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Friday, June 21, 2019

Interview with Robert Lawless from the University of Illinois College of Law on Illinois's Academic Fellowship Program

I’m excited to announce the latest interview in my series interviewing VAP and fellowship directors.  This interview is with Bob Lawless, the Max L. Rowe Professor of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law.  Bob has historically overseen Illinois’s Academic Fellowship Program.  An edited transcript of our conversation is below, and I have invited Bob to respond to any questions in the comments.  Thanks, Bob, for participating in this series!

You can read more about the structure of these interviews and other caveats related to them here.  For more information about law faculty hiring generally, check out the section of the AALS's website devoted to this topic at https://teach.aals.org/.

Q:  Tell me your role with Illinois’s VAP program.

A:  I was in charge of it, for lack of a better word, first as the associate dean for research. After I stopped being the associate dean for research, the work for overseeing the VAP program was transferred to a committee that I chaired. I actually stepped back from that role last year, but given my history with the program, it seemed like I was the best person to talk about it.

Q:  I appreciate that. I do think it's best to talk to somebody who's had that experience with it going back a few years, so that's very helpful. What I'd love to do is get some basic information about the fellowship and then go chronologically starting with the application process and then into the fellowship itself.

A:  Sure.

Q:  How many fellows do you typically have, and how long is the fellowship?

A:  Let me answer the second question first. It's a two-year program. At any given time, we have had one, two, or three persons in the program. In more recent years it's been one person at a time with hiring every other year. The main reason for that has been because of the market for entry level jobs, but we have had as many as two or three persons at a time in different stages of the program.

Q:  Great. Do they teach in the legal writing program, or do they teach more traditional doctrinal courses?

A:  They teach in the doctrinal program. They teach one class a semester, which is a light teaching load compared to the rest of the faculty. Our fellows are not only fellows, but they are also a visiting assistant professor of law. In terms of what classes they teach, that gets worked out with the associate dean for academic affairs like any other faculty member.

One of the things we've always tried to emphasize is getting what I call a “bread and butter” law school class for the VAP to teach. Which class varies based on the VAP's interest. We've had VAPs teach in the first-year curriculum with contracts and civil procedure.  We've had a VAP teach professional responsibility. We've had a VAP teach corporations. We've had a VAP teach income tax. It all depended upon the VAP's area of interest. It really helps when the VAP is going on the market to not only just talk about what they might do in a doctrinal class, they can actually say, "Here is what I did."

Q:  Now let's go to the application process itself. We'll go back to the fellowship, but I just want to move through the VAP process starting with the application. When do you start accepting applications for the VAP for the following year?

A:  In the past, we've typically done that early in the fall. That may change in the future just because it seems that people tend to apply later in the fall semester.

Q:  What materials do candidates need to submit?

A:  A CV, a research agenda, and if they would like, letters of reference. I should say some candidates submit a work in progress, but that is not required. Candidates always can find more specific and current information on our web site by Googling “Illinois Academic Fellows Program.”  [Here’s the link.]

Q:  Okay. Is there one round of interviews, two rounds?

A:  It's varied depending upon the year, the number of applicants, and the process. We've typically done the interviews either late in the fall semester right before the winter break or right after we get back. We've done a second round of interviews in most instances. None of the interviews are on campus. We do everything telephonically.

Q:  How do long do those telephone interviews usually last?

A:  Well, the screening interview is 30 minutes. The longer interview, it varies.

Q:  Okay.

A:  I said “telephone.” In today's world, these are Skype interviews where everybody has got a video hookup.

Q:  What is the substance of those interviews? What are you looking for in those interviews? It's a big question, I know.

A:  Yeah, it is a big question. There are the usual things that I think you would look for with any faculty member, which is the scholarly spark – that they're wanting to go into teaching, they're going to have things to say, and they are very driven and interested to do it. I think most candidates today show that pretty readily.

One thing that gets overlooked and is especially important in the fellowship process is showing some flexibility in talking with the committee. Take a candidate who says, "Here is exactly the paper I'm going to write when I get there" and doesn't really show that they're probably going to take mentoring very well, that candidate is probably not going to do well in the interview process.

A second thing is to have really thought a little bit about the teaching side of it – what courses one might be interested in, how one might conduct a class. It's not so much that we're looking for particular answers on those sorts of questions, but just that the person's thought about it. Teaching is a big part of what we do, of course. Candidates should display that they're taking that part seriously. It shows that the person understands what they're getting into in terms of selecting this career.

