I have a problem with VAPs--the visiting assistant professorships/fellowships that are the most common entry-point to the legal academy. What I am looking for in a new colleague is curiosity, discipline, and the capacity for intellectual give-and-take--not just play king-of-the-hill and defend a position against all comers, but engage in a real dialogue. One of my colleagues call it "sparkiness."
So how do you find that?
Pre-VAP, writing an article while in practice was a strong signal--if you were interested, cared enough, and were hard enough working to write while in practice, you were a pretty good bet. With VAPs now de rigeur, the signal is muddied. Each law school that houses VAPs has strong institutional incentives to place all of them, so it's hard to use VAP recommenders as a signal--the law school will find someone to enthuse about each of its VAPs. And VAPs are now well-groomed to say the right things, coached as to the standard arguments and responses. They talk the talk. But will they walk the walk 3 years into teaching? It's hard for me to tell.
There are recommenders and recommenders, of course. Each institution will have those discerning types who don't lard on the praise--whose compliments, even if sparing, mean more than the lavish encomiums of their colleagues. But how to find these?
As I commented on Elizabeth Pollman's great closing post,
last year I was talking to a distinguished older professor about hiring. He said he had stopped caring about how smart someone was, since everybody at this level is smart. "I don't care how smart the candidate is. Show me why they've done." I've thought about that conversation a lot since then. What makes a successful law professor or law student seems to have as much to do with drive/work ethic as smartness. The latter may be necessary, but is not sufficient.
It's just harder to discern "what someone has done" when their job as a VAP is basically to produce scholarship and have it be vetted and polished. Of course I'm just throwing stones--I don't have any ideas about how to make these discernments in the post-VAP age. Maybe someone else does?
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