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Thursday, May 03, 2012

Waiting out the Professor and Clerkship Markets

Prawfsblawg's entry-level hiring report is about to shut down, so my last post as a guest blogger seems like a good time to discuss a strategy that I suspect is underemployed by both faculties hiring assistant professors and judges hiring law clerks.  The strategy is waiting for the market to "clear" and then hiring the most talented people who have fallen through the cracks.  I want to posit here that the strategy is underutilized in both the law professor and clerkship hiring markets.

Chicago is the relatively rare elite law school that does a lot of entry-level hiring.   In a typical year we will interview 20-25 candidates and read work by perhaps 80 more candidates. As a result, we vet almost all of the very strongest candidates on the market each year.  Sometimes, our own assessments of someone's work or our tastes will differ sharply from those of a peer school.  Sometimes, a school will hire someone who isn't officially on the market.  But even accounting for those cases we will usually vet most of the entry-level candidates who are getting hired at the "top" schools (however defined).  Every year we will also interview talented candidates who aren't offered tenure track positions at any law school.  And those folks are the ones I want to focus on.

To the best of my knowledge, there are very few non-elite schools that try to wait out the market, figure out who is unjustifiably "dropping on draft boards," and snap that person up.   Instead, a number of non-elite schools shy away from candidates who look high-end at the outset.  Other schools set up interviews with bullet-proof candidates very early in the process and then suffer cancellations when the candidates get too many great AALS interview requests.

I recognize that a lot of schools are slot / subject matter constrained, and with narrow and technical subjects there may not be enough plausible candidates in the pool to justify a waiting strategy.  But when a school that has trouble getting its first choices is looking for best athletes or hiring in an area where there are a few dozen candidates in the FAR registry with the right set of interests, I suspect there is a lot to be gained by waiting, and reaching out to candidates a month or so after AALS.  

A related fascinating aspect of the entry level hiring market is the structural hole that exists in the social network of appointments committee chairs.  Peer schools talk to each other and share information about who each school is seeing and how particular candidates did in interviews.  But appointments committee chairs are evidently much less likely to speak with counterparts at schools whose rankings differ sharply.  That is a missed opportunity for the less elite schools.  Within a week or so of the AALS, an appointments committee chair from an elite school is likely to have a good sense of which "Rashard Lewis" candidates have a lot to offer but are nevertheless likely to drop on draft boards for whatever reason.  Yet these conversations, as best I can tell, rarely occur.   

The same thing happens with federal clerkship hiring.  Every year each law school that produces a lot of clerks can probably identify a couple of really outstanding students who had  interviews with great judges but wound up with no clerkship when the music stopped.   I am sure that on September 14 of this year, there will be terrific clerkship candidates at every top law school who were not offered a clerkship.  Some will have subpar interviewing skills, but most will be victims of bad luck.  Federal judges who wish to remain "on plan" but hate the madness that is September 13 would do really well to call up law schools on September 14 or 15 and say, "Who is your best person who got shut out on the 13th?"  I for one would be be delighted to field such calls and help judges find the right match.

There is a potentially important distinction between the two markets.  Clerkships are a one- (or sometimes two-) year gig.  A clerk who is dejected after striking out on September 13 is going to be extremely loyal to a late-mover judge and will be motivated to do wonderful work.  With professors, there is some danger that the candidate who dropped will not want to stick around at the school that hired him or her for that long.  Having said that, I suspect that a law school is much more likely to engender loyalty in a rising star by waiting out the market and coming to the rescue than by making an exploding offer that a candidate feels forced to accept.  So I do think that for a school that wants to hire ambitious but loyal professors, trying to wait out the market is a smart approach.

Like many strategies, waiting out the market won't work well if most schools try it.  But right now, my impression is that almost no law faculties and few judges are pursuing the strategy.  It's a market failure that smart "Moneyball" employers would do well to explot.    

That'll be my sign-off.  Thanks to Dan and the gang for inviting me to return to Prawfsblawg.  And thanks for reading.

Posted by Lior Strahilevitz on May 3, 2012 at 11:00 AM in Entry Level Hiring Report, Getting a Job on the Law Teaching Market, Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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(BTW, I've tried it the way you suggest, and have rarely gotten any useful leads.)

Posted by: David Bernstein | May 3, 2012 5:38:03 PM

A month after the meat market is too early, a school is too busy pursuing its own candidates. What I'd like as a hiring committee chair is to have someone call me in February or March and tell me that a promising candidate who would thrive at GMU had a bunch of callbacks, but managed to fall through the cracks and looks like either he's not going to get any offers, or any offers he gets or going to be vastly inferior to GMU. So if we still have the resources, and can act quickly, we can reap the benefits of other schools' shortsightedness. If the candidate has some feature (somewhat obnoxious, ideologically "out there", made a poor choice in selecting which paper to present for a job talk, raw and gets nervous giving job talks, foreign law degree, whatever) that explains why he's being undervalued, that's all the more persuasive.

Posted by: David Bernstein | May 3, 2012 5:07:30 PM

As I said in an earlier post here, references are unreliable (except for you and me, obviously!) That said, references sometimes do push. But I suspect such pushing isn't terribly effective. Around one month after AALS, hiring schools using the traditional hiring model will have focused on particular candidates they saw at AALS, and they'll still have hopes of making offers and successfully recruiting those candidates. A call from a reference saying, "you didn't see Smith at AALS, and none of the schools that interviewed her are having her back, but she is great, so you should invite her to campus" is likely to be viewed with some suspicion, unless a reference is unusually trustworthy. I think it's an instance where the information is optimally pulled by schools that are playing a wait-and-see strategy instead of pushed by references to schools whose strategy is unknown.

Posted by: Lior | May 3, 2012 3:15:30 PM

You are 100% correct. GMU does this occasionally, but we are less well-positioned to do so than are schools that have no methodological preferences. But why don't these candidates' references get on the phone and push them? There is no good way for appointments committees to know who has gotten shut out.

Posted by: David Bernstein | May 3, 2012 1:51:38 PM

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