Friday, November 18, 2005

A New Hiring Tactic: Reader Reaction Sought

After last weeke's "faculty recruitment conference" for new law teachers (otherwise known as the "meat market"), there has been much talk about a new recruitment tactic by Northwestern, described to me by colleagues at Illinois and Texas as follows:  Northwestern offers to fly back a "hot" candidate prior to the "meat market" on the condition that if Northwestern makes the candidate an offer, the candidate commits to accept that offer against any others, except for two or three super elite schools on a pre-agreed list (e.g., Yale or Stanford). 

The disadvantages for the candidate are obvious:  he or she is forced to commit to accepting an offer without the chance to evaluate how it compares to other options.  The disadvantages for Northwestern are also obvious:  it may end up with junior faculty who feel strong-armed into having accepted an offer, when they might have done "better" along various dimensions.  The advantage, though, for Northwestern is also clear:  the top law schools are like lemmings, all chasing the same handful of "top" candidates off the cliff together.  That means that an offer from Illinois or Minnesota often turns into offers from Northwestern and Texas and Michigan, which then turns into offers from Columbia and Chicago and Harvard.   To some extent, this new hiring strategy is meant to reduce the amount of wasted recruitment time, on the theory that the only candidates who are going to accept this sort of conditional fly-back are those who are pretty seriously interested in Northwestern.

I'd be curious to hear from faculty or job seekers their views about this practice.  Non-anonymous postings will be very strongly preferred, though if the content of the posting makes clear reasons for anonymity, anonymous postings may be allowed.  Comments may take awhile to appear; only post your comment once please!

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Are you certain that the candidate has to make this agreement before coming to visit Northwestern at all? That seems inappropriate, because the candidate could learn something relevant from the day that might turn her away from the choice. But that problem with the strategy as represented here seems so obvious that one would think there's been an error in understanding. The candidate must have a chance to reject Northwestern at the end of the interview and keep her candidacy at a wide range of other schools. If that's how it works instead, then what Northwestern is really doing is just making early offers, but saying they'll only be kept open if the candidate withdraws from most other schools. That doesn't seem unreasonable, depending on Northwestern's hiring needs and slot situation.

Posted by: katharine silbaugh | Nov 18, 2005 11:40:01 AM

While I am neither faculty nor a jobseeker (indeed, only a mere law student), in my mind, Northwestern's practice resembles other precommitment regimes in processes such as college admissions (early decision) and firm/clerkship interviews ("exploding" offers). There is nothing inherently bad about these regimes, and I would be hard-pressed to believe that anyone would feel strongarmed into teaching at an institution such as Northwestern due to entering into such an agreement. What is troubling about these regimes, however, is that they inherently seek to speed up or shortcircuit what should be a deliberative process about an important life decision (where one wants to teach, work, study, etc.), under the guise of the applicant's convenience, in order to secure efficiency benefits for the institution.

Posted by: MattP | Nov 18, 2005 1:02:39 PM

Only a risk averse candidate would take this offer. NW is doing this to target candidates that otherwise will be expected to be offered jobs at better schools. The candidates will know that they are being considered by numerous other better schools, thus why would they turn away those possibilities for NW? Perhaps a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush, but we're likely talking about 8-10 in the bush. Also, NW has the additional problem of being relatively unattractive to candidates due to its tenure record, constant defection of junior faculty, and the informal Ph.D. requirement for tenure -- the latter imposed even on candidates with nothing more than a J.D. If memory serves, NW has lost candidates in recent years to schools considerably lower in the prestige rankings -- e.g., David Walker going to Boston University instead. I would not be at all surprised if NW lost its chance to get candidates through this process.

Posted by: Adam Winkler | Nov 18, 2005 1:11:00 PM

I would be very skeptical of this tactic if I were an entry-level candidate. You can't know which school you want to go to until you actually visit them, and this tactic blocks you from visiting a lot of places that you might like a lot better than Northwestern. (In my own case, for example, I did a call back at Northwestern but didn't like the atmosphere when I visited: I later withdrew my candidacy when I earned an offer at a lower-ranked but much friendlier place.)

There's another issue: Bargaining positions. Candidates routinely use multiple offers as a bargaining chip for course packages, higher salaries, and other benefits. If you are contractually obligated to accept Northwestern's offer, you also have to accept their initial salary and benefit offer and don't have room for negotiation. Few entry-levels think about that kind of stuff at the beginning, and may end up regretting their choice.

Posted by: top20lawprof | Nov 18, 2005 5:34:37 PM

MattP is right that early-decision arrangements can be legitimate under some conditions, but he is also right that they short-circuit the deliberative process for inexperienced persons, so both candidates and schools should think carefully before entering into them in this context. I know of one candidate, for instance, who accepted such an offer without consulting his/her academic mentors, or even the judge for whom s/he was clerking, and soon recognized that s/he had made a naive mistake.

