Next up in my series interviewing VAP and fellowship directors is Candace Zierdt, a Professor at the Stetson University College of Law. For the past decade, she has served as the Director of the Bruce R. Jacob Visiting Assistant Professor Program at Stetson. An edited transcript of our conversation is below, and I have invited Candace to respond to any questions in the comments on Prawfsblawg. Thanks, Candace, for participating in this series!
You can read more about the structure of these interviews and other caveats related to them here.
Next up in my series interviewing VAP and fellowship directors is Candace Zierdt, a Professor at the Stetson University College of Law. For the past decade, she has served as the Director of the Bruce R. Jacob Visiting Assistant Professor Program at Stetson. An edited transcript of our conversation is below, and I have invited Candace to respond to any questions in the comments. Thanks, Candace, for participating in this series!
You can read more about the structure of these interviews and other caveats related to them here. For more information on law faculty hiring generally, check out the section of the AALS’s website devoted to this topic at https://teach.aals.org/.
Q. Can you start by telling me your role with Stetson’s VAP program?
A. Yes, my role right now is that I am the director/coordinator of the program, and I have been that since its inception about 10 years ago. In August a colleague of mine is going to take it over, Professor Marco Jimenez. We’ll be looking for a new VAP this year, and although I’ll still be working with Marco, I wanted to cycle out because I have a lot of other things on my plate. After 10 years, I thought this would be a good time for me to get somebody else to help with it, and Marco has been intimately involved with the program since its inception as well because we have a cadre of faculty who always help our VAPs.
Q. That’s great, and can you tell me just a little bit about the VAP program itself? How many VAPs do you typically have? How long do they stay?
A. Sure. We started out 10 years ago hiring two VAPs, and then we decided to go to one. Really, I think that decision was partially motivated by what was happening in legal education. The number of available jobs were becoming much smaller. Legal education had all these issues in the last five or six years when the number of law students started decreasing. We decided we didn’t want to hire any more VAPs than we could actually market and place in a tenure-track position.
So, we thought it would be a better idea to hire one VAP a year. Now, occasionally we’ll have one that overlaps. Last year we did not hire a VAP, so, this year we’ll be starting with a VAP who doesn’t overlap. We try to have one a year and have them overlap, so hopefully we’ll be able to start back in that process again.
The program that we’ve designed is for two years. Generally, we try to start new VAPS the first of July, so that they can have time to prep their classes, get used to being at Stetson, and do whatever they need to do to get ready for the job. The first year, a VAP’s only responsibilities are to teach one class in the fall and one class in the spring. In the second year, the responsibilities include teaching one class in the fall, and then two in the spring. Generally, in the spring the VAP will teach a course that they really want to teach.
For example, two past VAPs designed wonderful seminars. They were basically about looking at documents, and looking at it in the business perspective, either from the UCC perspective, or because one VAP was an expert in blockchain, she brought some blockchain in, so that’s in their second year. The only other responsibility they have is that we require our VAPs to produce a paper of publishable quality by the time they go on the market the second year and, honestly, every single person who has been in our VAP program has done more than one.
Part of the reason for that, I think, is because the responsibilities only require teaching one class a semester, and we really encourage VAPs to block out a few days where they work on a paper. Then, in the summer between the first year and the second year, we give VAPs a small research grant that helps them in terms of completing their paper. We want them to have a paper ready when they go back on the market, so they can use it for their job talk.
We do have a possibility to extend the position by a year if, for example, somebody was not able to get a job. However, no VAPs can stay at Stetson. They always have to leave as part of their contracts. One reason for that is we always fall in love with our VAPs, and we want them to stay. That would defeat the program because we can’t keep them all.
We’ve never had to use the third-year extension because all of our VAPs have gotten jobs. We’re actually at 100% placement.
Q. That’s great. What I’d love to do is essentially move through the program chronologically starting with the application process, and then going through the fellowship itself, and then the job market. When will you start accepting applications this year?
