Professor Adam Chilton from the University of Chicago Law School on the Harry A. Bigelow Teaching Fellowships

It’s finally time for the first posted interview in my series interviewing VAP and fellowship directors. Thanks to Professor Adam Chilton, the co-director of Harry A. Bigelow Teaching Fellowship program at the University of Chicago Law School, for participating in this series! An edited transcript of our conversation is below, and I have invited Adam to respond to any questions in the comments. 

You can read more about the structure of these interviews and other related caveats here

Q.: Hi Adam. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me. I’d love to start by asking about your role with the Bigelow Fellowship.

A.: I am one of the co-directors of the program. We have two people that serve as the directors of the program every year. I’ve done it for the last three years with a different person each year rotating onto it for one year. One part of the role of the directors is having the primary responsibility over the hiring process. So we sort through candidates and decide who to interview (but then the actual decision on who to hire is a broader faculty decision that many people are involved in). And then the other part of the role is working with the current fellows on their teaching, their scholarship, and navigating the market.

Q.: I’m going to try to walk through the fellowship program chronologically, starting with the application process, and then we’ll talk more about the program itself. Can you tell me about the application timeline? When do you typically start accepting applications, and when do you start doing interviews?

A.: Sure. We open up the application process on roughly August 15th.

Q.: Okay. And then, is it a rolling application?

A.: Yes, then it’s rolling. We accept applications until we have completed the hiring process and made sure we have the right number of people for the program. So we’ll typically end up accepting applications into roughly February or March. But it is much better to apply early when we still have more spots to fill.

Q.: And when do you typically start doing interviews?

A.: We have two separate stages of the interview process. The first stage is a screening interview. That’s done over the phone and lasts between a half hour and an hour. We start those probably in September, when we first sift through the applications. We do those on a rolling basis as applications come in. Frequently, both of the co-directors of the program will separately do a screening interview of the same person before we decide to offer them a call back.

Q.: How many applications do you typically receive?

A.: About 75.

Q.: Okay. So first there’s a screening interview over the phone. Do you then invite people to campus?

A.: Yes. From there, we invite people to campus. And this is one thing that I think is distinctive about our program is that we take the on-campus interview extremely seriously. We spend a lot of time on it.

The way that our on-campus interview is structured is the same format and structure that we do for our entry level candidates, with one main exception. The one exception is that instead of the job talk for lunch, the candidates go to lunch with some of the current fellows to talk about the program and get advice from them.

But everything else about the structure of the visit is the same. Which means it starts the night before the interview with a dinner with three faculty members. So there’s a long dinner, the same as an entry-level interview. Starting the next morning, there’s a series of office interviews with groups of faculty members (some of the current fellows are also involved at this stage of the interviewing process). So, it’ll be, say, two to four people in a room that do the interviews.

And there are multiple rounds of office interviews. Then there’s the lunch with current fellows. In addition, there is a one-on-one meeting with our Dean of Students, a one-on-one interview with our Deputy Dean, and an interview then with a focus group of students.

Q.: At the end of that day, how do you make a decision on whether to hire someone? Who are actually the decision makers there, who votes, if there’s a vote?

A.: Well, it’s not exactly a vote. But, every single person that’s met with the candidate—so every faculty member, every fellow, even the students—all submit comments about their reaction to the candidate. . These written reactions are a little more qualitative than a formal vote (e.g. what they thought about the person as a potential teacher, as a colleague, as a scholar, et cetera).

The final decision is made by the dean, the deputy dean, and the two co-directors of the fellowship program, taking all those views into account.

Q.: How many fellowships do you typically have available each year?

A.: Three.

Q.: And is that set, or do you have flexibility in a given year?

A.: Our most prominent fellowship program, and our biggest fellowship program, is the Bigelow Fellowship. The Bigelow program is structured around our legal writing program. We have six sections of legal writing each year, and so we have six Bigelows at a time. There has been some variance in the number of Bigelows hired. In a handful of cases where people were hired for two years but accepted a job in the first year, then we might hire four people the next year. But the total number of Bigelows at any time in the building is six. 

Now on top of that, we have three or four other programs where there’s occasional a fellow. So, a law and economic fellow, behavioral law and economic fellow, a public law fellow, or a Dickerson fellow (which promotes diversity in legal academia). And those fellowships do not hire on a fixed schedule. Some years they we hire for those fellowships; other years we do not. So, when there’s a particularly promising candidate that has applied for the Bigelow, we will also keep them in mind for possible other fellowships.