From the standpoint of the school, conversely, such tactics send a problematic signal about the ethos of the place. I know of another candidate, for instance, who accepted such an offer only to find after arrival that this sort of strategic manipulation characterized the dean’s dealings with faculty generally; after much unhappiness at this institution, s/he subsequently moved on to another school.

The academic community is a close-knit one, and what goes around comes around. [Thus, this posting is anonymous to protect both of these colleagues' identities.] A school that employs such tactics may soon find top-flight candidates being advised by their mentors to deal warily with it, or other schools coming to regard their faculty as ripe for raiding. Of course, for Northwestern the latter may already have happened, so perhaps they have reasoned that they have little to lose in this regard.

Posted by: anonlawprof | Nov 19, 2005 7:01:04 AM

"Northwestern offers to fly back a "hot" candidate prior to the "meat market" on the condition that if Northwestern makes the candidate an offer, the candidate commits to accept that offer."

The candidate can, of course, refuse. Without the meat market process, this would be close to normal. The offer is that "if we spend money to bring you out, you agree that you are serious enough about us that you will accept a reasonable offer if we make one, rather than using the visit as an excuse to gain leverage" and that makes sense as a ploy, if the law school is really interested in trying to divorce itself from the entire meat market process.

I'm curious what other programs or processes law schools are trying to avoid the meat market approach and to avoid candidates using them purely as bargaining chips.

Posted by: Stephen M (Ethesis) | Nov 19, 2005 11:30:55 AM

As someone who just did the meat market last weekend, I want to add my two cents (anonymously, for obvious reasons). Many schools are doing a version of Northwestern's tactic this year, by giving callbacks and exploding offers before AALS to lock in the "hot" candidates before they get other offers. Ironically, many of these schools are fighting over the same handful of people.

Granted, I'm not in the "exploding offer" position, but I can't help but think that this is a bad idea for both the schools and the candidate. As explained above, the candidate must choose a school without being able to compare it to other schools, before she has even done initial interviews with other places. And the school must offer a position to a candidate without really seeing who else is out there, just going by buzz instead. So everyone loses out.

I realize that it is an imperfect market as it is, but the whole exploding offer phenomenon really serves no one well. And it reflects poorly on the schools who do it--candidates understand that if a school is doing exploding offers, it's insecure in some way.

Posted by: anon | Nov 19, 2005 2:52:19 PM

re: but the whole exploding offer phenomenon

From what our host and others have said, Northwestern has good reason to be insecure, and good reason to worry that it is in the position of being used for leverage and fallback rather than as an employer.

It seems that if such offers are taken seriously, that will remove a number of people from interview slots that they would otherwise take up, which would help other job seekers, or did it work that way?

Did it work at all? If it doesn't, it will probably go away. If it did, expect more of it.

How it worked would be interesting and important news for next year.

Posted by: Stephen M (Ethesis) | Nov 20, 2005 4:43:44 PM

This is a response to the post suggesting schools who do exploding offers are 'insecure.' Appealing as the psychological explanation may be to candidates, who don't have any meaningful access to information that would help them understand the institutional constraints that influence schools' behavior, it is not correct. Schools put deadlines on offers not to threaten candidates or to play chicken or to be aggressive, but because most schools have a limited number of faculty lines that may be filled any given year. They cannot make an offer to more than one person for each faculty line. If they want to hire, and they believe that there is more than one candidate who would fit their needs, they must give a deadline to the first candidate in order to know when to move on to their second choice. These are jobs, discrete positions to fill, not law school and college admissions with targets that you can go over or under by a bit. If a candidate holds onto an offer through her hiring season, the school is constrained to make no further offers, because if it does, it could wind up with two acceptances where there is only one funded job. Schools give deadlines so that they may make further job offers. If the second offer is not accepted, any school would happily re-open the offer to the first candidate if that candidate then changes her mind and wishes to come to the school. Certainly there are a few schools who do not need to be concerned about over-booking, but schools with that kind of wealth are likely to land their candidates simply by making them offers. The system of giving deadlines is a reaasonable response to a desire to hire in an imperfect market. Offers don't explode, they just expire. Schools rarely try to manipulate candidates, nor as some have suggested above, to candidates typically 'use' schools to bargain in whom they have no genuine interest. I dislike Northwestern as much as the next guy, but this story has been over-dramatized.

Posted by: anonprof | Nov 25, 2005 9:19:22 AM

I've chaired appointments committees at two state law schools, and at both of them it has been difficult to hire more than a specified number of persons each year. So I sympathize with the notion that if candidate A is going to turn down the school, it would be helpful to have that happen early enough so that the school can make a timely offer to candidate B. So an offer that expires February 1 seems very reasonable to me. But my understanding is that several schools are using exploding offers in a way that deprives the candidate of any real opportunity to test the market. I know of offers that have expired before or soon after the AALS hiring convention -- i.e., that were designed to preempt convention interviewing, not merely to make it feasible to turn the offer over to another strong candidate. That, I think, is a very dubious practice.

Posted by: Phil Frickey | Nov 28, 2005 4:51:25 PM

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