A. We start accepting them in August. In reality, the committee starts looking at them and working on them probably at the end of August. This year our classes don’t start till August 25th, so it may be the end of August or the very beginning of September.
Our VAPS are usually teaching either bread and butter advanced courses or first-year courses. They’ve taught contracts, property, civil procedure, criminal law, professional responsibility, UCC courses, business entities, and just a whole array of courses.
Because we have our VAPs teaching those substantive courses, we actually hire our VAPs the exact same way we would hire any faculty member, although we know that they don’t have the same experience, generally, and skills, and publications as a person who we would hire right off the bat. So, our process has us looking at applications starting the end of August and September, and we go through all of the FAR forms.
The committee reviews the whole FAR book and, I believe, almost every one of our VAPs have actually come from the FAR, instead of through the direct app process, I think we have a particularly good eye for looking at people who we think have great potential, but may not be able to quite make that leap into the market. So, we write them, tell them about our program, and see if they want to be considered for our program. We have two ways to get applications direct applications, and through AALS hiring conference.
There certainly have been some times when people have been in the FAR book and also sent us an application, but it’s interesting that a number of our VAPs actually didn’t apply directly until we reached out to them. We then interview all of our VAP candidates just as we would a faculty candidate.
If they’re going to be at the AALS conference, we interview them there. If they’re not, we’ll have a 30-minute Skype interview, just as we would do if we were at the AALS conference. After we do those interviews, we then invite our top VAPs candidates to campus for a regular faculty visit. We bring them in the night before to go out for dinner with some faculty.
The next day they meet faculty and do a job talk. The job talk is really important to us because, and I know this is one of your questions, that’s one of the ways that we gauge their ability to teach, if they don’t have a lot of teaching experience. After we’ve brought everybody in, the full faculty votes on the VAPs.
The full faculty is involved because, as I said, we have our VAPs teach the same courses that any faculty member would teach. Not a lot of programs do that, so it’s really important to us that the whole faculty be able to see that person before they’re teaching classes. After the faculty vote, we make an offer. One of the things that we have done so far, and I’m actually very proud of this, is we have waited sometimes five or six weeks to see whether or not the person we’ve made an offer will get a job offer in a regular tenure-track position. If they do, they don’t need us, and I wouldn’t want them to have to come to Stetson. So, we are able to wait and give the candidates plenty of time to see how they would fare on the market.
Q. I’m intrigued when you say that you find a lot of the candidates through the FAR process, and I know there are other fellowships that do this as well. Tell me, when you go through the FAR forms, what are you looking for?
A. I’m looking for people that have mostly practice experience and usually have a small number of publications. It’s important to us that they have something published or a good work in progress other than something they may have written as a law student. We’re looking for people that have some practice experience. Sometimes we receive applications from people who look great, but they only have one or two years of practice experience, and, in my mind, that’s not sufficient to really be a good teacher most of the time. If we’re trying to teach our students about how to practice law, it helps if our faculty actually have practiced law.
We also consider marketability, where the person went to school and/or how well they did in school. That includes what kind of honors they received in school and that sort of thing.
Q. Let’s talk about the scholarly piece. You say that you want somebody who has ideally published something or have a draft. Do you know, and I’ve been asking this question a lot, how do they find the time in practice to write a scholarly article?
A. I always say to some of our VAP candidates, “Wow. I don’t know how you did that.” But honestly, they always do, and to be truthful those are the people who are most motivated to get in academia, and I think they are the ones that are going to be the most successful.
We’ve had candidates and VAPs who have come to us who have families, small children, husbands, wives, some who are single parents, and they always find time to get something written. So, that also tells me that this is somebody who is really motivated and is going to continue to publish. I think that is something that law schools will look for when considering potential hires. We want to make sure that they get a job on the market.
