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Thursday, April 12, 2018

Want this job? Move five times in eight years

As usual, Professor Sarah Lawsky's tireless diligence here at Prawfs has yielded a treasure trove of information regarding entry-level hiring. Browsing this year's report, I can't help but notice the serial credentials that these impressive hires have: a fellowship (maybe two), an advanced degree (maybe two), a clerkship (maybe two), not to mention law firm, government, corporate, or public interest jobs wedged in between. (Most have some non-clerkship legal experience, and many have five or more years' experience.)

But, as I look at the litany of jobs, I can't help but wonder about a major barrier to entry into the legal academy: the flexibility to move several times in a short period of time early in one's career. Few of these hires stacked all their experiences in a single city. Many moved time after time after time for one- or two-year jobs, before heading off to grab the next credential.

I think about my own experience: South Bend to Saint Louis to Chicago to State College to Malibu (and it easily could have been more), one- and two-year stints along the way. Four children born in four different states. And others have far more experiences than I had. I was very fortunate to have an extraordinarily flexible spouse and the financial ability to handle these transitions (at least for as long as I needed to do so).

But it's also made me reflect that many do not have this flexibility. Those who secure a concentration of experiences in a single (usually very large) city; those who postpone family life; those with socioeconomic means to take low-paying clerkships and fellowships, and to move repeatedly; those with a mobile spouse or children not yet enmeshed in a social group--these are just a few of the groups that can enjoy what one might (uncharitably) call a kind of hazing: "Want this job? Move five times in eight years."

Candidly, I understand that there's a kind of arms race out there among schools and prospective law professors. The candidates get still more glowing credentials, and it becomes very easy to rely on those proxies (e.g., clerkships, advanced degrees, and fellowships). The market has grown ever tighter over the last decade, and with fewer openings comes tougher expectations. Candidates remain on the market for longer periods and cycle through additional fellowships. And that leads to candidates with ever-longer publication records, which in turn requires future prospective candidates to take the time (and a move or two) to improve their own publication records. (Indeed, some come to the market with tenure-worthy track records!)

I don't really have easy answers to this. Maybe today's entry-level law professors are simply better than they were a decade ago because of these many accomplishments. Maybe we can't de-escalate the arms race of credentials--and maybe the backlog of prospective law professors is not going away anytime soon. Maybe these proxies are simply a better way of measuring future quality (then again, maybe a clerkship is just a job). And existing publication records are, I think, better than guesses about future scholarly ability.

All the same, I wonder if the pendulum has swung too far to often demanding far too much of too many would-be law professors. And while I'm not sure what the right result is, or whether it's something law schools can even control, I do think we underestimate how much the present system may be shaping the market of prospective law professors, and perhaps in ways that are not only unanticipated but perhaps even undesirable. If that's the case, I hope it's something law schools (and hiring committees in particular) can begin thinking how to address.

Posted by Derek Muller on April 12, 2018 at 09:12 AM in Getting a Job on the Law Teaching Market | Permalink


I’ve been in legal academia and other academic areas, and the social sciences do not *always* require fellowships. Generally, they are used when someone cannot get a tenure-track position straight out of school. That said, Ph.D. programs elsewhere also usually teach academic research methods, writing, and pedagogy, which the typical law school (even at a top law school) does not provide. I’d be in favor of more LLM programs focused on academic work, rather than a repackaging of existing offerings & perhaps truncated duration and cost offset by teaching classes. This might improve options for many, while simultaneously training and giving some degree of teaching experience to boot.

Posted by: Kitchensink | May 9, 2018 8:19:57 AM

I mostly agree with what's been discussed. It was difficult for me to do a fellowship given my family obligations. For those same reasons, though, it was impossible for me to do a PhD, which required an even longer commitment to living somewhere temporarily, and at an even lower salary. I don't think I would have gotten an enormous amount out of a PhD -- but I do think the credential alone would have made a material impact on my ultimate outcome. In this sense, I think the increased focus on PhDs in legal academia has been at least as much of an issue for access as the increased focus on fellowships/VAPs.

Posted by: anon3 | Apr 16, 2018 3:35:19 PM

In other words, the current system hinders assortive matching, which is, of course, not a bad thing from an economic equality standpoint.

Posted by: anon | Apr 16, 2018 9:27:54 AM

The funny thing about marriage is that people marry people like themselves. Often these days, you've got one high-flyer looking at the other high-flyer spouse, asking, "Move where and do what?" So, I view this as a generational issue as much as a gender issue. Universities will have to get a lot better at dealing with a trailing spouse, and very soon.

