Saturday, February 27, 2010

One Candidate's Experience in the AALS Hiring Process

Thanks Ben for the re-introduction.  I’m looking forward to blogging about my efforts to prepare for my first year of teaching Property and Real Estate Transactions as well as other substantive topics.

But first, I thought I’d share a few impressions about the AALS faculty hiring process, assumptions, and reality.  (after the jump)

First a little background.  I graduated from Harvard Law cum laude in 2000, was a member of the Harvard Women’s Law Journal, clerked for the Indiana Supreme Court for a year and have now been practicing real estate and corporate law for 9 years (3.5 in firms and 4.5 in-house).  I published a substantive article in the Virginia Tax Review in 2001, have published a dozen property "year in review” and similar practitioner articles, and had a second substantive article accepted for publication by the Nebraska Law Review before the hiring conference.  I have also taught legal writing as an adjunct for four years at IU-Indy.  I have lived in Indiana (Indianapolis and Bloomington) my entire life except for my three years of law school.

I know people at a number of law schools and solicited a great deal of advice.  Although I got very different advice from different people, the conventional wisdom was pretty easy to distill:

  • Harvard, good.  Cum laude – at best neutral.  I was told that “everybody gets cum laude” at Harvard.  Well, 70% don’t, but point taken.

  • Not on the main law review – bad.

  • Clerkship – at best neutral.  “Obviously” federal appeals court would have been better.  (By the way, I disagree, but I think these comments reflect a focus on constitutional law.)

  • Years in practice – probably too much.  The conventional wisdom seems to be that 5 years in practice is the most that the market finds generally acceptable.

  • Articles – the 2001 article was too old to “count,” the nine practitioner articles show that I enjoy writing but suggest that I don’t understand what real scholarly work looks like, and the Nebraska acceptance is good, but it would be better if I had at least two articles.

  • Teaching experience – good, but I was advised repeatedly to make it clear that I wasn’t applying for legal writing jobs.

  • Location - bad.  I should have lived somewhere other than Indiana for a while to prove that I was willing to live somewhere other than Indiana.  sigh.

This conventional wisdom was fairly depressing because I obviously couldn’t do anything to change my background and the FAR emphasizes these kind of objective criteria.  I was frankly advised by several professors to hold off a year and write another article.  A little depressed, I resolved to go to the hiring conference even if I only had a few interviews scheduled, just for the experience.

I am happy to report that in my case, the conventional wisdom turned out to be largely wrong.  I ended up scheduling 28 interviews.  Why the dramatic disconnect between the conventional wisdom and the reality of how hiring committees viewed my FAR?  I have no idea, and the reality is that every committee approaches the hiring process from their own school’s unique perspective, so different things about my background were probably attractive to different schools.  (Before asking me if I'd like to interview with their school, a number of hiring committee chairs did ask me if I was willing to leave Indiana.)

As you can imagine, my experience at the hiring conference mainly consisted of running up and down staircases, from one building to the next and back again.  I scheduled 15 interviews on Friday and began my day with seven back-to-back.  My eight years of competitive speech tournaments, which also consisted of running from room to room talking all day long, were good preparation.  I think the best advice that I got about the hiring conference was from Dean Blake Morant, who advised the candidates at an opening session to “be our most authentic selves” and “bring up the energy level in the room” during each interview. 

I must have internalized that advice because I ended up with more callbacks than I could accept and still remain gainfully employed, including, to my enormous surprise and relief, two callbacks before I left D.C. .  Again, though, I have no idea why I was successful with some schools and not with others.  I received callbacks from schools where I felt that the interview was a total bomb and never heard back from schools where I thought we had great chemistry.  The reality is that candidates can’t dictate (or predict) what the schools are looking for.

One of the most interesting and craze-inducing aspects of the hiring process was the law school hiring discussion on Prawfs Blawg.  The four threads, which began on August 19th, have received well over 1300 comments.  I admit that I read the threads nearly every day in the weeks before and after the hiring conference.  I’m not sure that I know why, except that I felt that I was part of a large anonymous community of people who were just as freaked out and insecure as I was.  I suppose its better to be in such a community of such people than be alone. 

If I have learned anything from this process, it is that nobody really knows the secret to success and, in fact, the process is so individualized to particular hiring committees in a particular year at a particular school, that there likely is no secret.  This is extremely frustrating to wanna-be law professors because we are analytical people.  We (sometimes desperately) want to know the rules and the facts so that we can weigh our odds and predict our futures.