Q:  How do you try to gauge teaching ability? It's obviously one of the most challenging parts, I think, of the screening process.

A:  Yes. I guess I would go even further in terms of “it's challenging.” I don't even know how well we can do it in a screening process. Obviously, part of it is just the interview and how they conduct themselves in the interview. Some people have some classroom experience. For example, if they've been in a Ph.D. program, maybe have done some adjunct work or something like that, then obviously you can get some teaching evaluations or teaching references. Of course, many candidates don't have that. One of the most difficult things to assess in the interview process is what kind of a teacher is this person going to be?

I think that's a problem. Well, a “problem” is not the right word, but a challenge in any faculty hiring process whether it's the VAP process or entry level or even a lateral. It's hard to judge how the person is going to be in the classroom, yet we do it.

Q:  Going over to the scholarly side, the successful candidate, how much scholarship do they tend to have during the application process? Do they have a full paper, a published paper, more than one paper? What do you find is the norm for candidates who are successful in your process?

A:  I don't think there is a norm. It's varied widely. We've had successful candidates come in really with no papers, or maybe a student note, but nothing post-graduation. We've had candidates come out of a Ph.D. program with maybe a few publications in hand. At least in our program, I wouldn't say there is a norm in terms of the number of pieces that they've had before they come to us.

Q:  And if they don't have significant scholarly writing before they start the fellowship, how is it that you're judging their scholarly potential?

A:  That's part of the research agenda and the interview. The interviews for the VAP positions are just like any other faculty interview where a committee asks questions. You get a sense of what the person is going to be like as a scholar by the way they answered and how they answer – much more than the substance of their answer. Another thing that's been important is thinking about topic selection. That's in the research agenda. Of course, sometimes you see people who are all over the map with topic selection. That can be bad. You want someone that's focused but also not so focused that the research topics will only appeal to a very narrow set of people.

I think in a few pages in a research agenda you get a good sense of how that person is going to think, and how that person is going to write, what they're going to write on, and what methods they're going to use. You get a good sense of whether that's going to make that person stand out when they go to apply for the entry level market.

Q:  Do the programs have any preference for candidates in particular curricular areas? Are you watching, for example, the areas where a lot of law schools seem to be hiring? Any preferences there?

A:  There's two parts to that question. First, we do not have curricular preferences. We've been very adamant about that. We don't use the VAP program to fill any teaching needs we have. In fact, the selection process occurs outside the purview of the people making course-scheduling decisions for that exact reason. We don't have any needs when we go into the fellowship market and say, "You know, we really need somebody to teach this class, so let's find a fellow in that area." We don't do that.

In terms of the market’s preferences, yes, we certainly do pay attention to that. We do think about whether the person's profile is going to be in demand at other law schools in terms of the substance of what they're teaching and what they're likely to be writing.

We also have thought a little bit about the supply side of that equation. Not only is it demand, but we have asked whether the candidate is in area where there's already dozens of people doing the same thing who are going to be the entry level market, or is the candidate presenting a fairly special and different profile?

Similar points can be made about your research agenda question. How do you tell whether a person will be a good scholar? I think is a big part of it is similar to the curricular preferences. From just the research agenda, and the methods they propose, and what they propose to write about, are they going to be writing in a very crowded field and make it hard to distinguish themselves? Or is this somebody that's writing in a way – or using a method even in a crowded field – that's going to make them stand out and be noticed?

Q:  How does the program view candidates with PhDs? Do they have any preference in the hiring process?

A:  No preference for or against.

Q:  Okay. How about practice experience? How much does that matter? And if it does matter, how much experience are you typically looking for?

A:  I definitely think the answer to that has changed over the years. In the broader law school market, I think practice experience is starting to matter a little bit more. We care on the fellowship market to the extent that it's going to be indicative of ultimate success in the entry level market. How much practice experience? More than some. I couldn't put a number on it.

Q:  Right. Do you make any special effort to hire candidates from diverse backgrounds?

A:  Sure. That is always a priority. We've taken steps in the process to make sure that we are considering people from diverse backgrounds, and not only considering them, but doing our best to try to get those people into the applicant pool to begin with.