Q.: And how would somebody find out about one of those other fellowships?

A.: I’m not sure if that’s it is how anyone actually gets their information, but they are posted on the University of Chicago careers website. But the best thing to do is reach out and email the faculty member associated with a particular program and apply.

Q.: So, let’s talk about the criteria that you would use, or the school would use, in selecting fellows. And we can split it up into research, teaching, and other, if that works. If you’re thinking about the average successful candidate, do they typically have a full paper coming in? A draft? A published article? What’s the norm?

A.: Definitely the norm is to have a paper. Not everyone has a paper, but we do require a writing sample of some kind. There have been successful candidates that submit a student note, but successful fellowship candidates now almost always have a complete draft, if not multiple publications.

Q.: And is that typically a draft they wrote in practice, or would this be in a Ph.D. program? Where are they finding the time to write this article?

A.: I’d have to look at the exact numbers, but maybe half of our fellows have Ph.D.s when they come into the fellowship program. In some cases, they’re coming straight from the Ph.D. program (in fact, they might even still be an ABD in the Ph.D. program and working on it that way). Others are coming with a Ph.D., but coming from a clerkship or from practice. And in those cases, even if they have not done research for a few years, they have written material from when they were Ph.D. students. 

We’ve had fellows apply from being in a firm of from a clerkship. In some clerkships, the candidate has had more time to work on a paper. We’ve had others that have taken a month off of leave from their job, and some that are just a super person that can work full time at a law firm and somehow produce a paper.

Q.: And do they typically have, in addition to that paper, a pretty well developed research agenda?

A.: Yes. We’re in a pretty lucky position where we only hire three people a year, and we are able to get the very top fellows in the market. And so, people typically have a pretty well-designed research profile and they know the methods that they will use, their perspective on the subjects they are studying, and have multiple projects ongoing.

Q.: Let’s turn to the teaching side? Do you expect teaching experience, and if not, how are you gauging teaching abilities?

A.: We take the teaching piece particularly seriously. We advertise to all the fellows that there is a trade-off coming to Chicago: you’ll do more teaching and more work, but you’ll get more back in return in terms of developing your scholarship and your academic career. But that’s the deal we offer. We are really trying to identify people who will be good teachers.

The candidates have a range of different levels of prior teaching experience. Of candidates with Ph.D.s, most of them have teaching experience. Many of them have experience in law-related classes. So for them, we’re able to look at teaching evaluations. Additionally, we’ve also had a number of people that have done Teach for America, or other forms of teaching prior to law school. Finally, there’s other cases where people have been to law school, clerked, and practiced, but they do not necessarily have direct teaching experience. But they have extremely good practice experience that could be useful in the classroom. 

But regardless of candidates’ prior experience, we’re still trying to gauge what someone would be like in a classroom. That’s partly why we do so many interviews, so we can see how people think on their feet and how well they can explain complex ideas. It’s also why we have every candidate do a one-on-one interview with our dean of students and an interview with a room full of students. And they’re only thinking about teaching (they can ask the candidates about whatever they want, but their role in the process is to be specifically focused on who we would a good fit teaching our 1Ls legal writing).

Q.: What types of things might give people a little bit of an edge in the process? So, for example, is whether someone has a Ph.D., is that something that you weigh heavily in the process?

A.: I don’t think we weight it in any particular direction. I think that someone who has spent time in a Ph.D. program, probably has a well thought out views on research. And as a result, they can be successful in our interview process where we have many faculty members drill people about their research. But if someone has a Ph.D. but their research isn’t very far along or sophisticated, we might be less forgiving than we would be of a candidate that is coming straight from practice. Because if someone’s coming straight from a Ph.D. program, we would expect that it is pretty well thought through.

Q.: How about preferences for candidates in particular curricular areas? Are you paying attention to the subject areas that seem to get a lot of play on the market?

A.: Not really. We have had conversations about whether or not a second candidate might be too similar to a person that we’ve already hired. If we’ve already got candidate A doing con law with a particular background, we’ll talk about if it’s a mistake to hire candidate B doing con law with a similar background. So we have that conversation.