Q. And how do you gauge their teaching abilities? You mentioned the job talk. Are there other ways?
A. The job talk is one. If they have taught, and many of our VAP candidates have taught either as an adjunct or in some other area, we get all of their student evaluations. When we check their references, we ask about teaching abilities, but, just like with any faculty member you’re hiring, some of the main ways you can see whether they will be able to communicate with students and maybe build a rapport is by watching how they communicate at the job talk.
Of course, with VAPs, we’re looking at VAP candidates who usually don’t have the same kind of experience as a person interviewing for a regular tenure-track position. In fact, we’ve had people interview for a tenure-track position, where the faculty didn’t vote to hire them for a tenure-track position, but they asked us to consider them for our VAP program.
Q. You mentioned on the practice experience side, that two years may not be enough. How many years are you typically looking for? What’s the minimum that you would consider, and then what do you find is the norm?
A. First off, this is a committee decision, right? So, different people on the committee might think differently. I would think most of us would expect at least two to three years in practice. Now, in my mind, it should be a little bit longer. Of course, I practiced for 12 or 13 years before I started teaching, so that’s probably where my mindset is. I think some of my colleague are fine with just a couple of years. It really varies on who is on the committee.
Q. And do you have any preference for candidates in particular curricular areas?
A. We do. When we first started this 10 years ago, we didn’t. We just looked for the best person, but now we always have needs at the law school depending upon people who are on sabbatical, or areas of practice we’re trying to develop. Generally, it’s a pretty wide array of classes. It might be business law, the UCC and commercial law, civil procedure, or criminal law.
It seems like in the last two years, our needs have been more in the business and commercial law area, and so we’ve been looking at those. I’m not involved in the process for this year, and we have a new dean, so I’m not sure what we will need, but generally we put in our ad the areas of expertise that we’re searching.
Q. Oh, interesting. Okay, and is there any preference for candidates with Ph.D.s? How does having a Ph.D. factor into your process?
A. There’s certainly not a preference. I suppose sometimes I even think, well, people with Ph.D.s might already have a little bit more experience, so they might not need a VAP program as much. It wouldn’t hinder or help you.
Q. Do you make any special efforts to hire candidates from diverse or non-traditional backgrounds?
A. We do. We do that for a variety of reasons, and I suppose one of them is because we think there’s a need for a lot more diversity in legal education.
Q. We’ve talked about a variety of things that might come into the decision making. Is there anything that comes into your process that I haven’t asked about?
A. Those are really the areas that we look for teaching and publications. I’m trying to think if there’s anything else. We look at publications. We look at honors. One of the things you had actually asked in a question that I had thought about, is that we also consider research agendas and why they want to teach.
Q. What are you looking for in that research agenda? How many projects out do you expect them to have planned?
A. I’m happy if they’ve planned out one really good one.
Q. As I’ve talked about this series on the blog is I’ve heard from candidates who perhaps didn’t go to Harvard, Yale, or Stanford. They didn’t do an elite clerkship, and they’re wondering how they can stand out in the application process. What advice would you have for those candidates?
A. Honestly, a lot of the Harvard, Yale, Stanford candidates, in my mind, are going to get jobs on the market, so I don’t look at them quite as seriously unless they apply directly to us. I will, but that’s not high on my list for a VAP candidate. I guess what I’m really looking at, if they’re not from a top five, or six, or seven school is really looking at their ability to publish and when, or where, or what type of articles they’ve published in addition to how well they did in law school. That will help them stand out.
Q. How many applications do you typically receive for one of your positions?
A. We don’t receive that many, maybe 50 or 60.
Q. How many people do you tend to interview in the screening interviews, and then on the call-backs?
A. We do not have a set number … I know we’ve had days in DC where we’ve interviewed 10 candidates, or over 15. Occasionally we have had one room for VAPs and one room for tenure-track faculty in DC.
Q. Let’s turn over to some of the nuts and bolts of the fellowship itself. Just to make sure I understand how it works, the fellows are there for two years, and you tend to hire every year? So, you have two in the building at a time typically?