Q:  Any other criteria that comes into the process? Anything I'm missing?

A:  No. The main thing we've been talking about is this person going to stand out and be successful at the entry level market? I'd say that's the most important thing for us when we're looking for a VAP. We're not looking for somebody who's already finished and ready to go on the entry level market. The question is, with appropriate mentoring and spending a couple of years with our law faculty, is this someone who's likely to be successful on the entry-level market?

Q:  When I announced this interview series, there were many comments on the blog from people saying, "Please ask how candidates without the traditional markers of being a law professor, so perhaps they didn't go to Harvard, Yale or Stanford, and they didn't have an elite clerkship. Ask how those people can stand out in the application process." What advice do you have for those people?

A:  I have a University of Illinois degree. I'm teaching back at my alma mater after having taught at a number of different schools. I'm very sympathetic to that question. The reason I'm having a hard time coming up with an answer is the answer is so varied. Again, I think it depends. What we're looking for is are you going to be successful on the entry level market? I know quite a number of scholars who have been quite successful law professors and therefore were successful on the entry level market without those elite credentials.

They do the sort of things we've been talking about. They do work that's not just another. "Same with me. I'm going to do the same thing everyone else is doing." Here's a good way to say it. If your pitch is “I'm doing what a lot of other people are doing, I'm just doing it better,” that's a very hard case to make. I think if you come to us with a profile that says, "Here's an area that nobody is looking at." Now, it has to be an area in demand, "But here's an area that nobody is really working on. Here's a method that nobody is using. Here I'm going to be able to stand out from the rest of the entry level market." I think you could be successful.  Having an elite law degree or having elite credentials are not going to really matter if you've done that.

Q:  Let's talk about the nuts and bolts of the hiring process. Who actually makes the decision at Illinois whether to hire a fellow?

A:  There's a committee. The committee makes a recommendation to the dean. It puts together a memorandum describing the potentially successful candidate or candidates. The memorandum is sent to the dean, and then it's the dean's decision at the end.

Q:  How many applications do you receive typically in a year? It may vary but in general.

A:  I looked. The last round we had almost 100.

Q:  Is the fellowship renewable? And if so, under what circumstances?

A:  We haven't had that arise. Everybody who's gone through our fellowship has landed an entry level teaching job with two exceptions. One chose to pursue a Ph.D. program, although that person actually had an entry level offer and turned it down in favor of a Ph.D. program. He is now a law faculty member. Another person decided that academia was not for that person and went back into law practice, which I actually kind of view as one of our big successes because that was much better than a world where he would have landed an entry-level teaching job only to find out he did not like it. We've never had that issue of what we would do if it needed to be renewed. Our expectation is it's going to be two years, but I can't speak to what we would do if somebody took more than two years.

Q:  How much are the fellows paid per year?

A:  It's in the mid-60s.

Q:  Do fellows receive health benefits?

A:  Yes, they're full-time employees at the University of Illinois.

Q:  Do they receive access to university or subsidized housing? This may not be as big of an issue in Champaign, but it's on my list of questions.

A:  I realize that. This is Champaign, Illinois, so no. There actually isn't university or subsidized housing for faculty here.

Q:  Do fellows receive travel funding or other professional development funding?

A:  Yes.

Q:  How much if you don't mind me asking?

A:  I don't mind you asking. I don't know off the top of my head. It's thousands of dollars. On a few occasions in the past, when the accounts run out we have been able to support the fellow with other funds at the law school.

Q:  Do they ever receive funding to hire research assistants?

A:  Yes, there's a research account like any other faculty member that they can use in their discretion for travel or research assistance, whatever they want to prioritize.

Q:  Does the school reimburse them for any of the expenses relating to going on the law teaching market, the AALS registration fees or anything there?

A:  I don't believe we've done that, but I can't remember for sure.

Q:  Are they expected to live in Champaign, or could somebody commute from Chicago or New York if they wanted to?

A:  I think somebody who had that as their plan would have a very hard time getting through the interviewing process. Basically yes, a fellow should expect to live in Champaign, but it's not written into the job description. Going back to the interview process, part of the interview is do you want to do this fellowship? In other words, do you want to come here? Do you want to spend time with us learning how to be a law professor? If the answer is “I want to spend most of my time somewhere else,” then our program is probably not a very good fit for you.

