Monday, June 14, 2010

Some Questions about VAPs, Fellowships, and Academic Careers Likely to be of Wider Interest


A reader writes:

I follow your law teaching blog religiously and am very interested in pursuing a career in law teaching.  I was hoping you would have a moment to answer a few questions I have concerning how best to position myself for the teaching market....  


First, is there a meaningful difference between the teaching fellowships at Chicago (Bigelow), Columbia (Associates-in-Law), Harvard (Climenko), Texas (Emerging Scholars Program), and Northwestern (VAP)?  I am wondering how these programs compare in terms of placement, and whether any of them tend to place better in certain regions (midwest and south).  On a related note, do these programs tend to favor their own graduates (particularly Bigelow and Climenko)?


Second, I have noticed that a few schools are starting visiting professorships distinct from the aforementioned programs (e.g. Columbia's Academic Fellows Program and Harvard's Visiting Assistant Professor Program).  Do you have a sense of how these compare to the aforementioned fellowships regarding (1) selectivity and (2) placement?


Third, how do the teaching fellowships at Fordham, Brooklyn, Georgetown, and Duke compare with the fellowships in my first question?


Finally, how much will my time since graduation affect my marketability?  Will the fact that I have been a practicing lawyer for 5-6 years be a detriment? 


To the extent you feel my questions would be useful for others, you are welcome to post them on your blog. 

Let me start by saying I have mostly anecdotal, rather than systematic, evidence on all these issues.  I am opening comments, and invite SIGNED comments and links to information.   I know most about the Bigelow and Texas ESP.  The Bigelow program has an extraordinarily good placement rate, and the Bigelow candidates are always heavily in demand.   The Texas ESP has also had a perfect placement rate, though with not quite as good placement on average (but Texas ESP alumni are now at Berkeley, Georgetown, and Duke, among many other places).   A big difference between the Bigelow and Texas ESP is that the Bigelows teach legal research and writing, while pursuing their scholarship, while those in the Texas ESP teach in substantive areas of interest (a seminar one term, a course the other term)--this makes the Texas ESP somewhat unusual.  My impression is that Climenkos are also doing well on the teaching market, but I just have less information on this score.


The Chicago Bigelow and the Texas ESP, like most such programs I believe, certainly give some slight preference to their own graduates, but in each case, have appointed many graduates of other schools. 


A big plus for both the Chicago Bigelows and Texas ESP participants is that they are both well-integrated into the academic community and faculty.  That's a key issue for applicants to consider:  are the Fellows/VAPs just 'paid help' or are they part of the intellectual community of the school, do the school's faculty mentor them, etc.?


The longer one is in practice, the harder it is to break into academia--questions invariably arise about the motives for leaving practice, whether the candidate can make the transition back to academia, and so on.  I would certainly advise anyone to make the move not later than five years after graduation from law school, and ideally within two to three years after graduation.  But there are exceptions to the rule, and at least some of the Fellowship and VAP programs were *originally* designed with an eye to helping experienced practitioners make the transition.  My impression, however, is that most of these programs now, in fact, look for signs of academic promise, and so like tenure-track hiring generally, disfavor those with very extensive practice experience but no publications or substantial scholarly writing.


I do hope readers will weigh in with more information and opinions about the questions raised.

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Like many schools, our interview dance card at the Meat Market is largely filled with candidates in VAP programs. These include the ones mentioned by the reader -- Climenko, Bigelow, Columbia Associates, and Texas -- but lots of schools now have VAPs. Fordham, for example, has had some good VAPs on the market in recent years. I would note, by the way, that our VAP program also has a 100% placement rate, but it's small and thus very selective.

On the issue of selectivity, I wanted to follow up on one of Brian's points. I also originally thought the purpose of the various VAP-type programs was to provide an opportunity for lawyers to get some writing experience, mentoring as a scholar, and thus make the transition from practice to academia. But even back when I was a Columbia Associate (1997-99), the programs were sufficiently selective that only candidates with prior publications were getting serious consideration. That trend seems only to have increased. In the years I've been on the appointments committee here and considered VAP applications, all of the candidates who have made the short list for consideration would have been competitive as tenure-track hires not too long ago. Many have Ph.D.'s in other disciplines, and their publications are often spun off from their dissertation or some graduate seminar.

