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Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Final Reflections on VAP/Fellowship Interview Series

Now that my series interviewing VAP and fellowship directors has ended, I wanted to reflect on the broader lessons that I learned from these interviews.  Your takeaways may differ, so I hope you chime in in the comments if you think there are different or additional takeaways that prospective candidates and/or hiring committees should have.  But I’ve been on the hiring side for a long time and there were still a number of things that surprised me when I dug into the VAP/fellowship world.

**Before I dig into these reflections, a quick note that Howard Wasserman was nice enough to create a category for VAP and fellowships to the left, so you can now find all of these interviews and posts in one place.  Please remember also that the AALS has a new site devoted to providing information about the law teaching market.  Now onto my final reflections:

1.  It is *really* hard to get many VAPs and fellowships these days, way harder than I would have guessed. I imagined these programs as a chance for candidates coming from practice to kick start their writing, and I think some programs do work like that.  But several of the top programs seem to require that their fellows have several papers before they even start the fellowship.  These programs get enough applications (75+) that they can be this picky, and my guess is that this competition in turn drives the Ph.D. + fellowship trend that we see in Sarah’s data.  It’s obviously hard to write several good papers in practice, so it’s not surprising that candidates are doing a Ph.D. program to write an initial set of papers and then doing a top fellowship to bring their scholarship back into the law world, write even more, and make additional connections.  That’s a long on-ramp though, and it likely comes at the cost of other things such as practice experience.

That said, I don't want to overstate the requirements.  Plenty of programs said that their VAPs typically only have one paper when they apply to the program, which is still a lot but obviously easier to prepare than two or three papers.  And several programs stressed that they care most about the idea for the paper you plan to write while in the VAP program, so having a really good idea for your next paper may compensate for not having a CV full of published papers when you apply. 

2.  As a hiring chair, I have often marveled at how much the law teaching market has changed/improved from when your academic pedigree was the main criteria. On the hiring side, we look at what you’ve written, not where you went to law school, and I think many academics pat themselves on the back for using this criteria.  I worry though that we’re ignoring the impact of the VAP/fellowship programs on our decision making.  Sure, maybe whether you went to Harvard/Yale/Stanford doesn’t matter much to hiring committees anymore, but I think these credentials do matter when it comes to getting a fellowship.  Writing matters a lot there too, as I note above, but when fellowship candidates don’t have many fully polished pieces, hiring decision makers in many programs will fall back on old proxies – where you went to law school, who’s recommending you, etc.  So I worry that we’ve essentially replicated the old hiring system, just earlier in the process.  Not entirely – as noted above, candidates need one or more papers to get a VAP, and the quality of those papers have a lot of weight – but when candidates are less polished and have less developed scholarly identities, it’s easy for the old criteria to creep back in.  And now they matter at a stage of the process that’s a lot less transparent.  As a hiring committee at Richmond, we can debate these issues among our whole faculty and decide how we want to address them.  Decisions on which VAPs and fellows to hire, in contrast, are made by a fairly small number of people and are not typically subject to a lot of debate by a school’s faculty. 

3.  Fellowships really vary in how well they prepare candidates for the market. On the hiring side, I think we tend to lump these programs together (“well, they did a VAP…”), instead of really looking at the details of each program.  We know candidates look different after they have (i) time to write and (ii) good mentoring, and yet the programs really differ in how much time and mentoring the VAPs/fellows get.  On the hiring side, that means we should have higher expectations for the fellows who have been blessed with lots of time and good mentoring and a bit more forgiving of fellows who have struggled to write while juggling high teaching loads and little mentoring.   On the candidate side, *please* ask questions on these points during the VAP/fellowship interview process.  I get that it’s hard to suss all that out, and you may not have a ton of options.  But you should still try to ask hard questions about what percentage of your time will be free to write (if it’s less than, say, 40% over the year, I would worry).  A teaching load of one doctrinal course per semester is different than a teaching load of two (or even one) legal writing sections per semester.  And ask current or past VAPs how many people read their draft, how many people listened to their job talk and provided feedback, and how many people discussed their research agenda with them. 