A. I would say our goal would be to hire every year. Now, as I said, we have a new dean who came in this month. So, part of that will depend on her. There have been occasions where we had a VAP for two years who was here alone without another VAP, but we were trying to hire every year. If we can do that, that’s great for the VAPs because the ability to have another person who has gone through the program a year ahead of them is enormously helpful. They tend to become a tight group, and get to know each other really well. Actually, two of our former VAPs who overlapped like that are writing a business book, a textbook right now.
Q. I know them both, and I’m excited to see it.
A. Me too.
Q. Yeah, and are you comfortable sharing how much the VAPs are paid?
A. Yeah. I know it’s not a lot, but it’s certainly competitive with other VAP programs. We also pay complete benefits, and we give them housing. The housing is a really big deal because that adds quite a bit that they don’t have to worry about. One huge advantage of Stetson is that we own an apartment building, and 20 or more houses right around the law school.
So, every VAP has received housing and that just makes it so easy because you don’t have to worry about anything. If you need furniture, most of the times we’re able to give you something that has furniture in it. We have housing for dogs, cats, children, husbands, wives, and so it’s a pretty wide array of housing. To me, that’s probably one of the best perks that we have.
Q. Oh, that’s a great perk.
A. And they get paid, TIAA-CREF, health benefits, and a small travel budget. We expect them to go to the AALS in January for the meeting. We pay, generally, for them to go to the SEALS Conference, and we’ll send them to one other conference that will help them in their professional capacity. Then when they go on the market the following year, we pay for all of that.
Q. Wow. Those are very generous benefits, I can say now having talked to more than a dozen of these programs.
A. Oh, I know.
Q. Do they receive funding if they wanted to hire research assistants?
A. Yes. They get research assistants, just like any faculty member.
Q. Okay, and are they expected to live near Stetson? Obviously, they have their teaching responsibilities, but could somebody live in Miami, or in New York, and commute?
A. No. I don’t see how that would work; we want them integrated into the faculty and it is a full-time job. We sit in on their classes. We talk to them about teaching. We have, like I said, a whole cadre of people who will read papers, and help with advice. I think part of what’s really important, to be honest, is to be part of the academic life, and get a taste for what that’s like, so that when they enter into academia, it’s not such a big, huge difference in terms of their previous job. Certainly, you could live in Tampa, but Miami or somewhere like that, just wouldn’t work.
Q. Let’s switch over to how to make the most of the fellowship. Does Stetson have a regular colloquy series or speaker series that the VAPs attend?
A. Yes. We generally have a series of faculty exchanges with other schools that our VAPs attend. I think on one or two occasions we’ve sent VAPs, although I don’t prefer that because I don’t like them to go to other schools until they’re really ready to give job talks. We also have several national speakers that all faculty are invited to attend.
Q. Who actually supervises the fellows?
A. It’s been me, and this year it will switch over to Marco. I generally sit in on most of their classes during the first year and we spend time discussing teaching.
Q. That’s amazing. Can I just follow up there and just say I almost don’t know what to ask? Literally, you’re in the room for every one of their classes in that first year? That’s amazing.
A. Yes, and I will say the first semester, I try to do every single class. The second semester, if things are going well, I might not sit in on every single class. By the second year, it’s more selective unless people are having issues, but again, it’s one of the ways that I think our faculty feels comfortable with the idea that our VAPs are teaching any class that any other regular faculty member would teach.
It’s good because we can talk about teaching. We also invite them to sit in on other classes. We have a number of different faculty who teach in a number of different styles, and they’re welcomed into their classrooms. I always tell our VAPS, “What you can do in your two years here is develop your own style of teaching, so look at how other people teach. Sometimes it’ll work for you. Sometimes it won’t. Sometimes little pieces will.”
But I think that’s one other thing that’s particularly helpful to them, and sometimes we’ll have other faculty sit in on their classes, if they are going to be references for them when they go back on the market.