Naturally that makes one wonder, how is a lawyer with X years of practice experience and no graduate degree in another field supposed to get some publications prior to applying for a VAP? Some people manage to eke out publications during what little downtime they have in practice, which seems heroic to me. At any rate, one reason for the frequently remarked-upon prevalence of JD/Ph.D.'s in the market may simply be that no one else is well positioned to publish a couple of substantial articles, which is now a de facto prerequisite for serious consideration as a tenure-track hire.

Posted by: Brad Wendel | Jun 9, 2010 7:28:36 AM

Let me put in a good word for the Sharswood Fellowship at Penn Law. Information is here:

As a current Sharswood Fellow I'm obviously a bit of an interested party, but it's a great opportunity. It's a small program- two fellows a year, one of whom is a Penn Law grad- but very well integrated into the faculty and academic life of the law school. (I've been treated essentially like a faculty member in terms of staff support, research funding, attending talks and events, and so on.) The teaching load is excellent and makes for lots of opportunities to do one's own research. The program hasn't been around long enough to make strong predictions about hiring, but so far the placement has been excellent. The process is extremely competitive (more than 200 applications for 2 spots, I believe) though I don't know how that compares to other top fellowships. Because the law school at Penn is well integrated with the rest of the university, there are lots of opportunities for cooperation and interaction with other departments or programs, too (history, econ, bio-ethics, philosophy, and the Wharton school are all obvious choices, and others are probably possible, too.)

Posted by: Matt Lister | Jun 9, 2010 7:48:28 AM

Having emerged from the VAP/fellowship market this spring (with a VAP position at Duke), I hope I can provide some useful and current thoughts based on my research. When I interviewed with the Texas ESP, I was told there was a strong presumption against receiving a tenure-track offer. Indeed, my cursory glance at their tenure-track faculty turned up no former ESPs. On the other hand, there are at least two Climenkos on the UT faculty, which leads me to believe that Harvard also generally does not hire from its pool. One notable recent exception to this trend is a Columbia tenure-track hire last year straight from the Academic Fellows Program.

BL COMMENT: I think this involves a misinterpretation of the original correspondent's question, which was about whether or not Chicago and Texas favor their own grads for the Bigelow and ESP programs. Texas has a very strong presumption against hiring ESP fellows to the tenure-track faculty. Chicago, however, has hired a number of Bigelows tot he tenure-track faculty. I do not know what policy, if any, other schools have.

Posted by: Chris Griffin | Jun 9, 2010 8:11:54 AM

Speaking as a soon-to-be-former Climenko Fellow at Harvard, I can report that Climenkos have historically done well on the market. The fellows on the market three years ago (admittedly a banner year for the program) are now at Michigan, UVA, Texas, Texas, UC-Davis, and George Mason. This past year, fellows placed at Boston University, UNC-Chapel Hill, Temple, Seton Hall, and Florida State.

Posted by: John Coyle | Jun 9, 2010 8:14:41 AM

Fordham's VAPs have also done extremely well on the market. Our VAPs are now at schools such as Berkeley, UCLA, USC, Boston College, Brooklyn, Georgia, University of Washington, among others. VAPs are treated as full members of the scholarly community at Fordham and also receive an opportunity to teach in subjects that relate to and reinforce their scholarly interests. VAPs receive the same level of scholarly support as tenure-track members of the faculty, including mentorship from top scholars on the faculty.

Posted by: Sheila Foster | Jun 9, 2010 8:44:05 AM

1. I think the programs plainly give candidates a big advantage, if only because their presentations will have been long in the making as well as being "test marketed" in their program. Which program you go to is probably less significant than going in the first place.

2. I am less convinced these programs are good for law schools, generally. In my experience they produce a rather cautious, defensive style of scholarship that is well tailored to the hiring process but perhaps less so to a creative, long-term career. Law schools being essentially risk-averse, there is a tendency for several schools to chase the same few fellows and leave other, potentially better candidates trailing behind.

