Below is the latest interview in my series interviewing VAP and fellowship directors. This interview is with Michael Heller, the Lawrence A. Wien Professor of Real Estate Law at Columbia Law School. Michael oversees the Associates-in-Law Program at Columbia. An edited transcript of our conversation is below, and I have invited Michael to respond to any questions in the comments on Prawfsblawg. Thanks, Michael, for participating in this series!
You can read more about the structure of these interviews and other caveats related to them here.
Q. Tell me your role with the Associates-in-Law program.
A. I chaired the Associates committee last year and am chairing it again this coming year.
Q. What does the committee do?
A. We select the Associates, support them while at Columbia, and help guide them to tenure-track faculty positions. The committee includes four to six faculty, the dean of graduate legal studies, and the director of legal writing programs.
Q. Columbia has a lot of post-graduate fellowships. Where does the Associates program fit in?A. The Associates program is Columbia’s chief post-graduate teaching fellowship for promising scholars preparing for entry-level legal academic careers. Columbia also offers a range of specialized fellowships, such as fellowships associated with our research centers and programs, and these too can serve as a transition to a career in legal academia.
We designed the Associates program to have a light teaching load (fall only) so Associates can focus their time producing academic scholarship, connecting with faculty, going on the job market, and participating in the Fellows Workshop, which all post-graduate fellows attend. The Fellows Workshop is the core of the Associates community. It’s part of what sets the Associates program apart from the other top fellowships, and helps makes Columbia, I believe, the strongest and most collegial launch pad for people entering law teaching. The Workshop is a weekly boot camp for presenting early ideas and polished drafts, reviewing research agendas, mooting interviews and job talks—in short, for inculcating the academic norms and intellectual habits of mind that aspiring law faculty will need throughout their careers. The Associates also attend, and are active participants in, our twice-weekly faculty workshops. We believe Columbia’s intense workshop culture is what sets our program apart from others.
Q. Let’s start with the Associates application process. Then we can move into the fellowship itself. When does the program start accepting applications?
A. We’ll start accepting applications in early September for the following academic year.
Q. What materials does a candidate need to submit?
A. Detailed instructions are on the application website. Materials include: cover letter, academic CV, research agenda (usually three to five pages detailing upcoming writing projects and academic trajectory), scholarly writing samples, a brief teaching statement, and law school transcript. We also ask for up to three recommenders to send us letters separately.
Q. So candidates can start applying in September. What does the timeline look like from there? How many interviews are there and when do they tend to occur?
A. We review applications on a rolling basis. The current Associates are heavily involved in this initial screening process, along with the committee. Usually, we begin inviting candidates for preliminary interviews in the late fall, start holding on-campus interviews in late-January, and begin making offers in mid-February. The process can run later – we don’t know how many slots we can fill until the current Associates finalize their plans. For example, this past spring, one Associate elected to return for a third year on the way to a Supreme Court clerkship for 2020-21.
Q. And staying for a third-year is an option Associates can exercise at their discretion?
A. Yes. The Associates Program is a two-year fellowship. However, we guarantee Associates the option to stay for a third year, if necessary. In other years, Associates have availed themselves of the option in cases of parental leave or if they have needed a second year on the entry-level market.
Q. That’s unusual. That’s great. Can you give some more detail on the hiring timeline?
A. We aim to hire approximately three Associates each year. We start looking at files once they are complete, including recommendation letters. The preliminary interviews include several members of the committee and at least one current Associate, and are usually done on Skype, or in-person if the candidate is in the New York area. For the second round, we bring candidates to New York for an intensive day of on-campus interviews, similar to the process for entry-level candidates.
Q. For the second round of interviews, can you walk me through what that day looks like for candidates who come to Columbia?
A. They usually arrive on campus around 10 am. During the day, the candidate meets in small groups with the committee members and current Associates, and with at least one faculty member close to the candidate’s field. Even at the interview stage, we want to ensure that Columbia will be able to connect the candidate with strong mentors. Interviews are usually scheduled in 40-45 minute blocks. At lunch, instead of giving a job talk, the candidate attends a workshop – either the Fellows Workshop (on Wednesday) or a Faculty Workshop (on Tuesday or Thursday). After lunch, there’s usually one or two more rounds of interviews, and the day wraps up around 3-4 pm.
