JURIST Forum

Commentary | Discussion
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In this edition of JURIST Forum, a look at the law faculty hiring process through the eyes of an assistant professor sitting on his law school's Appointments Committee. Readers are invited to respond using this form, or by e-mailing JURIST@law.pitt.edu.
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Commentary

The hiring process has been particularly interesting for me because I went through it just a couple of years ago, and now I am on the other side. The professor side is clearly better than the candidate side. Although being locked in a hotel room for two days with your colleagues and a student or two is not always ideal (at least when the weather outside is nice), it certainly beats rushing from interview to interview, and from tower to tower in the hotel, sometimes out of breath, nervous and scared and excited, facing new faces every half hour, saying variations of the same thing, and desparately trying to remember what variations went with what interview. This time around, I had access to free coffe and snacks, sat in a reasonably comfortable chair, and got to listen to candidates answer my questions.

The process confirmed a few things I had suspected. First, and most important, no one wants a bad interview; most everyone wants to be pleasant. When the candidate is failing, the deadness hangs in the air, and someone will chase it away by talking -- if not the candidate, then one of the interviewers. Sessions that consist of long descriptions of the school, its plans for the future, the lovely surrounding community, the students, etc., are almost always an indication that the interview itself was not going well.

Second, failure consists of one-word answers to questions, mumbling into one's shirt or blouse, candidate arrogance about his or her ability to raise the intellectual level of the interviewing school, and any of a myriad other things. Success is more easily defined: captivation. A successful candidate captivates the committee and becomes for a few moments a colleague in an interesting discussion, who adds energy and ideas to the room. You know it was a good interview if, after the candidate leaves, you have more energy than when he or she came in the door (discounting, of course, your 5th cup of coffee of the day).

Third, success can be taught. Candidates who are participating in academic life in some way (such as a fellowship) already have a strong edge. They know how to talk the talk; they may even have been coached on how to answer questions and present their ideas. Candidates who are totally enclosed in the cocoon of private practice are at a competitive disadvantage in the aggregate. They may come across as smart and likable, but many, perhaps most, of them will not present as well. A good trainer will make a good candidate into a strong one.

Being on an Appointments Committee was to some degree a lesson in humility. The Committee might think it has picked the best of the bunch, but even more it develops favorites even among that small group. Imagine a committemember's shock when the favorites sometimes don't perform as well in their second outing. Weird habits, lack of preparation, shallowness, arrogance, fatigue -- any of these and many more things, including bizarre questions during an interview or job talk, can turn a leading candidate into an also-ran. Then, of course, there is the implicit judgment contained in your colleagues' votes. We may think we did a good job this year, but from an institutional politics perspective we won't know until the votes are in. And we won't really know until the successful candidates actually blossom, or fail to blossom, into good teachers, productive scholars, and enjoyable colleagues.

December 8, 1999

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Discussion

  • The American law school meat market may be better than the Chicago hog market or the hiring practices and procedures in some countries. But the American law school law school hiring process is not an edifying spectacle.

    1. Interviews lasting 30 minutes may well be worse than no interview at all.
    2. All faculty vacancies should be publicly announced and back door hiring should be eliminated.
    3. Interviewers should be discouraged from talking about footbal, baseball, soccer, traffic, or the weather. They should be encouraged or required to read each candidate's work and to discuss it in the interview.
    4. Faculty candidates should be given accurate information about the frequency of tenure denials.
    5. Interviewers and tenured law teachers should resist the temptation to clone themselves.

    P.S. The next forum should deal with the role of "public relations" in the operations of American law schools. I have noticed an increasing emphasis on "public relations." Have you? If so, are you concerned? Fearful? Despondent? While I don't believe that legal scholarship should separate itself from the world of legal practice, I also don't believe that the highest aspiration of law school administrators should be to have "their" faculty members make appearances on the "Today" show or the "Tonight" show. (I am not against the electronic media. I also don't view television appearances as _demerits_. But I don't think that five minute talking head appearances on TV deserve our admiration or praise. (But I'm a curmudgeon. So feel free to ignore my sentiments.)

    Peter Tillers, (tenured) Professor of Law
    Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University
    New York

  • When I read you description of a hiring process for young professors in the US, I was admired of its fairness, although you wonder whether it can be improved.

    Perhaps you have no idea of the selection process in Italy for young professors, where there is not actually a hiring process but you must take some exams governed,it would appear, by so complicated rules that you will hardly know how do they work in practice. Above all, the selection process is very slow. And then when you are young professor the remunerations are so meagre that the most of the assistants (or young professors too), at a certain stage, decide to devote themselves (as I did when I was still an assistant) to the private practice. And please note that I was very tactful and diplomatic when describing the selection process in Italy.

    Coming to the comments to your hiring process, all I can say to this respect is that, based on your description, this process would appear to be a bit fatiguing for all the people therein involved and of course for candidate professors. So I would expect that the screening for the brightest candidates take into consideration also this aspect: how psycologically heavy they can find a highly competitive selection, when maybe they are full of problems in the world outward.

    I do not want to criticize but only to give, as far as I can, my contribution, hoping to be of help for your current purposes.

    Alberto Cant
    lawyer
    Milan, ITALY

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Is the law faculty hiring process fair? Is it rational? Does it work? How might it be improved? Share your views and experiences...
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