Posted by: mike livingston | Jun 9, 2010 9:07:31 AM

Like Professor Wendel, I was an associate in law at Columbia a couple of years ago. The Columbia program has continued since I left and those who show a commitment to writing do get tenure track positions (this year, at Fordham and the University of Houston). The academic fellows program at Columbia is relatively new by comparison and, from what I can tell, much more competitive; almost all (though not quite all) of those who get in have had Supreme Court clerkships.

Just a quick thought in response to Professor Wendel. It is sometimes the case that someone thinks that they want legal academics when they apply to these programs and later discover that in fact they do not. My own observations (admittedly, the fruit of only a few years) are that some people with very strong academic records use the fellowships to find out that they just don't like to write. Given this development, maybe it makes sense to look for some concrete evidence that fellowship applicants are in fact committed to a legal academic life before they take that precious fellowship slot. The best such evidence would be prior scholarly writing.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Jun 9, 2010 9:11:16 AM

All of the fellowships the reader and commentators discussed are "general" ones, but I'll also put a plug in for specialized fellowships if they fit your area of interest. I did one in health law and bioethics, and biotechnology at Harvard's Petrie-Flom Center, Full disclosure: I now co-direct that Center and thus help place the student fellows.
One of the nice things about this and some other specialized fellowships is that there is no teaching requirement (though many of our fellows voluntarily teach a seminar in the spring of their 2nd year), and a specialized fellowship guarantees a dedicated group of readers/recommenders in your field. More than anything else having people who will work with you and go to bat with you is the important benefit for a fellowship.
Our fellows that have gone into legal academia have gone to Harvard, Harvard, Berkeley, BU, UCLA, and Arizona in the years we have been running the fellowship thus far.
I also have very high hopes for our two fellows who will be going on the market this year, both JD/PhDs -- Melissa Wasserman, who specializes in patent and pharma issues, and Michael Frakes, who does empirical health law work on medical malpractice and other health care issues. If anyone who is looking to hire in these or related fields wants more information, I'd be happy to tell you why I think they are both outstanding.

Posted by: I. Glenn Cohen | Jun 9, 2010 10:19:33 AM

My impression is that because of the different size of the programs the Climenko Fellows are more of a community in their own right than is true of VAPs at Texas. Probably the phenomenon is more general and is a product of program size.

How this cuts depends on the person. Some of the Texas VAPs benefit significantly from relationships with faculty. But it is not clear to me how much intellectual and moral support they got from their fellow VAPs. Being a VAP at Texas is closer to the experience of being a young academic. You have to make your own way in the classroom and in intellectual community in which you are a junior newcomer. Several Climenko Fellows have told me of the benefits they feel they have derived from being able to work with other Fellows. I have heard about candidates from small programs (not Texas) they they did not get much assistance from faculty.

Looking at it from the other side, I don't think it matters what program you come from. The beauty of these programs from the perspective of a hiring committee is that people can be evaluated on the basis of their scholarship. High-powered recommendations may get a committee to look at a candidate's work but at the end of the day the work is judged on its own merits. Most of the people we made offers to at Berkeley this year did work of a caliber and quantity that would have gotten them tenure when I started at Texas. Indeed, there are people we did not hire and some who did not make the cut to be invited back to campus who had done work of this caliber and quantity.

If you have a choice among programs, then take the position where you are most excited about the people you will get a chance to work alongside. If there is not a critical mass of such people on a faculty, then that is a reason to choose a large program for the fellowship such a program provides.