Q. And then who are actually the decision makers at the end of the day?
A. Everyone who interviews the candidates provides their evaluation and is involved in the decision, but the committee has the final say. It’s similar to regular entry-level hiring decisions, in that there are multiple vetoes. We do not make an offer unless there is a consensus of enthusiastic support among the committee members, the current Associates, and faculty in the candidate’s field.
Q. How many applications do you typically receive?
A. We typically receive between 70-100, mostly in the early fall, with a second wave in late-January.
Q. Do you make any special effort to hire candidates from diverse backgrounds?
A. Absolutely, yes. Entry level slots are scarce and precious. Part of our responsibility is to imagine what the profession can look like in a generation. We aim to ensure that diverse and non-traditional voices are a robust part of the entry hiring pool. We actively reach out to faculty at Columbia and elsewhere to encourage a diverse applicant pool for the program and to help us evaluate candidates whose work is outside our areas of expertise. Ensuring diversity is a focus at every stage of our process, from initial screening to final offers.
Q. Any additional criteria? Anything else that helps an applicant stand out in the application process, other than the things that we’ve talked about already?
A. The core of what we are all looking for is a certain quality of mind, a spark that’s likely to lead to a distinctive and productive scholarly voice. Second, we want to make sure that the applicant will be a major contributor to the intellectual community here at Columbia, including at the Fellows Workshop, skilled both at giving and receiving feedback across a range of substantive areas and methodologies – e.g., someone who we believe will make for a wonderful colleague. Finally, we only hire people if we are confident that we have Columbia faculty who will be deeply invested in mentoring them.
Q. You say the Associate’s program has three components – scholarship, teaching, and community. Let’s start with scholarship. Describe that component.
A. Scholarly potential is our single most important criterion for hiring. We will not hire unless we are confident the candidate will be ready to succeed on the academic job market after the fellowship.
Q. How are you gauging that on the scholarly side?
A. Exactly the same way entry-level hiring committees gauge potential. We are looking for people for whom two years at Columbia will be jet fuel for their intellectual development. We are looking for candidates poised to be major scholars. More concretely, we put the writing samples and the research agenda at the center of our evaluation in screening candidates and at the interviews. Do the published articles and draft pieces make important contributions? Can we see an original, exciting, and feasible trajectory in the candidate’s writing and agenda?
Q. How much do people tend to have in terms of writing already? Do most successful candidates have a full paper, more than one full paper?
A. More than one full paper, usually. Not always, but usually. We often see applicants today who have as much published writing as faculty had a generation ago when they got tenure. There’s been a steady ratcheting up in credentials on the entry market, and that has translated to the fellowship market as well. We are much less concerned with the quantity of papers, however, than with the quality. One powerful, creative, and original paper carries a lot of weight. Sometimes, we have even hired people just with a smart paper in draft and an inspiring agenda. But, the more writing we can read, the easier it is to make an offer.
Q. Obviously some of these people are coming from Ph.D. programs where they’ve had the time to write a lot. People who are not coming from Ph.D. programs, do you have a sense of how they are finding the time to write that many articles?
A. People who are determined to be scholars make the time to write, even if they come from practice. It’s difficult, yes, but that’s part of what makes it so much more impressive when we get a candidate who has been able to produce exciting scholarship on nights and weekends while working full-time. Yes, Ph.D.s have a stream of articles in hand and a coherent scholarly trajectory mapped out. That’s why they do so well on the market. But we work hard to ensure that we are selecting the best future scholars, and that regularly includes candidates from practice who have that scholarly spark. Often, their research will be directly related to their practice experience, and so their research will reflect a high level of subject-matter expertise.
Q. When you talk about practice experience, how much are you typically looking for?
A. More than a year or two is great, but difficult to find these days. Ideally, candidates from practice bring some real mastery of, and insight about, their legal practice area.
