Final Reflections on VAP/Fellowship Interview Series

Now that my series interviewing VAP and fellowship directors has ended, I wanted to reflect on the broader lessons that I learned from these interviews. Your takeaways may differ, so I hope you chime in in the comments if you think there are different or additional takeaways that prospective candidates and/or hiring committees should have. But I’ve been on the hiring side for a long time and there were still a number of things that surprised me when I dug into the VAP/fellowship world.

  1. It is *really* hard to get many VAPs and fellowships these days, way harder than I would have guessed. I imagined these programs as a chance for candidates coming from practice to kick start their writing, and I think some programs do work like that. But several of the top programs seem to require that their fellows have several papers before they even start the fellowship. These programs get enough applications (75+) that they can be this picky, and my guess is that this competition in turn drives the Ph.D. + fellowship trend that we see in Sarah’s data. It’s obviously hard to write several good papers in practice, so it’s not surprising that candidates are doing a Ph.D. program to write an initial set of papers and then doing a top fellowship to bring their scholarship back into the law world, write even more, and make additional connections. That’s a long on-ramp though, and it likely comes at the cost of other things such as practice experience.
    That said, I don’t want to overstate the requirements. Plenty of programs said that their VAPs typically only have one paper when they apply to the program, which is still a lot but obviously easier to prepare than two or three papers. And several programs stressed that they care most about the idea for the paper you plan to write while in the VAP program, so having a really good idea for your next paper may compensate for not having a CV full of published papers when you apply. 
  2. As a hiring chair, I have often marveled at how much the law teaching market has changed/improved from when your academic pedigree was the main criteria. On the hiring side, we look at what you’ve written, not where you went to law school, and I think many academics pat themselves on the back for using this criteria. I worry though that we’re ignoring the impact of the VAP/fellowship programs on our decision making. Sure, maybe whether you went to Harvard/Yale/Stanford doesn’t matter much to hiring committees anymore, but I think these credentials do matter when it comes to getting a fellowship. Writing matters a lot there too, as I note above, but when fellowship candidates don’t have many fully polished pieces, hiring decision makers in many programs will fall back on old proxies – where you went to law school, who’s recommending you, etc. So I worry that we’ve essentially replicated the old hiring system, just earlier in the process. Not entirely – as noted above, candidates need one or more papers to get a VAP, and the quality of those papers have a lot of weight – but when candidates are less polished and have less developed scholarly identities, it’s easy for the old criteria to creep back in. And now they matter at a stage of the process that’s a lot less transparent. As a hiring committee at Richmond, we can debate these issues among our whole faculty and decide how we want to address them. Decisions on which VAPs and fellows to hire, in contrast, are made by a fairly small number of people and are not typically subject to a lot of debate by a school’s faculty. 
  3. Fellowships really vary in how well they prepare candidates for the market. On the hiring side, I think we tend to lump these programs together (“well, they did a VAP…”), instead of really looking at the details of each program. We know candidates look different after they have (i) time to write and (ii) good mentoring, and yet the programs really differ in how much time and mentoring the VAPs/fellows get. On the hiring side, that means we should have higher expectations for the fellows who have been blessed with lots of time and good mentoring and a bit more forgiving of fellows who have struggled to write while juggling high teaching loads and little mentoring. On the candidate side, *please* ask questions on these points during the VAP/fellowship interview process. I get that it’s hard to suss all that out, and you may not have a ton of options. But you should still try to ask hard questions about what percentage of your time will be free to write (if it’s less than, say, 40% over the year, I would worry). A teaching load of one doctrinal course per semester is different than a teaching load of two (or even one) legal writing sections per semester. And ask current or past VAPs how many people read their draft, how many people listened to their job talk and provided feedback, and how many people discussed their research agenda with them.
    This is even more true when it comes to less formal programs. For the most part, I interviewed the directors of established, long-standing programs. But plenty of schools hire visitors when they have a curricular hole, and these visitors can often be people who hope to go on the teaching market someday. My instinct is that these less formal positions likely involve a higher teaching load and far less mentoring than the more formal programs. Really ask the hard questions here. If you don’t have significant time to write and your goal is ultimately get a tenure-track law job, the position likely isn’t worth your time. 
  4. No matter how much support you get from your own school, a VAP or fellowship is still an entrepreneurial process. There’s a certain amount of sitting in your office and writing, but you also need to take the initiative to reach out to people in your field, go to conferences, introduce yourself to people, etc. I talked with one program director who told me, “we’re looking for go-getters, and go-getters go get.” I want that on my tombstone—“go getters go get.” What this person meant by that, based on the rest of the discussion, is that they want fellows who take the initiative in asking for what they need, whether it’s comments on a paper, connections to people in their field, or anything else. Even the best fellowship won’t hand you these things, and most fellowships are not the best fellowships. You have to be a go-getter who is going to go get—send that email to the scholar you don’t know but whose work you admire or ask a scholar to go to coffee with you at a conference. Make the first move, even if it feels horribly awkward. Most law professors are friendly people, and we’re happy to help new people in our field.
  5. I was surprised that basically all of the programs said that they don’t consider curricular area in selecting VAPs and fellows, at least if the VAP or fellowship itself does not have a curricular focus. I knew that a program like the Climenko or Bigelow wouldn’t have explicit curricular preferences, but I guess I expected that these programs would think more about which curricular areas are in demand on the tenure-track hiring side and give high-demand areas more of a thumb on the scale. Having been on our hiring committee for many years, I will say that even though people talk about “the market” for law professors, there isn’t a single hiring market. Instead, there are many mini-hiring markets in various curricular areas. Picking on my own curricular area (I’m a corporate law person), the hiring market in corporate law looks really different than the hiring market in federal courts or con law. Given that it can be difficult to hire a great person in corporate law or other high-demand areas, I wish fellowships sought out people in those areas more and dialed back a bit on some of the other areas where there just isn’t as much curricular demand. But I admit my corporate law bias here, so maybe I am wrong!
  6. Finally, a caveat. My interviews were all with people who had a strong incentive to paint their program in the best light possible. I get that. Hiring standards might not be quite as high as the interviewees made them out to be; additional factors probably come into play even if they didn’t want to admit them publicly. I don’t have any illusion that I got the 100% unvarnished truth about these programs. So we should take everything in the interviews with a grain of salt. Hopefully though they are still valuable in shedding light into this process.

For now, I’m knee deep in the hiring process on the entry-level side, but I’m open to continuing this project next summer. Let me know what additional information about fellowships or law faculty hiring more generally might be helpful!

This series is cross-posted on PrawsBlawg.