« A dramatic reading of the Mueller Report | Main | AALS CFP: Race and Racism in Food and Agriculture »

Friday, June 14, 2019

Interview with Susannah Barton Tobin from Harvard Law School on the Climenko Fellowship Program

Here is the second interview in my series interviewing VAP and fellowship directors.  Thanks to Susannah Barton Tobin, the Managing Director of the Climenko Fellowship Program and Assistant Dean for Academic Career Advising at Harvard Law School, for participating in this series!  An edited transcript of our conversation is below, and I have invited Susannah to respond to any questions in the comments. 

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/.  The interview itself is after the break.

Q: Hi Susannah.  Can you start by telling me about your role with the Climenko program?

A: I am the managing director of the program.

Q: What does that mean?

A: I run the legal research and writing program, and I work with the fellows in order to help them get ready for the market.

Q: Great. I'm going to basically move through the fellowship program chronologically starting with the application process and then moving to the fellowship years themselves. When does the Climenko program start to accept applications for the following year?

A: September 1st -- we have a rolling application process.

Q.  What do people need to submit with their application?

A.  A cover letter, CV, research agenda, writing sample, and 2-3 letters of recommendation.

Q: When do you typically start conducting interviews?

A: Usually in October, but it varies depending on the availability of the committee members and other factors.

Q: Do you do a screening interview? How do the interviews work?

A: We have one round of interviews with the committee, which is myself and two faculty members. Right now, it's Tom Brennan and Ruth Okediji. The interview is similar to AALS-style interviews with the bulk of the questions on the candidate’s research agenda and the projects they’d like to work on during the fellowship. 

Q: How many people do you typically invite to interview?

A: I would say about 20-25.

Q: How many fellows do you ultimately select in a given year? I'm sure it varies but in general.

A: It varies but it's usually six or seven.

Q: When does that application process typically end? When would you say in the year, "Okay. We're done."

A: That varies a ton. Ideally we'd like to be done early in the new year, sometimes it stretches into the second semester.

Q: You said you typically hire six to seven a year. What does that depend on and how many years do the fellows stay?

A: There are 13 fellows, which is related to the number of sections of legal research and writing at the law school.  We have a total of fourteen sections, and I teach one.  The fellowship lasts two years, so in any given year, six or seven will be leaving. We have some flexibility in the length of the fellowship, if someone takes a leave or is coming back from a clerkship.

Q: How many applications do you typically receive for those six to seven positions?

A: About a hundred.

Q: When it comes to fellows' teaching responsibilities, how do you try to gauge their teaching ability in the application process?

A: Similar to the way it happens in the entry-level process, we assess a candidate’s ability to explain legal concepts clearly, to respond effectively to questions. If someone in their application has had prior teaching experience, we'll look at the teaching evaluations or other information from their recommenders about that teaching background.

Q: When you say you try to gauge how they answer questions, is there a job talk? What does that half day or day of interviews look like?

A: It's generally a morning interview. It varies a little bit in length, and it’s not a job talk, but there's a series of questions about whatever paper idea the candidate has proposed to work on during the course of the fellowship.

Q: Is that with the three committee members or do other people participate in that interview process?

A: It's with three committee members and then after the interview, the candidates also go for coffee with some of the current fellows, which is not a formal evaluative part of the process, but it’s an additional touch point.  The Dean gives the final approval on all offers.

Q: How much does practice experience matter in the hiring process?

A: I think it's important. Depending on whom you ask there might different answers to that question but it's both valuable for our students in the legal writing class and also valuable for the fellows in the entry-level process. 

Q: How much practice experience are you typically looking for? Is there a sweet spot?

A: I don't think there's a sweet spot. I think my observation of the market over the past decade or so is that a little bit more is better from a market perspective. I don't know if you feel this way, but I think maybe 15 years ago 1-2 years was enough. It depends on what they're doing but I think we're seeing more of 3-4 years now.

Q: I'll just offer my own perspective here.  As a hiring committee member, I'd love to see the fellows have a bit more practice experience. I think four, five, even six years. It's hard to get, but that would be great. I just throw that out there for what it's worth.

A: That’s very helpful to hear, for sure.

Q: Let's turn to the research side. The successful candidate, what do they typically have in terms of research or a paper? Do they typically have a full draft of a paper, a published paper, an idea for a paper? How far along are they?

A: It varies.  We ask applicants to submit a research agenda and a writing sample.  I think as the market has become more competitive in general, we see more people applying who have one or sometimes two prior publications, although that’s not a requirement for us.  We’re interested in the quality of the writing sample, whether that’s a draft or a student note, they're showing us their ability to do scholarly writing. We're really interested in the research agenda and the proposed project or projects that would be completed during the course of the fellowship.  Some people have a draft in progress that they’ve been working away at on nights and weekends that they want to show us. 

Q: That was going to be my next question.  The people who come in with a paper other than a student note, do you have a sense as to how they're managing to write that? Is it while they're in practice, nights and weekends, or typically are they coming in from a PhD program or another fellowship program? How are people logistically getting that writing done?