Q. How do you evaluate the tradeoff between legal practice and Ph.D. routes? The Ph.D.s seem to have a built-in benefit.
A. Yes, in part because Ph.D.s have a structured path to write and to develop methodological expertise. In that sense, it’s not surprising they do well in entry-level hiring. But Ph.D. candidates can sometimes lack a deeply textured understanding of the law itself, and that’s where applicants from legal practice can shine. Because practice experience is often generative for rich and nuanced scholarship, we definitely value practice experience in our hiring. Indeed, this year, two of our four non-Ph.D. incoming Associates had significant practice experience. And “practice experience” need not be only at law firms or clerkships, by the way—one of our incoming associates brings significant work experience at the highest levels of the federal government relevant to their field.
Q. But out of curiosity, just because I know people would want me to ask this question, given that hiring committees often want more practice experience, why not put less weight on the Ph.D., require less scholarship coming into a fellowship program, and give even more preference to practice experience?
A. We have some discretion to shape the pool of entry-level applicants, and we do use that to expand the pipeline in ways we believe matter, including giving more weight to practice experience. But Columbia is an unusual position. With a collegial workshop culture, ample time for the Associates’ own writing, and strong mentorship of candidates, Columbia offers what we believe is the best fellowship in the country to prepare people for the entry market. So realistically, we are choosing among outstanding candidates, and we don’t generally feel we face tradeoffs in who we are considering.
Q. What advice do you have for applicants who do not have Ph.D.s?
A. Write seminar papers during law school that you can develop later and write drafts while clerking and practicing so you have a pipeline of material. People coming out of practice are often poorly advised before they apply. They do not realize they have a short clock between when the fellowship starts and when they have to be ready to go on the job market – just a year. Yet they often submit fellowship agendas that will require more time than that. Those applications generally aren’t credible. For people coming from practice, we usually look for, at a minimum, advanced drafts. But ideally, candidates from practice should probably aim to have a law review publication (an article or a note) before applying. If your experience was particularly substantive, or otherwise allows you to write law review articles that could only be written by someone with the deep practice knowledge you bring, so much the better.
Q. How about people coming off Supreme Court clerkships?
A. That’s definitely a plus, and we have had several clerks in the past few years, but it’s a shrinking pool. That was a traditional route to entry hiring, but now there are few Supreme Court clerks among our applicants or who go on the entry market. Perhaps they have too many other great options – though it’s hard to see what’s better than a life as a legal scholar. We’d love to see more Supreme Court clerks back in the mix.
Q. Any advice for Ph.D. applicants?
A. People coming out of Ph.D. programs have a story. They have an agenda that says, “I’m the person who does this, I’m at the cutting edge of this particular methodology, here’s three articles I’ve written, and here are the next five that I will be doing between now and tenure. Together, my agenda adds up to this major scholarly contribution.” Hiring committees know more or less what they’re getting.
However, Ph.D. applicants sometimes trip up in making the pivot to legal scholarship. Many have been immersed in their dissertation world and have strayed from core concerns of current legal scholarship. These candidates can have a hard time understanding what questions matter in law schools, to law faculty, and with law students. And they don’t realize how short a time they have to reframe their research —just that one year from their start date to when the FAR forms are due.
My strong advice to applicants coming from Ph.D. programs is to think hard, before they apply to us (or anywhere else), about how their research agenda connects to the law and to prevailing legal scholarship. It’s too late to begin this process only once a fellowship starts. They should already have started translating their dissertation work for law audiences and have received detailed feedback on their research agendas from their law faculty recommenders. If possible, they should begin the fellowship with an advanced draft of their job talk paper and legal research agenda already in hand.
Q. Let’s turn to people without these traditional markers, people without a Ph.D., perhaps who didn’t go to one of the top law schools, didn’t do an elite clerkship, what advice would you have for them in terms of trying to break into the law teaching world?
A. All the traditional elite markers of success are proxies for writing specifically and for scholarly potential more generally. So, you can get there directly by doing the writing. We read everything. And the writing comes first.
Q. In the application process, in the hiring process, do you give any preference, however slight, to different curricular areas? Do you ever give a thumb on the scale to candidates in curricular areas where there is more demand on the entry-level market?
A. No, not at all. True, there’s more demand for people in certain areas, and the fields vary a bit from year to year. But we have the luxury of hiring the very top candidates on the market – so we are looking for people who we expect to be academic stars, who will contribute to legal scholarship at the highest level, whatever field they teach.