Q. Wow, and what type of feedback are you offering them? Is it after every class?
A. No. I would say it depends on them, unless there was a problem in class … We had one person who didn’t have a great class about the second week and was really upset. We talked the next day and I said, “We all have a bad class.”
She turned into a fantastic teacher, but people need that confidence as well. I always try to explain, even if you’ve taught as an adjunct, it seems harder sometimes when you’re teaching these classes full time and not always in your comfort zone. We’ve all had a bad class. Who hasn’t had a class where you thought, “Oh, God. I wish that I could redo that one”?
So, it really depends on the VAP, but I’ve always tried to do it regularly, maybe every couple of weeks, unless they want to talk more. There have been occasions where we have talked more at the beginning while people are getting used to teaching in this environment.
Q. What assistance are you hoping to provide? What types of feedback specifically do you think is the most helpful in those early years?
A. In terms of teaching, or scholarship, or both?
Q. Teaching. When you sit in on the classes.
A. I’m looking to figure out ways to help them to impart information in ways that can be engaging, and also proactive in terms of not just sitting there and reading your notes, right? I have seen faculty members who will just literally read their notes in front of a class, and that might have worked 30 years ago. But I hope not. When, I started teaching 30 years ago it didn’t work for me because I would have been bored out of my head. I think it’s important to have an engaged class.
For example, one of my pet things is that, and this was something I had to learn, teachers need to learn to use the whiteboard, or blackboard, or whatever you have. If you’re a person who uses PowerPoint, that’s fine. If you’re not, that’s fine, but we get students who are a lot of different learners. There are visual learners. There are learners who will learn mainly from hearing. And some learners need both of those things. So, I try to help them think of ways that they can actually reach all of those students to the extent they can. Almost all of the VAPs who have come to us, at the beginning I’ve always harped on them using the board.
By the end, they usually say, “I can’t imagine I ever wasn’t using the board for something, or asking those sorts of questions.” Trying to get them to see that it’s perfectly okay to follow up, and it’s also okay to say, “I’m not sure what the answer to that is. Let me think about that.” A lot of times when you first start teaching, you think you can’t say that, but I think you can, and I think it’s important in how you do it, and students will respect you for it.
Q. I’ll say I’m almost embarrassed to ask this question, but I’ll say after 12 years of teaching, I still get a little nervous and self-conscious when somebody sits in on my classes. Do you find that the VAPs are self-conscious having you there? Do you think that that influences their teaching?
A. That’s a good question. I suppose you would have to ask them because I don’t really think they are. I sit off in a corner unobtrusively, as unobtrusive as I can be. I mean, I know what you’re asking because I was in an LL.M. program 30-some years ago, and not only did they sit in on my class, they taped my class. They critiqued my class, and that was grueling.
Because I spend a lot of time getting to know our VAPs before I observe their classes, I hope they know that I’m only there to be helpful. It’s just to try and help them think about ways to improve their teaching. I’m sure to some extent that’s got to make you a little nervous.
Q. And I will say having asked that question, I think it’s a tremendous resource and gift that this offers to the VAPs.
A. Well, the other thing, I tell VAPs is to, “Think about the two years here. You can make little mistakes that you don’t want to make in your first permanent job, and we can fix them, and because somebody’s observing, we can talk about it and say, ‘Okay. Let’s go back and think of a way to fix that.’ And I’m not going to be writing a tenure report on you.” I think that’s a huge boon to be able to use that as a resource.
Q. Beyond the classroom visits, is there other assistance that the VAPs are given on their teaching?
A. Beyond the classroom?
Q. That’s a big thing, but I wanted to make sure I caught anything else that might be out there.
A. I mean, we’ve helped them with picking books and that sort of thing, depending upon what they’re teaching. There have certainly been times where we’ve had VAPs come in, and we’ve given assistance on different books, and pros and cons of different books. I’m trying to think of what else we could do and that I would have time to do.