A: Yes to all of those examples. We've definitely had fellows coming from practice who tell us that they have worked nights and weekends.

Q: That was me!

A: My hat is off to you. It's just an extraordinary time management accomplishment separate and apart from the law firm work, how do you do that with no sleep? Sometimes people have worked on a long paper in law school and kept it to expand on similarly around the edges of their practice experience. 

Certainly, people who are coming out of PhDs or are working on PhDs have dissertation chapters or other projects that they've been working on.  So we see a little bit of everything.

Q: You said you're looking at their research agenda. How developed is that research agenda for people coming into a fellowship? Are these people who can tell you, several papers out, what they'll be working on? Or is it something typically more modest than that?

A: I think it can be both. We're not really looking for something that is projected out over four to five years the way, I think, an entry-level candidate would have.  We really want to see fairly detailed proposals for one or two papers accompanied by some general statement of how they view their scholarly approach and a set of ideas that they seem interested in.  But we don’t view a research agenda as a contract; we certainly don’t expect that they should be coming in with six or seven ideas.

Q: I'm sure that'll be helpful to people. Thinking about preferences that you might have through the process, do you have a preference for particular curricular areas? Is that a thumb on the scale ever? Certainly, you see people saying, "Gee, every school wants corporate" or "Every school wants criminal law." Is that something that you take into account on the hiring side?

A: We don't go in with curricular needs in mind. I think as someone who advises people on the market, I'm quite sensitive to trends but I don't think they're dispositive at all for our decision-making process. It might be after we've hired someone, if someone was thinking about a couple of different strands of scholarship, we might have a conversation about which ones might be more marketable but the point of academia, I think, as Martha Minow has said, is getting to own your own mind.  I don't really want to urge people to teach something they don’t feel excited about.

Q: Right. Then, you'll have to teach it the rest of your life.

A: Exactly.

Q: Do you have a preference for candidates with PhDs? How does that factor into the decision-making?

A: We don't have a preference for candidates with PhDs. At least one of the reasons there's been a rise in PhDs in the market as a whole is that those candidates have been at work on scholarship for a while. Their files might “pop” more but I think we are just as interested in practice experience, and mindful that the program gives people time to write which people in PhD programs have already had.

Q: Do you make a special effort to hire candidates from diverse backgrounds?

A: We do our best to recruit a class that's diverse and excellent across all dimensions.

Q: Are there any other criteria that come into your decision-making? We've talked about practice experience, teaching experience, research agenda, other things. Is there anything I'm missing?

A: I do think that support from faculty recommenders is important to us to see because it helps us assess in areas outside our own expertise how scholars are looking at their work. It also anticipates their support on the market down the road.

Q: What role do faculty members have in the process? Do successful candidates typically have somebody at Harvard who's saying to you, "Hey, this person's good"?

A: Certainly, for the candidates who attended Harvard as law students, we take very seriously recommendations from faculty, but also, they don't need to have gone to Harvard. We take very seriously support and letters from whomever they asked to submit on their behalf.

Q: When I talk about this project on the blogs, I often hear from candidates who may not have the traditional markers of someone in law teaching. Maybe they didn't go to Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or a similar school. Maybe they don't have an elite clerkship. And they want to know what they can do to stand out in the application process.  What advice do you have for them?

A: I think it's a really important question. I do think that the market, both the entry-level market and therefore the fellowship market, is looking for people who have interesting ideas.  When I'm looking at a file, I think that the research agenda is absolutely essential.  As we’ve discussed before, it doesn’t need to be super-long, it doesn't need to have a million projects, but it has to have an articulated sense of an idea that we can then have a conversation about in the interview.

Q: You think that can make up for a lack of some of the more traditional proxies?

A: I think they can make an application stand out, yes. If you flip the script and consider someone who has checked all the traditional boxes of top law school and fancy clerkship, but doesn’t have a strong research agenda and a well-developed idea, it would be hard for them to get through the process.

Q: All right, let's switch from the application over to some of the fellowship basics, some of the terms of employment. You said, the fellowship typically lasts two years. Are there times when it last longer than that? Is the fellowship renewable? If so, under what circumstances?

A: The fellowship is typically two years. There have been circumstances where it's been extended.

Q: Are you comfortable telling me how much fellows are paid per year?

A: Yes, it's a stipend of $70,000 a year.

Q: Do fellows receive health benefits?

A: They do.

Q: How about access to university or subsidized housing?

A: Yes.

Q: That's great. Tell me more about that -- what type of housing benefits are available?

A: They have access to the Harvard real estate lottery.  Basically, you get to prioritize certain kinds of Harvard-owned apartments and potentially get a good spot near campus with Harvard as your landlord.

And the timing of the lottery allows you to go through that process before the rest of the rental market really picks up so you get two bites at the apple.  Depending on the fellows, some people are thrilled to have university housing that they don't have to worry about. Other people would rather rent in Cambridge or Somerville. 

Q: Great. I was part of that lottery many moons ago. Do your fellows receive travel funding or other professional development funding?