But although we’ve had those conversations, in the end we end up hiring the people we think are the best. For example, last year we had three law and economics candidates on the market. Two that were Bigelows, one that was the behavioral law and economics fellow. So we had the conversation to the effect of “is this too many people with an economics background?” But they were all fantastic, so we still hired them.

Q.: How about making an effort to hire candidates from diverse backgrounds?

A.: Yes, this is something that we care about and prioritize. To put it immodestly, we’ve been able to hire the very best fellowship candidates on the market each year. And we’ve been lucky that, at least for the last few years, that many of the best candidates have added to the diversity of our law school. In the three years I’ve been involved in running the program, I’ve either worked with or hired thirteen Bigelow Fellows. Of those, eight have been women and five have been men. Several of them are first generation college students. Several of them are people of color. They are from all around the United States and even outside of it. So, we had a pretty diverse group. But we are always looking for ways to identify and attract exceptional candidates from diverse backgrounds.

Q.: What else factors into your decision making?

A.: Yes. One thing that might be slightly unique about Chicago is that we have roughly 36 tenured or tenure-track faculty members. For comparison, our peer fellowship programs are at schools with faculties that are two to three times larger. The result is that we really see our fellowship program as a way to constantly bringing new ideas and new people into the building.

Moreover, our fellows’ offices are immediately next door to faculty offices. If you’re a fellow, you’ll have tenure-track faculty directly on both sides of your office. And the fellows are fully integrated into the law school. They come to every faculty workshop and every job talk. 

As a result, we are really looking for people that our tenure-track faculty is excited to interact with daily for the next two years. So, for example, we’ll have a candidates who does corporate law come interview, and immediately the corporate law faculty may say “we have to have this person in the building. We’re so excited about working with them, learning from them, and co-authoring with them.”

So the kind of candidates that generate excitement form our faculty is something that we really prioritize. Who would be a fun person to have around, that would be interesting and intellectually engaging?

Q.: So, when I posted this series of questions on prawfblawg, I got a number of people saying essentially, ask the fellowship directors about candidates from non-traditional backgrounds (i.e., people who didn’t go to Chicago or Harvard or Yale, maybe didn’t have an elite clerkship). Is there a way for them to stand out in this application process? How would you advise one of those candidates?

A.: It’s difficult for anyone to stand out when we’re trying to hire two or three people from a pool of 75 exceptionally qualified people. But last year we had a fellow that was amazing that did not attend a top-14 law school, so it is possible. 

But the way that it is possible, though, is to have produced extremely impressive research. The only reason that where someone went to law school matters is as a proxy for how someone will be as a scholar and a teacher. But when we have more reliable proxies, we don’t have to rely on that at all.

So, when we have candidates apply with four or five great articles that people feel today are fantastic, we don’t have to guess whether or not the person will be a good scholar. We know that they are. But that’s the thing they do have to focus on. Make that proxy of where you went to law school something you don’t have to rely on at all.

Q.: How much is practice experience valued in the selection decisions?

A: It’s definitely valued. We have hired a few people without practice experience, but it’s a big hurdle to overcome. This is not like having a Ph.D., where I’m not sure what weight it plays in the process. Practice experience is something that always weighs strongly in someone’s favor.

Q. Let’s transition away from the application process into what I’m going to call the terms and conditions of employment. I have come to learn that it is really hard for fellows to find out the basics about compensation and other terms of employment for fellowships and VAPS. How much are Bigelow fellows paid per year?

A.: I am under the impression that we pay as much, if not more, than our peer fellowship programs. But I don’t know the specifics, and I am not sure I could disclose it if I did.

Q.: Do fellows receive health benefits, or access to university housing or subsidized housing?

A.: Yes to health benefits. No to subsidized housing.

Q.: Do they receive travel funding, or other professional development funding?

A.: Yes.

Q.: How about funding to hire research assistants?

A.: Fellows receive a guaranteed amount of research funds to use at their discretion, which can be used for travel, hiring RAs, or whatever normal things people use research funds for. And then in addition to that guaranteed amount, there are various opportunities for additional internal funding that fellows may be able to take advantage of depending on the project.

Q.: Do they receive reimbursement for market-related expenses when they go on the hiring market?

A.: The research funding is increased in the second year with the idea that it offsets, at least some, of the costs of the market. 