Q. How are the courses that they’re teaching selected? In other words, how does it come that they’re teaching contracts or civil procedure or anything else?
A. We are generally looking for somebody who is teaching in a specific area. Recently has been in business law and commercial law. In the past we’ve had a need for contracts, crim law, civil procedure and business entities. We’ve tried to match our VAPS to their expertise and our needs before we’ve ever interviewed or hired them. They know when we make the offer what their classes are generally going to be.
Q. Let’s turn over to the scholarly side. Are the fellows matched with a mentor, a scholarly mentor when they arrive?
A. We have a small group of faculty who always help mentor our VAPs. Let me think. Maybe about six or seven people that I can count on, and they’re in every area you can imagine. We will read their scholarship and work with them. So, if somebody is in, say, the criminal law area, I’m going to ask Professor Ellen Podgor, who has worked tirelessly on this program and is a national criminal law scholar.
Additionally, we have faculty in almost all of the other areas. We also try to do more than have one person read scholarship because I think it’s important to have people who aren’t in your area read your work as well. Recently, it’s been pretty easy because we’ve had a number of UCC-type people, and that’s my area.
We also have helped talk through some topics for scholarships. I actually steered somebody away from one area of scholarship to a different area for them, because of the topic. I believe certain topics are more appealing to law review editors. It worked out really well because she got a great placement. Because of the wide range of people that we have that are intimately involved with the program, we’ve never really had a problem not having somebody who is in a VAPs general area.
Q. And what type of assistance would those mentors or other professors provide? You mentioned the feedback on the topic itself. What else are these people doing?
A. Not everybody will read every draft, but some people will read every draft and give feedback on that. We always will be able to find a few people who will read most every draft and give feedback. Plus, when VAPs go on the market, I require that they do a minimum of three to four job talks in front of faculty. After the job talks we all discuss what went well and what might improve the presentations.
A. I try to get different faculty to listen to the talks so that they can have people who don’t know anything about the area, people who have never read their papers, and people who have read their papers. That way they get a wide range of feedback on their scholarship.
Q. Are they given any assistance in making connections outside of Stetson with people in their area of interest?
A. Yes. I think this is one of the things we are particularly good about. We expect them to go to the annual meeting of the AALS and SEALS, and we’re good about taking them around and introducing them to people. Another thing that we do, that I don’t think a lot of VAP programs do, is that we send them to the AALS new law professors faculty conference in July before they start teaching. I think everybody has made lasting friendships from that meeting and lasting contacts.
Q. That’s a great meeting. Yeah. We’ve talked through a lot of the details of the program. I’d love to step back for a moment. Imagining you had a candidate who had options who was deciding between Stetson’s program and perhaps some of the other VAP or fellowship programs out there. What would you say to them about Stetson’s program? What do you think makes it stand apart?
A. I think what makes us stand apart is we have 100% placement of every one of our VAPs. I don’t think a lot of places can say that. I’ve had people here who had offers for a VAP or fellowship in legal writing. I tell them “If you want to do legal writing, that’s actually what you should do,” because although there has been a push sometimes for us to think about including legal writing, I have been very reluctant to do so. That is because I want to have as many tenure-track job possibilities as possible to place them in. There are fewer opportunities like that in legal writing.
Q. Let’s turn back to the job market. You mentioned that the candidates have the opportunity to give multiple job talks, which is fabulous.
A. And mock interviews, too. We generally do, again, a minimum of three. I try to do four to five.
Q. And are you coordinating this? Is there a committee?
A. No. It is just me coordinating it. This is part of the job of the person who runs the program to make sure all those cogs are happening. So, I coordinate all the job talks and all the mock interviews. Again, what I’m trying to do is consistently get different people because different people will have different questions, and different things that are important to them. I sit in on every job talk and every mock interview so that I can see them. Then I can say, “Look how much progress you’ve made here in terms of being able to answer different kinds of questions, either about your scholarship, or why you came into academia.” I think it helps them. It can also let them see how they’re doing better, or if somebody asks them something off the wall, I can say, “Don’t worry about that. You’re always going to have one of those people.”