Q:  That's a good segue way into my next set of questions around making the most of a fellowship. You were saying it ranges between one to three fellows at a time. Are there any other fellows at the University of Illinois that they might interact with?

A:  The answer is sort of. There are certainly other departments that have fellowships and these other programs. The University of Illinois is a huge place. There's obviously lots of places where our fellows can interact with other persons at their career stage. I think it largely depends upon the fellow whether that's something that's going to be useful to them. It depends upon their research interest and their methods and whether that's something they want to be doing. We're a very, very large state research university. There are all sorts of opportunities around campus to interact with people. When fellows want those sorts of opportunities, we make introductions and get the fellows in front of those other folks.

Q:  How do the fellows participate in the intellectual life of the law school? Do they attend, for example, the faculty workshops there?

A:  Yes. A fellow is appointed as a visiting assistant professor of law, so they're a faculty member. They do everything except they don't have committee work. I always tell the fellows it will be one of their best two years of teaching They get do the fun stuff of teaching and writing without having to do the committee work.


Yes, they attend all the faculty workshops. They're strongly encouraged to attend the faculty workshops. I strongly encourage them to attend the job talks because I think that's something really useful to see, especially your first year as you're starting and seeing people come through and present.

I always tell the fellows to come to the first faculty meeting of the year and then don't come to any others unless you want to because who likes going to faculty meetings? They completely participate in the life of the law school, workshops, again whatever is going on. They're a full-time faculty member, so whatever every other full-time faculty member does, they can do.

Q:  I was going to ask the question who supervises the VAPs, but am I right it's just the dean if they're a typical faculty member, or do they have a more particular supervisor?

A:  There's again two parts to that. They are faculty members, so in one sense they report to the dean and the associate dean for academic affairs like all the other faculty members do. If they didn't turn in their exam grades on time or something like that, they will be talking with the associate dean for academic affairs.

The second part is mentoring. Again, when I was research dean, part of the role of the research dean was to serve as the mentor for all of the fellows. There was a committee who helped me.  When I stepped down being research dean, the mentoring role got transferred entirely to the committee. The chair of the committee sits down with the VAPs, talk to them, makes themselves available whenever the VAPs have a question or anything like that. For example, I would always take the VAP out to lunch the very first thing when they got to campus, and I would talk about different things that they wanted to be thinking about in terms of the fellowship. We would have a talk about laying out a schedule for the entire fellowship, goals to meet in terms of getting work done, and so forth.

You asked who supervises them. Well, I would not call it “supervision,” but there's lots of mentoring opportunities.

Q:  Tell me what that mentoring looks like when it comes to the VAP's papers. Do they have people sitting down reading drafts talking over their ideas with them?

A:  Yes. We've done a lot of different things. One of the things we’ve done – and it might look fairly trivial but I actually think it's really important – Is we have an office that I call the “VAP office,” It's right across from the coffee machine.

Q:  That’s a smart location to put that office.

A:  I think a lot of informal interactions happen with the faculty that way, but there's more formal things. One of the things we've often done with the VAPs – and again, everyone is different, so there's not a one-size-fits-all approach that we've taken – but one thing we've done often is sit down with the VAPs early in their program, and I mean like the first few weeks, and we ask them, "If you have three ideas, write half a page on each of them, or if you have five ideas, write half a page on each of them."

And then we get about eight faculty to sit around a table over just a brown-bag lunch kind of thing and to talk through these different ideas:. Which are more likely to be successful? Which are most likely to appeal to law schools? Which are most likely to do well in a job talk? We try to think about the pros and cons of all the different ideas and help the fellow try to prioritize their work over the next couple of years.

And then in terms of reading drafts, yes absolutely. All sorts of reading occur, and drafts get exchanged. Again, it depends upon the fellow and what their research interest is, but I don't think we've ever had a problem with getting feedback from the subject matter experts in the faculty for the particular subject matter areas in which our VAPs have worked.

Q:  Are they given any assistance in making connections with law faculty at other law schools?

A:  Yes. The VAPs participate as part of our junior faculty workshop exchange. Again, this continues the theme of they're a faculty member like everyone else, so whatever we do for all the other faculty, that's what we do for them. There has been in the past a Big Ten Juniors Scholars Conference that we've had them go to, although I think this last year it didn't get held.  If I'm at a conference, and the VAP is also at the conference, I'll try to introduce the VAP to as many people as I can. I think most of my colleagues do the same.