Posted by: Margaret Ryznar | Apr 14, 2018 9:30:27 PM

I know that some of the fellowships were meant to be an on ramp for practitioners, but I also thought they are viewed as being able to help people who were not practitioners as such - ie JD + clerkship, or JD + other grad degree - prepare for legal academia in particular? In other words is the socialization function of fellowships really limited to practitioners (in which case it’s hard to argue that they’re succeeding) or is it also somewhat like the original goal of post-docs outside law (before they became primarily a way to get cheap teaching labor) which I understand to be a kind of intermediate professionalization phase for people who had always planned to go into academia? (In which case law fellowships are not necessarily failing, although they are having exclusionary effects with regards to certain types of candidates.)

Posted by: anon | Apr 14, 2018 1:25:06 AM

I agree that going back to the old days is not advisable. But one wonders if the fellowships got too out of hand. Many people end up doing phd + fellowships and more and more people are doing multiple fellowships or phd +fellowships. That was not the case years ago.

Also, the original intent of the fellows program was to capture people a few years out of school who were in a firm, were talented but did not have resources or time to write articles. But those people are increasingly unlikely to get fellowships. I would wager unless you are a Supreme Court clerk, nearly all of the fellows had significant scholarship before they were applying for the fellowship. People who are 3-5 years at a firm simply lack an entrance ramp into academia especially when you countall the moving involved. This disproportionately affects women, especially women who spent a few years practicing who may be older and more wedged to a certain geographic locale.

Posted by: anon | Apr 13, 2018 5:26:09 PM

I find these discussions interesting because there is always this underlying tone that anyone could be a law professor and it is unfair to impose these requirements that keep many people out of the Profession. I get the gender issue and maybe it is worse when people move multiple times or move into a Fellowship after having been at a firm for a few years, but this is an issue that applies to PhD programs and reflects the gendered nature of the labor market rather than anything specific to law. (It seems to me of equal importance that some of the Fellowships offer low pay that will benefit wealthy or two-income households.) But shouldn't there be some requirement that an individual demonstrate some potential success as a law professor, which to many, would be some evidence of the likelihood of a sustained writing career? The investment in a PhD is one indication of such a dedication, and then you also have more meaningful references from people in the field based on the dissertation and other interactions. Fellowships are not a great indicator because they are short term and most people can write one or two articles in a couple of years but perhaps not have much more in them. In any event, what we have to work with is surely imperfect, but I don't think going back to the old days of Supreme Court clerkships, or being tapped by Professors or relying on grades (which is primarily what the clerkship signaled any way) is much better, in fact it is rarely better to return to the old days.

Posted by: MLS | Apr 13, 2018 2:48:51 PM

Such an important conversation and so glad to see it happening here. I'd just like to insert a potential counter-narrative. If fellowships and VAP programs were more likely to accept aspiring law profs who don't already have the credentials that would enable success on the market then these programs could be a force for equalizing the market for traditionally disadvantaged folks (women, diverse candidate, non-traditional candidates, non-elite JDs, etc). As they are, I agree with Franita, that they simply add another roadblock for these folks to jump through. But I know some of these programs are trying to be an on-ramp instead of another hurdle, and I think that's a positive development. My argument is not a theoretical one, because I'm one of the people that might have been looked over at AALS without the help that my fellowship gave me. Just a thought.

Posted by: Only three moves in five years! | Apr 13, 2018 1:51:52 PM

I believe the last few years where you see people often doing phd AND fellowships has hurt the ability of some subgroups to get jobs. Many of the fellowship programs use to have a more even gender balance but I noticed over the years they are tilting more male precisely because I think many people end up having to do multiple fellowships and women can't move as easily. It's a ridiculous barrier to entry to have to move multiple times over a short period of time and for that to be the expectation; for there to be somewhat of a cockiness that if someone does not do that then they aren't "serous" about academia. While diverse candidates can sometimes get jobs without fellowships, few non-diverse candidates can unless they go to their alma mater. Together with the fact that I would estimate about half of the people who got jobs this year were diverse candidates, it makes it all the more harder for non diverse candidates to get jobs.

AALS was suppose to level the playing field but I can only think that it really had little effect. People who are "pushy" with good connections can get jobs while those who are less pushy or without connections can't.

And I don't buy the whole tenure argument about cohesiveness. It is FAR more awkward in a social science or humanties dept not to get tenure. Law schools are so big that if someone did not get tenure you could just easily avoid much awkwardness. Sheer laziness may be why law schools don't have rigorous tenure standards or don't want to hire people they are not sure about tenuring. But the cohesivesness story is just ridiculous when you consider the argument applies even more so in discipline fields.