A: Yes. They have a budget of $1,500 a year for conference travel, and then $1,500 a year for research assistance.

Then the year that someone is going on the market, they get an additional $1,000 that goes toward market-related expenses.

Q: Is it possible to get those amounts increased, if someone says, "Hey, I was just invited to this great conference at Richmond. Can I get additional money?" Is that ever possible?

A: We do our best to support opportunities like that.  Because there are 13 fellows, sometimes people are using all their budget for research assistants but not their travel budget, so sometimes there’s some trading that goes on.  We try to do the things that are helpful to them and their work.

Q: Do fellows have to live in Cambridge or Boston? Obviously, there's the teaching responsibilities, but if somebody wanted to commute in, is that possible?

A: Yes, it is.

Q: Is that common?

A: It's not common but it happens. I would say there are at least one or two fellows a year who commute from either DC or New York.

Q: Now let's turn to the fellowship year itself and how to make the most of it. Tell me about the culture of the fellows. How often do they get together among themselves and in what capacity? Do they have a regular workshop series or anything like that?

A: They have a regular workshop series, which, depending on the time of year, is weekly or every other week, depending on how busy that section of the semester is. We call it the half-baked workshop. The idea is to have a half-baked paper topic. You can pitch it to your colleagues and get really good feedback, make sure that you’ve clarified the idea before you devote a ton of time to actually writing the piece.  And in exchange for sharing your half-baked idea, you get a fully-baked dessert. 

Q: That's great. Who participates in that workshop?

A: It's all the Climenkos, and I attend as well.

Q: How many fellows does Harvard have roughly? Obviously, you said there's 13 Climenkos. Just overall in the whole school, though, how many fellows who hope to go on the law teaching market are there at any given time?

A: That number is a little hard to pin down, but there are a number of fellowships, including the Reginald Lewis Fellowship, the Berger Howe Legal History Fellowship, the Corporate Governance Fellowship, and the Private Law Fellowship. There’s a full list here. Not all those people are going on the market at the same time in a given year, but I would say there's somewhere between 7 to 12 additional fellows not affiliated with our program in a given year.

Q: They all participate or have the option to participate in this workshop series, the half-baked?

A: The half-baked workshop is primarily for Climenkos, though if the topic relates to the work of a fellow from another program, she or he may join.

Q: Do the Climenkos participate (or how do they participate) in the broader intellectual life of the law school? Are they allowed to go to other faculty workshops?

A: Yes. They are welcome and encouraged to go to the standing faculty workshop which is weekly and then also welcomed and encouraged to attend the specialty workshops, which if you attended all of them you wouldn't have time to do anything else.  We have a Legal History workshop, a Law and Economics workshop, an International Law workshop, Public Law workshop, a Private Law workshop, and a Criminal Law and Policy workshop, among others.  So one of the things I do with the fellows when they come is sit down and say “what are the conversations you want to be joining while you are here?” and make sure they are plugged into those.

Q: Are you the fellows' direct supervisor?

A: Yes.

Q: What does that mean? What is your role day-to-day with them?

A: I work with them on teaching and I also read their work and talk with them about the logistics of the market, suggest that they go to conferences, connect them to fellows who have left the program over the years who are in their area.

Q: Are fellows matched with an assigned mentor at Harvard, or are they guided towards people in their area? In other words, how do they meet people in their area of interest at the law school?

A: We ask incoming fellows to identify faculty with whom they are interested in working, and we can match up with formal mentors who are in no way meant to be the limit of their engagement but the entry point to the rest of the faculty.  So mentors will read work and talk to fellows and also help connect them to different opportunities here and with faculty who are relevant.

Q: How about meeting faculty at other law schools? Are they given assistance with that?

A: Yes, in an informal way. I think as the fellowship program has gotten older, we have a number of alumni at schools around the country, so a lot are connected that way and then either keep those points of contact or through people that faculty here know are doing work related with fellows’ areas of interest.

Q: If a fellow is working on a particular paper, what type of feedback might they get? Obviously, they're doing the half-baked workshop, they're getting feedback from you. What else might they expect on a particular paper or idea?

A: I think our real priority is emphasizing and honing the idea before getting too far along. I think, as I'm sure you've experienced, you'll get a range of feedback when you ask for it, sometimes people will have coffee and talk about ideas. Sometimes people will read drafts and give comments. Sometimes they'll read a draft and not give comments but they say you should talk to so-and-so about this idea. It depends.

Q: Is the same true when it comes to fellows' research agendas that they plan to use on the job market? What type of feedback are they getting there?

A: It's the same. I read it. The mentors will usually read it and give feedback. I encourage the fellows to share it with colleagues at other law schools and get feedback.

Q: Do fellows get any help in terms of placing their work in the law review submission process? There is always this lore that fellows have some help there. Have you seen any of that?

A: I don't. I saw the question when you sent it along and it made me chuckle because I haven't seen that. I've seen it on the blogs, and I know it's a deeply-held myth but I haven't seen it. I will say if I had to imagine the source of it, it’s the observation that there's been an increase of top-tier law reviews publishing fellows’ papers.

