keep the lateral candidate informed as to how the subsequent vetting process ultimately turns out.

Second, I have to say I'm a bit perplexed at the level of entitlement that candidates have regarding offers being kept open for extended periods (this coming from someone who was arguably harmed by feeling the pressure to accept a quickly-expiring offer). Institutions have needs and people are being snapped up real time. Law schools (particularly lower-ranked law schools) are no different than any other employers. I recognize the geographical questions can be challenging for folks, but it's not like a school makes you an offer out of the blue. The multi-stage process gives people lots of time to make a decision about particular places and you can always say no.

I understand Orly's point about wanting the people you hire to really exhaust their choices and feel comfortable with you, but let's not overestimate the comfort level acquired by another month or two. Implicitly, that comfort is achieved at the expense of being turned down by places the candidate would have rather gone and the lateral market goes a long way to answering the "What could have been?" questions

Posted by: anonprof | Nov 20, 2009 1:20:46 PM

I like these recommendations, Dan, and I respectfully disagree with Orly about the one-month timeframe because I think it allows plenty of time for the candidate to accept the position; this amount of time also gives schools more time to select an alternate, should their first choice decline (thereby also being more sensitive to the B listers, who have probably heard deafening silence, until this point). I had a bit of a rant about the lack of communication on the other thread, and I think it's relevant here. The lack of communication before the conference was somewhat excusable because there were roughly 1,000 candidates in play. Now, each schools has narrowed this number to 25 to 30, and met these people either in person or by telephone. From what I've heard from people who have served on these committees, a general consensus about those who made the cut occurs pretty quickly. Why not put these people -- many of whom will become future colleages at their school or elsewhere in the academy -- on notice early? Yes, I realize we're all adults here, but we're supposed to be teaching professionalism. Maybe it's also time to put it into practice.

Posted by: Gidget | Nov 20, 2009 12:49:14 PM

dan, these are all good suggestions. I don't think I like the one month explosion though. I tend to want candidates to be able to work through all their options within the conventional period of job talks and choose my school because this is really their highest preference.
For laterals, I would add that its a good idea to ask the candidates who on the faculty they know, with who on our faculty they are most likely to have common research interests, and to make sure those people are on the schedule for dinners, breakfast and other hosting responsibilities.
also, i think all your advice for laterals in particular goes both ways - the lateral candidate should be upfront about timing, about likelihood of being able to make the move, about foreseeable hurdles that will need to be addressed.
all good advice - i am still learning, serving for the first time on appcomm.
ps - dan, hiring trios? that's a first!

Posted by: Orly Lobel | Nov 20, 2009 12:21:27 PM

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