Brian Leiter's Law School Reports

Brian Leiter
University of Chicago Law School

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Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Should Applicants for Teaching Fellows/VAPS/Bigelows/Climenko's etc. Already Have Post-Note Publications?

A recent law school graduate, now clerking, and who is thinking about law teaching, writes:

It's been suggested to me that as these programs become more and more competitive, it's increasingly important to have not only a proposed research project but a post-note publication in order to be seriously considered.  Does that sound right?  I have a project in mind...and perhaps it would make more sense for me to spend this year turning that into an article and getting it published, and to reapply next fall - rather than applying this year with only a proposal.  Do you think there would be a risk to applying unsuccessfully - in other words, would an unsuccessful application this year diminish my chances in following years?  Or is the risk slight enough that it would be worthwhile putting applications in on the strength of a proposal, and re-submitting with (hopefully) a published work next year if things don't work out?

Here's my sense, but I am opening comments here, and would really like to hear from others, both faculty and applicants, about their impressions.  My sense is that, alas, successful applicants for VAP/Fellowship positions increasingly do have post-Note publications, in additional to a research proposal.  I also have the impression that selection committees for these Fellowship programs have fairly stable memberships over time, meaning that a relatively weak application one year might handicap applications the following year, even if the dossier is much improved, e.g., by publications.

Readers, do you share these impressions or are they idiosyncratic and based on limited evidence?  I'm sure my correspondent's questions are shared by many aspiring law teachers, who would appreciate candid feedback on these matters.  Post only once; comments may take awhile to appear.    Non-anonymous comments strongly preferred, for obvious reasons.

UPDATE:  I want to highlight the remarks of Orin Kerr (George Washington) from the comments section, below:

More broadly, I think we're seeing a shift in the role of VAP-type programs. Just a few years ago, the purpose of a VAP was to give a lawyer who wanted to teach some time to write an article and become immersed in the academic culture. Increasingly, however, I think VAPs are giving already-strong teaching candidates an opportunity to create an even stronger application.

What happened? My sense is that the graduates of the major Teaching Fellows/VAPS/Bigelows/Climenko programs have had a lot of success on the teaching market. They've not only gotten jobs: A lot have found jobs at top, top schools. Their success has been wide enough that many applicants see Teaching Fellows/VAPS/Bigelows/Climenko programs as one of the best ways to get a job at a top school.

Enough candidates are willing to put off starting a tenure-track job in to boost their chances at getting a tenure-track job at a top school that the VAP-type programs are now getting applicants that 5 years ago would have just gone on the market.

This, I'm afraid, rings true to me too.  We are, I suspect, gradually moving to something like the system in the sciences, where one always has a post-doc prior to a tenure-stream position.  But why is this happening in law schools?  Thoughts on that in the comments section welcome too.

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Brian Leiter is hosting a good conversation right now about whether VAP candidates ought to enter the market with at least one post-Note publication. His view is that the committees that consider VAPs stay the same, year after year, so [Read More]

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Comments

I think it is, alas, true that applicants for VAPs and similar positions are well-advised to have some post-Note writing. At Minnesota we only have an informal VAP program, not one of the big, well-publicized programs, and yet we still get enough applicants with post-Note writing that those without can be disadvantaged. In a way it obviously seems unfair--after all, the point of these programs is to give candidates a chance to write in the first place. But, if presented with two otherwise equal persons, one of whom has done significant writing while the other hasn't, the former is likely to win out.

I'm less sure, though, whether an unsuccessful application one year would hurt a candidate the next year. It is true for us that the relevant committee is fairly stable. However, I'm not sure that a prior rejection would hurt in the following year. Indeed, if you had someone who looked good but for a lack of publications, rejected them, and the next year she came back with more writing, that might be a positive. But, I have no idea how other people here would react to that, much less committees at other schools.

Posted by: Brett McDonnell | Sep 3, 2008 9:04:53 AM

A related issue for a candidate to consider is job market timing for full-time positions. Because the hiring cycle for full-time positions begins a full year in advance, a candidate considering a one-year VAP or fellowship should plan on either (1) going on the full-time job market the August before the VAP/fellowship begins or (2) doing a second VAP or fellowship. A candidate considering option (1) would require post-note publications.

Posted by: Ben Barros | Sep 3, 2008 11:17:15 AM

At Harvard Law School's Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics, our academic fellows, http://www.law.harvard.edu/programs/petrie-flom/fellowship_program/academic.html, have been a mix as to whether they have post-note writing, although we've only had two years of fellows so there is a small n problem. Because it is a 2 yr fellowship, there is a little more time to build up a publication record before going on the market.