I think that is not about their papers being placed by faculty but, rather, that I think the students perceive the significance of placement to people interested in the entry-level market. Law review editors might be more interested in taking fellows’ work because they feel as if they are making contributions to academic placement.

Q: That makes sense. I'm hard-pressed to imagine what that help placing would look like but, again, it showed up on the blogs enough that I thought, "I have to ask."

A: I think it's important to ask. I'm happy to say my view which is, truly, it's not happening here.

Q: Are fellows given assistance finding recommenders? This may go back to some of the connections we were talking about earlier. Just wonder if there's any other assistance if somebody comes in without a natural list of recommenders?

A: We certainly talk about that throughout the course of the fellowship, making sure that people are in conversation with scholars in their field and, if they don't have people that they're coming in with or if they're switching from a different area into a new area, connecting them with people here and also connecting them with people at other law schools. 

Q: That's great. What is the paper schedule of the fellows? You said you want them to know what they're going to be working on at the fellowship. Is the idea that they'll send something out that first spring of their first year?

A: That's our hope. Our hope is that there'll be a paper draft that goes out in the February cycle of the first year. That sometimes happens and sometimes it doesn't. I think different faculty have different views about the optimal time it takes to write an excellent paper. Sometimes people think, "It'd be great to get one paper done, and then, start on a new paper right away." That's a pretty tight turn-around.  Maybe someone comes in with something that's pretty far along and they can finish it up and then start a new paper. That might happen but more, I think, what we see is people working on a draft, hopefully getting it out in the February cycle, but continuing to hone it after that.

Q: Candidates who come in with a PhD, do you have any special advice for them, anything they should particularly keep in mind?

A: I think my first piece of advice would be to answer for yourself: why law, as opposed to the Ph.D. department from which you might be coming. That's a question that will, I think, be asked either implicitly or explicitly when you’re on the market, and to imagine the different audience for your work as you're trying to transition to legal scholarship. What is the value-add of the methodological training you received as a Ph.D. for being a legal scholar? I think that that evolution from being a Ph.D. student into being a law professor is an ongoing one but it's important to think about before going into the process.

Q: Let's switch over to teaching. What precisely are the Climenkos’ teaching responsibilities?

A: Each Climenko teaches a section of first year legal research & writing which is a class of 40 students. That's a year-long course they teach both years of the fellowship. Then they have the option in the spring of the second year of the fellowship to propose to teach an additional course, either a reading group or a seminar on a topic of their own choosing, which some fellows do and some don't. There are schools of thought, pros and cons, for what the right thing is to do. Some people are very excited to do it; other people may choose to work on their next paper.

Q: You said they have 40 students in their legal writing class?

A: That's right.

Q: What are their grading responsibilities? That's a lot of memos or briefs to grade. What does that look like during the year?

A: There are two memo assignments in the fall for which the students write a draft and a revision and conference with fellows. So four rounds of marking in the fall and two rounds of conferencing. Then in the spring semester they pair up and do the Ames appellate brief, which I’m sure you remember.

Q: I remember it! Yes.

A: For that, they do a draft and revision of the brief and one round of conferencing.

Q: If you were looking at their time, how do you think their time breaks down between teaching, spending time of their scholarship, and whatever other responsibilities they have. Do you have percentages that you try to keep in mind with the fellowship?

A: I think we try to keep everything at 50/50, although not 50/50 every day or every week. There are periods like any academic schedule, there are periods of time in the year where they're very, very focused on their research and writing, in the summer and late December, January.  Then there are really intense periods of teaching and conferencing and marking their papers during the semesters.

Q: Do you try to schedule those around job market time periods? How does the legal research class line up with the job market time line?

A: We are attentive to it but I wouldn’t say that it's possible to fully schedule around it.

Q: It's a pretty long process. It would be hard to schedule around it entirely. What about training, feedback, or mentoring related to teaching?

A: We do a teaching orientation for the new fellows when they arrive. We have teaching meetings with the group throughout the year. I review their student evaluations and talk to them about the feedback, any trends we might see in the evaluations. We’ll have faculty come in and talk with the fellows about different approaches to teaching over the course of the year.

Q: You mentioned an orientation. What does that involve?

A: They do a mock class and also give mock feedback on writing assignment and a mock conference, in addition to a lot of “Here’s how HLS works.  Here are the other courses that the students are taking and how this course fits in their schedule.” Meetings with the librarians, etc.

Q: Okay. When it comes to the assignments themselves, are the Climenkos drafting the assignments or they are given these assignments?

A: They're given a variety of assignments from which to choose, but they are also welcome to make variations, adjustments as they wish that incorporate their own interests and experiences.

Q: Is the same true, for example, about what they are going to do in class on a given Wednesday? Is there a course plan that would take them through the semester, or are they coming up with that?

A: There's a course plan that takes them through the semester.

Q.  Do Climenkos have any other responsibilities during their fellowship?

A.  I think I would say informal ones because it's the smaller class for the students, they get to know their students very well and do a great deal of academic and professional advising with their students. They also write recommendation letters, but there's no formal administrative service component to the fellowship.