Posted by: anon | Apr 13, 2018 12:28:31 PM

Derek, thank you for your thoughtful introduction to this conversation. I could have written Anon Junior's comment myself (if perhaps not as well). When I was still in the midst of the hiring process, in my nth fellowship, I wondered how the arms race could ever end. Now that I'm on the other side, I am perhaps even more skeptical. With one exception, unless there's real value to be had in hiring people who have not run the gauntlet -- people who are being overlooked in the current environment -- it's hard to see the situation self-correcting. And I'm less sanguine, perhaps, than Orin about whether such value can be readily identified (what would they look for, high grades on their law school papers and fancy jobs but no publications?).

The exception I see is if overall hiring picks up. In that case, I think we'll see a less conservative approach both because schools might need to go beyond the pool of traditional candidates and because scarcity induces risk-averse behavior, and alleviating scarcity can be expected to do the opposite.

I'd add that every alternative proposed here (even if it could in fact cause hiring committees to change how they operate, which I doubt) would have significant negative consequences. For example, making tenure review more robust would harm cohesion in a general sense, and would specifically harden the division between tenured and untenured while empowering difficult people on the faculty (who could now torpedo the careers of juniors). And as others have noted, the people most likely to be hurt by such an enhanced review are some of those already disadvantaged by the status quo, i.e., women ("Why were you not more productive during your maternity leave? Bob wrote an article during his paternity leave") and anyone outside the box.

Credential inflation is a common problem that extends beyond academia. Many employers, to use a banal example, now hire college graduates for jobs that don't strictly require degrees. There's a lot of slack in the labor market, especially in academia. Changing post-hiring personnel processes isn't going to affect that.

Posted by: I think I moved more than 5 times in 8 years | Apr 12, 2018 6:40:53 PM

Also Former Fellow:

Interestingly, my instincts run the other way. In my experience, most social sciences (excluding Econ & sometimes Poli Sci depending on the sub-field) and humanities PhDs take well upwards of 7 years (10 is not uncommon across a range of subjects), and those fields definitely do fellowships/VAPs before landing TT positions too... so I always think of candidates in other fields as being older than law candidates. After doing a little highly speculative mental math, I suspect that at this point the average candidate in both is around the same age.

Regardless, I still wonder how -- if we're trying to slow down the credentialing arms race as a way to decrease the pressure on candidates (both generally and women/nontraditional applicants) -- how we realistically do that at the first cut where credentials-as-proxies likely play their biggest role.

Posted by: Anon | 12:52:59 PM | Apr 12, 2018 5:39:21 PM

As someone that has moved from city to city to city to city to city to city from law school to current post, I know the personal toll it takes to land a law prawf job today. It's brutal. The moves and sacrifices repeatedly wrecked my personal life. But this is also a knowing choice I made, accepting the cost and risks. Having a system that values things like publishing at least sets out a field of sorts for entry-level candidates to compete on. If this is what someone wants to do and more people want to do it than available spots exist, you're always going to get an arms race. Now that I've landed a coveted junior faculty spot at a school I love, I'm not sure I'd support upsetting the apple-cart for people who want to follow after me.

Posted by: Anon Junior | Apr 12, 2018 4:53:57 PM

Adding to the gender effect -- the research showing that couples are more likely to move for the man's job than for the woman's (and that hiring committees don't worry about the female trailing spouse, but doubt that a male trailing spouse will move).

Posted by: Jill W Lens | Apr 12, 2018 3:58:59 PM

agree on the gender effect. Talent Wants to be Free to move - but geographic mobility is patterned by gender.

Posted by: Orly Lobel | Apr 12, 2018 3:19:05 PM

At least at my first-tier school, we don't do a particularly good job developing junior faculty and we don't try that hard to do it. In theory, a good fellowship is a time for professional development - and we need to hire people who are trained because we don't really train them.

Posted by: Also Former Fellow | Apr 12, 2018 2:40:47 PM

My fear with VAPs is that the academy has added an additional credential to get a law teaching job, but instead of improving things, it just replicates the hierarchy. To make my point explicit, to what extent has VAPs opened doors for people who otherwise would not be able to get a job? I am not sure what the answer is, but I suspect that all of the best fellowships are going to people who would probably get a job anyway. Law schools are risk adverse even when it comes to awarding VAPs, and sometimes it feels like we have added another credential to hiring that serves very little purpose. I understand that VAPs give people time to write, but I suspect that the people who go to these programs will write anyway.

Posted by: Franita | Apr 12, 2018 2:09:34 PM

Suzanna, you raise an important point, and I wonder how to look at it. On the one hand, if faculty did the hard work of true annual reviews, three-year reviews, and tenure reviews, then maybe we'd feel better about taking "risks" on candidates and make the harder decisions later. On the other hand, greater destabilizing of the existing (as you point you, perhaps in some places lacking "guts"?) tenure-track process comes with its own risks for those who consider entering in the first place.... That said, it may be that we overvalue tenure or think too much of securing tenure as the "last stop" in a career, but those require, I think, some other and deeper examination.