In terms of prior applications: Going forward we will probably have at least some of the same people making selections over several years, but I too think that a prior application won't hurt the applicant if their new application has a different or significantly expanded project proposal.

Posted by: I. Glenn Cohen | Sep 3, 2008 12:01:02 PM

Brian,

That's my sense, as well. More broadly, I think we're seeing a shift in the role of VAP-type programs. Just a few years ago, the purpose of a VAP was to give a lawyer who wanted to teach some time to write an article and become immersed in the academic culture. Increasingly, however, I think VAPs are giving already-strong teaching candidates an opportunity to create an even stronger application.

What happened? My sense is that the graduates of the major Teaching Fellows/VAPS/Bigelows/Climenko programs have had a lot of success on the teaching market. They've not only gotten jobs: A lot have found jobs at top, top schools. Their success has been wide enough that many applicants see Teaching Fellows/VAPS/Bigelows/Climenko programs as one of the best ways to get a job at a top school.

Enough candidates are willing to put off starting a tenure-track job in to boost their chances at getting a tenure-track job at a top school that the VAP-type programs are now getting applicants that 5 years ago would have just gone on the market.

That's my sense, at least.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Sep 3, 2008 4:14:31 PM

I think the key is Ben's point: A candidate who gets a one-year VAP position and applies for jobs from there won't have had time in the VAP position to write anything that hiring committees can read. If that candidate wants to show hiring committees post-law school scholarship, he or she has to have written it earlier.

A related question: What's with the conventional understanding that folks can easily use a VAP year to get writing done -- that, as Brett put it, the point of the programs is to give candidates a chance to write? So long as most VAP positions require candidates to teach as well -- with the huge time demands of first time law school teaching -- it's not at all a good time to also try to get an article out within the year. So it seems to me that it works well for credentialling, but rather less well for scholarship. Am I missing something?

Posted by: Jon Weinberg | Sep 4, 2008 8:31:42 AM

It's disturbing to me to think that, two years along the tenure track, I might already be a dinosaur! When I started my 2-year VAP at Texas in 2004, I fit Orin's model of the lawyer who needed the time and a place to write in order to transition to academic work. The VAP was absolutely essential to my pulling it off. The VAP program supplied several important missing ingredients for me, but the vital one was the thing that newbies learning to produce good scholarship need above all: access to the right people who will really read your work and give substantial and correct guidance. If you're writing the kind of thing you should be writing (and most of us need help just figuring out what that is in the first place), there are going to be a limited number of people in the academy who can give you the feedback you need to make your work good. They need to be senior and at least some of them need to be experts in the literatures you're working with. It's very, very hard to get the attention and time of these folks if you're knocking on doors from the outside and aren't coming from a doctoral program, especially if you've been away from your own law school practicing for a while. The VAP, depending on the faculty of the school you're at, solves this problem. If we're using the VAPs to improve the CVs of people who have already gotten over that barrier, that may be wasteful. The cost could be the loss of some new voices, some with atypical backgrounds allowing them to produce valuable and even important new contributions once they've figured out how to do scholarship.

As for why this might be happening, the market incentives for it seem pretty straightforward to me. It's perhaps made worse as more schools adopt these programs in more formalized ways--creating something that has a public face and that schools might think needs touting in the prestige race (now everyone wants to be able to say their VAP program produces the most top-school placements, etc.). Of course, one solution is to go back to expecting less in the writing of some entry-level candidates ... but that invites another set of problems.

Posted by: Sam Buell | Sep 4, 2008 10:38:30 AM

As someone who did a fellowship from 2005-2007 (Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society), a key point with regard to Ben's and Jon's comments about writing should be emphasized: while it may seem obvious, an applicant needs to kick the tires on how much writing is possible given the fellowship's job description. Fellowships vary widely, and if you wind up in a fellowship where teaching, litigation or some other activity is a significant part of your responsibilities, writing can easily fall by the wayside. I also concur that one year is likely not enough -- even in a fellowship where one has no other duties -- unless you enter the fellowship with an article in more than first draft form.

BTW, I am happy to correspond offline with people who are seriously considering a fellowship as an entree into teaching, to the extent I can offer advice.