Q. They will. They will. I’m just curious, institutionally. Maybe I ask this question as an associate dean. These responsibilities that you’ve taken on sound like they must be an immense amount of time.
A. They are.
Q. How does this fit for you with all the other things that you must have on your plate?
A. It’s something I’m committed to doing, and I get a course reduction in the spring, so they do give me certain benefits for being the person in charge of the program that have been very good. I feel like the administration has always taken that into account and been very supportive.
Q. Okay. Good. That was part of my question. I just thought, “Wow. It’s a lot to take on.” You mentioned that 100% of your fellows or your VAPs have placed in tenure-track positions. Were those all at U.S. law schools?
A. One person, when the legal education market was at its lowest, went to a tenure-track business school, and then after a few years moved over to a law school. So, they’re all in tenure-track law school positions, yes, in the U.S. now.
Q. And do you happen to have a list of those people online, so if someone was trying to see that track record for themselves, they could look at it?
A. I don’t, but if they asked me, I would get it. They always seem to find it. I always have candidates who have said, “Wow. I talked to so-and-so or so-and-so and I really want to do this program now.” So, they always seem to find it.
Which is curious, now that I think about it, because they do. A candidate last year found one of our very first VAPs and spoke with him. Another reason I also really like to have a VAP overlap is so the person who is coming to interview for the VAP position can talk to our current VAP. That way they can just talk to the current VAP alone without us around, and get the real scoop on what they’re thinking about the position.
Q. That’s great.
A. I just don’t happen to have a list of former VAPs online. I have it in my head, which is probably not a good place for it. So, maybe we can add that to our website
Q. While I have you on the line, I’d love to talk about some of the broader questions related to the rise of VAP and fellowship programs. As we know, it’s basically a de facto requirement these days to have either done a VAP, fellowship, or a Ph.D. What do you think about that trend? With do you think are the benefits and what do you think are the costs?
A. I think the benefit for a law school is that they’re getting people generally with some sort of experience and often it is inexpensive labor compared to a tenure-track faculty member. I think the cons, the things I worry about, is that I don’t think all the VAP programs support their VAPs as much as we do. I think some of the VAP programs over the years had developed these programs as cheap labor.
Those really, really bother me because one of the things I will always tell a VAP if they have other possibilities in a VAP program or a fellowship is to talk to other people and find out what kind of support they are going to get. Maybe it would be a good program for you. If it is closer to your family or whatever, but make sure you’re going to get the support.
If they are not going to get the support they need and they spend two years of their lives earning much less money only to find out they didn’t get the support they needed, or a job that would be very unfortunate. So, I think what bothers me the most about them is worrying whether or not schools are using those programs for cheap labor or they’re using them to really support new people and help them try to get into academia.
I was in the Temple LL.M. program 30 years ago. It was one of the few around, and that was instrumental in enabling me to make the move into academia, which is probably part of the reason our VAP program has been so important to me, I have tried to take all the good parts of the LL.M. program that I was in, and use those. But when I did it 30 years ago, I think literally there were a handful of these programs.
Now it seems like everybody wants to have a VAP or Fellowship, and some schools are doing them right. Don’t get me wrong. They really are doing a great job. I’ve had a number of schools call me and ask what we do because they’ve heard about our program. And they try to establish programs that give a lot of support, but my biggest worry is that we’re bringing people in with high hopes not knowing how hard it is to get a job in the academy right now. I don’t want to give people false hopes.
Q. What is the responsibility of these programs to try to open up law faculty positions to people from diverse or non-traditional backgrounds? Do you think these programs have a responsibility to do that, and how do you think they’re doing if we judge them on that metric?
