Law Teaching Interview Advice: How to Ace the Job Talk

podium1.jpgSo you want to be a law professor, and you survived the dreaded AALS “meat market” in Washington, DC. You’re now sitting by the phone, waiting anxiously for a phone call for a second date. The phone rings . . . and you’ve got a callback! Now what?

I’ve previously provided advice on how to do well in your AALS interviews. But now you’re on to the next round. Callback interviews are designed to see if you’re the real deal or just a poser. They are a marathon of many short 30-minute interviews in various professors’ offices back-to-back for the entire day. It’s a very exhausting experience. But these interviews are not much different than those at the meat market.

The key part of the day is the job talk. This is where you give a brief lecture to the faculty and they grill you. The job talk is one of the most important factors in a candidate’s hiring. It begins with the candidate lecturing for about 20 to 30 minutes and is followed by about 30 minutes of Q&A. For better or for worse, the job talk is one of the most important factors in getting hired.

So how do you ace your job talk?

The first thing is to understand your audience. Here’s my perspective as a member of your audience. Your job talk is taking place during the middle of my day. I’m busy. I’ve got a ton of things to do, classes to teach, papers to work on, emails to respond to. I’m not coming in eager and excited to give my valuable hour to some unknown person plucked off the street after a 30-minute interview at the meat market. So you’ve got to work to get my interest and make that hour an interesting part of my day. That involves getting out your thesis quickly, making an interesting argument, and then having a good discussion with the faculty.

Sounds easy, right? You wouldn’t believe how many fail at doing these basic things. I’ve seen countless candidates crash and burn during their job talk. It’s like reading a Kafka novel — things start out bad, and then they get much worse, and then you die.

Here is what I’m looking for in a job talk:

1. Were you able to articulate a coherent thesis? Your talk must have a point, and the point of your talk should be stated towards the beginning.

2. Was the thesis of your talk original and not an obvious point? I should not be saying “duh” to myself throughout your talk.

3. Were you able to defend your thesis?

4. Did you recognize the arguments on the other side of your thesis?

5. Was your talk interesting and engaging?

6. Were you articulate and clear? If not, I might have doubts about the clarity of your thinking as well as about your ability to explain concepts to students in a class.

7. In the Q&A, did you respond well to the faculty’s questions?

8. If a question posed a severe challenge to your thesis, were you prepared to address it?

9. Did you demonstrate adequate command of your topic? I expect you to be familiar with the literature and cases on your topic.

Here are some tips:

1. Have one clear central point. Many job talks ramble on and on without much of a point. Some fail because the underlying project lacks a point, but others fail because the candidate just hasn’t realized one of the most important keys to presenting a paper: You can only get across a very small fraction of a paper in about 20-30 minutes. Oral presentations are a remarkably inefficient way of communicating information. So you don’t have the luxury of making several different points, exploring all the manifold nuances of a topic, and so on. You must isolate the key point, and provide the basic skeletal structure of your argument. Basically, state your thesis, explain it, and justify it. Don’t argue all the finer points. You don’t have time.

2. Choose a topic that many people on the faculty can talk about. The most important part of the job talk is the Q&A, where the faculty gets to see how well you think on your feet and respond to difficult questioning. Unfortunately, some job talks are doomed because they are on esoteric topics that hardly any of the faculty can discuss. If the faculty can’t debate you or engage with your topic, it is hard to have the kind of vigorous and interesting Q&A that is needed to show off your response skills. You need to leave the faculty with something it can discuss with you.


3. Be responsive in the Q&A. As I said above, the Q&A is generally the most important part of the job talk. Some candidates spend too long on the lecture part, leaving an insufficient amount of time for the Q&A. Bad idea. It is how you respond to the Q&A that the faculty wants to see. The tougher the questions, the better. You should want the faculty to bring it on. If the discussion is energized and lively, then you’re probably doing a good job.

Some candidates grow very hostile and defensive when they are challenged. That’s a big no-no. It shows a lack of confidence, a lack of courtesy, and it is a big turn-off for a discussion. Respond to the questions. Welcome them. Engage with the challenge. Try to enjoy it — after all, this is what you’ll be doing for a living. Don’t think of it as a session where the faculty is out to get you. What they want is to see you think on your feet. They want you to succeed, not fail. And answer the questions. Far too often, candidates just dodge the question and never really answer them.

If a question goes into territory outside the four corners of your paper, it is best to attempt to answer that question rather than state that it is beyond the scope of your project. If the question is very tangential and goes into an area where your knowledge is weak, then you might try to deflect it. But otherwise, engage with the question. For example, suppose a question challenges a fundamental assumption in your paper that you take as a given. You might be tempted to say that the paper isn’t really a defense of that assumption; rather, it is an argument based on the consequences of taking the assumption as given. But that might not appease faculty members who want to see how well you understand the arguments relating to that underlying assumption. So engage with them and show that you’ve at least thought about the assumption even though you don’t address it in your project. Candidates are often afraid to answer such questions because if the assumption is proven wrong, their entire paper might fall like a house of cards. But ignoring such questions makes you look as though you haven’t really thought your project all the way through. So explain why you made the assumption you did. Even if you don’t have time to fully justify it, demonstrate that you’re aware of the arguments supporting and undermining the assumption.