This is even more true when it comes to less formal programs.  For the most part, I interviewed the directors of established, long-standing programs.  But plenty of schools hire visitors when they have a curricular hole, and these visitors can often be people who hope to go on the teaching market someday.  My instinct is that these less formal positions likely involve a higher teaching load and far less mentoring than the more formal programs.  Really ask the hard questions here.  If you don’t have significant time to write and your goal is ultimately get a tenure-track law job, the position likely isn’t worth your time. 

4.  No matter how much support you get from your own school, a VAP or fellowship is still an entrepreneurial process. There’s a certain amount of sitting in your office and writing, but you also need to take the initiative to reach out to people in your field, go to conferences, introduce yourself to people, etc.  I talked with one program director who told me, “we're looking for go-getters, and go-getters go get.”  I want that on my tombstone—“go getters go get.”  What this person meant by that, based on the rest of the discussion, is that they want fellows who take the initiative in asking for what they need, whether it’s comments on a paper, connections to people in their field, or anything else.   Even the best fellowship won’t hand you these things, and most fellowships are not the best fellowships.  You have to be a go-getter who is going to go get—send that email to the scholar you don’t know but whose work you admire or ask a scholar to go to coffee with you at a conference.  Make the first move, even if it feels horribly awkward.  Most law professors are friendly people, and we’re happy to help new people in our field.

5.  I was surprised that basically all of the programs said that they don’t consider curricular area in selecting VAPs and fellows, at least if the VAP or fellowship itself does not have a curricular focus. I knew that a program like the Climenko or Bigelow wouldn’t have explicit curricular preferences, but I guess I expected that these programs would think more about which curricular areas are in demand on the tenure-track hiring side and give high-demand areas more of a thumb on the scale.  Having been on our hiring committee for many years, I will say that even though people talk about “the market” for law professors, there isn’t a single hiring market.  Instead, there are many mini-hiring markets in various curricular areas.  Picking on my own curricular area (I’m a corporate law person), the hiring market in corporate law looks really different than the hiring market in federal courts or con law.  Given that it can be difficult to hire a great person in corporate law or other high-demand areas, I wish fellowships sought out people in those areas more and dialed back a bit on some of the other areas where there just isn’t as much curricular demand.    But I admit my corporate law bias here, so maybe I am wrong!

6.  Finally, a caveat. My interviews were all with people who had a strong incentive to paint their program in the best light possible.  I get that.  Hiring standards might not be quite as high as the interviewees made them out to be; additional factors probably come into play even if they didn’t want to admit them publicly.  I don’t have any illusion that I got the 100% unvarnished truth about these programs.  So we should take everything in the interviews with a grain of salt.  Hopefully though they are still valuable in shedding light into this process.

For now, I’m knee deep in the hiring process on the entry-level side, but I’m open to continuing this project next summer.  Let me know what additional information about fellowships or law faculty hiring more generally might be helpful!   


Posted by Jessica Erickson on December 10, 2019 at 08:30 PM in Getting a Job on the Law Teaching Market, VAPS & Fellowships | Permalink


Having gone through a fellowship interview, and having read this series exhaustively, I think it would be interesting to continue in the future with a few follow-ups. Namely:

1. What interview questions do fellowships generally ask? What do they expect fellows to communicate during interviews? I found this information readily available for AALS interviews, but much less so for fellowships. Furthermore since there is no fellowship for fellowships, there is no program to coach you for this sort of thing either! Knowing the interview procedure was helpful, but knowing how to succeed would be more useful still.

2. A number of the interviewees were able to get away with saying they wanted "the best" candidates without elaborating very much on that. We hear that they probably want you to have published before, but since many rejected candidates will have reached this threshold, more information on how they define "best" or "excellence" would be useful.

3. Given the success rate, many candidates will find they need to apply to these fellowships year after year. Is there any chance fellowship programs will be interested in candidates who have published maybe slightly more the following year? Or should they take a rejection as an indication they are probably not going to be seen as a fit for that program? At which stage (first round, second round) is a rejection more indicative of this? Would these programs be inclined to reconsider an applicant whose scholarly focus changes by the time another application is made, or will this be seen as inauthentically opportunistic?