Yes, there's an effort to try to introduce the VAP to people at different universities. For a lot of these questions the answers it just depends a lot on who is in the VAP. If an individual connection needs to be made, I know my colleagues can pick up the phone and say, "You know, we got a new person here. I think they'd like to talk to you," make the connection, and let the fellow take it from there.

Q:  Good. Do you have any special advice for candidates who come in with PhDs in terms of transitioning back to legal scholarship and then the norm of the legal discipline?

A:  I'm worried about being too candid.

Q:  Feel free to be candid.

A:  My answer would be don't fall for the norms of legal scholarship.

Q:  In what way? 

A:  Look, I have a JD only, but I'm also co-director of our Program in Law, Behavior and Social Science here. I do almost exclusively empirical work. I feel like I can kind of speak to this question as a non-Ph.D.

I think in a lot of other disciplines there's a strong emphasis on making sure that you're right before you have an opinion – make sure that you're right about the facts before you have an opinion. I despair sometimes that the legal discipline is placing an emphasis on being clever versus finding things out and getting facts right.

Fellows who come out of a Ph.D. program where that's been the emphasis – make sure you get your facts right – should not lose that ethic and should not fall into the temptations of trying to be clever and trying to impress student law review editors.

That being said, one of the things that my standard kind of first- or second-day talk with the new VAP included was always that you've got to show that you appeal to all sorts of law faculty because all sorts of law faculty are going to make decisions upon your application.

For somebody who has a Ph.D., what I think that means is to have something that's more traditional and have something that's more in your discipline when you go into market. We encourage the VAPs after the end of the two years to have at least one piece placed and somewhere in the publication process, not necessarily in print. I don't think hiring committees care too much about something being in print as long as it has been accepted. We encourage the fellow also to have an entire draft of the next piece that can serve as a job talk.

For somebody who's got a Ph.D., I think they're wise to take those two pieces and have one be more appealing more to a law audience and then the other appealing to the disciplinary audience of your Ph.D. That way, you show that you can do both.

Q:  I think that's good advice. Let's segue way back over to teaching. You mentioned that they teach two courses. How are those courses spread out over the two years? Do they teach both courses both years?

A:  Yes. We try to keep them doing the same course. We've had a few VAPs who didn't want to keep teaching the same course. We definitely don't want them to be taking up lots of time with new preps.

It is two courses a year, and it is one in the fall and one in the spring. Then that fall of your second year you hopefully have lots of interviews. We try to think about staging teaching obligations in a way that makes it easier to do those interviews, maybe a seminar in that semester that you taught in the first year.

I think a lot of people like to teach seminars, especially when they're first starting out. They actually can be a lot of work because you got to put the materials together. I often talk about the idea that when you're first starting out what you want to get is a “course in a box.” You want a good textbook with a good teachers manual that people have used. You assign the textbook to the students and take off from there. That actually is a lot less work than putting together a seminar.

We usually suggest getting one “bread and butter” course and then something more specialized, which could be a seminar. I don't want to be heard to discourage seminars. They're very valuable. But I think also that if you come out onto the entry-level market having taught two seminars or two just very specialized courses, you're putting yourself at a disadvantage from somebody who's maybe taught one of the more core courses that will be in demand at other law schools.

Q:  What training, feedback, or mentoring do the VAPs receive related to their teaching?

A:  Again, it varies. It's kind of like the article mentoring process. It depends upon the person. We've had people go sit in on classes at the request of the fellow and give advice. We have just had conversations about how to teach. That might be a lunch conversation or even a lunch-time workshop on teaching that includes several law faculty, including the VAP. Sharing of materials is certainly something I know that has happened when somebody comes in and is teaching one of those “bread and butter” classes. One of the other faculty will share syllabi, and notes and stuff like that. Again, the teaching advice really just varies depending on the situation and sort of what teaching experience the person had.

Some people have teaching experience. Other people this is their first time in a classroom. I still vividly remember my first day as a visiting assistant professor in the very first class. I had never taught a class before and was terrified. Somebody like me probably is spending a little bit more time thinking about and needing advice about the mechanics of actually conducting the class, but other people don't need that. It just depends.

Q:  We talked about the research side. We talked about the teaching side. Do the VAPs have any other responsibilities or duties?

