Law Teaching Interview Advice

lawprofessor5.jpgThe AALS law teaching interview season will be commencing soon, and since a number of our readers will be interviewing for law teaching jobs, here are a few quick words of advice.

First, keep in mind that your interview lasts only for 30 minutes, and the law professors interviewing you will be interviewing dozens of people. They will be cooped up in a stuffy room all day, meeting one bright-eyed candidate after the next. Only a few of these scores of people will be invited back to the law school for a full all-day interview. This means that at the end of the day, your 30 minutes needs to be memorable. You need to make an impression on them. But what kind of impression?

Here’s the ideal impression, in my opinion, that you should create:


(1) You are a true intellectual, who is a thoughtful and careful thinker.

The interviewers are trying to imagine you as a law professor. They don’t want a political hack; instead they want a scholar. They want somebody who is genuinely interested in thinking about things, not just winning an argument. The interview isn’t an argument before a court. You don’t have to have all the answers. Instead, you want to convey that you think deeply about issues, that you understand the problems in your positions, that you have an intellectual curiosity. The interviewers don’t expect you to have it all worked out and the answers to every issue that you’re thinking about. They want to see whether you think about things in an open-minded and thoughtful way. It’s more impressive to demonstrate how you wrestle with issues rather than how you think you have conquered them.

(2) You have a coherent scholarly agenda and a vision for where you see yourself as a scholar within the next five years.

A scholarly agenda is essential. Interviewers are taking a big gamble when they hire an entry level candidate, especially since tenure is usually granted in law school and tenure battles can be immensely unpleasant and divisive. That means they want to be sure to select the person who has a bright future, who has a sense of direction. They want to imagine you in five years as being involved in a field, in a set of debates. Your agenda also must have some coherence. That doesn’t mean that you must say you’re intending only to write in one field or on a narrow issue. But the interviewers must see some degree of coherence.

(3) You are articulate and enthusiastic about ideas, and you will be able to teach a class effectively.

The interviewers will want to see if you can express ideas clearly and concisely, as well as with enthusiasm. They’re trying to imagine how you’ll be in the classroom. Will you bore students to tears? Will you be unable to explain the law in a clear understandable fashion? And will you be dull when you present papers at conferences? The interviewers must decide whether or not to bring you before the full faculty for a job talk. If too many job talks are duds, the faculty will start to grow a bit annoyed at the appointments committee for wasting their time. So there is some pressure on the committee to bring back candidates who will be interesting and engaging speakers.

(4) You are creative and interesting, and you can generate new ideas rather than just rehash existing ones.

So many teaching candidates are smart and well-read, but there are only a few who have that creative spark, who can create new ideas. An analogy can be made to basketball — there are players who can create their own shot and there are players who can only thrive if others help set up their shot and pass them the ball. Those that create their own shot are rare, but when they are spotted, they are greatly prized. It is very hard to convey this in the 30-minute interview, but if you can, you will really stand out above the rest.

(5) You are friendly and pleasant to be around.

When a faculty hires a new professor, the odds are that he or she will be on the faculty for life. Yes, some folks will move laterally, and there is the occasional denial of tenure. But for the most part, hiring a person is like adding a permanent member to the family. It is important that you’re likable; nobody wants to spend a lifetime around a sour and unpleasant colleague.

(6) You are confident about yourself and your work, yet not arrogant.

Confidence is very important. Those who are confident in themselves sound more authoritive, more convincing, more in command of what they are talking about. You may have doubts about yourself, your work, your ideas, your worthiness to be hired by a particular school, or your worthiness to be hired at all. But you can’t let these doubts show. This doesn’t mean being arrogant, which is a big hindrance to getting hired. It doesn’t mean that you should pretend to be totally assured that everything you say is correct. But you must be confident that you have something interesting to say, that you are capable of thinking clearly and deeply about an issue. Arrogance is thinking that you’re always right and brilliant. Confidence is realizing that you’re not always right, that you’ve got a lot more thinking to do, but that you nevertheless have interesting thoughtful observations to contribute to the discourse.

(7) You are enthusiastic about being at the school you’re interviewing with, and you will be happy living in the place where the school is located.

Interviewers at many law schools might try to guage your interest in the school and its location. There are only so many people that a school can call back for full interviews, and why waste a slot on a candidate who is most likely desiring to go somewhere else? Each school has its own virtues and faults. Think deeply about the virtues of the school you’re interviewing with before the interview and go in with an enthusiastic and positive attitude.

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That’s basically all I can think about for advice for law teaching interviews at the AALS interview meeting. Most of what I have said has been said before. There are no secret magic tricks; and I think the tips I offer are just basic common sense. But for some odd reason, when you’re a teaching candidate, the whole process seems mystical and opaque. It’s not really, but it’s hard to see through the fog when you’re enveloped in stress and uncertainty. Anyway, best of luck!

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10 Responses

  1. Kaimi says:

    Nice advice, Dan. A couple of quick questions:

    -Are you articulating an objective or a subjective standard here? Is this “what Dan wants to see” or “what everyone wants to see”? Or some mixture of the two? And if it’s “what everyone wants to see,” then how much play is there in the categories?

    -On a related note, are these seven prongs all equally important? Is there one that’s more or less important? Does it vary from place to place?

  2. Kaimi,

    This is definitely what I like to see, but I think it has broader applicability than just me. I certainly can’t purport to speak for everyone, but I’m deriving my advice from my experiences discussing teaching candidates with others and from listening to people talk about what they are looking for.