Q: Let's step back for a moment. If you were talking to a candidate who perhaps had multiple options when it came to fellowships, what would you say to try to sell them on the Climenko? Why do you think this is where a new law teacher should start their career?

A: I have two answers. One is my biased answer and one is my attempt at being a little less biased.

Q: I appreciate both of those.

A: The biased answer, of course, is that we have a great program. I think that the two main advantages to it are, first, the opportunity to come to HLS and work with the phenomenal faculty which through its size and depth affords lots of opportunities to learn and grow as a scholar.  We have really outstanding scholars and teachers.  We also have terrific faculty from other departments participating in the intellectual life of the law school, and the research librarians here are unsung heroes.

Then, the size of the program allows for a real community of fellows to grow and support each other through what is undoubtedly a stressful process, but to have the group working together, reading each other's work, supporting each other through the process is, I think, really special. We see that year over year. We had a Climenko reunion in March where about 50 professors came back to Cambridge and were reminiscing about that component of the program, particularly the friendship and the collegial support that they got from each other. Those are the two things I would say as a bias.

Here’s my non-biased advice, which I give to alumni of the law school because I serve as the Assistant Dean for Academic Career Advising. I work with our alums who are considering other offers. Sometimes they don't apply to the Climenko because of geography or some other reason, and they're considering other offers. My general advice is you should choose the fellowship program that makes sense for your work and your life.

I would love it if the best option is the Climenko program but sometimes it's not, whether because there's this particular scholar you want to work with at another school or the structure of a program that works better for the way you work. Some people thrive on the balance of teaching and scholarship. Still other people would prefer to have more uninterrupted time without teaching obligations before they go on the market. Other people want to be in a small program. Some people like having a big program. I think it has to be an individual decision, really, really focused on how your approach to your academic career would be best supported.

Q: That's good advice. Same thing is true when picking a law school to eventually join long-term, I think.  Do you have any advice for fellows when it comes to really making the most of the fellowship? When you think back on fellows who have been really successful in how they've used those two years, what have they done?

A: Great. I think the main reason one would do a fellowship is to be immersed in the academic world and the conversations because it should be what is drawing you to academia, and also, allows you to be part of that conversation and understand how it works before you go on the market. So really taking advantage of the opportunity to engage with faculty, both one-on-one and in the workshops, is incredibly important to having a good experience.  It's a little bit of modeling what your life is going to be like when you're a professor. The sooner you can start doing that, the better.

The other thing is- it comes to my bias again - I think doing a teaching fellowship is incredibly valuable because that's what you're going to do as a law professor. Students are amazing and figuring out how you're going to balance teaching, scholarship, and supporting your students is something you need to do. Having the opportunity to do it in a fellowship program with a smaller class is a real privilege. I think people who have thrived in this role have thought about the fellowship as a cohesive combination of teaching and scholarship. They have been really successful.

Q: Let's turn to the job market itself and when candidates actually go on the market. Do they receive mentoring related to the hiring process and if so what type?

A: We have a market calendar, which we use to walk through the major deadlines, when ideally the fellows should have a draft research agenda, when they should have a draft of a paper to share with their recommenders.  We also talk about filling out the FAR form.

Later on in the summer, we’ll do practice AALS-style interviews, through a combination first internally with the fellows asking each other questions and then working with faculty advisers for a second round of practice interviews. We do practice job talks at the start of the fall, so it's an ongoing conversation of hitting those different benchmarks in the process.

Q: When you say that they get a chance to do their job talk, who's offering them feedback there? How many faculty members?

A: Similar to the mock AALS screening interviews, we do an internal round with just the fellows, then an external round with faculty mentors and for the faculty in the field who may not be formally assigned mentors but who have expertise related to the topic of the paper. So depending on the paper, it'll be six or seven faculty members in the room

Q: Are the other Climenkos present for that as well or just the faculty?

A: The other Climenkos are there too.

Q: Are you the person who is basically responsible for shepherding them through this process?

A: I spend a lot of time on it, but the faculty mentors also are really helpful in working with the fellows through the process. 

Q: Do fellows have the opportunity to receive feedback on their application materials from faculty and from you?

A: Yes, both.

Q.  If you wanted to look at the Climenko track record, do you happen to know off the top of your head the percentage of Climenkos over, say the last 5 or years, however far back you want to go, that has landed in tenure track positions at U.S. law schools?

A: Since the start of the program, 91% of fellows who have gone on the job market have landed tenure track positions.  All of the positions are on our website by year.

Q: Do you mind if I link to that in the transcript here?

A: Totally fine. [Here’s the link! Scroll down under the map for the full list.]

Q: Perfect and how does the program support fellows who may need to go on the teaching market more than once if they don't land somewhere in the second year of their fellowship?

A: My view is that, as a Climenko, you have the support of the program regardless of whether you make it the first time or not, but sometimes people will go back to practice or take a year to do something else.  We still support them in that process when they go on the market.