Posted by: Mark Gergen | Jun 9, 2010 11:06:21 AM

The Columbia Academic Fellows program is a relatively new fellowship program (three years of fellows) that hires from 2-4 fellows a year for two-year appointments. It is a non-teaching fellowship that is reasonably well integrated into the law school (invited to all the faculty workshops, including summer junior workshops in which we can present papers), but it does require initiative on the part of the fellows to access all the resources at the law school, including professors. There is no presumption in place against hiring fellows (as may exist with respect to Associates-in-Laws program) and my cohort of four fellows has placed well (Harvard, Columbia(2), and Berkeley). Prior to that, only one other fellow had gone on the market and while receiving an offer from a top-20 school, she decided to return to practice. I'm not sure about the regional bias with respect to the placement of fellows from this program given the lack of sample size, but there did not seem to be such a bias when considering the schools that we interviewed with. Finally, I am obviously not on the hiring committee for the fellows, but one of the fellows from my year had 6-7 years of practice experience prior to applying to the fellowship program (although she did teach as an adjunct during the period and clerked for the Supreme Court during that time). My impression is that what matters is a publication record (1-2 prior publications is often sufficient) and perhaps most importantly a strong research agenda and backers (but these are just my impressions as a former candidate rather than selector).

Posted by: Bertrall Ross | Jun 9, 2010 11:06:34 AM

While I do think that the bias against people who have practiced for more than five years is real, it does not apply throughout the legal academy. There comes a point in the law school hierarchy where more practice experience actually becomes a plus. Anecdotally, the view that practice rots the brain seems to be very prevalent at very highly ranked schools. I don’t think there is any merit to that view, but it is present. So Professor Leiter’s advice about the timing of the move to the academy strongly applies to those who want to teach at the most highly ranked schools, but may not apply at all schools.

BL COMMENT: It may not apply to all schools, that is probably right. It would be a serious mistake, however, to think it applies only to "the most highly ranked schools." I can think of only one school that seems to really value practice experience, and that is Baylor. Perhaps Widener is another. But one need only peruse the roster of untenured faculty at schools not highly ranked to see that credentials and experience are remarkably similar throughout the legal academy.

Posted by: Ben Barros | Jun 9, 2010 11:15:24 AM

A friendly amendment to Brian's recommendation regarding the optimal number of years out of law school: Most people should keep it under five, but even elite schools will be open to hiring an experienced practitioner from time to time. For a lawyer with a practice that is really taking off--great accomplishments starting to happen--it might make more sense to stay. A riskier strategy ... but down the road, if you're the candidate who won IP victories in court, served as lead counsel in a big class action, or did a lot for clients who sell innovative financial instruments, you might have a unique niche.

Posted by: Anita Bernstein | Jun 9, 2010 11:38:12 AM

I largely agree with Prof. Leiter's comment on my comment. It is true that most law schools are looking for similar things in hiring, and that it is very hard to get a job at any school without one or more published articles. I do think, though, that lower-ranked schools are more likely to place some value on practice experience (though not so much that it would outweigh a lack of scholarship). I also have noticed quite a few people with more than five years practice experience getting tenure-track jobs in the last few years at a fairly wide range of schools. A better way to make the point I was trying to make in my first attempt: consistent with Prof. Leiter’s advice, it is probably best to try to hit the teaching market with fewer than five years of practice to maximize the chances of getting a teaching job, but (consistent with Anita’s point), people with more than five years of practice can and do get teaching jobs, and some schools will actually value that additional practice experience so long as the candidate has published. So the reader who asked the question should not be completely discouraged at the chances of getting a job with substantial practice experience.

Posted by: Ben Barros | Jun 9, 2010 12:27:44 PM

Just a note from someone who did get a job (at a third tier school) after practicing more than five years. I did get a fellowship, and it helped - a lot - though I had to eke out an article and a half in practice, which was long hours.

Posted by: Michael Risch | Jun 9, 2010 2:12:06 PM

One should not forget the Golieb Fellowships at NYU for legal historians. Bill Nelson and, now, Dan Hulsebosch have done a great job in helping young legal historians in developing their research programs and getting teaching jobs.

Posted by: mike hoeflich | Jun 9, 2010 5:07:44 PM

Most of the comments come from, or are aimed at, the top of the academic ladder. But, while I agree with BL that the "credentials and experience are remarkably similar throughout the legal academy," in many ways the hiring market is different at the various tiers of law schools. What does seem to be the developing norm is that 1-2 publications are necessary to be considered a serious candidate. Apart from that, other factors (e.g., time in practice) vary (I use a 10-year deadline, but agree that 3-5 years is more ideal).