Posted by: Dave Levine | Sep 4, 2008 10:41:00 AM

I think this raises an important question -- most keenly, for those who may now perceive the VAP/fellowship as another barrier to entry, but also for the interests of those schools running the programs and the schools evaluating candidates from them. I think Jon is right that this is becoming yet another credentialing mechanism. As to Brian's original question as to why this transpiring, I'd guess it's for two reasons. First, because the programs *can* do it, given the number and strength of applicants, and because there is little concrete pressure to use the programs for some *other* end (such as opening the door to other kinds of candidates). Second, perhaps because there is little underlying confidence that the program will itself suffice to establish a good candidate (whether because it is too short, burdened with teaching responsibilities, or limited by a lack of training and supervision); to the extent the program school measures its success by producing good candidates for permanent positions, it will be biased toward pre-fabricated candidates, understanding that it will not grow its own.

I'm not in a good position to say whether this speculation is accurate (for example, I bet some offer great supervision/training) or whether, if true, it's a good thing. But it's certainly not all bad. Even if this is simply taking already-strong candidates and tacking on a year to their pilgrimage, it is giving them a taste of academic culture before they commit themselves to it more permanently, and it is giving them prior teaching experience . . . for some, in courses that may be better suited to inexperienced teachers, which is good for students. Second, it diminishes slightly the possibility of the following direct career arc -- JD/fellowship/tenure-track app't -- by suggesting the continued value of a year or two between the JD and the fellowship in which some writing can be eked out to beef up the fellowship application. This indirectly provides an incentive to practice prior to the fellowship, and for would-be academics to get a bit of experience in the profession, which is arguably a good thing.

This is all sheer speculation.

Posted by: Edward Swaine | Sep 4, 2008 12:18:28 PM

I blogged about this topic last year at madisonian.net (12/05/07): http://madisonian.net/2007/12/05/the-real-problem-with-law-teaching-fellowships/. To expand on that post: It's important to see the evolution of VAP/Fellowship programs not only from the perspective of job applicants and the entry-level market (on that score, I think that Orin is right), i.e., from the demand side, but also from the perspective of sponsoring law schools and their faculties, i.e., from the supply side. The number of formal VAP and Fellowship programs has exploded over the last ten years. Why? Orin's insight helps here: Law schools and their faculties have seen how Harvard and Chicago (in particular) have used Fellowship programs to enhance their already strong positions in the supply side of the teaching market. Schools lower in the pecking order believe that they can enhance their positions as scholarly institutions if they can supply the market and/or themselves with VAP alumni. The resulting VAP glut (if I may call it that) is that the VAP/Fellowship itself is no longer the market signal that it once was. Post-Note publication is emerging as a way of distinguishing stronger VAP/Fellowship alumni from the rest.

Posted by: Mike Madison | Sep 4, 2008 3:10:25 PM

Glad you found the earlier comments worth highlighting, Brian. You ask why this trend is happening, and I have a few thoughts on that one, too.

I think there are two closely related reasons. First, a VAP imparts enough of an advantage in the job market to make it worthwhile even for someone who has done some writing. In particular, a VAP gives the candidate enough exposure to the academic world (and a first-hand look at the hiring process at the host school) to give the candidate extra polish and a sense of academic sophistication when he or she goes on the market.

For an entry-level candidate who has a strong academic record (good law school & clerkships, a publication or two, etc.), just a little extra polish and sophistication often goes a long way. When candidates don't have much writing, the VAP can be a sort of finishing school that gives the candidate the opportunity to learn an a more academic way of speaking and performing.

Put another way, VAPs tend to do better when it comes to "style" points: They are more likely to have figured out the basics of how to seem like a lawprof. And that can translate into a significantly higher rank of school being interested in candidates. For better or worse, entry-level candidates who get top jobs at top schools usually have an abundance of style points.

The second and related reason is that entry-level law teaching applicants tend to be highly status-conscious. In my experience, entry-level candidates care a lot about the "rank" of the school where they are interviewing. Many envision schools along the U.S. News hierarchy, and many see the goal as getting the "highest" job they can get.

Of course, senior scholars may also be status conscious. But my sense is that more senior scholars are more likely to see status in their citations or their publications or positions within their institutions than in the U.S. News ranking of the school where they teach. Senior scholars are also more likely to be concerned with finding a school they like and colleagues they like (and where they can send their kids to good schools, etc.) than prestige. Or they may just not want to move. With entry-levels, though, many are willing to go anywhere, and they will do pretty much whatever it takes to get as high up the U.S. News ranking as they can.

If you put the two together, you end up with a number of entry-level job applicants who want to go to a top school and are willing to take 2 years "off" for a VAP to get the polish and sophistication that will boost their chances.

That's my sense, at least. Actual mileage may vary. (And if someone thinks this is way off, I'd much appreciate the correction.)

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Sep 4, 2008 9:37:13 PM

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