Q: The fellowship itself is not renewable for the third year, typically?

A: It's not presumptively renewable, right.

Q: All right, let's talk about some of those broader policy questions because obviously, the law teaching market has changed a lot, certainly since I was on the market. What do you think about the rise of fellowships and VAPs as an entry point into this profession? What do you think are the benefits? What do you think are the costs?

A: The benefits are ideally making another entry point. If we go way back to the classic model of law teaching 40 years ago, if you did really well at law school and you clerked, then you were called back to the mother ship. Having more entry points that are not that, I think, is incredibly important. Fellowships are one of those additional entry points that recognize the need to have time to research and write before you go on the market.  Through a fellowship, you are immersed in the academic life and the conversation about scholarship, which is just a great benefit for young scholars learning how to do the work of being a scholar.

What are the drawbacks? I think, perhaps unintentionally, the result has been that while trying to have more paths into academia, we’ve created an appearance that there is a primary path or that having a fellowship or having a PhD is effectively a prerequisite, and that may be unintentionally narrowing access. 

Q: What do you think about the fact that it's obviously hard for a lot of people to do a fellowship? To uproot their life, to move to a particular city, which may end up closing the profession to some groups of people.

A: I think that's a really serious consideration. Part of the reason why we don't have a residency requirement is a recognition of the fact that it is a hurdle for people, and of course the finances are a huge consideration as well. I think the hope is-- I guess our argument is it's hard to get into the academy full stop. Ways that we can make that easier are a help but not a full solution.

Q: Do you think that the VAP and fellowship programs have a responsibility to help open up law faculty positions to people from diverse backgrounds, non-traditional backgrounds? How do you think the Climenko program hopes to do that?

A: I think everyone involved in the legal academy has the responsibility to do precisely that, including fellowships and VAP programs. There are lots of ways we have to think about diversifying the academy.  And one of the ways is your interview series that is so helpfully providing insights to make this process more transparent.  My view--I talk to candidates all the time on the phone and over email--is I want to make it as easy as possible for people to apply and to understand exactly what a successful application looks like. I think aggregating that information for the programs can be helpful.

Q: Yes, hopefully.  That's the goal. We'll see how it works in the end.

I'm sure you've heard the criticism that VAPs and fellows may get too much help on their scholarship and that therefore, it's hard for hiring committees to know how much of the work comes from the VAP or fellow themselves and how much comes from, say, Harvard Law School faculty? How do you respond to that criticism?

A: It's a little bit analogous to our discussion of placement in law reviews.  I don't buy it. I think the entry-level process itself does an excellent job through interviews and conversations and certainly the job talks of assessing the candidates' originality and ownership of their own scholarship. To the extent that there are candidates who have been overly influenced by advisers, which I'm not convinced is a serious issue to begin with, the entry-level market is good at sussing out  candidates’ weaknesses so that it’s not an issue.

Q: Anything else you want to pass along about the state of law faculty hiring more generally?

A: Good question. I'm being redundant now but I do think more transparency in the process is better and having some of these assumptions either unsettled or at least bought up to the surface is important so that people understand on both sides what's happening.

Q.  Yes, who knows, maybe next I'll do the same type of interview series but with hiring chairs. We'll see. Thanks so much. I really appreciate it!


Posted by Jessica Erickson on June 14, 2019 at 09:16 AM in Getting a Job on the Law Teaching Market, VAPS & Fellowships | Permalink


anon1: "I think that this practice is far rarer than these discussions would imply": I agree. I have firsthand knowledge of it happening three times at a top fellowship program over the course of three years. I wouldn't be surprised if it happened an additional time or two during that period and I didn't know about it, but regardless, that's a small percentage of the job talk papers.

anon # 74: "isn't it more likely that many of the offers go to the same small group of people?": In my two or three rounds of hiring experience for a fellowship, there were around 3 or 4 candidates who just clearly stood out and the question was simply where they would decide to go. They, and I'm sure another few, maybe more, got multiple offers. But then the remaining slots still have to get filled.

As an aside, the timing and lack of information in all of this makes fellowship diversity very fluky on a year-to-year basis. There are often 3, 4, 5 spots to fill? Patterns over the course of, say, 3 or 4 years might reasonably trouble people, but a year or two years isn't a reasonable timeframe to assess what's happening.

And huge thank you to the participants in these interviews. I wish I had this information when I was applying to fellowships.

Posted by: anon #73 | Jun 18, 2019 9:14:12 AM

"A HLR placement probably gets a candidate pulled from a pile, . . . but I don't think it gets a candidate over the finish line."

I think this is true of placements generally. For example, a professor who gets lots of top law review placements will likely get some lateral consideration. But appointments committees regularly conclude that the person who has lots of top law review placements has won over students but isn't making major contributions. Top placements can get attention, but no one should think that they get someone a job.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jun 18, 2019 6:29:02 AM

"For most applicants who receive an offer from one of these programs, it will be the only offer they receive. And they will not have a choice to make."