What the VAP/Fellowship markets seem to be contributing to is a remarkable ratcheting up of qualifications for entering legal academia. It is striking that Supreme Court clerks are now taking VAPs/Fellowships, or tenure-track slots at 3d or 4th tier law schools, when just a few years ago they could write their ticket into a tenure-track slot at a 1st tier school.

This new dynamic is causing concern about diversity in the legal academy, as it has tended to lead to a "rich get richer" trend given background training or mentoring advantages that often track into VAP/Fellowship positions. In response, the poster and others should be aware that a "Pipeline Program," about how to enter the legal academy, will be held on Thur. Sept. 9 at Seton Hall Law School in conjunction with the 3d National People of Color Legal Scholarship Conference, which we hope will be of particular interest to minority candidates. Info here:

Four things I will say in direct response to the poster: first, a program where you are integrated into the doctrinal teaching load is preferable to teaching legal writing; second, more important than other differences among programs is the candidate's willingness to take the initiative to make himself/herself part of the academic community by attending events, visiting faculty in their offices or taking them out to lunch, engaging in scholarly exchanges, etc.; third, there is a great advantage to entering the law school market from an academic environment like a VAP/Fellowship than from practice; and fourth, try to get private comments on various programs in which you are interested, as you may well get franker feedback than you could through a public forum such as this.

Posted by: Fabio Arcila, Jr. | Jun 10, 2010 6:48:54 AM

I can provide only more anecdotes. Still, as the phrase goes, the plural of anecdote is data, so here goes.

My impression as a member of hiring committees is that we tend not to look closely at the school of origin as such. We care more about what the prospect has done during a fellowship. The main difference among schools is who will recommend the candidates, but at very good schools the recommenders should all be known quantities. But there is still some cachet attached to the older programs. For my part, it matters much more to me whether the candidate has used the time profitably to build intellectual capital and start work on a serious scholarly agenda than where the candidate worked. (The points made by others about the degree of cooperation and interchange in a program seem to me excellent. There is some value in being essentially just a legal writing teacher, insofar as it gives a little extra time to write and to get one's sea legs in the classroom -- but not nearly the value of being part of a serious scholarly community.)

On the whole I agree that one is better off getting experience teaching substantive classes than legal writing. There are a modest number of schools -- I teach at one -- where doctrinal faculty teach most of the legal writing sections. Here and at the other such schools, having taught legal writing is to one's advantage, though it is still more beneficial to have taught substantive courses instead or, better, in addition.

I would also lodge a concurrence in part, dissent in part, and dubitante in part to some of the comments about practice experience. For most candidates, the conventional wisdom seems accurate -- three to five years is the outside figure for experience. But especially in business law, candidates with more experience play well. In many of these areas the critical mass of sophisticated lawyers is in practice, not in the legal academy. And as we have been learning of late, many aspects of business transactions are ferociously complex. What's more, the candidate pool in business areas is very thin, which means that schools have to look beyond their usual comfort areas if they really wish to hire. Still, I would be leery of someone who had been in practice for an extended period and had written nothing. Even some basically doctrinal writing would show the requisite interest in scholarship.

Posted by: Larry Garvin | Jun 10, 2010 9:59:10 AM

I very much appreciate the contribution of those who have posted here. The discussion has been very informative. I do want to ask though, how this advice might vary for aspiring clinical instructors...

a) There are some clinical fellowships that seem analogous to VAPs, etc. - are they as, more, or less helpful than doctrinal VAP positions when entering the job market?

b) Does the "practice window" expand for clinical positions? (3-5 years seems to be a consensus "good idea" above, but I can see where schools would want clinical candidates to have more experience).

c) Is a publication record as important for clinical candidates, or is it perhaps a less important factor than practice experience?

Many thanks for addressing these points as well - nearly everything out there is about doctrinal positions. Clinical positions seem to be overlooked (perhaps because there are fewer and thus even more competitive?)

