November 13, 2006
A Fresh Look at VAP Programs
Posted by Christine Hurt

Paul Caron has posted an updated list of programs at law schools designed to provide a transition into law teaching.  Some of these programs are styled as visiting assistant professorships, others as fellowships, but they all have the same properties in common.  Aspiring law professors can dip their toes into the academy, teach a relatively light load, get paid a little bit, get feedback from colleagues at the school via workshops and mentoring, network, get time away from practice to produce quality scholarship, attend conferences at other schools, and basically do what law professors do.  Then, voila, when they go on the market, they walk and talk like law professors.

Fresh back from the AALS recruiting conference, I was amazed at the number of candidates we saw who were in these types of programs.  I checked the FAR database to see whether I was seeing a selection bias, and I don't think our sample was as skewed as it may have seemed.  Out of 865 candidate records, I searched to see what number had "visiting professorships."  That number was 200, or 23%.  However, some schools call their programs "fellowships."  Would a Bigelow Fellow click the "visiting professor" box or a different box?  So, I searched to see what number were VAPs, lecturers or instructors.  That number was 468, or 54%.  Obviously, that search may be overinclusive, capturing candidates who teach in contract positions, where the level of support and grooming to enter the academy may vary for nonexistent to comparable.  (The database had other categories for adjuncts, but there's no way to know for sure whether every "lecturer" or "instructor" is full-time.)  Wouldn't it be nice if data was collected in the way that I needed it to be collected?  Now I know how empiricists feel!

Regardless, the trend seems to be moving toward these programs.  I think this movement is very important, and Larry Solum's ongoing survey will assist us in determining the value of these programs.  I would say just from Larry's 2005-06 survey and from anecdotal evidence that the value of these programs in either substantive preparation or at least signalling ability is quite high.  Being able to discuss your ongoing research in the native tongue ("law professor") of the interviewers is invaluable.  Knowing what other academics are talking and writing about, knowing the full body of scholarship about your topic, and knowing the buzz words and jargon of the academy are tools that are fairly elusive to someone billing long hours at a law firm where the main topics of conversation are the deal of the day and associate salaries.  However, those interviewees who are already in the academy by virtue of position or graduate work have the luxury of making their research their full-time work and of having that work vetted by experts in the field.  Candidates who are able to discuss their work not only in terms of problem/solution but also in terms of methodology and theory will stand out as having greater potential.  We say that law school doesn't do a good job of preparing attorneys, but it does even a poorer job of preparing academics, which is why candidates with graduate training and fellowships have an advantage.

Obviously, this interim path has high opportunity costs for job-seekers.  The cut in pay will be even more than the cut necessary to switch to academia, but you really weren't going into this for the money, were you?  The costs may be higher for some, though, particularly if the one- to two-year gig requires moving self and family.  I began my academic career teaching legal writing, and I often get asked by would-be academics if that is a good route to a tenure-track job.  (The short answer would be no, but there is a longer answer.)  Definitely if one is willing to go that route, the VAP/fellowship route would have lower costs and higher benefits.

I have heard others express concerns about this development, and I understand them.  By raising the costs and barriers to teaching, we may be ensuring that those who make it through the gates are perhaps not the most dedicated and committed but those with the wherewithal to shoulder the opportunity costs.  On the other hand, colleagues in other departments often express wonder that practitioners can walk into law schools with no additional training or substantive education and hop on the path to lifetime tenure.  All that being said, if readers are contemplating the market, look through Paul Caron's post for the program nearest you!

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