October 25, 2004
So You Want to be a Law Professor: Part IV
Posted by Gordon Smith

Your schedule for DC is set. Now comes the hard part: the interviews.

If you want general interviewing advice, I have only a little, and that will be idiosyncratic. I do not purport to be an expert on interviewing, and there is plenty of such advice already available on the internet. See here and here, for example. The main purpose of this entry is to discuss some of the subtler facets of Recruitment Conference interviewing.

So there you are, standing outside the interview suite. I hope you are on time. (When I was doing this, I showed up for the wrong slot for one school, missed my interview completely ... then got an offer for a callback. Which caused me to conclude that I was most effective in my absence.) If you are early, wait patiently for the appointed hour. Most schools have very full schedules, and if the door is not cracked open, chances are that they are with another candidate. If your time comes, and the door remains closed, a soft knock will alert the committee that you are waiting.

If you are late, make sincere apologies. You may have a packed schedule and the prior committee may have kept you too long, but that isn't my problem. Your task is to order your affairs in a manner that allows you to keep your commitments, and if you can't do that, you should have an explanation.

Most committees like to take a short break between candidates. They discuss the prior candidate, sharing preliminary impressions, and find the cv for the next candidate. They take rest room breaks or get drinks (hopefully non-alcoholic!). Just what you would expect them to do.

The entrance is simple, though it can be a bit awkward unless you are accustomed to people staring at you. We will have eight people on our committee, and that is a lot of handshaking. Oh, yeah, did I mention that you should shake hands with each member of the committee? Well, at least that's the way it works with our committee. I have seen candidates who step into the room and shrink back from the committee. Bad start. I try to help candidates out by extending a welcome hand, giving them a clue that this is the routine. Remember that this isn't rocket science. Take cues from your hosts about what is expected.

If you are expected to shake hands with everyone, it isn't necessary to repeat your own name eight times. We know who you are. But at least one indication about what we should call you would be nice. (First names, please. If you refer to yourself as "Dr. Jones" or some such thing, you are done.) If you have a name that is difficult for Americans, you might squeeze in more than one reference to it.

Also, saying the same thing in response to each introduction gets a bit awkward. Mix it up a little. "Hello." "Pleased to meet you." "Thank you for having me." Of course, you might save special recognition for members of the committee who have contacted you, especially if you have had telephone or email conversations.

It is possible to make a mistake here. I have heard stories of candidates who acknowledge only the male members of the committee or ignore the minority members. This is rude, and committee members may read even more into it than that. May you be justly punished if you do that.

The interview should go quickly. If it drags, that is a horrible sign. You have 20-25 minutes to make yourself memorable. It probably isn't a good idea to make yourself memorable through fashion. Wear conservative business attire and you will not have a concern. Paint your hair green or wear a tank top and you will become a story for future candidates to learn by.

Most committees are interested in exploring only a few topic areas: (1) your research agenda; (2) your teaching plans; and (3) your ideas about service to the law school, the community, or the profession. In discussing these topics, the committee will be attempting to evaluate the quality of your mind, as well as your collegiality. Here are some questions that you should be able to answer:

* "I notice that you have written on [topic A] and [topic B]. How do these fit into your research agenda?" In my view, some version of this question is the most important of the entire interview. You should have an "elevator speech" that will allow you to describe your research agenda quickly and compellingly. I have a strong preference for candidates who are interested in tackling fundamental issues, not technical problems. Among other things, a taste for fundamental questions will mark you as an interesting colleague, one who will make many connections with the other members of the faculty.

* Anything about your writings. One of my colleagues is fond of saying that he wants to "see how their minds work." The interview team from Wisconsin strives to ask challenging questions about your work, probing both the breadth and depth of your preparation and intellect. "Good" answers are responsive, engaging, and thoughtful, not evasive, glib, or dismissive.

* "When you were a law student, who was your favorite law professor, and what did you admire about that person?" Another variation of this question would focus on classroom teaching: "When you were a law student, who was your favorite classroom teacher, and what did you admire about that person's teaching method?" Most candidates do not have extensive teaching experience, but this question offers a window into a candidate's thoughts about teaching. The first version also provides an opportunity to speak about activities outside of the classroom. We are interested in knowing how you imagine your life as a law professor. If you have wildly unreasonable expectations for that life, it suggests that you have not thought through your decision to enter the profession.

* "How do you imagine yourself integrating your practice experiences into your classroom teaching, if at all?" This question can be varied to ask about research, too: "How will your practice experiences affect your research, if at all?" These are both sideways methods of asking about your work experiences. People who become law professors often daydream about it, thinking about how this case or that deal might be used to illustrate some principle or practice. We really want to know whether your experiences will enhance your work as a professor.