Q. A last point on scholarship. If you look on the blogs, there’s criticism that VAPs and fellows may get too much help on their scholarship, so hard for hiring committees to tease out what’s original to the VAPs and fellows themselves. What do you think about that criticism?
A. I don’t agree at all, at least as that statement applies to Columbia’s process. We hire Associates because we are confident in their ideas and in their potential. We would be doing our Associates a disservice by importing our own ideas into their work. I can maybe understand the potential issue for candidates who have written co-authored articles, but even then committees look at the piece as part of a larger mosaic with other articles, drafts, the research agenda, recommendation letters and calls, and multiple interviews. Nobody is getting bamboozled.
Q. Let’s move on to teaching. What does the teaching load look like at Columbia?
A. By design, the Associates have a light teaching load – our intention is to give Associates time to write and to prepare for the job market. In the fall, the Associates teach two sections of legal writing and research; each section has about 22 students. Six Associates teach LL.M.s; one teaches J.D.s. For the LL.M. sections, there’s two intense weeks in August, when they introduce students to American law and the class meets every day. After that, Associates teach each section once a week and hold individual meetings with students to review their writing. All teaching for the year is done before Thanksgiving.
Q: How important is teaching in your hiring decisions? And how do you try to determine if you think someone will be a good teacher?
A. We expect the Associates to be superb classroom teachers and we make that a priority in hiring: we won’t hire people unless we are confident in their teaching ability. Many candidates already have teaching experience, and some have won teaching awards or even worked as a full-time teacher at some point in their career. Additionally, in our experience, time spent mentoring younger lawyers while in practice translates well to the classroom. We look at candidates’ teaching statements in their applications and how they handle themselves during the interviews. In short, we are looking for people who are skilled, passionate, and thoughtful about teaching.
Q. Do Associates have the opportunity to teach other types of courses?
A. Yes, although we encourage a cautious approach. We deliberately protect the Associates from too much teaching so they can turbo-charge their writing. At this crucial and delicate moment in their careers, there is a much higher payoff from having more and better papers than from having prepped and taught one more course or seminar. In my view, every extra minute should be spent writing and engaging with scholars and scholarship. That said, Associates who are excited to develop new course offerings related to their scholarly passions have had the opportunity to do so. We are proud of the teaching component of our program and, combined with the sort of Associates we hire, are confident of the quality of teacher that we produce.
Q. What mentoring or feedback do they receive on their teaching?
A. Columbia offers a range of resources to improve teaching. If you want, specialists will come and do focus groups with your students, videotape your class and give you feedback. That’s available, but we hire Associates who are already, by and large, great classroom teachers. We’ve been successful in hiring an outgoing, student-oriented, passionate fellows, and that’s reflected in their typically strong student evaluations.
Fellows Workshop & Community
Q. Let’s go into the Fellows Workshop series, and then we can talk more broadly about Columbia’s workshop series. But the fellows only workshop, tell me about that.
A. The Associates run the Fellows Workshop, at lunch each Wednesday year-round, sometimes with an extra session during peak hiring season. This Workshop is at the core of the Associates program. The expectation is that all the fellows will attend, be prepared, and contribute to the discussion. The fellows use the lunches for varied purposes at different points in the year. Often, they present early stage work. Sometimes more polished papers. They moot interviews and job talks. Our Associates community is incredibly intellectually vibrant, and Associates regularly report that the Workshop is one of the most important parts of being at Columbia; it’s an experience that grounds the community, and offers a home base for the Associates to compare notes as they extend their networks throughout the law school and the wider legal academic world.
When we hire Associates, we think a lot about how they will contribute to this community. We look for people who are broadly curious, who will be interested in engaging with all the other fellows. As a young scholar, it’s important to be able to comment on one another’s work from an external perspective, to offer your methodological expertise. And it’s equally important to be skilled as a sympathetic reader, to be able to offer internal critiques from within the framework where your colleague is operating. The Workshop is intended to help Associates develop both those skills, to learn how to engage intensely, productively, and sensitively as a scholar.
Q. We’ve hired a couple of people out of the Associates program, and I’ll say, they excel at that. I do think it’s great training for being active members of an intellectual community.