Posted by: Derek Muller | Apr 12, 2018 1:50:19 PM

The biggest difference from law and other fields is that very few new law profs are 27, or even 30, or even 33. The median age has to be something like 35 or 36, with lots of people older. And the path is really more like:

Law School (3 years)
Clerkship + practice (1-5 years)
Fellowship (2-3 years)

First job.

When you consider that for many people, there's a PhD AND a fellowship in there too -- wow.

Posted by: Also Former Fellow | Apr 12, 2018 1:30:51 PM

For what it's worth, many social sciences and humanities disciplines have the worst (from the candidate's perspective) of all three -- a credentialing arms race, truly challenging tenure processes, and an even tighter market.

I don't mean to say that the state of affairs in law is fine because it could always be worse. Rather, I worry about law teaching becoming as bad as some other fields. And the reason I worry about this is that I think the thing most likely to change (because it is the easiest to change) is the tenure process. (I'm not saying tenure stringency WILL change, just that if I had to pick 1 of 3 that would be it.) If it did, that would likely only make it worse for women and nontraditional candidates because it makes the risk analysis even more lopsided.

To the extent that the credentialing arms race is something we can address, I have a question. I've never been on a hiring committee, so I have no first hand experience trying to focus on actual talent instead of on proxies for it. Is there (and I ask this sincerely, no sarcasm intended whatsoever) a way to sift through the FAR looking for actual talent instead of focusing on proxies?

I imagine that most hiring committee members actively try to focus on actual talent once they get to later levels of review where they are able to read (or at least skim) materials. But if you don't make it past the first cut on the FAR--where proxies are, I assume, most likely to help given the volume of applicants--then later efforts to focus on actual talent, while definitely desirable and helpful, are significantly less so.

Put differently, assuming we don't want to make things even worse for candidates who are already punished by the existing system... how do we actually do that?

Posted by: Anon | Apr 12, 2018 12:52:59 PM

Glad to see David B comment on this, as I recall him pointing to the post's concern around 12-15 years ago when the trend towards VAPs started heating up.

I think the switch to VAPs and fellowships has been something of a mixed bag. The good news is that candidates have more work to evaluate and more of a background in the scholarly enterprise that allows them to hit the ground running. The bad news, in addition to the bias in favor of those who can move, is that candidates tend to have their work overseen by a committee of senior professors who exert a significant influence helping the work get "market ready," which leads to articles that can be formulaic.

In terms of what appointments committees can do, an obvious step is to be on the lookout for candidates who have natural talent but couldn't (for whatever reason) follow the multi-year fellowship/VAP track. When the market is relying on proxies for talent, look for actual talent.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Apr 12, 2018 11:22:59 AM

The real problem is the move toward schools expecting polished, tenure-quality scholarship at the hiring stage. That's what's driving the VAP/fellowship requirements -- not so much as credentials on their own, but as an opportunity to write, which most people don't have in practice. And the reason schools expect such scholarship? It's because they don't have the guts to weed people out at the tenure decision (or at some renewal/promotion level prior to that) so they don't want to take risks in hiring. So this is a much bigger problem, and much more difficult to solve, than just a demand for increased credentials. And as both Derek and David pointed out, it disproportionately harms not only women but non-traditional candidates who didn't know from the age of 5 that they wanted to be a law professor. (Full disclosure: I'm in both those categories, and I'm glad I was on the market long before any of this -- I had no publications, no paper in progress, just a lot of ideas I could talk about. And that plus the usual educational/employment signals was enough.)

Posted by: Suzanna Sherry | Apr 12, 2018 11:20:39 AM

Moreover, the investment is so high that there is increased risk-aversion. One sees extremely accomplished, polished scholarship among entry-levels, but less risk-taking and innovation.

Posted by: David Bernstein | Apr 12, 2018 10:28:43 AM

It's disproportionately harmful to women, who are more likely to have a partner who isn't mobile, and to men and women who have children, which complicates mobility and also makes having a series of unstable jobs especially unattractive.

Posted by: David Bernstein | Apr 12, 2018 10:25:51 AM

This is a market profoundly distorted by the lack of open jobs. There's a lot of reasons why there are no openings: the financial crisis, debt relief, "making do with what we have," university finances in general. But the effect is that each law school looking to hire has a plethora of options, and in that environment, can choose any number of "signals of hireability" that they want - and they get them. It may expect too much for schools to forego looking at the signaling, if they are acting in their own self-interest, but that affects who can compete on the market. Open more jobs and then schools can afford to look at non-traditional candidates. But if this is your one hire in a 5-year span, schools look to traditional metrics.

Posted by: Anon | Apr 12, 2018 10:14:19 AM

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