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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

One Risk (But for Whom?) of Informed Questioning at the Meat Market

I hope to get around to responding to the comments on my post on the last five minutes of the meat market interview.  I thought, though, while it's fresh on my mind, that I'd add another detail.  One of the ideas I've seen floating around in the recent discussions is that one of the valuable things that a "what else would you like to know about our school"-type question does is help weed out folks who have no interest in your school, and let you know whether they've done at least some basic research into this particular institution that they can use as the platform for a question.  ("Tell me more about your Center for the Study of Law and Thermodynamics.  It sounds great!") 

There is some truth to this, of course.  That said, and as I will say if I get around to a response to the last post, to the extent I apply this I would do so with a heavy measure of leaven. 

I already know the candidate has displayed sufficient interest in teaching in general, and at my institution in particular, to 1) submit to the FAR process, 2) agree to interview with the school, 3) show up, and 4) not leave in the middle.  And I know that I have the power to help doom their candidacy at any moment.  There are good reasons to look for fit with my institution, and to that extent the questions and answers that might be supplied at such a moment could be diagnostically useful.  But I also know that I am dealing with human beings, who can get tired and distracted, especially after a half-hour interview (or ten of them).  And while I agree with the commenter on an earlier post who said that there are distinctions between law schools, I also think too much can be made of this point.  Sure there are distinctions, sometimes major ones, but there are also all kinds of commonalities, especially between similarly situated schools.  There are differences between Arnold & Porter and Covington & Burling (or whatever they are called these days) too, and it makes sense to figure out what they are, but they have plenty in common, and those commonalities are far greater than the common ties between one of those firms and a two-person criminal defense firm.  By all means let us look for interst and fit, but let's employ some reason and mercy here, and not take this question for more than what it's worth. 

I might understand someone saying, "Well, in any event, the fact that this person cared enough to research my school and ask an appropriate question is itself a good signal of her interest in the school, or of her general level of thoroughness and energy."  Maybe, but let's not overstate the point, and in particular let's not let it lead us down the wrong path.  It may signal that this person is sufficiently committed to the hiring process in general to do the research and ask an appropriately detailed question, but that in itself doesn't really tell me much about her particular interest in or likelihood of coming to my institution, I think.  As for the second point, I think energy and enthusiasm are good things, but I also know that many incredibly valuable colleagues may have soft-spoken, mild personalities.  I would like my decision about a candidate's "fit" to keep those factors in mind.  In looking for interest and enthusiasm, we shouldn't end up insisting on mere counterfeits of those qualities, just as we should look for genuine scholars rather than candidates who can skillfully but glibly talk a good game.

But another, less-discussed reason that this kind of detailed, research-driven question poses a risk, for both candidates and committees, is that the kind of information it digs up may be slightly or even wildly misleading.  For reasons having little to do with candidates, a school may put up information on its website about the law school or in its promotional materials that bear little resemblance to reality.*  If the argument is that the value of letting candidates ask questions about the school is that it shows they have enough interest in the school to do some research, then keep in mind the old adage: Be careful what you wish for.  Perhaps your school's web site brags about your rich concentration in civil litigation, or some fascinating course experiments in this area--all of them now moribund.  Perhaps the Center for the Study of Law and Thermodynamics is one under-funded, essentially nominal phone extension somewhere, invented so a lateral candidate could have a fancier-sounding job.  And so on.

What is a candidate to do?  To ask an informed question, sometimes, is to risk an embarrassed and embarrassing answer, and worry that the committee will either not know what you're talking about, or be offended or awkward, conclude (wrongly) that you are so strongly interested in what you have just asked about (as opposed to just showing off your Google skills) that, if you don't have those claimed resources or aren't interested in developing them, the candidate won't be interested in the school and shouldn't be called back.  ("She asked about the Thermodynamics Center, which is really just one professor.  Ergo, she really wants only to teach and write about thermodynamics.  Let's ding her.")  Conversely, what is a committee to do when it insists on the candidate doing enough research to ask an informed question, and she comes back with a question about something the committee doesn't know anything about, because it really exists only on a web site?

I'm not trying to make anyone's life more unpleasant by asking these questions.  Of course these exchanges can still be fruitful and useful.  But they should be undertaken in the right spirit.  The fact that a candidate asks a question about your Center for the Study of Law and Thermodynamics doesn't necessarily mean that he won't or shouldn't come there if you don't really have such a Center; he may just be making polite conversation based on your own school's faulty information.  Of course, there's nothing stopping you from saying, "Well, we don't have anything like the "concentration" in civil litigation that the web site suggests.  Is that a problem for you?  Is it something you might be interested in building if you came here?  If so, here's how and why we could help and would be enthusiastic about it.  If not, that's fine too; let's talk about your other interests."            


* Yes, I am aware of the opportunity to point out that that information was likely put up there to perpetrate a criminal fraud on prospective students, the many ironies involved in this, etc.  Let's take it as a given for present purposes.     

Posted by Paul Horwitz on October 12, 2011 at 02:19 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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How about answering, "None that would be prudent to ask."

Posted by: Shadowlighter | Oct 13, 2011 9:58:48 AM

I am tempted by all of this dreadful catch-22 discussion to just make my last five-minutes question "have you read all that dreadful stuff on prawfs about what a trap this is?"

I also confess to wondering: does any of this really make any difference? Last 1% stuff?

Posted by: Foxey McFoxworthy | Oct 13, 2011 7:55:42 AM

It seems that often the best way to see the differences between individual law firms or individual law schools is to visit--most of them strive for the same things in their brochures: excellence, good resources, nice facilities.

Posted by: Candidate | Oct 12, 2011 5:05:02 PM

Any Law and Thermodynamics scholar worth her salt should already know the response to a question about the Center: "There was a lot of energy behind that Center at the outset, but unfortunately, it's slowly dissipated over time."

Posted by: anon | Oct 12, 2011 3:13:01 PM

I couldn't agree with this more. When I interviewed (in the not-too-distant past), I had one school in particular that I was excited about because of its, in my view, novel and innovative program to give students something beyond the traditional law school experience (which is as specific as I'll get). When I asked about it, the professors exchanged glances, clearly indicating that no one knew anything meaningful about the program, and one finally answered, "Well, I believe Dean [x, who was not present] would be the one best suited to answer that, but I will say that I think it's been a real benefit to our students." Obviously, what I thought was an innovative, useful, and even important program was completely separated from the daily lives of the professors at the law school and, potentially, little more than promotional material to prospective students.

Posted by: anon | Oct 12, 2011 2:32:23 PM

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