Is that true, though? Wouldn't the typical candidate with a Bigelow offer also attract the attention of Harvard/Columbia/NYU/Yale? In other words, isn't it more likely that many of the offers go to the same small group of people?

Posted by: anon #74 | Jun 17, 2019 6:06:04 PM

"This practice is not limited to fellows."

Agreed. I think that this practice is far rarer than these discussions would imply, but when I was a HYS articles editor, I heard about something like this happening twice -- once for a HYS PhD candidate and once for a SCOTUS clerk. Interestingly enough, I don't think we accepted either piece. Twice over two years is, of course, far greater than zero. But it also implies to me that it's unlikely that more than an exceedingly small percentage of fellows/VAPS/PhDs/SCOTUS clerks are playing this game in a given year, let alone succeeding.

The remedy for this sort of advantage, though, is easy: don't hire someone based on a single HLR publication without reading it. Fortunately, I don't think this really ever happens. A HLR placement probably gets a candidate pulled from a pile--although having the sort of supporters who might be able to influence HLR does as well--but I don't think it gets a candidate over the finish line.

Posted by: anon1 | Jun 17, 2019 12:39:50 PM

Thanks to all for the interviews. For people just looking into the fellowship market I don’t think they underscore just how difficult getting a fellowship is. Most just apply to all and are lucky to hear from one. And if you do not already have a fairly well written paper and at least some semblance of connections to law Professor recommenders your chance of a fellowship is basically nill.

Someone who went to HYS, and practiced in big law or public interest for a few years who decides now they want to do a a fellowship have a hard time getting one. Many might have lost contact with professors from law school. There’s really nothing such a person can really do to break into the academy. Fellowships were originally designed to give such a person an avenue but nowadays at least half of the spots go to people who really do not need a fellowship (they have a PhD or masters and already have scholarship). They are really doing it for the connections

Just getting a fellowship today probably requires the same qualifications of someone who got a tenure track job 10 years aho

Posted by: Anon | Jun 17, 2019 11:06:00 AM

This practice is not limited to fellows. When I was on a top 10 board about 15 years ago, an editor brought an article to full board review because she was friends with the author. He was coming off of a SCOTUS clerkship and had been hired by a top school. When the board heard it was his job talk paper and that he got the job, we all assumed it must have been a good paper. I have to assume this type of thing influences fellow placement as well.

Orin: Discounting helps, but it doesn't solve the problem. If candidate X gets an offer from a top 20 school, and then expedites to the top 20, I bet that works out well. Plus, the connections may not be limited to the home institution.

Anon #72: I went on the market with a solid student note and a publication at one of the peer reviewed journals you mention. I had a total of 2 interviews, and this was when the market was much more robust than it is today. My guess is that many law professors don't know much about them and totally discount them because they aren't law reviews.

Posted by: Anon | Jun 17, 2019 9:30:53 AM

FWIW, I think you should always discount any prestige signal from an author publishing in a student-edited journal where the author teaches, has recently taught, or otherwise may have a connection with the articles editors. There are too many ways in which personal connections and motivations can creep into the decision to accept the article.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jun 16, 2019 11:15:25 PM

--Isn't the easiest fix to discount placements in the fellows' home institutions?--

Yes, at least insofar as anyone is relying that substantially on these signals.

My gut feeling is that it doesn't really matter: a Chicago fellow with a discounted Chicago placement still has probably done well enough to get herself read at most schools hiring in her area, at which point the quality of her article will matter more. My sense of the process is that if her article had placed 'honestly' in, say, UC Davis, that also would be enough to get her read at most schools hiring in her area.

I also would apply the same skepticism to PhDs with placements in their home institutions. In my experience, PhDs are more likely to have mentors who are personally and professionally invested in their success--and therefore willing to take a drastic step of this sort--than fellows.

Posted by: a non | Jun 16, 2019 9:59:10 PM

Isn't the easiest fix to discount placements in the fellows' home institutions?

Posted by: fellowtraveller | Jun 16, 2019 9:32:44 PM

"I would love it if the best option is the Climenko program but sometimes it's not, whether because there's this particular scholar you want to work with at another school or the structure of a program that works better for the way you work. Some people thrive on the balance of teaching and scholarship. Still other people would prefer to have more uninterrupted time without teaching obligations before they go on the market. Other people want to be in a small program. Some people like having a big program. I think it has to be an individual decision, really, really focused on how your approach to your academic career would be best supported."

The kinds of people who are in a position to "decide" among fellowship programs do not need any advice. Most people are not lucky enough to secure multiple offers from these programs, which are all intensely competitive. For most applicants who receive an offer from one of these programs, it will be the only offer they receive. And they will not have a choice to make.

Posted by: anon | Jun 16, 2019 9:12:05 PM

Yes, Anon 73 is right. The incident(s) I am aware of were not done through a fellowship coordinator and not an opportunity generally available to fellows in this particular program(s) and were conveyed to me in one on one conversations involving a professor at HLS and a professor(s) at one (or more) other t14 school(s).