I have heard a lot of dumb questions from interview committees. Unfortunately, you do not get to pick and choose which questions you answer. Here are some dumb questions that you are likely to hear:

* "If you could teach any three (or four) classes, what would they be?" This is a dumb question because you have already expressed your preferences on the AALS form. It is possible that you may have changed your mind or that you were answering strategically rather than sincerely on the form, but such admissions are rare.

* "What kind of teacher will you be?" This is a dumb question because it tends to produce the same answer from every candidate: something about "modified Socratic method." This is, of course, a fairly safe answer because few of us have a strong preference for unyielding Socratic, and "modified Socratic" can include a broad range of classroom practices. Hint: it is probably better not to mention PowerPoint, even if you find it useful (as I do) because some law professors have a very strong bias against PowerPoint and anyone who likes it.

* "Why do you want to be a law professor?" Yuck! You might want to say, "Because I hate practicing law" or "Because I wanted more free time." Resist the temptation. This is a dumb question because it invites unspecific answers. We all have basically the same reasons for wanting to become law professors, and while some may be mainly interested in teaching while others are mainly interested in research, the committees shouldn't need a question like this to sort candidates along those lines. In response to this question, most candidates mumble something about how law fascinates them, how they want to have the time to do research on issues that interest them, blah, blah, blah. I would much rather hear a story, if you have one, about how you came to the realization that this was your calling.

When the interview is coming to a close, most schools will ask if you have any questions about the school. This is not simply a formality, and you can really trip here. First, have something ready for this moment. Second, if possible have something specific to the school, something that shows you have read their promotional materials and thought about what it would be like to teach there. Third, general questions like "How does your school support research?" are better than nothing (at least they show that you are interested in research), but they become very boring for the committee after a time. This can be sort of a downer at the end of a good interview. Fourth, some questions can be painfully dumb. "Do you have a collegial faculty?" Like we would tell you if we didn't! Fifth, do not ask questions about salary or benefits. You are not that far along in the process, yet.

That's it. You're done. Shake hands. Be grateful for the chance to meet all of your wonderful hosts, and exit.

After you leave, the committee members will do a quick pulse check to see how everyone feels about you. What distinguishes great candidates from good candidates? In my view, the best candidates have a passion for ideas. They simply love talking about law more than almost anything else. This is not a style point, and it's impossible to fake if the interview team is asking good questions.

If you would like to see prior installments in this series, see the following: Part III, Part II, and Part I.

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Comments (13)

1. Posted by Bruce Beckner on October 25, 2004 @ 0:56 | Permalink

Well said, Bruce! U of Virginia considered itself (at least 25+ years ago) as a "teaching" law school, and my experience as a student there pretty much validated that claim. That said, some of the most engaging classes I took were by adjunct professors who came down from Washington to give seminars on Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings.

And, I agree with you that there is a tension between law school as a place for scholarly inquiry and as a trainer of practicing lawyers. Fortunately, if the faculty teaching me and my classmates thought us ignorant morons, they did a good job of concealing the fact!

2. Posted by Rex on October 25, 2004 @ 1:28 | Permalink

Bruce, I guess it depends on where you go to law school. I went to one of the top 10 so called national law schools, and we were under no illusions: law schools exist to train potential law profs. Secondarily, they exist to train law clerks. Third in order are future judges. Only way down the list do practicing attorneys appear. I understand that regional/local law schools actually teach black letter law from the jurisdiction they are located in, but I wouldn't know anything about that.

We had great profs, but I never did learn what was expected in any of the classes that would earn me an A. (I got some by accident anyways.)

3. Posted by pawnking on October 25, 2004 @ 2:30 | Permalink

Thank you for an interesting insiders view on the hiring process for law professors. Your point about being interested in hiring people with a passion for law is a very, very good one. I'm not in law, but my profession can be considered tedious by some. If I see a potential employee's eyes glaze over while he or I am talking about the finer points of accounting, I know this one would not be long for the job.

4. Posted by Bruce Hayden on October 25, 2004 @ 10:20 | Permalink

Makes me glad I never seriously considered a career in teaching law. Law professors seem to be in a totally different world from where those they teach mostly go after graduation.

I am especially disheartened by the typical university concentration on research over teaching. As a night student, I had a lot of adjunct professors. And on average, I learned more from them than from full time faculty, and in particular more from them than from tenured faculty The adjuncts typically brought more enthusiasm to class, and made the law more relevant by use of real world examples.

The problem is that a JD degree is a professional degree. The primary purpose of law school is to train future lawyers. A glorified trade school. And overly academic researchers, who would rather be researching esotheric subjects than teaching, don't help this much.