A:  No.

Q:  All right, now let's step back for a second. Let's imagine you were talking to a candidate who had perhaps a lot of options on the VAP or fellowship market. How would you try to sell them on the Illinois VAP program? What do you think makes it distinctive or stand out?

A:  I think a lot of the things that we've been talking about. It's not a huge program. In fact, it's very small. You've been asking me questions about what we do for teaching. The answer is again it depends. There's not a huge cohort of people that we've got to just give cookie-cutter advice. The mentoring that the person gets is very tailored and very specific to the person. We're a small enough place that the person will get to know every single faculty member here. I think the faculty are very invested in the success of the VAP program here at Illinois.

We've been quite successful with the program in terms of placing people. I think the faculty is very proud of it. It's been great for the law school. We have alumni of our VAP program all around the country. It's been very successful for the people who've come through as well. I guess I don't know what else I would add. It's a very tailored mentoring environment. I think we're able to do some things here because we're smaller. We're a little bit more flexible.

Champaign–Urbana is a strength and a weakness. Obviously, we're out in the middle of the corn fields, and that's not everyone's cup of tea, but, at the same time, it's a small enough community that people are around. They're going to have lots of interaction with lots of different faculty who are going to have lots of different perspectives. That's an important thing, especially for a VAP, to be having that interaction and not just with people who already think the way you do. Here I'm thinking about methods, the traditional doctrinal law professor, for example, should interact with the social science law professors and vice versa. I tell the VAPs again that you need to get to know and persuade all sorts of different faculty about your application when you go on the entry level market. The more you interact with lots of different faculty, the better off you're going to be.

Q:  Yeah, I agree. Let's turn to the job market. What type of mentoring do the VAPs receive related to the job market in the hiring process?

A:  There is lots of back and forth with their AALS materials in terms of research agenda and FAR form and like that. Obviously, we do mock interviews both the screening interviews and then more of the call back interview. We do job talks.

Q:  Who's doing those? Who's in charge of putting them through that process?

A:  The committee chair. Or, when I was research dean, that was me. The faculty here I think is very invested in the program, and I never had a problem getting together a group of people by saying, "Our visiting assistant professor is going on the job market, and we need some people to listen to their moot job talk." Usually, we do more than one. I think there's a fine line between being overly rehearsed and knowing your stuff. In most cases, I would say well more than half of the faculty listen to a new job talk of the VAP candidate at some point.

We try to get about 8 to 10 people because you don't want too many people in there, and you want to be able to give the person some feedback without it taking the entire afternoon. We usually do at least two moot job talks. We usually do one to give the person some advice and then have them do another one. Whether we need to do another? Again, it depends upon where the person is at, how much time the person has, et cetera.

Q:  That's great. Let's go to some of the broader policy questions around the rise of VAPs and fellowship. What do you think are the benefits of these programs as an entry point to the vast majority of law faculty positions today, and what do you think are the costs?

A:  I think most of the benefits go to the law schools. It's probably a little bit less risky for the law schools to hire someone who has a track record as a VAP. I think there are benefits to the entry level faculty member, but I think most of the benefits go to the law schools. The mentoring that is happening now in the VAP programs used to happen in the early years of a tenure-stream position.

Q:  The hiring law schools?

A:  Right, the hiring law schools on the entry-level markets, but it is not just that. We've been very circumspect about not using the VAP to fill teaching needs. I'm not sure that's happening everywhere. I think some schools might be using VAPs to fill teaching needs, and that's obviously a benefit to the law school.

Back to the entry-level market, you see similar things all across academia. I am on a number of committees that get me out and about around the university. Many fields are going to hiring people who've had more fellowships, and VAPS, and post docs. It's a lot of risk aversion from academics, and law schools are no different.

I don't want to completely ignore the idea that there aren't benefits to the VAP. I think spending two years as a fellow in a law school really helps you a lot as a scholar and as a teacher. If you're coming straight out of a practice background, you have no clue about any of those things. If you're coming out of a Ph.D. program you get acculturated in what's going in the legal discipline, but I still think the majority of the benefits are going to law schools. It's two more years of somebody's life before they get on a tenure stream, and again a lot of this mentoring used to happen after getting hired on a tenure stream.