Because the entire purpose of walking a paper over to advance a protégés career would be totally obviated if people knew that was how they got their highly desirable placement no one is going to broadcast that they do that, nor will any law review editor be likely to admit to accepting a paper on those grounds since it undermines their veneer of authority.

And no one who knows about this happening is likely to speak 'on the record' about it in direct confirmable terms, because it would be the academic equivalent of throwing mud at at least one very senior professor at a top school, one very junior professor, one top law journal and one hiring committees. Since I'm not suicidal, I'm not going to share details with anyone but my spouse and my cat, but I am going to look with skepticism at top placements from fellows...which is very unfortunate because I am also aware of fellows who I am very confident got their top placements without any assistance.

Oh and by the way, this isn't just terrible, it is also easily fixable:

Stop awarding the highest placement prestige to a t3 or t14 or t50 or whatever student edited law review placement.

Instead, start recognizing as the top placement achievement an article in a leading peer reviewed law journal, such as Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, Modern Law Review, Law & Society Review, Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, Law & Social Inquiry, Constitutional Commentary, Law and Philosophy, Law, Culture and the Humanities, Law and History Review or American Law and Economics Review.

The fact that a publication in, for example, Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, will count for less in the eyes of appointments committee members than a publication in Minnesota Law Review, has the bizarre implication that the judgment of a vote of a board of students who have often never even read another paper in the applicable sub-field and are only just being introduced to any kind of scholarship carries more weight than the judgment of professors who who have developed expertise in the subject over decades.

This makes no sense and it encourages not only the nepotism of walking papers into journal offices but the sloppy academic practice of over-claiming the novelty of a paper with the knowledge that student "preemption checks" are entirely ineffective at determining whether an article is an original and impactful contribution or the recycling of what the author or others have written before.

Posted by: Anon #72 | Jun 16, 2019 7:45:53 PM

Just echoing anon #72 here. I was in one of these programs recently and know firsthand that this sometimes happens. My firsthand knowledge isn't specifically about HLR, but about high ranked journals where the professor helping the fellow has some connection. Maybe the prof is currently working with the board on an article of his or her own, maybe they happen to meet someone on the board, maybe it's their home institution's journal. If it's their fellowship school's home journal, fellows would think to, or be advised to, try to expedite to a different one, even if the different one is a little lower ranked.

Of course people, including fellows talking to each other, are careful about sharing this sort of info. (It would be unsurprising to me if most professors on a faculty where this happens wouldn't think this happens, unless they're one of the ones who has done it.) Everyone on the market wants people to think they really 'earned' the 2Ls' decision to publish, since that apparently makes a difference to hiring schools, as absurd as that may be. Also note that what matters isn't fellowship per se, it's having some sort of personal or professional connection to somebody who can influence those 2Ls.

Posted by: anon #73 | Jun 16, 2019 11:10:14 AM

"Q: Do fellows get any help in terms of placing their work in the law review submission process? There is always this lore that fellows have some help there. Have you seen any of that?

A: I don't. I saw the question when you sent it along and it made me chuckle because I haven't seen that. I've seen it on the blogs, and I know it's a deeply-held myth but I haven't seen it. I will say if I had to imagine the source of it, it’s the observation that there's been an increase of top-tier law reviews publishing fellows’ papers."

I realize that, as an anonymous pre-tenure commenter, I have absolutely no credibility, but I have direct information from people in peer fellowship program(s) of specific professors walking papers to HLR, so I wish it was a myth but it's not.

Posted by: Anon #72 | Jun 16, 2019 6:52:59 AM

Thank you for these interviews. They are extremely helpful in understanding the VAP process. This sounds like an incredible program that does a great job of training future law professors. For people who are worried about narrowing the pool of future law professors, I think this is much more accessible than a PhD program. Also, work to change things at your school if you don't like the process!

Posted by: anonhiringchair | Jun 15, 2019 8:23:35 AM

-- fellowships have dramatically narrowed the path by adding another step to the process, which for many candidates is not feasible due to family/financial constraints.--

The change over the past decade has largely been in PhDs (I think the total number of fellowships has shrunk), which, as has been discussed here at length, are far less feasible for many candidates due to family/financial constraints.

The path is narrowing, but fellowships present the last significant bastion of practitioner hiring. (And nothing against PhDs, but the understanding of the law that springs from 4-5 years of practice is materially different from the understanding that springs from a similar amount of time researching.)

Posted by: aa | Jun 14, 2019 1:33:30 PM

"What are the drawbacks? I think, perhaps unintentionally, the result has been that while trying to have more paths into academia, we’ve created an appearance that there is a primary path or that having a fellowship or having a PhD is effectively a prerequisite, and that may be unintentionally narrowing access."

It's not just the "appearance" of a PhD/fellowship being a prerequisite. According to the stats published on this blog days ago, 97% of all candidates hired this year had either a fellowship or a PhD. They are prerequisites now.

Rather than adding another "entry point" to academia, fellowships have dramatically narrowed the path by adding another step to the process, which for many candidates is not feasible due to family/financial constraints.

Posted by: Anon | Jun 14, 2019 9:52:27 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.