Q.: Are fellows expected to live in the same city as the law school? I know obviously, they’re teaching a class. But could somebody live in New York, and then just come in and teach their class, if that’s what worked better for them?

A.: I do not think someone could be a successful fellow if they did not live in the same city as the law school. It’s our norm that fellows, as well as tenure-track faculty, are in the building on work days.

Of course, people have professional and personal travel that takes them away from Chicago. And there are days people work from home. So although there is not a strict face time requirement, I don’t think that a fellow could be successful if they came in two days a week, the ways I’ve heard of friends and colleagues doing for other fellowship programs.

Now, we have had fellows that have been in long distance relationships, and those people may take longer weekends every two weeks. Or be away from Chicago for several weeks over winter break, over spring break, or during the summer. But, the expectation is that people are in Chicago coming to work most days.

Q.: I know the typical duration of the fellowship is two years. If for example, somebody didn’t get a job in that second year, is it possible to renew the fellowship for a third year?

A.: That has not happened yet, so we never had to cross this hurdle. We’ve had 100% of our fellows land a tenure-track offer. So we haven’t ever had to set a policy on what would happen if they did not. We certainly do not have a guarantee of renewal. If it ever did happen, I think there would be an assessment about whether or not that would make sense for the candidate and whether it would make sense for the school to extend for another year.

Q.: Let’s turn now to how someone makes the most of their fellowship years. How often do the fellows get together, and in what capacity? So, for example, do they have a regular workshop series, or another type of gathering?

A.: We have a pretty good community of fellows. We have a minimum of six, but, more realistically, nine or ten fellows in any given year (the six Bigelows, plus as I mentioned, multiple people in some stage of the other programs I mentioned). And I think that those fellows talk constantly. Both about their research, and their teaching. 

The fellows also typically have a regular meeting that is either weekly or every two weeks, depending on the time of year, where they talk about each other’s research ideas. These meetings are not to formally research, but an informal discussion

Q.: And that’s just the fellows?

A.: Yes. This is just the fellows. And then there’s the what’s called a research colloquium, which is a workshop to present at more formally. It runs during the academic year, and the people that attend are the fellows, J.S.D. students (graduate students that are primarily foreign), and a handful of other people that are visiting scholars or particularly ambitious law students. And the fellows have the option to present at this forum, and when they do, to invite a handful of faculty members that they’re working with or that they’re close with, so that they can get some kind of faculty feedback, but not in the high-pressure environment of formal feedback.

Beyond that, before the job market, every one of the fellows gives a workshop in front of our full faculty at our Works-in-Progress (“WIP”) workshop. But before presenting to the full faculty, the fellows do a dress rehearsal in front of the people that run the fellowship program, all of the fellows, and say four or five of the other faculty. And before the full dress rehearsal, the fellows typically practice by doing a fellows-only workshop. And in some cases, fellows will do multiple rounds of practice workshops if they think they can benefit from additional feedback.

Q.: That’s a great opportunity for them. Do they get to participate in faculty workshops where they’re not the speaker? In other words, do they go to Chicago’s regular faculty workshops?

A.: Yes; they’re expected to be at every WIP (once again, with the caveat that we understand people have other professional and personal commitments). But our weekly WIP is the center of our academic life. And the fellows are encouraged to ask question at it. If anything, the view from our faculty is that they should ask more questions. I have never once heard anyone take the view that fellows asked too many questions. So, the expectation is that they attend and that they will participate. 

The WIP is for internal speakers, and it runs every Thursday all year long (with the exception of three or four Thursdays that are over Thanksgiving, winter break, and maybe something like the Fourth of July). So it meets say 48 weeks a year.

During the academic year, we also have workshops for outside speakers. For instance, we have a law and economics workshop and a public law workshop that meets on alternating weeks that are highly attended by faculty. In addition, we have a number of other workshops for external speakers during the academic year: a con law workshop, a sexuality and gender workshop, a law and philosophy workshop, etc. The fellows are encourage to attend any of the workshops for external speakers that may be relevant to their research. 

At these workshops, the fellows are encouraged to be even more involved than the WIP. And also there are dinners after the workshops for external speakers. Our fellows are encouraged to sign up to go to dinner. Especially, when it’s someone in their direct field, or in some way would be a valuable person to meet.

Q.: What assistance are they given in finding mentor? For example, are they matched with a formal mentor?