Posted by: anon3 | Dec 20, 2019 8:09:28 PM

Hi VAP or Write – My view might be slightly different than Matthew’s. I worry a little when I hear lawyers say they don’t need to do a VAP because they’ve managed to write while in practice. Writing one or more articles is, of course, essential before going on the market, but it isn’t enough. The articles also have to be really good. I don’t mean to imply that your articles aren’t good – after all, I have no idea who you are or what you’ve written. But I do think it is incredibly hard to write really good articles in practice. Maybe I shouldn’t bring this up because you state as a given that any article you write in practice will be the same quality as any article you write in a fellowship. That might be right, but it seems unlikely to me. In my experience, some attorneys have time to write while practicing, but it’s tough to write with the level of depth and polish that hiring committees expect, especially given the competition out for each open slot.

VAPs and fellowships really do serve a purpose here. They allow you to devote more time to your papers, which means that you can develop your arguments more and think through the broader implications. You also get far more opportunities to have people in your field read your articles and offer feedback, which again makes the papers better. Legal scholarship, like anything else, is subject to a whole set of norms that are hard to appreciate from outside the academy. This may be controversial, but in my experience, the papers of VAPs and fellows are almost always better than papers written by lawyers in practice. More than anything else, that’s why they get hired. It’s not just a matter of credentialing, as much as people like to categorize it as such.

Also, I assume you care about more than just getting a law faculty position at some law school somewhere. Presumably, you also want to have options so you can end up at an intellectually stimulating environment in a geographic area that works for your family. Perhaps you can get a job without doing a VAP or fellowship (it’s possible, although I’d need to know more about your curricular area, your papers, etc.), but I think you’ll have more options if you do a fellowship first.

None of this is meant to ignore the costs/risks of doing a fellowship. They are very real and the reason that I did this series in the first place. As a profession, I think we need to think more about the costs. Ultimately, though, only you can decide whether the costs outweigh the benefits. But I know your dilemma is a somewhat common one, so I thought I’d chime in my own thoughts. And if you want to reach out to me over email, I’m happy to discuss your personal situation in more detail.

Posted by: Jessica Erickson | Dec 15, 2019 7:06:26 AM

VAP or Write | Dec 11, 2019 2:39:09 PM

IMO, you should stay just where you are. Maybe start going to law professor conferences to present your work, but if you have the time to write in practice, I'd stay put.

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Dec 14, 2019 4:51:13 PM

Writing to say thanks Jessica, to you and others who take the time to do the research and interviewing on the legal job market. It's very helpful to those of us aspiring to teach (I'm a later career teaching candidate, with a few publications, adjunct teaching, and experiential teaching background).

Posted by: Charlie Martel | Dec 12, 2019 5:10:56 PM

The additional value of the fellowships beyond writing time is probably people from the program invested in calling hiring committees on your behalf. Sometimes it seems like you're invisible in this process without that.

Posted by: anon3 | Dec 11, 2019 3:56:34 PM

My biggest question is whether the VAP or fellowship has independent value beyond the time to write, mentoring, and conferences. I'm doing these things while in practice. I'm trying to decide whether to stay at my firm, where I have been able to fit in time to write an article every two years or so and my last one placed pretty well, or go to a fellowship. Is it worth jumping ship from a good wage and no ticking clock to a wage that cannot support my family (for the particular fellowship that I think I might get, the pay is $50k) and a ticking clock at the end of the fellowship? I feel strongly that my next paper will be done at the same time and likely be written the same whether I stay at the firm or go to a fellowship.