One big gaping hole getting in the way of our analysis is the lack of data on the members of the candidate pool.  A few schools do a great job advising their alumni and keeping track of those in the process (shout out to Akiba Covitz!).  Most don’t, and nobody aggregates that data.  It appears that AALS doesn’t release it either (other than to the schools in the FAR forms themselves).  So the candidates are left to guess who their competition is and how they stack up.

The same holds true at the hiring conference. The conventional wisdom on the Prawfs Blawg hiring thread is that a relatively small number of the 1000+ candidates dominate the interview slots at the hiring conference.  My experience seems to confirm that.  I took way more than my fair share of interview slots.  I know of a dozen other people who did the same.  How many candidates attend the hiring conference?  What is the average number of slots that they occupy?

So, to sum up, the first step in the hiring process, the FAR form, focuses only on objective criteria.  There is a fairly rigid conventional wisdom about which criteria is highly valued by schools and which is not.  In my experience, that conventional wisdom is wrong or perhaps truer with respect to the top 30 or so schools.  I think that some empirical research into the objective criteria of candidates, compared to their eventual success in the process, would be fascinating. 

The second and third steps in the hiring process, the hiring conference and then the callback phase, focus mainly on subjective criteria.  What is the school looking for?  Would this person make a good colleague?  Would this person make a good teacher?  Will they publish interesting and challenging scholarship?  I don’t know what advice to give people at this stage except to echo Dean Morant’s wisdom.

My experience in the hiring process nearly gave me an ulcer, but it was mostly enjoyable (I met lots of interesting people) and ultimately successful.  I am very excited to begin my new career at Wake Forest Law School as a Property Prof!


Tanya Marsh

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One important part of the conventional wisdom that you omitted that proved true: having a sincere desire to teach property - a big plus. I'm glad to see a lot of other parts of the conventional wisdom proved wrong. Once you are in the room in DC, who you are matters a lot. Getting the initial invite to DC unfortunately is all about the FAR.

Posted by: Ben Barros | Feb 28, 2010 9:16:00 AM

I've always thought of Property and Real Estate Transactions as substantive courses.

Posted by: Tom Roberts | Mar 1, 2010 5:41:15 AM

I misread Tanya's comment. Closer reading shows that while she is blogging on the hiring process, in the future she will also blog about her substantive courses. My apologies.

Posted by: Tom Roberts | Mar 1, 2010 7:26:56 AM


You are absolutely right.


I did not mean to suggest that I think that Property and Real Estate Transactions are not substantive courses. I think that Property is the most important course in law school!

I was trying to distinguish between substantive posts (about the law of Property, etc.) and non-substantive posts (about the process of getting ready to teach). But in retrospect, both categories of posts are substantive, so I just unnecessarily confused everyone.

My apologies!

Posted by: Tanya Marsh | Mar 1, 2010 7:29:03 AM


Great post - thanks for sharing your personal experience and congratulations on your position at Wake Forest! This was my first time on the market as well, and like you, I had more than 5 (but less than 10) years of practice experience, several publications, and teaching experience. I also was told that my FAR was not up to snuff, and that I should not go on the market this year because I would surely fail. I too decided to give it a go anyway, and while I scored only about 1/3 of the interviews you did, I did eventually end up receiving several callbacks and accepting a tenure-track position.

So, the conventional wisdom was wrong in my case as well - why? I think you are dead-on in your observation that "the process is so individualized to particular hiring committees in a particular year at a particular school" that it is impossible for even well-meaning mentors to give an accurate assessment of success for the vast majority of AALS FAR candidates. I sensed that some of the advice I was given was comparison driven; meaning, the person giving me advice was comparing me to the "best athletes" on the market, of whom I was not one and whom I imagine (present company excluded) take up the bulk of the interview slots at the FAR conference in DC. My philosophy was that not being a "best athlete" candidate, and having a relatively small, very specific area of expertise that a school would either be looking to fill or not, it was likely that I would not be competing with these individuals - and I think I was largely right about that. I did have to compete against the (intimidating) competition in my particular field, but I felt that I had just as good a shot at a tenure-track position as they did, so I rolled the dice.

In sum - I think faculty candidates should remember to be themselves, not try to be who they think the hiring committees want them to be. That may be a little esoteric, but what got me through the dark moments leading up to the FRC was my belief that I had something unique to offer legal education, and I just had to find the law faculty that was the right "fit" - even if I had to go on the market again. I am happy I found my "fit," and I'm sure that others who really want to make a career in legal education will ultimately find theirs, too - no "secret knowledge" required.

Posted by: anon | Mar 1, 2010 9:45:13 AM

Anon, what was "not up to snuff" about your FAR?

