A Compelling Plot

At many law schools around the country, the deluge of the hiring season has arrived: job talks, dinners, interviews, oh my.

I actually kind of enjoy the opportunity to read articles I wouldn’t otherwise consider opening and there are worse things than sharing a meal with a candidate at Zahav (try the crispy haloumi cheese) or Amada (pulpo a la gallega!).

That said, there are moments when the whole process begins to grate on me, particularly when it comes to probing the character and disposition of the candidate. You know you’re in trouble when you begin to find your own questions nit-picky and inane.

Indeed, this week, I noticed myself asking a question that I’m not at all sure that I care about concerning the “common thread” tying together a person’s various projects, positions, and pursuits.

Why did I ask this question? Was it because other faculty members seem to ask it (or one of its cousins) with startling regularity or because I’d fielded “tell us what the theme is” questions many times when I was on the market?

Perhaps, but that doesn’t seem like a sound excuse. I think the question is only really justified if people with a consistent narrative trajectory actually turn out to better professors (that is, more productive academics, stronger teachers, and more collegial colleagues).

Maybe that’s true and maybe it’s not. (I’m very curious to hear what others think.)

Certainly, there is a danger that those whose paths through life have been circuitous and multidimensional will end up being dilettantes and dabblers, nipping about the edges of issues and never producing any seriously-engaged work—or, worse still, that such folks will lose interest in being legal academics altogether (either pre- or post-tenure). However, there seems to be an equal danger that a person with a very convincing “theme” answer may prove to be limited and narrow, unable to adapt to a changing legal landscape and lacking in the creativity and broad curiosity to make a significant and novel impact on the field. In addition, such a person may have little interest (or ability) in offering comments on colleagues’ work that doesn’t directly overlap with her own.

Next job talk perhaps I’ll ask the candidate why they always write on the same topic and why they never got an MFA in poetry . . .

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2 Responses

  1. Orin Kerr says:

    Interesting question. I think it depends on whether you are interviewing an entry-level or a lateral.

    If you’re interviewing a lateral, that person has developed a proven record of scholarship. They have written a lot. Most people who write a lot will have some themes to their writing, whether they recognize it or not: Over time they will gravitate to certain problems or certain approaches. All of their work may not fit the framework, but some of it will. So you expect a lateral to have an answer to the question.

    On the other hand, an entry-level candidate is probably too early in his or her career to have a real sense of the real answer. They can make something up to seem like they have a theme, but they often won’t yet have one.

  2. Adam Benforado says:

    Orin, I think you’re right that the usefulness of the question may turn on whether it is directed at an entry-level candidate or a lateral. And it’s interesting to consider whether an entry-level person coming in with two or three pieces can really be expected to have a “theme.” In most cases, I have my doubts.

    I guess what I’m really concerned about is that I have a sense that it hurts a candidate in the job market to have broad interests and have tried different things in life.

    Take two candidates who are identical in every way (they both graduated from top schools, have two articles placed in good journals on criminal procedure, and have worked three years in the DA’s office). However, imagine that, in addition, candidate one has a master’s degree in international relations or has worked in a corporate law firm doing securities regulation or has written a screenplay that was made into a well-received independent film.

    My sense is that although these things can make a candidate “stand out,” they often end up hurting a person when it comes to being offered a position because faculties are attracted to consistent narratives. They see the “unused/extra” degree and the time spent on the screenplay as warning signs of lack of seriousness. (This, of course, ties into Dave’s recent blogging on the potential benefits of pursuing a PhD).