A.: There are not formal mentors. There are the two co-directors of the fellowship program. The assumption there is that those people will be the Bigelows’ first contact point. Certainly when you start, but also when you have your first research draft, your first need for comment, anything like that. So, they can get lower stakes feedback without having to go to some extremely prominent person in their field and show them a very rough draft.

Moreover, we typically would not hire someone if the relevant people in their field weren’t excited about them. So, that sort of cures that problem of a Bigelow not having mentors because we make sure there is buy-in from the natural mentors for a candidate before the hiring ever happens.

And when people do first start, the directors of fellowship program try to give advice about who the fellow should meet and facilitate that process. But that said, as I mentioned before, we’re a faculty of less than 40 people—everyone is in the same building and everyone comes to work almost every day. And as a result, within a few weeks, everyone knows everyone anyway. So mentors are found pretty organically.

Q.: Are they given assistance making connections outside of your law school, meeting people in their area at other schools?

A.: One opportunity that I already mentioned is that when we have outside speakers who are connected to the fellow in some way — same method, same subject area, similar background — we try to make sure that the fellow does to the dinner, and we also try to have them set up a meeting with the person while they’re on campus for coffee. Things like that.

We also host a lot of conferences over the course of the year. And when the conferences are relevant, the fellows are frequently asked to be a speaker and participate, so that’s another way. So, for instance, shortly after I started as a Bigelow fellow, Eric Posner and Al Sykes hosted a conference on international law, and they invited me to be a speaker, attend the dinners, and fully participate. At that event were a number of people in my area—Anu Bradford, Rachel Brewster, Katerina Linos, Mila Versteeg—that I got to spend time with and I’ve now written papers with all of them.

Additionally, we have a pretty large number of faculty members who go to conferences like the Empirical Legal Studies Conference, the American Law and Economic Conference, Law & Society, or events like this. And we try to make sure that the faculty that are going know about the fellows that are going, and that they invite the fellows to meet or come out to drinks with the faculty member’s friends from other schools. So that’s one reason we try to encourage the first-year fellows and make sure they attend conferences and actively participate. 

Then finally, if a fellow is looking for an introduction to someone from another school, there is always a faculty member willing to facilitate it.

Q.: Do fellows receive help in developing their research agenda?

A.: Yes. Our standard advice — although it may change depending on the specific fellows background – is that they should have a pretty good idea of what they think they’re going to write first by the time they arrive during the summer to start as a Bigelow. Since they are asked about that during the interview process, typically all of the incoming fellows do have that first project planned out.

The goal is to have the idea for the project completely crystallized by the time the academic year starts, which brings us to the end of September. And so, during that process, they will get a lot of feedback about one specific idea. Then the goal is to get it done by the end of the quarter, then get feedback on a full draft over the winter break, and be ready to submit it by roughly February for the law review submission cycle. 

We then tell fellows to switch to a second paper and have the idea crystalized by the start of the summer, and have a second paper written before the market starts.

Q.: There is always this lore that fellowship programs help fellows, informally or formally, place their work. Is that true? Do you find that at all?

A.: You mean like reach out to law reviews? Well, I’ll say this, I have never done that. And I’ve never heard of it happening. I don’t even know how you would do that.

Q.: I don’t either. But I keep hearing it, so I figured I’d ask.

A.: I do think that some of the law reviews like seeing themselves having a kind of kingmaker role where they pick out prominent fellows from the pile and publish their job talks. So top law reviews may be looking for the papers from the top fellows. I’ve heard of former editors claim that they tried to find a paper from one fellow for their volume, for instance.

But the idea that a faculty member would be emailing students a copy of a paper of a fellow is, I don’t think, really credible.

Q.: Yeah. I’ve never seen it either, but I saw enough comments about it that I thought well, I’ll ask. So, let’s switch over to the teaching side of the Bigelows’ job. How many students do they typically have in their legal writing section?

A.: 30 to 33.

Q.: Is that their only teaching responsibility? Or do they have the opportunity to teach other courses as well?

A.: In the spring of their second year, they teach a seminar on a topic of their choosing.

Q.: What are their responsibilities in connection with the legal writing course?