5. Posted by Michael Lewyn on October 26, 2004 @ 2:06 | Permalink

One of the most difficult issues for me is figuring out what questions to ask. Gordon thinks asking generic "how do you support research?" questions are boring. But more specific questions risk making people think "why would he ask that question?" or offending them by showing up a weakness (for example, if I asked "what articles/books are you working on?" that might offend faculty members who haven't published in awhile). How does one balance these considerations?

6. Posted by Gordon Smith on October 26, 2004 @ 2:38 | Permalink

Michael: "How do you support research?" is a legitimate question, and it may ultimately play into your decision about where to go. I just don't think it is a very good question at the Recruitment Conference. You can generally assume that a school with productive scholars is providing some incentives to write, and my general advice would be to leave the detailed questions like that for another time. What are good questions from candidates? In my view, the best questions disclose something new and interesting about you that will make you more attractive to the committee. Perhaps about innovative teaching ideas or research projects or service opportunities. I am hesitant to provide examples here because I don't want to hear my questions parroted back to me at the conference, but just remember that you are trying to show the committee why you would be an interesting colleague.

7. Posted by DMI on October 26, 2004 @ 6:44 | Permalink

I agree with Michael -- coming up with insightful questions is difficult (and it's not due to a lack of research on my part). For me the most important things are: how good is the school, does it want me, and if so what role would I play there (e.g., what courses would I teach, to what extent should my writing be tied to those courses). I plan to ask some questions on the latter; I am also tempted to ask what my recruiters most like about the school. While this may seem like a fluff question, perhaps a common theme develops (e.g., we are known for having one of the most collegial faculties in the country) that is genuinely useful to the candidate. My guess is that most candidates will accept a callback from any school that offers after the conference, so the q&a has little value for the candidate at this stage. So perhaps Professor Smith is right -- the best questions are those that give you a chance to reveal something extra about yourself that the committee might otherwise not know. How exactly to do this, of course, is the hard part...

8. Posted by Kaimi on October 26, 2004 @ 9:07 | Permalink

I have to say I'm puzzled by the continuing trend of comments in these posts. I think they're incredibly useful posts for people who are thinking of going into legal academia. Every one of them seems to draw complaints about the legal education system generally.

I don't think that Gordon has the power (even if he had the inclination) to change the course of legal education. I see these posts as informational for a certain set of people. For everyone else, they're either a curiousity, or not relevant at all.

It doesn't appear to me that Gordon is offering a defense of the existing system, or suggesting that it's the way things ought to be done. He simply discussing the nuts and bolts of the admittedly quirky hiring process, within the admittedly imperfect existing legal education system.

So, from someone who finds these posts useful and informational, thank you. And perhaps you should consider a post on "the effectiveness of the legal education system" or something of the like -- it looks like you have readers who would like to discuss that topic.

9. Posted by Steve Marsh on October 29, 2004 @ 6:24 | Permalink

Years ago I was solicited by a couple law schools to apply for ADR positions. I sent my materials in and got a few mmarket interviews as well. Life events got in the way and I put things on hold until my wife graduated from her graduate program.

In the interim I taught a couple semesters in a non-law school post graduate ADR program. I was amazed at how much fun it was. But the real appeal teaching has for me is time for research. At one time I was writing stuff that was substantial. 90-100 footnotes or more sorts of stuff.

The last while I've just not had the time to do more than concept items, though I've got a couple of books I really want to write.

Do law professors really have time for research and writing? I've a friend teaching undergraduates because it takes him only sixteen hours a week to teach and the rest of the time is free for research -- something teaching graduate students never allowed him to do.

Anyway, I've enjoyed this series. I suspect that ADR is no longer hot, so the odds against me at this time of life are substantially reversed from some time ago.

But it is fun to day dream.

10. Posted by Mike Selmi on October 29, 2004 @ 8:32 | Permalink

Two quick thoughts. I actually now tend to ask why someone wants to be a law professor, where I used to share your view that the answers are entirely scripted and unhelpful. Unfortunately, half of the hiring process at most schools are weeding out those who are seeking an easier life, early retirement as I often refer to it, and because we do not typically have PhDs or helpful references, we are left to do the best we can. You are right that the answers are usually not very helpful, but occasionally they can be, particularly with candidates who give a canned answer or who fumble. The other thought is on the "do you have any questions for us?" I never ask this because it seems like an awkward courtesy. One person advised me to say something like the following, "Well, I have a lot of questions but my guess is there will be more time for me to ask, and more time for you to answer, if you are interested in seeing more of me, and if you are not, well, then, . . . "

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