    I’m sure that the importance of these seven prongs varies from place to place and person to person. My guess is that at top schools, prong (7) will be less important — they will be less concerned about whether you’ll want to be there. Probably (1) and (2) are the most universally prized, but again, this is just based on my limited experience.

  3. Catch-22?

    Dan Solove gives what seems to be an excellent distillation of the current wisdom on how aspiring law professors should approach their screening interviews at the AALS. And then comes Paul Horwitz to warn us law professors not to be fooled by the peopl…

  4. Joe Miller says:

    I’m in year 5 of law teaching. Dan’s advice strikes me as spot-on, both in terms of my own views and those I’ve heard colleagues voice.

  5. Doug Litowitz says:

    I respectfully disagree with your list and with the comments so far. Allow me to raise a contrary view.

    I have seen far too many recruitment teams pass over genuine scholars with PhDs and peer-reviewed books in favor of someone a year or two out of Harvard-Yale-Stanford who has very few original ideas and no research trail, and who will be a very disappointing but highly functioning professor. They are not interested in scholarship per se but only people who are interested in the same things as them.

    As for the other items on the list (be confident, be enthusiastic, show interest) — those apply to any job applicant in any interview for any job.

    The hiring process is mostly a boys’ club trying to recreate themselves, but they don’t want to admit this, so they dress it up as a search for scholars. But when confronted with actual scholars (who tend to be highly eccentric and not collegial, by the way), they don’t know how to react.

    A professor from an elite school recently said in a moment of candor, “Each year we hire the same type of person hoping they will turn into a Sunstein and then we are disappointed but we continue to do it because we are out of ideas.” That was the truest thing I have heard so far.

    What I am saying is harsh but it is the only way to explain why so many new hires have identical profiles.

    Everyone likes to believe that they are searching for scholars — buy ask yourself how many recent hires at your school have published peer reviewed books from a university press.

  6. Kaimi says:

    Doug Litowitz writes:

    “Everyone likes to believe that they are searching for scholars — but ask yourself how many recent hires at your school have published peer reviewed books from a university press. ”

    That’s a curious formulation — scholarship = books (and by implication, anything other than books is not scholarship). You seem to assume this as a given, though I don’t think that the case is so clear.

    There are many scholars who have not produced peer-reviewed, university press books. You would have a hard time convincing me that Eugene Volokh is not a “scholar” producing “scholarship,” however those terms are defined. Yet his C.V. shows no peer-reviewed, university-press books.

  7. Doug Litowitz says:

    Well, that is the Gold Standard of scholarship in academia — peer-review.

    What I find odd is that for most schools in the AALS selection process, the actual fact of currently producing scholarship is somehow trumped by the potential for producing future scholarship. There was an article on this in the Journal of Legal Education about a year ago, it made clear that most schools were using pedigree as a proxy for scholarship when in fact there was no correlation.

  8. Anon recruiting chair says:

    According to the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago (see http://www.norc.uchicago.edu/issues/docdata.htm), there are over 40,000 new Ph.D’s awarded each year in the US, including over 5000 in the humanities and upwards of 6500 in the social sciences not counting education. According to the American Association of University Presses (see http://aaupnet.org/news/glance.html), there were 11,763 books published by university presses in 2004.

    While it is certainly the case that there are intellectual trends at work in the legal academy, and that many law professors are less catholic in their intellectual tastes than might be ideal, it is surely reasonable for law school hiring committees to focus on a candidate’s likelihood of contributing to the advancement of understanding on questions of central interest to lawyers and legal practice, rather than on scholarship per se.

    Finally, the claim that high eccentricity and lack of collegiality are the marks of an “actual scholar” strikes me as quite idiosyncratic. Faced with an appointments candidate who made such a claim, I also wouldn’t know how to react.

  9. Anonymous person says:

    Recruiting chair,

    I think that Mr. Litowitz just had an axe to grind. In my experience, the loudest cry for more Ph.D.’s comes from Ph.D.’s who didn’t get the jobs they wanted. The loudest cry for more books comes from book writers who didn’t get the jobs they wanted.

    And I suspect that the loudest arguments for more non-collegial “eccentics” comes from, well, non-collegial eccentrics who didn’t get the jobs they wanted.

    (Your miles may vary.)

  10. Litowitz says:

    It’s rather thoughtless to imply that I have an axe to grind whereas all the other posters are neutral and objective. You don’t deserve that patina of disinterestedness. Your axe to grind is that you want to play a game where you pretend that you care about scholarship and ideas, when in fact the evidence is clear that pedigree trumps everything.

    Reminds of what Terry Eagleton said when someone accused him of having an ideological axe to grind. He said that ideology is like B.O., it’s always something that the other guy has, never something that the accuser has. So I have an axe to grind but you don’t. Right.

    In my experience, recruitment teams make a double gesture — they talk a big game about scholarship but when push comes to shove they don’t really favor scholarship over pedigree. It’s not true in every case, but in most.

    The majority of law professors come from merely three schools — do you really think this is a representative distribution of talented applicants? What are the odds that ‘scholars’ are limited to three or four schools? Isn’t a better explanation that recruitment teams are lazy and are using pedigree as a proxy for thinking on their own?

    I suspect that the loudest voices against PhDs come from people who lack PhDs. I suspect that the loudest self-congratulations comes from people who are, well, self-congratulatory. See, it’s an easy game to play.