A.: They teach a course on legal writing — going through IRAC, structure of memos, bluebook, all that kind of stuff. Also, we do new legal writing assignments each year. We never recycle the topics for memos or briefs that the students have to write about. And the Bigelows are in charge of developing three assignments for the year—a closed memo, an open memo and a brief. And the group of six Bigelows divide up the work to develop those three assignments (typically in groups of two per assignment). Additionally, they meet with the students and give feedback on their work, and they also have to grade the students’ memos and briefs. Finally, the expectation is that they are a more approachable mentor than the doctrinal faculty, so they should be available to give advice on things like studying for exams, applying for summer jobs, and navigating the rest of law school.

Q.: What percentage of their time do you think they spend on teaching versus their research?

A.: It ebbs and flows a lot. There are three months a year when the three main assignments are due. And those months the fellows are giving feedback, grading assignments, things like that. So there are three periods a year where the vast majority of the fellows’ time is teaching. There’s a lot of other periods throughout the year where there is little or no teaching. This happens over academic breaks and at the beginning and the end of each of our quarters (our legal writing always ends before the other courses so students can transition into studying for their exams).

Q.: Do the fellows get training, mentoring, or other feedback related to their teaching?

A.: Yes. Although probably this is an area where we could do better. The fellows receive student evaluations, and we review all of those evaluations and talk to the fellows about anything that comes out of those evaluations. We also meet with them to talk about the content, what they should be covering, advice on how to cover it, et cetera. But we could probably do better still here. 

Q.: Do fellows have any other responsibilities? Any administrative responsibilities, or anything else?

A.: No; nothing that they do not choose for themselves.

Q.: Following up, what could they choose for themselves? Are people getting involved in student organizations, or other things?

A.: Yes, things like that. Some fellows will give lunch talks for student groups, or play a larger role being mentors for student group. Some fellows have organized conferences. Others have been a part of outside organizations. But these are all things that the fellows are free to choose to get involved with.

Q.: Let’s step back. If you had a candidate who was choosing between the Bigelow program and one of the other top fellowship programs out there, and you were trying to convince them to come to Chicago, what’s the argument you would make? Why do you think this is the best, or one of the best, programs in the country?

A.: I do strongly think that this is the best fellowship program in the country. But, in full disclosure, I was a Bigelow and now help run the program, so I’m likely biased. But I have reasons.

I think that the University of Chicago Law is the most intense academic environment in any American law school. We have an extremely dedicated faculty that is always at work and engaged. There is essentially no one on our faculty that is not an active and engaged scholar. So, people are engaged, inquisitive, hard at work, and the fellowship is the opportunity to fully be a part of that community for two years. Now, not everyone might want to be part of such a place long term. But for the two years before you go on the market, I can’t think of a better investment for your time. I’m sure you’ll get more feedback, more mentorship, and more guidance at Chicago than any other place.

Q.: And how would a fellow make the most of the Bigelow opportunity? What have you seen people do to really maximize the opportunity that they have over those two years?

A.: The way to maximize the opportunity is to be extremely present and physically show up to as many things as possible. And beyond just being physically present, be outgoing. Force yourself to meet with and talk to faculty members. I think our experience is that people on the faculty are happy to read drafts when you send them and keep giving feedback. We’ll force feed people some amount of feedback, but people who are really successful are folks that are going above and beyond to get feedback and develop their scholarship.

Q.: The job market itself, obviously it’s an intense period that all your fellows are going to go through. Do they receive specific mentoring related to the job market?

A.: Yes. The two co-directors and Brian Leiter are pretty involved in giving feedback, and we also loop in the fellows’ other mentors. So, anyone that is a recommender for the person will give feedback on all of their specific materials. So, the CV, the research agenda, the FAR form. So, they get multiple people giving them feedback on that. As I mentioned before, we also do a series of moot job talks. Finally, we additionally do moot interviews for everyone before AALS.

Q.: Earlier, you mentioned that Chicago has a 100% placement rate. Is that over the entire course of the program?

A.: The modern version of the Bigelow program started in roughly 1999. Since then, 100% of fellows have had a tenure track offer.. There were two people that had tenure track offers, but decided not to take them and to go another direction with their career. And one fellow left the program to accept a Supreme Court clerkship, but went on the market after and landed a tenure track job. But other than that, there’s been 100% placement.

Q.: And I think there’s actually a list on the website. Do you mind if I link to it?

A.: Yes, please do. [Here’s the link!]

Q.: A few more broader questions about VAPs and fellowships more generally. What do you think are the benefits of the rise of fellowships and VAPs as an entry point for so many law faculty positions? What do you think are the costs?