Posted by: MidLevel | Mar 1, 2010 1:53:34 PM

Tanya, Thanks for the post. Since you were out of school for a while, how did you go about approaching potential recommenders for academic posts? Had you kept in touch with your professors? Met others while you were practicing?

Posted by: MidLevel | Mar 1, 2010 1:55:49 PM

MidLevel - I was advised that my main deficiencies were my years in practice, my lack of a law degree from Harvard, Stanford, or Yale (though I did go to a "Top 20" school), my lack of a clerkship, and the fact that I only had two scholarly publications (though I subsequently placed a third right before the FRC). As I said previously, however, I believe these comments were made in the spirit of comparison to the "best athletes" participating in the FRC, whom I knew I couldn't compete with if that was what the school in question was looking for.

Posted by: anon | Mar 1, 2010 3:06:55 PM

Thanks, Anon. Your story gives me hope. Since you were interested in a specialty field, did you seek out recommenders in that field?

Posted by: MidLevel | Mar 2, 2010 6:07:27 AM


I'm glad that you brought up the "best athlete" concept. I think you are absolutely right -- the conventional wisdom that we both received was trying to put us in the context of "best athletes." But I think that I was ultimately successful because I have, as Ben points out, a sincere desire to teach Property. I'm glad that you were also successful!


I had two of my law school professors serve as recommenders. They were both very gracious when I contacted them out of the blue. The judge that I clerked for was a reference, as was a professor at the school where I taught as an adjunct. I think that if you are interested in going on the market, you should get in contact with a few of your former professors now to seek their advice and perhaps they will be in a better position to give a meaningful recommendation when the time comes. BTW, none of my recommenders are in my field. That didn't seem to matter.

Posted by: Tanya Marsh | Mar 2, 2010 11:19:01 AM

A couple of further thoughts. Based on the conventional wisdom, I wouldn't have a job either -- I didn't go to a top 10 law school, and I practiced for a bit "too long." I did have two things that really do matter. First, I had placed one major article. That matters a lot. Second, I wanted to teach subjects that fit a lot of schools' needs. This theme has already emerged in this thread, but it bears repeating. At most schools, hiring is need based -- this "best athlete" thing is rare. A lot of people with fancy resumes want to teach Con Law; not so many want to teach Property or Bus Orgs. As I've noted before, "I've been stunned at the number of big firm associates who go on the market wanting to teach con law. How about corporations, contracts, secured transactions, sec regs, bankruptcy, UCC etc.? Sure, everyone really wants to teach con law. But this is a _really_ good job. People who really want to be law professors have a better chance of getting a job than people who only want to teach con law."
I suppose I should clarify that any desire to teach Con Law that I might have had in the past is pretty much gone. Con Law strikes me as a really hard class to teach, and I'm really happy with my current course package.

Posted by: Ben Barros | Mar 2, 2010 12:42:53 PM

MidLevel, like Tanya, I relied on former professors of mine for my recommendations. I had kept in touch with several over the years (only one of them is in my field). They had encouraged me to go into academia when I floated the idea by them before I went on the market, so it made sense for me to rely on them to best communicate to other law faculty why I would be a good teacher/scholar. My philosophy on this was that it was better to get strong, specific references from faculty who knew me well, rather than to list "big names" whom I am acquainted with via conferences, etc., but who couldn't really speak specifically as to why I was a strong faculty candidate.

Tanya, I agree that your real desire to teach property is what set you apart - I think this dovetails with my general observation that candidates should be themselves, not who they think the hiring committees want them to be. Real passion and enthusiasm can't be faked.

Ben, I agree that at most schools hiring is based on needs, but I don't think that needs hiring is mutually exclusive with the desire for striving/ambitious schools to vainly chase these "best athletes." I think the assumption is that because these two dozen or so individuals are so brilliant, they can teach anything, so it doesn't matter what particular first-year course the school is looking to hire for. The "best athletes" get lots of interviews, both at the FAR and at the callback stage, because of their cache and the school's desire to impress other schools with a coveted entry-level hire. I have a lot of criticism of this approach to entry-level hiring - my two main ones being that a lot of good candidates probably fall through the cracks as a result, and my belief that this focus on a very small set of candidates arises from a tail-wagging-the-dog obsession with the US News Rankings - but that is beyond the scope of this post. Suffice to say that I think the focus on interviewing the "best athlete" candidates to the near exclusion of other qualified applicants is not only not rare, it's pervasive in entry-level hiring

Posted by: anon | Mar 3, 2010 8:23:27 AM

Anon, fair enough. I think that there are a lot of things at work, including the basic problem of hiring faculties wanting to replicate themselves. "Best athlete" could mean one of two things -- (a) the hottest person on the market, period, or (b) the hottest person who fits our curricular needs. I think that (a) is rare outside of the top schools, but that (b) is very common. (b) leads to the four people who want to teach Property (or whatever) who went to Yale getting a ton of interviews, while a lot of great candidates are relatively neglected. But let's not forget the positive part of the story -- a lot of people who don't fit the classic mold get jobs, and I think that more do so every year. If you can publish or place one or two good articles before you go on the market, you can get a job. Even if you've, like Tanya, taught legal writing (gasp, get me my smelling salts).