For a VAP you have to have people who are able to move, and I don't think that's spread across the population equally. Some groups are more able to do a two-year VAP and then move again for a tenure-stream position. It can be harder on people with families. It can be harder on people who perhaps are not as financially well-off. You may get paid a fairly decent salary by comparison to many parts of the university but not certainly by comparison to what many VAPs could be earning elsewhere in the legal profession. I think all of those are the costs.

Q:  Do you think that the fellowships and VAP programs have any responsibility to open up law faculty positions to people from diverse or non-traditional background? And if so, how can they do a better job there?

A:  Yes. Absolutely, law schools have responsibility for that. Law schools should be using their VAP programs to try to increase diversity in all of the ways that you're talking about.

Q:  As you may know, there's a lot of criticism around the VAP and fellowship programs with the idea that the people in these programs obviously get a lot of help from the law faculty at these schools. Therefore, it can be hard for hiring committees to know how much of the work, how many of the ideas come from the VAPs or fellows themselves. What do you think about that criticism?

A:  Well, my facetious answer is that I am not that smart. Anybody that thinks that I was particularly helpful to a VAP must not know me very well.  More seriously, I saw this question on your list of possible questions. That was the first time I had seen that concern.

Q:  Oh, interesting.

A:  You could say that about a lot of junior faculty as well – did someone help them with their work?  If somebody is writing somebody else's law review article or basically telling them what to write, that is academic dishonesty. It's academic dishonesty to basically do someone else's work and let that person put his or her name on it and represent it as that person’s work. It's just academic dishonesty.

We all should presume that the person has done the work that they represent that they have done unless we have evidence to the contrary. Again, it was the first time I'd ever heard that concern. Certainly, when I've served on hiring committees, I've never heard that concern. I have a hard time responding to the question other than to say, well, people shouldn't cheat, so don't cheat.

Q:  What about something softer than cheating? In other words, I don't think that anybody would be writing a VAP or a fellow's article for them. I agree. I think that would be well beyond the pale, but to the extent that fellows or VAPs are in people's offices talking about ideas, and they get faculty members who are saying, "Gee, I wouldn't go with that idea. I'd go with this idea. I think your normative solution doesn't work. You might try this instead." Then it’s harder to tell how many of the ideas in a VAP's papers they came up with.

A:  That is part of being a community of scholars. That's scholarship. That's why we're at universities, and we talk. But I don't see that as ... Who would ever worry about that? Almost all my papers are co-authored and as much social-science as law. Perhaps that experience is affecting my answer. Earlier you asked me what VAPs with a Ph.D. should learn about doing legal scholarship, and my answer was don't fall for the norms of legal scholarship. A better way to say it is not to fall into many of the bad habits of legal scholarship. This question is perhaps reflective of one of legal scholarship’s bad habits. This idea that what makes you a great scholar is that you've been sitting in your office by yourself stroking your chin and you've had this great idea is ridiculous.

If somebody has developed a great paper by talking with people, and discussing ideas and getting feedback, that's what scholars do. I don't even see that as problematic. What I see is the question is problematic because the question makes an assumption about what good scholarship is and it’s the wrong idea of what good scholarship is.

Q:  Yeah. Last question. Given that life is zero-sum in so many ways, time spent in a VAP or fellowship is obviously time not spent, for example, in practice. What do you think about that trade-off, especially given that law schools are in the business of educating lawyers?

A:  Well, I don't think much of it. I hope life is longer than that. You're talking about a very short amount of time compared to the length of a career. You already asked me about the costs and benefits. I do think most of the benefits are going to the law schools. In a perfect world, I would probably not have as many VAPs and fellowships as we have, but given that we do have them, then the trade-off doesn't concern me very much at all.

At the beginning of your career when you're looking to break into teaching and say, "I've been practicing for a few years, and now I've got to do a few more years of a fellowship!" Yeah, that seems like a lot of time when are you starting, but I think looking back on a career when you've been teaching for decades, the couple of years you did as a VAP or a fellow are beneficial and will have helped you. I don't think there's much of a trade-off versus a couple more years in practice. I don't think over the long-run you're really trading anything off.

Q:  Well, thank you so much, Bob. Is there anything else you want to add about the VAP at Illinois, about the state of law faculty hiring more generally?

A:  No, I've probably gotten myself in enough trouble.