[Prof. Leiter - I'm not sure if this should be posted as a comment, if you'd like to hold onto it for a later post, etc. I'll leave that to your discretion. Thanks very much for engaging with the topic.]

Posted by: Travis Silva | Jun 10, 2010 10:38:29 AM

I think the coin of the realm for academic jobs is publication. If you have a substantial record of publication, (which at the entry level is probably 2 or more articles)particularly in top 50 journals, the articles are interesting and substantive, I suspect that you might be able to get a job without doing one of these fellowships, even if you have been out "too long." I concur though with some of the other comments that if you want to do one of these programs they can be very, very helpful in allowing to have time to get "seasoned" by getting an opportunity to focus on your writing and excellent feedback and to get some teaching experience. To get the most out of fellowships, VAP programs, etc., you should focus on those which integrate the fellows into the life of the law school. Also, unless legal writing is your area of interest, you should choose a program which allow you to teach doctrinal courses. I was a Teaching Fellow at Stanford. And while I very much enjoyed my time there and it gave me substantial time to write, because the teaching I did was legal writing, I had a hard time convincing some schools that I was not interested in continuing in legal writing, even though I did not list it on my FAR form. Moreover, I got more interviews at the conference after I was a VAP at Tulsa than as a Teaching Fellow at Stanford (which is a little counter-intuitive). I think it was because of the teaching experience which many schools, particularly those where teaching ability is considered very important. My experience may not be typical, but I think schools in the lower tiers sometimes put more emphasis on teaching (or at least weight teaching and scholarship equally) than those at the top. This is a generalization however. All schools care about teaching to some extent. But I think at the top schools the quality, placement and number of your publications is, in general, the most critical factor after (or maybe even before) the school from which you received your JD, etc. though ALL schools will be looking for publications. And I think this is also true for clinical positions if they are tenure-track. It may be that more time in practice is viewed more positively in the clinical arena. It would seem logical but I don't really know. The bottom line however is generating publications. Many of the other criteria law schools use for assessing candidates are merely proxies used to try to predict who will be productive. So if you can move from potential to actual publications that is one of the most helpful things you can do.

Posted by: Tamara Piety | Jun 10, 2010 7:13:02 PM

This is excellent discussion so far. A few quick notes that I'd add:

1. Don't forget NYU lawyering. A friend of mine is exiting that program now to start a tenure track job at a solid second tier school. He enjoyed the experience at lawyering, and was able to write a couple of fantastic (and fantastically placed) publications in the process. I don't know all of the other details, but I believe that several of his lawyering colleagues were also successful on the job market.

2. As far as years of practice, I would add (building on some prior comments) that my observation is also that it can vary widely depending on one's teaching interest.

For at least some areas, like tax, bankruptcy, or wills and trusts, practice experience can be a very good thing. One candidate who I know very well interviewed for and lost out on a wills and trusts job a few years ago, as the school chose to go with a highly experienced former practitioner instead.

(As with all anecdotal stories, your miles may vary.)

Posted by: Kaimi Wenger | Jun 13, 2010 7:03:10 PM

For Travis Silva:

At my school, we value clinical fellowships highly in hiring clinical candidates. Good clinical teaching is *hard*, and it's a plus to know that a candidate has gotten the training and experience of a clinical fellowship before we throw him or her into a clinic of his or her own. Whether a publication record is helpful for a clinical candidate will depend on the hiring school. Some schools expect clinical faculty to publish, and will want clinical candidates to have a publication record for the same reasons they want other candidates to have one; other schools don't care if clinical faculty publish, and won't value a publication record so highly.

Posted by: Jon Weinberg | Jun 15, 2010 4:05:38 AM

Speaking anecdotally, I had a wonderful experience in Northwestern's VAP program. The faculty were very welcoming. Not only did I feel like a full member of a lively academic community, a number of Northwestern's faculty members, including many outside of my own specialty, went to bat for my AALS candidacy. It was a great learning experience, and I highly recommend it.

Posted by: Stephanie Hoffer | Jun 18, 2010 10:58:06 AM

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