September 23, 2004
So You Want to be a Law Professor: Part III
Posted by Gordon Smith

In the previous post in this series, I promised some thoughts on the AALS forms. Over the past several weeks, I have been reviewing all of the forms now available: 613 in the first distribution and 166 in the second distribution. When time is short and interview spots are limited, you learn to rely on certain markers to sort the candidates.

Everyone approaches the AALS forms differently. One member of our committee told me today that she focuses on publications. Another member of the committee was interested in references. For me the initial hurdle is law school performance. If the candidate excelled at a "top" law school, I am very interested in going further. If the candidate excelled at a second- or third-tier law school, I want to know more. If the candidate did poorly at any law school, my review is over.

How does one measure law school performance? Well, the most obvious measure is class rank, though many candidates fail to include it, either because the law school does not compute class rankings (e.g., Yale) or because the candidate is embarrassed. If a candidate graduated from a school that computes class rankings, but the candidate does not include her class rank, I assume it is bad. This may be incorrect, but there are too many candidates who have great class rankings to spend time on someone who is unwilling to disclose the information.

Besides class rank, law review membership is a plus factor in my book, especially if the candidate was chosen as an editor. I am not so much interested in the honor as the experience of law review. Given the absence of scholarly publication requirements in law schools, I am looking for evidence that the candidate understands norms about legal scholarship.

Many candidates, especially candidates from second- or third-tier law schools, obtain advanced law degrees, usually LLMs. In most instances, these do not add a lot of value to the resume for me, though they are so common in tax that their absence is worth noting. Other advanced degrees may or may not be helpful. Candidates do not get much of a boost for an MBA or most other masters degrees, but PhDs get noticed. Again, this is evidence that the candidate understands something about scholarship that is not taught in most law schools. On the other hand, I am wary of candidates with a marginal law school record and a PhD. When you are seeking a person who has the "next great idea," you are looking for a spark, not just perseverence.

Even with a search that is open as to subject matter, the teaching interests are important. I want someone who is willing to teach basic courses in addition to their pet courses. Listing the pet course first is a mistake, in my view. Most law schools will allow you to teach at least one specialized course, but they are unlikely to be hiring you for that purpose. They are hiring you to produce scholarship in your niche and to teach as many students as you can handle. List a first-year course and/or a substantial upper-level course such as Business Organizations, Trusts & Estates, Evidence, or Professional Responsibility. These are courses every law school needs in volume, so make yourself available.

Publications are important, but we understand that most entry-level candidates will have only one to three total. Volume is not as important as quality. Having your name on a top 20 journal is a big boost. For more thoughts on publications, see my comments here.

References may be important, although they are more important for me later in the process. We do not contact references until we are in the call-back stage of the process. Prior to that time, having a "big name" reference can be helpful, but I don't read much into it. On the other hand, if your reference contacts me, that is impressive. This year, several professors have taken the time to phone or email about a truly exceptional student, and that gets my attention. If it happened more often, it might not be so effective, but for now, it works pretty well.

Minority candidates all receive close attention, though it is hard to perceive how much minority status factors into individual decisions. Maintaining a racially diverse faculty is challenging, especially in Wisconsin, where minorities are a smaller proportion of the general population than in New York or LA or DC. The absence of a natural draw for minority professors means we tend to treat minority status as another plus factor. That said, I have not noticed any substantial differences in the evaluation of minority candidates -- that is, the same factors matter for all candidates. Fortunately, the pool of minority candidates includes many accomplished people, so we are not forced to compromise on quality.

Finally, I am interested in prior experiences. I have a slight bias against people who have spent their entire lives inside a university. This is a fairly common profile, especially for PhD/JD candidates. Getting those degrees takes a lot of time, and adding experience on top of that can be burdensome. On the other hand, it is difficult to teach law in a meaningful way without some practical experience, and summer associate jobs do not count for much.

The nature of the experience can be important. Obviously, work in an area relevant to one's teaching interests is helpful. For some reason, people value big-firm experience, even though we all know that bottom dwellers in big firms have very limited exposure to meaningful work. Clerkships are a plus factor, and I view Supreme Court clerkships as especially valuable, though that is a view not universally held among law professors.