A. Yes. I think everybody has that responsibility, not just VAP programs. I think law schools have that responsibility because it makes a huge difference. I taught at another school where the diversity that we really needed were Native American faculty. When we finally hired a Native American faculty member, it made such a huge difference to our students. It’s enormous to have those sorts of role models for our students. I can’t really say how other VAP program are doing because I don’t really pay much attention to them. I hope that they’re thinking about it, but I really don’t know.
Q. Yeah. Yeah. I don’t know if you’re heard this criticism, but you’ll often see it on the blog. It’s the concern that the VAPs or fellows may get so much help on their scholarship, that’s obviously one of the benefits of these programs, but they may get so much help on their scholarship that it’s then hard for hiring committees to know how much of the work and the ideas come from the VAPs or fellows themselves.
A. I think that’s silly.
Q. In what way?
A. I think that’s ridiculous, and I will tell you why. We give our VAPs the same help that we do any other faculty member. So, they give us a complete paper and we say, “Have you thought about this or that?” That’s not any different than any other faculty member who is sending out articles for comments. I mostly write books now, but when I was writing articles, I sent them out to people and said, “Give me a sniff here. How is this looking? Do you have any other ideas?”
I hope any new faculty member, or even a senior faculty member, would try to get ideas about things they might do better. It’s not like you’re sitting there writing the paper for them. Nobody would have time or want to do that, certainly at this school.
Q. Last question for you. Given that life is zero-sum, in so many ways time spent in a VAP program is not, for example, time spent in practice. What do you think about that trade off, especially given that law schools are in the business of educating lawyers?
A. In terms of the trade-off for law schools, I think it’s great for law schools who have VAPs. When I went from practice to teaching, it was such a different mindset, and trying to learn to even handle that different way of working was difficult for me at first. I kept staring at my phone waiting for it to ring and it rarely did. So, I think the trade-off for law schools is great because they get people who know what academia is like and what to expect. They know that you have to be a self-motivator, and be on your own in terms of making sure you sit down, write, prep for classes and those sorts of things.
I think for the person in a VAP or fellowship that it is a difficult decision because they are spending two years of their life without a certain job at the end. They came from practice, so they are earning a lot less money. They’re doing work that’s very different, and if for some reason, at the end of the day, they don’t get that job they want they’ve lost two years and they have to go back into practice.
Now, I’ve never had a VAP who had to do that, but I’ve often thought about that, and thought how hard that would be for the person. So, for the person coming into the program, I think she has to be very, very motivated, really want to get into academia, and realize that nobody can guarantee a job at the end. Part of it is being in the right place at the right time, where the schools have the right need.
And you can’t predict that.
Q. Well, is there anything else that you want hiring committees or perspective candidates to know about Stetson’s VAP program, or about the state of law faculty hiring more generally?
A. We’ve covered so much of it. I think the main thing is that I really hope that people who are either going into VAP programs or running VAP programs are doing it for the right reasons in terms of really trying to help people get into legal education. That’s really important to me. When we first started this program, just between you and me, I argued against it.
Q. Oh, that’s funny.
A. I was worried that we would wind up being one of those cheap labor schools, but as it turned out, our faculty and our administration have been incredibly supportive. I don’t think any schools give more support than we do financially, even, in terms of where we send people. There may be a school that does these things, but I don’t know about it.
I also hope that schools realize that there are some really good people out there that can’t afford, because of families or whatever, to move. They’re having to move themselves, and possibly a family usually to a different place for one to two years in the hopes that they get this job. Some folks cannot do that twice—once for a VAP program and again for a permanent job.
I thought the vast majority of people that were being hired either had Ph.D.s, or had been in VAPs or fellowships and it doesn’t surprise me, but it worries me that we discount those that haven’t had that experience, and I think we’re probably missing some good people that way.
Q. Yeah. Yeah. I agree. Well, thank you so much, Candace. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me today.
This series is cross-posted on PrawsBlawg.