4. You don’t need to have all the answers; you just need to be thoughtful about the issues. Some candidates think that they will fail if they don’t have all the answers, so they try all sorts of tricks to pretend like they do or ignore the weaknesses in their projects. But this is just like scratching a scab — it makes it worse, not better. What is more important to me than whether a candidate has all the answers is whether the candidate can recognize the weak spots in an argument and has thought about the different ways to address it. So if you’re caught in a weak spot, demonstrate that you recognize it, that you’ve thought about it, that it hasn’t come as a surprise, that you have some preliminary inclinations about how to address it, but that you will have to give it more thought to fully resolve it. I can accept that. What I can’t accept is your being unaware that these weak spots exist or nonchalant as to their import and consequences.

The bottom line: The job talk is a time when you must prove to the faculty that you can think logically and quickly and that you can articulate yourself clearly and cogently. You don’t need to prove that you have all the answers or that your thesis is unassailable. You don’t even need to win the argument. What is most important is that you demonstrate that you’ve got an interesting and creative mind and have the analytical skills to understand the implications of your argument — where it is strong, where it is weak, how it might be affected by changing initial assumptions, and so on. I want to see how well you can think. Sometimes a particular project that is the basis for a job talk is flawed, and this doesn’t necessarily mean doom. But I do want you to see the difficulties. You should be aware of them and not taken off guard by a rather obvious challenge. You should demonstrate that you’ve thought about the different paths the project can take. You should be able to articulate reasons for why you made the choices you did.

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8 Responses

  1. Eric Goldman says:

    Great advice as usual, Dan. Two things:

    1) I think a good job talk runs 20 minutes and not much more. Some candidates might think 20-30 minutes means 35 minutes is OK. I disagree. 20 minutes should be enough to sketch out the basic argument (perhaps only a fraction of the total paper) and stimulate discussion. Longer talks get people restless.

    2) Candidates should ask their handler about whether they are likely to be interrupted for Qs during their talk, and if so, how the candidate should respond. I believe faculty norms vary widely on this. If faculty norms are to interrupt the talk, candidates may in fact only get 5-10 minutes to set up their talk before anarchy ensues.

    Eric.

  2. Bruce Boyden says:

    I agree entirely with everything here. 2 additional points: (1) Do a practice run, even if you believe you are a good public speaker and don’t need one. Ideally you should round up some faculty, but even just lawyers should work fine, since most faculty won’t know your area either. I answered my very first question in the practice round with something everyone agreed was a gigantic mistake.

    (2) This is something everyone should do in writing generally, but particularly when you’re preparing for “oral argument”: Look at your paper or presentation from the point of view of someone who’s *trying* to poke the biggest hole in it possible. What questions would such a person have for you? Now imagine being asked that question. What’s your answer? You may have such a question in the back of your head and a vague idea how you might answer it, but answering a question in the back of your head is often like speaking a foreign language fluently in your dreams; when you try to do it in reality you suddenly realize you are speaking gibberish. It’s better to actually write the question out and then outline or speak your answer.

  3. Fred Tung says:

    Invaluable advice. A few additional practical tips. Practice your talk and time it. I absolutely agree that 30 minutes is too long. Twenty minutes and stop. Faculty love to hear ourselves talk, and we can’t wait that long. You should be able to do at least the first 3-5 minutes without looking at your notes. Make eye contact. Teach the faculty. Engage us.

  4. Anita Bernstein says:

    All correct. Some will disagree, but I would say that unless you’re in a field with a strong contrary norm (business, economics, some IP), you should omit visuals like Power Point at your job talk unless your slides or clips add to what you can convey by the spoken word. Slide shows are still a minority taste among law professors, and not everyone in your audience will react positively to your prowess at the monitor.

  5. David Bernstein says:

    Generally good advice, but have to disagree about trying to do a talk on a subject that the faculty already knows about. The more people in the audience consider themselves to be experts on the relevant subject, the more likely someone in the audience is going to take your talk as a personal affront to his or her worldview, and make it his mission to make you look foolish. Not to mention that if you portray yourself, as, say, a family law scholar, and it turns out you know less family law than some on the faculty who don’t even teach it (not uncommon for entry-levels who want to teach outside their practice area), you’re not going to get the job. Much better to give a talk on a topic that’s interesting but esoteric, in which you’re the expert and the faculty is learning from you.

  6. David Hardy says:

    OK, I’ve got my Third Amendment presentation locked up!

  7. Jay Currie says:

    Great advice.

    A good way of checking your written presentation is to have someone read it to you. You’ll hear the infelicities and the contra points will jump into your ears.

    [This works just as well with undergraduate papers, written argument and formal seminar papers.)

  8. Orin Kerr says:

    I blogged my own take on this issue way back when.