Prior teaching experience generally does not matter much to me. It is rarely a big plus factor, but it can be a negative if the candidate was previously an English professor, for example. One wonders whether the switch to law was about money or about the failure to receive tenure or a general inability of the candidate to settle down, all of which might be negative signals. If the candidate is currently working as a visiting professor at a law school, some people might assume that the candidate tried to get a job in prior years but failed. (For those candidates not in this position, it might be worth making a note on the form about the nature of the visitorship.) Even if this is true, I would argue that it is irrelevant, recognizing the vicissitudes of the hiring market. But some people count this as a negative.

This year I have been observing how difficult it is to achieve consensus about candidate quality in the absence of subject-matter limitations in the search. On our first pass through the book, our committee identified about 100 candidates of interest. Of course, many of those candidates attracted only one committee member's interest, but I think this illustrates the wide variation in approaches.

We have selected about half of our interview candidates. So far we have been selecting candidates whom all of us (more or less) agreed based on the first pass through the book should be on the interview list. Next week we will be selecting additional interview candidates that are strongly endorsed by one or more members of the committee. In my experience, these candidates are equal to the first batch in every way, but were overlooked on our first pass. We should have our dance card substantially filled within two weeks.

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Comments (28)

1. Posted by Eric on September 24, 2004 @ 9:55 | Permalink

Prof. Smith,
Informative as usual. I really enjoying reading this series of posts.

2. Posted by Gordon Smith on September 24, 2004 @ 10:12 | Permalink

Thanks, Eric.

3. Posted by Paul on September 26, 2004 @ 1:30 | Permalink


I greatly enjoyed your informative series. Might you elaborate on your views regarding general (as opposed to subject-specific) LLM's? As a graduate from a second tier law school with aspirations of an academic position, I have been repeatedly "warned" that without an LLM from a top school my chances at securing an interview are slim.

Thanks again for the enjoyable posts.

4. Posted by State Clerk on September 26, 2004 @ 8:03 | Permalink

Professor Smith,

Thank you for these valuable posts. On clerkships, I know that Federal Appellate clerkships are highly valued in hiring, but what about Federal District and state supreme court clerkships? Do they count for anything close to the Federal Appellate variety, or are they marginal at best? Thank you again.

5. Posted by Gordon Smith on September 26, 2004 @ 9:36 | Permalink

Paul, Good question about LLMs. I want to note again that the views in these posts are my own, informed by participating in many appointments committee meetings. Others will surely differ.

Now, with regard to general LLMs, for me the issue is whether that experience will contribute substantially to your preparation as a legal scholar. Most general LLM programs last for one year (two semesters) and include mostly the same courses taken by JDs (though they typically include one course specially tailored for the LLM students). In addition, LLM programs usually require a supervised writing assignment. This requirement is often fulfilled with a law school seminar. In short, an LLM is not much different than one year of regular law school.

The fact that this year is spent at big-name school rather than second-tier school may have some value to the aspiring legal scholar -- and here I am thinking of the value of observing and interacting with highly accomplished scholars -- but my sense is that most LLM students are segregated from the main flow of the school, having missed the socialization that occurs during the first year. This segregation affects an LLM's relations with JD students, who have formed lasting social groups during the first year or law school or in other non-LLM activities, such as law review or moot court. The segregation also affects an LLM's relationships with professors, who develop bonds with JD students over multiple semesters over varied activities.

All of that said, the LLM experience may be valuable in allowing the candidate to deepen her knowledge of a particular area of law. In addition, that year may provide an opportunity to develop and advance a research agenda. So the LLM can be valuable, but that value will manifest itself in the candidate's presentation and writings, not in the reputational value of the big-name school.

6. Posted by Gordon Smith on September 26, 2004 @ 9:55 | Permalink

Dear State Clerk,

This is another good question. The short answer is that I value federal district court clerkships and state supreme court clerkships highly. But let's think more deeply about this.

The perception is that federal appellate court clerkships are the most difficult to obtain, so we should value them highest, but I don't put much stock in this line of thinking. If someone clerks for a federal appellate court judge, I might infer that the person has good grades or attended a good law school (or both). But why do I need to make that inference about the person when I can look directly at the law school they attended and evaluate their performance there? For me, the value of a clerkship is the experience, and I am trying to assess that.