A.: I think that, with very few exceptions, anyone that wants to enter into legal academia should do a fellowship.

There are several unique features of the legal academy that make fellowships especially important. For one, unlike other disciplines, law students do not have a set dissertation supervisor whose professional reputation in part dependent on getting you a job. For another, legal academy has a notoriously short tenure clock. The result is that it is extremely important to hit the ground running the day your clock starts ticking. And because most of our research is not peer reviewed and placements in law reviews can be path dependent, the initial trajectory of a legal academics career is extremely important. So it is important to get the best first job you can because you can’t rely on blind review of your articles to let you publish your way up the ladder the way you may be able to in other fields. Finally, our field has very few tenure denials. The result is that if someone is hired based on promise they never realize, they may occupy that job for the rest of their career.

Fellowships are the solution that legal academia has organically found for these problems with our profession. They allow aspiring scholars to acquire strong mentors, develop a research agenda that can carry them through tenure, ensure that they get the best possible initial job, and provide hiring committees with a huge amount of additional information (from published scholarship to teaching evaluations) which ensures that fewer hiring mistakes are made. 

Of course, there are costs. For instance, fellows may have to make an extra move to a new city and may make less money than they would in private practice. I’m sympathetic to the former point, but I’m less sympathetic to the later point. Legal fellowships pay comparably to what law clerks or public interest lawyers make, and more than twice the stipend that people earned as Ph.D. students. Finally, doing a fellowship raises the costs of striking out on the job market, and I worry that this may deter strong candidates from ever even trying to be a law professor.

But, on balance, I think the rise of fellowships is a welcome development. If we wanted to reduce the reliance on them, schools would have to start imposing meaningful tenure standards and be willing to peer review research instead of out sourcing the work to students. I’m skeptical that either thing is likely to change soon, so fellowships are a second-best solution to help develop and identify talent that is here to stay.

Q.: Do you think that fellowship and VAP programs have any responsibility for helping to open up law faculty positions to people from diverse or non-traditional backgrounds? How does your program help to do that, if at all?

A.: I think everyone in the legal academy and the legal profession should be trying to find ways to promote inclusion and diversity. The diversity of our cohorts of fellows is something that we are all very proud of. We’ve tried to accomplish this in a few ways.

First, we try to actually read as much of scholarship as possible. When you let the work speak for itself, instead of relying on proxies, it’s possible to find people that are creative and distinct thinkers.

Second, we try to do outreach and target candidates from diverse backgrounds and encourage them to apply. This includes trying to find people to directly email and ask to apply, but also trying to find forums to promote our programs.

Third, we have a fellowship, the Dickerson Fellowship, that is specifically for promoting diversity in legal academy. The fellows that have come through this program have been extremely successful on the market and in their academic careers. 

Fourth, one of faculty members (who himself was a former Bigelow and was a co-director of the program when I was hired), Daniel Abebe, is very active in the Culp Colloquium program run by Duke Law School. The Colloquium brings together current leading academics to help give feedback and mentorship to diverse candidates before they go on the market. We have been able to identify potential fellows from their participation in the program, had people in the Colloquiums network refer candidates to us, and several of our fellows have attended the Colloquium after starting at Chicago.

Of course, I’m sure we could do even better, and we are constantly looking for ways to improve. But those are a few of the steps we’ve taken in recent years.

Q.: What do you think about the criticism that VAPs and fellows may get too much help on their scholarship from other faculty and that therefore it is hard for hiring committees to know how much of the work and ideas comes from the VAPs or fellows themselves?

A.: That criticism misunderstands what fellowship programs are doing. Or, at least, what we do at Chicago. Those criticisms imagine fellowship programs as giving entry level candidates an extreme amount of help writing a specific paper, but really we are training people how to be better scholars. For instance, I’ve never once given line edits on a fellows paper, but I’ve had plenty of conversations over lunch about what are the kinds of questions worth writing about. It’s being part of those conversations every day that improves the quality of fellows scholarship. We are not giving people a fish, we are teaching them to fish.

Q.: Any thoughts you’d like to pass on to hiring committees about law faculty hiring?

A.: Nope, I can’t think of any.

Q.: Thanks for participating in this interview series!

This series is cross-posted on PrawsBlawg.