Hiring season has arrived. Some law schools have already arranged for on-campus interviews of entry level candidates. Others have made their way through the applicant forms submitted through the American Association of Law Schools (the AALS FAR forms, in the biz) and have filled up their days in DC from dawn ’til dusk with interviews. On the applicant side, presumably the many people aiming to land a law professor job are honing their thirty-minute interview skills, hoping that the committees in DC are not composed of too many people like John Cleese: .
OK. Partly I just wanted to show another Monty Python clip. But there is a point to it. AALS interviews are nothing like this, and that is a good thing. The “how to get a law professor job” process is both more democratic and more transparent than it used to be. Once confined to the top graduates of the top law schools, who had also clerked for top judges (preferably Justices) and spent the requisite year or three at a top white-shoe law firm, today the law professor pool comprises graduates of a broader range of law schools, with somewhat broader law practice backgrounds, more academic training (i.e., many more PhDs), and more evidence (way more) that they can write law review articles. The rise of pre-legal academic fellowship programs, visiting assistant professorships, and various formal and informal training programs and boot camps by law schools hoping to place their graduates in academic jobs has also helped to remove any last whiff of mystery or mystification from the process.
And there are lots of good things about this. It is less elitist than the old system. It accompanies, and arguably furthers, the increases in gender, race, and class diversity in the legal academy. It puts a premium on demonstrations of writing ability, which is better than the old system, which put a premium on faculty members’ projections and wishful thinking about whether the applicant would be able to write.
But there are two things to note about the rise of the fellowship/VAP/law-prof-boot-camp model. First, there are still applicants who, for a variety of reasons, will be left out. Who are they, and will they have a chance to enter the academy? Whether we care if the answer is “no” depends a lot on the answer to the first question–who are they. Is the new system, while more democratic than the old, replicating aspects of an insider track, with a somewhat expanded old boy/girl network tapping the top students for the fellowships, etc.? Second, the new model (again, accepting all of its improvements) produces a polar opposite interview scenario to the Monty Python job interview. Instead of wandering cluelessly into a room where only the questioner knows the meaning of the questions and refuses to share the secret code for what might constitute a “right” answer, today’s interviewees (from fellowships, VAP’s, etc.) know the script. And we all follow it. While this is better, in many respects, than a mysterious and hierarchical scenario, it tends toward its own form of problem. The feeling is like an early Hal Hartley film, where the dialogue, reactions and even pauses are tightly controlled. (And I love Hal Hartley films, but I would not want all of life to feel like one, just as I would not want to feel like the interviewee in the Monty Python skit.) On the whole, the current state of things has clear upsides. Interviewees know what to expect and interviewers are more straightforward about what they are looking for. But something remains lost. Perhaps it is the same thing that was lost in old-style hiring. It is the likelihood that there will be Accidental Law Professors, people with something to say about law and life who, because they are not on the track for whatever reason, don’t make it into the script.