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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