With regard to that question, appellate court clerkships (both state and federal) are the most like law school in that the work consists of researching and writing about narrowly defined legal issues. Much of the "noise" of the case has been filtered out at this stage, so the exercise has a more academic feel. Having that experience under the tutelage of an experienced judge is a great learning experience, and more than anything else, the perceived quality of judges is what distinguishes federal and state court clerkships in the minds of most professors I know.

On the other hand, clerking in a trial court allows a person to see the rough and tumble of actual litigation. This is especially valuable for candidates who hope to teach procedure, evidence, complex litigation, etc.

The bottom line is that clerkships of any kind can be valuable, and I would never classify them as "marginal."

7. Posted by Law Teacher on September 27, 2004 @ 0:03 | Permalink

I found your description of criteria for hiring faculty to be quite troubling.

It seems to me that you are making a grave error when you say "I am wary of candidates with a marginal law school record and a PhD. When you are seeking a person who has the 'next great idea,' you are looking for a spark, not just perseverence." Isn't getting good grades in law shool far more an indication of "perseverence" than it is of having a "spark"? People without ANY spark can study their way to good grades. And, haven't the ideas with the most "spark" often come from people who skipped class and got poor grades (Einstein and Nash come to mind)? In fact, I would expect people with the most intellectual spark to be bored senseless by 90% of what is taught in law school--and perhaps then move on to something more interesting, such as a PhD program. If you are using law school grades to discount the intellectual potential of someone who went on to get a PhD, you are surely using the wrong measure. How about you try reading the candidate's dissertation instead?

Somehow, if you are looking at a candidate's law school grades, I am fairly sure you aren't really looking for "spark" at all. Maybe you like good grades because you got good grades in law school and thus assume they are a measure of worth. Perhaps "perseverence" is what you really admire, but you only claim to admire "spark" because it sounds good. Whatever the reason, I think you are woefully off track to look at law school grades. Interestingly, I recently had a conversation with a poli sci professor at Stanford who fomerly taught at Harvard. He said that in all his years on search committees, he had never once looked at a candidate's transcript. He felt it told him nothing about the a candidates potential as a professor.

And one other point. You claim that it is important that a candidate be ready and willing to teach high volume courses, yet you also say that teaching experience doesn't matter. If your attitude is common, then I now understand why so many law professors are pathetic teachers. Look, a law school professor's first job is to TEACH. That is what the students are paying for. If you don't care whether a candidate has shown an ability to teach, then you obviously don't care whether the students have the best opportunity to learn.

In sum, it seems you will be happy with a candidate who was a law school nerd and who has diddled her way through a couple of years as a scrivener in the bowels of a big firm (and who has shown no capacity whatsoever to actually teach)--as long as she is a racial minority--but you will reject an experienced and acomplished teacher who has great ideas (but who didn't persevere in the paper chase)--particularly if he is a white male. What a pile of nonsese. Please inform all potential students at your school that this is how you select your faculty--so they can go elsewhere to find teachers who may actually inspire them.

8. Posted by Gordon Smith on September 27, 2004 @ 1:11 | Permalink

Dear Law Teacher,

You make some valid and interesting points, though its a bit hard to wade through your anger to find them. You must be right that people with a "spark" will not necessarily excel in law school, but that leaves us with a bit of problem: how do we find them? Before we begin constructing the search, we have to realize a couple of things:

1. Our best candidate may have a JD only or may have a JD and a PhD.

2. We will not be able to locate our best candidate based on a paper review alone.

So how do we proceed? We wade through 1,000 forms in search of 30 people who look interesting enough to interview and hope that we find five from that bunch who still seem interesting after we speak to them. No, we do not assume that excellence in law school is enough, though experience has taught that mediocrity in law school is not highly correlated with success in legal academe. So we use law school success as one sifting factor, and that gets us down to several hundred applicants.

Then we look at other pieces of evidence including written work. No, we do not read all 150 PhD dissertations in search of the next Einstein or Nash. I am a fast reader, but not that fast.

We also don't assume that someone who has never taught can't learn to be an excellent teacher. If we are interested in a candidate, we put them in front of a crowd and watch them teach us about their ideas. They may be unpolished, but we attempt to assess aspects of their personality that would allow them to excel in the classroom. Why would you assume that prior experience should count for so much, when that might exclude the "Einstein of teaching" who has not yet had the opportunity to teach? If we hired only experienced teachers, we wouldn't go into the new entry market at all.