Posted by Jessica Erickson on June 21, 2019 at 05:11 AM in Getting a Job on the Law Teaching Market, VAPS & Fellowships | Permalink


First to respond to Orin's comment, let me make make sure to clarify something. The brown-bag session discussing early-stage ideas focuses more on practical issues that might not occur to beginning scholars -- is this a project that can be completed in the time frame the scholar has (especially for empirical work); how will the paper present at a job talk, and so forth. And, yes, I think that has been especially helpful to our fellows.

Orin, I understand your concern to be more about the substantive feedback and telling how much of the work belongs to the fellow. When this concern was raised in my interview with Jessica, my assumption was we were talking about outright academic dishonesty -- ghostwriting and such. I have a hard time understanding the "softer concern," to use Jessica's term. As a thought experiment, imagine someone who had an entire career of great scholarship building on ideas the scholar picked up from others. Again putting aside obvious problems of academic dishonesty such as taking credit for other's work, would we not want this person in academia? Orin, my hunch is that the real concerns are the academic dishonesty problems but that it is difficult to know when that has happened.

To respond to So&So's comment, I remember a university committee meeting where we had to evaluate someone's work. Someone else commented that the particular person tended to work alone, meaning no one in the discipline wanted to work with the person. The consensus view around the table was that this was a real negative.

So&So makes a good point that we don't know whether the "chin-stroking" model is especially prevalent in legal scholarship. But, I decided it existed while gazing out the window, so it must be correct! If it does exist, why it exists is a good question. The point about seeing only close-to-final pieces is a good one, but I wonder about the causality. Do we see only close-to-final pieces because of the culture, or does the sharing norm create the culture?

Posted by: Bob Lawless | Jun 22, 2019 12:37:16 PM

Re: discussing ideas/papers with VAPs -- I found myself nodding vigorously in agreement when reading this: "That is part of being a community of scholars. That's scholarship. That's why we're at universities, and we talk... This idea that what makes you a great scholar is that you've been sitting in your office by yourself stroking your chin and you've had this great idea is ridiculous."

I've been trying to understand why the chin-stroking vision of scholarship exists (if it actually does) in legal academia, and I can come up with two possibilities:

The first is that, maybe, this idea comes out of the life cycle of legal scholarship compared to most scholarship in the social sciences and humanities. Law articles seem to get discussed more once they've been virtually finalized -- all-but-submitted, accepted, or even published. Obviously drafts get read and ideas get discussed, but I'm not sure that the culture of publicly airing, vetting, and significantly revising drafts well before submission really exists... at least not in the way it does in many other fields. So it makes sense that you'd think scholarship is done in isolation, whether or not that's really the case.

The second is that the chin-stroking expectation only applies to entry-level candidates -- ie, we want a higher degree of solo work from people when we're looking to hire them than we do once we've hired them. This isn't entirely unreasonable--whether it's desirable or feasible is a different issue--but at the very least it seems to run against the stated purpose of most VAPs/fellowships, which is to give guidance on precisely such issues at the candidacy stage.

Posted by: So&So | Jun 22, 2019 12:50:07 AM

Thanks for this. I thought this answer was particularly interesting:

"One of the things we've often done with the VAPs . . . is sit down with the VAPs early in their program, and I mean like the first few weeks, and we ask them, "If you have three ideas, write half a page on each of them, or if you have five ideas, write half a page on each of them. And then we get about eight faculty to sit around a table over just a brown-bag lunch kind of thing and to talk through these different ideas:. Which are more likely to be successful? Which are most likely to appeal to law schools? Which are most likely to do well in a job talk? We try to think about the pros and cons of all the different ideas and help the fellow try to prioritize their work over the next couple of years. And then in terms of reading drafts, yes absolutely. All sorts of reading occur, and drafts get exchanged."

This strikes me as both incredibly helpful for candidates and also something that raises the concern I mentioned in the Bigelow thread about how much of a candidate's paper is really their own. If you're a faculty member evaluating VAPs for entry-level positions, and the VAP's hoe faculty is giving them advice on which idea to develop, and ideas on how to develop it, how can you tell how much of a VAP's presentation is intrinsic to them and how much is the faculty's help?

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jun 22, 2019 12:22:00 AM

I have to correct the record on extensions of the fellowship. One of my colleagues reminded me that we did once extend a fellowship for a third year.

Posted by: Bob Lawless | Jun 21, 2019 3:36:58 PM

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