Posted by: VAP or Write | Dec 11, 2019 2:39:09 PM

Jessica, thanks again both for this very useful set of interviews and for your reflections here. It's very useful context for those contemplating careers in legal academia.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Dec 11, 2019 12:00:08 AM

Thanks for this clarification. I very much agree that it can be tough/impossible for people in non-law PhD programs to write law review articles during their PhD programs. My sense though is that discipline-specific papers, assuming they have something to do with law, will help you get in the door at VAP/fellowship programs, where you will then have the time/mentoring to write law review articles. In other words, if you need, say, 3 papers or a monograph-length dissertation to get a VAP, you can write those in the PhD program, even if they aren't geared to law reviews. Then you can write the law review articles you'll likely need for the entry-level job market in the VAP program. That's a long path, but it seems like a somewhat common one these days.

That said, I could be wrong with VAP selection committees more hostile to non-law review articles than I think!

Posted by: Jessica Erickson | Dec 10, 2019 10:06:27 PM

This is a welcome set of comments overall, but I must add one caveat to the following statement:

"it’s not surprising that candidates are doing a Ph.D. program to write an initial set of papers"

It is emphatically not true that you will necessarily have more time in a PhD program to write law review papers, unless you neglect your other duties. In many social science PhDs you will be encouraged to write papers, but in your discipline. In humanities and borderline social science disciplines, like history, you may be discouraged from writing papers at all in order to focus on a dissertation that will be a future book. It is also not necessarily shrewd for job market purposes to spend all your time on law review papers even neglecting these factors, since the other option for PhDs will be a disciplinary job market in which law review papers are worthless.

I know there are all kinds of exceptions to these comments, ways in which you can publish in borderline law/disciplinary journals, etc., but they don't erase the fact that this tension exists and is potentially excluding people from consideration for fellowships whose PhDs are less friendly toward publishing extensively in an alien discipline.

Posted by: anon1 | Dec 10, 2019 9:54:29 PM

I'm certainly not pretending that JD institution is irrelevant. That said, on the hiring side, it feels pretty irrelevant when it comes to voting offers, at least in my experience. To the extent that it correlates with law faculty job offers (and I have no doubt it does), it's unclear whether that's because (i) hiring schools care a lot about it, (ii) VAPs/fellowships care a lot about it, or (iii) people from top schools happen to have other qualifications (better papers, etc.) that make them better candidates. On the second possibility (VAPs/fellowships care a lot about it), I think these programs are incredibly risk averse. Given the deep applicant pool, they can afford to go for candidates who already have a few papers and a top JD (and other stuff to boot). Moreover, to the extent that they are choosing between candidates with imperfect scholarship -- because few people new to the academy have great papers, even given the deep pool -- I have to imagine that VAPs and fellowships rely quite a bit on JD institution and related factors to predict who among those with imperfect papers will turn out to be good scholars.

All of which is to say that, while I think hiring schools are relying less on JD institution as a proxy these days, it's already baked into our decisions if we're hiring people with good papers and these good papers are a result of the mentoring that come through VAPs/fellowships.

Of course, I could be wrong and hiring schools rely on candidate's JD institution much more than I think. Given the number of papers that most top candidates have though, that just feels like an irrational strategy. Maybe most schools are too lazy to read the papers, but certainly past scholarship is a better proxy for future scholarship than where someone went to law school. And there is no shortage of candidates with lots of good papers.

Posted by: Jessica Erickson | Dec 10, 2019 9:49:34 PM

"On the hiring side, we look at what you’ve written, not where you went to law school, and I think many academics pat themselves on the back for using this criteria. I worry though that we’re ignoring the impact of the VAP/fellowship programs on our decision making. Sure, maybe whether you went to Harvard/Yale/Stanford doesn’t matter much to hiring committees anymore, but I think these credentials do matter when it comes to getting a fellowship"

Good for you. But you are in the minority. If you look at how the market shakes out, JD institution is by far the best predictor of job prospects. It may also be a great predictor of landing a fellowship. But that is just reinforcing the point. And if you are correct that it matters a lot for fellowships, then it doesn't quite square with the point about writing. The reality is that top VAPs/Fellows are getting better jobs than those without. It's still true that schools need to sort through mountains of candidates, and they do this using the JD institution. Let's not pretend the academy is past this. It is not.

Posted by: anon | Dec 10, 2019 9:19:11 PM

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