The bottom line is that you have taken my review of the AALS forms and assumed that it comprises the entire evaluation process. That was unfair and misguided.

9. Posted by Law Teacher on September 27, 2004 @ 1:51 | Permalink

First, I apologize if I sounded angry. I'm not. But, as a professor, I just find it a little disturbing that you judge teaching potential based on law school performance. The two seem only tangentially related. Not only have I seen lots of professors who waste sudents tuition by being and teachers, but also have seen students who excell at taking exams, but who would be horrible teachers. I don't believe teaching skils can really be learned. Either a person has talent, or they don't.

You claim that "experience has taught that mediocrity in law school is not highly correlated with success in legal academe." What experiences have taught this? Have you hired a bunch of mediocre law school students as faculty members? Did they all fail? How big was your sample? Was the rate of failure statistically significant? Or is it true that you have hired no candidates with mediocre laws school records (because having good law school grades is one of you initial filters), and that you merely assume that they would not have success in academia?

Alright, I understand that you must filter candidates some how. And I accept that bad law school grades are a valid initial filter for someone who has nothing else to offer but their law school performance. But, I think it is a very poor filter for people with other things on their resume. For example, let's say you had a candidate who did poorly in law school, but who went on to get a PhD in poli sci with an emphasis on the judiciary, and who won teaching awards for his part-time work teaching Con Law at a community college while in grad school. Would that candidate get eliminated in your search because of his law school transcript? It would seem to me he should jump to the head of the pack because of his proven scholarship and teaching skills? Do you agree?

By the way, did Payne break your heart Friday night? Are you pro or anti Crowton? Rise and shout....

10. Posted by Lucky777 on September 27, 2004 @ 5:52 | Permalink

I appreciate your honestly in describing the process, but I also found your description troubling.

Perhaps this is because I am on the market hoping to move to a higher tier. What I see makes me sick. The hypocrisy! The double-talk! The rationalizations! All draped in a patina of rationality and reasonableness!

If you are looking for a scholar, the best indication of that is pre-existing scholarship. Period. All of the rest (law school attended, law grades, clerkship, letters of rec) only POINT toward the ability for future scholarship many years down the line. Why would a rational committee ignore the PRESENT ability to publish over the FUTURE potential to publish? It makes no sense; that's how you know it is a bogus rationale. If a candidate who went to, say, Iowa has a proven record of peer-reviewed scholarship and teaching experience in a PhD program, what difference could it possibly make if they were in the top 10% during law school? They can deliver the goods now -- and that is all that counts.

I often see candidates like myself with two peer-reviewed books from university presses and many peer-reviewed articles passed over for a fresh Harvard or Yale grad who has never written anything and really has no new ideas. PhD candidates have already taught as part of their training, and they have done extensive research and writing. Why wouldn't that be preferable to a law graduate? Committees aren't looking for new ideas, or else you'd be hiring PhDs instead of people two years out of law school.

Basically, people in power like to replicate themselves. If we can assume that interesting people are pretty well distributed over the top 20 schools, it makes no sense that 50% of professors come from two schools. I wish I had a buck for every law professor who insisted on scholarship yet never published a single peer-reviewed piece and whose only 'critics' have been law student editors; these are the same people that are interviewing me for jobs! The law schools are full of professors from elite schools who trudge along churning out mundane and unimaginative articles that chart the black-letter law and perhaps suggest one slight change, totally uninformed by interesting theories in the academy (whether philosophic, economic, etc).

I consider myself a good teacher and a good scholar, yet I was in the middle of my class in law school: I found it totally boring and so I spent a lot of time working at a law firm actually taking part in corporate deals, going to the SEC to file offerings, and spending nights at the printers. I didn't see anything particularly creative or "spark"-ish about the people who were at the top of the class -- some were brilliant and others were drones.

The hiring process is about power. It gets mediated through a lot of bs excuses and rationalizations about finding the best candidate etc etc -- but in the end it is about replicating oneself and holding power, and that happens by excluding people who don't look like you, write like you, or have the same career path that you took.

The most honest thing a top professor from an elite school ever said to me was, "Every year we hire a Harvard or Yale grad thinking he will be the next Sunstein, and every time we get disappointed, yet we do it again and again year after year."

Why not just admit that it is about power and drop the pretense of 'system and method'?

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