Posted by: Ben Barros | Mar 3, 2010 10:08:37 AM

I agree, Ben, about focusing on the positive - I'm far from a best athlete, and I received a tenure-track offer this year. Still, I know some other great candidates who were on the market - with stellar credentials - who weren't so lucky. It also drives home to me how serendipitous the process is, despite our best efforts to make rational sense of it.

Posted by: anon | Mar 3, 2010 1:04:27 PM

Professor Marsh, thank you for this post and thank you to the rest of the professors for all of the helpful comments.

Do you have any advice about approaching professors who might be potential references? I went to a "Top 10" school where pretty much all the professors have the classic "best athlete" credentials. I did well (not great) grade-wise (i.e., a fraction of a grade point from graduating with honors)and I lack other classic credentials, so I'm concerned my professors will not take my interest in teaching seriously. For similar reasons, I'm concerned it will be hard to find professors who might be willing to write/be references if I apply for a VAP or similar position.

I am hoping that the paper I am working on will help demonstrate my interest (and hopefully aptitude), but I don't have any professors who are, like me, scrappy but not as well-credentialed. Is there any thing else (in addition to writing, writing, writing) that I could be doing to help? Any advice you might have would be most appreciated.

Posted by: Another Hopeful Future Candidate | Mar 3, 2010 3:06:50 PM

AHFC, it is always best to try to have references who know you reasonably well, but a lot of people have a hard time finding three people who fit the bill. I had one primary reference, who I worked with a lot in law school, then two other professors who I knew reasonably well. I'd hope that your former professors would take you seriously even if you didn't get perfect grades. Also, don't obsess so much on the classic credentials issue. I'm sure that some academic stars at top schools are jerks, but in my experience, most are surprisingly down to earth and helpful.

Here's one practical suggestion: you note that you're working on a paper - is there someone who you had when you were in law school who has the expertise to comment on the paper? If so, send that person an e-mail saying that you're interested in teaching, that you've developed a draft on subject X, and asking if they'd be willing to take a quick look at the draft. It would be a good way to get the conversation started. Also, many top schools have a faculty member who is responsible for coordinating efforts by alums to get teaching positions. If your school does have such a person, give 'em a call. Getting alums into the academy is a priority for many schools. Take advantage of it.

Posted by: Ben Barros | Mar 3, 2010 6:39:51 PM

Thank you, Professor Barros. I really appreciate your comments.

Posted by: Another Hopeful Future Candidate | Mar 4, 2010 5:48:57 AM

This post has been very interesting. I am especially pleased to see success for candidates who have more practice experience. So, my question is whether practice accomplishments, such as multiple successful state supreme court briefs/oral arguments & appointments to state supreme court rules committees, might be viewed as credentials toward entering academia. From my perspective they demonstrate high level research, writing, and intellectual legal discourse. But, I am interested in whether academics view them similarly. I would appreciate any feedback. thanks.

Posted by: Good in practice | Mar 6, 2010 8:59:13 AM

GIP, the short answer is no, academics would not view any of this as significant credentials toward entering academia. You note, correctly, that they demonstrate skill in "high level research, writing, and intellectual legal discourse", but just not the right kind. What academics care about is academic legal writing. This generally means law review articles. Even for people applying for clinical positions, at least one major law review published or placed before applying is becoming the norm. This is a trend that I agree with. People can disagree on how substantively different writing for the academy is from writing for practice. But writing for the academy is almost entirely self-directed. I could always crank out a fifty-page brief when there was a deadline looming. Cranking out an article is harder. For me, academic writing prior to applying to the academy demonstrates the butt glue necessary to be a good academic. If you have the academic personality, and you have the skills that your practice experience has given you, writing an article shouldn’t be that hard.

Posted by: Ben Barros | Mar 7, 2010 4:50:16 PM

Thanks for the feedback.

Posted by: Good in practice | Mar 8, 2010 4:13:35 PM

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