A. It is, absolutely. Being acculturated into the workshop environment is a skill people don’t get in law school and often miss in Ph.D. programs. But workshop skills are, I believe, crucial to success as an academic. It’s central to being a sought-after and respected colleague. You have to know how to ask a question and to offer constructive comments. And just as tricky, you have to be skilled in being able to hear criticism and revise your own work in response. You have to learn what counts as a good legal academic argument. This workshop is the place where that happens.
Q. Do Associates participate in the broader intellectual community at the school? So, for example, Columbia’s standard faculty workshop.
A. Yes. They are full participants in our two main faculty workshops. Usually, at Thursday lunch, Columbia faculty workshop fairly polished papers; at Tuesday lunch, faculty present early stage ideas, just a few pages with open discussion. Associates are active and valuable contributors to both.
In addition, Columbia has a huge range of specialized faculty workshops – there’s the legal history workshop, legal theory workshop, law and economics workshop, blue sky securities law workshop, critical thought, courts and legal process, tax, and several more. All told, there are more workshops than days in the week – so I encourage Associates to be mindful of how they divvy up their time and attention. Associates are welcome and active participants in these field-specific workshops, and regularly serve as commenters, discussants, and agenda-setters, in collaboration with faculty colleagues. Also, across the street, the University is full of on-point events. And Columbia is part of the greater New York legal academic community, with NYU, Fordham, Cardozo, and other area schools within easy reach. There are a number of cross-school workshops – which are a bonanza for Associates in particular fields. After two years, Associates can leave Columbia deeply enmeshed already in the academic networks that define their field(s).
Q. All this activity makes a two-year fellowship seem so short.
A. Yes. You arrive in July and start teaching in August. During that fall, you also have to write, revise, and polish your job talk article so it’s ready to submit, ideally in the February cycle. And in the late spring you have to complete your full FAR package, so it’s ready by August. This is why I encourage Associates to draft their job talk paper before they start the fellowship, if at all possible – the timeline is so compressed. In the fall of their second year, Associates are on the market, flying around giving job talks in the fall and winter while completing their teaching. We hope Associates use the spring of the second year, after they have accepted a tenure-track offer, to get more paper drafts in the pipeline, so they start the tenure clock primed for success. Every day during these fellowships should be a writing day. Every day is precious.
Nuts & Bolts
Q. Let’s shift over to some of the terms and conditions of employment. Salary, benefits, and the like.
A. The Associates’ salary is competitive with the other top fellowship programs. We also offer subsidized housing and benefits. Our goal is to ensure that Columbia remains the top choice for the strongest candidates on the market.
Q. Tell me about that subsidized housing. What does that mean? Is that guaranteed?
A. Yes, we guarantee subsidized Columbia housing. We offer a wide range of options, depending on the person’s family situation, and ranging from studios to larger apartments, including Morningside Heights three-bedroom apartments. They are all within an easy short walk to the law school. You get to live comfortably in a great part of New York City – it’s quite a good deal. We aim to make the transition to Columbia hassle-free, so Associates can focus on their scholarship.
Q. Do the fellows receive health benefits?
A. Yes. Columbia provides generous health insurance plan options, on par with what our faculty receive. Also, miscellaneous benefits, like inexpensive gym membership, and the like.
Q. How about travel funding or other professional development funding?
A. Yes. We cover reasonable conference and research travel. Additionally, we cover expenses and fees for the AALS hiring convention in the fall, and for the regular AALS convention in January, reimbursed on the same terms as regular faculty.
Q. How about funding to hire research assistants?
A. We don’t have separate funding for RAs, but we do have some funding available for other research related expenses, like specialized computer access, data sets, or survey research.
Q. Tell me about library support.
A. That’s a huge strength at Columbia. Associates have full access to one of the best law libraries in the world. And they can rely on our incredible law librarians. In recent years, we’ve been able to get library access for Associates even before they start the fellowship. This has helped a few Associates who need access, for example, to specialized archives or expensive databases. And it’s meant they can advance the work on their job talk paper in the months before they take up residence in July.
Q. Are fellows required to live in New York City?
A. Yes, we generally require Associates to be in residence in the New York City area. The core of our program is the Associates community – not just the Workshop, but the informal back and forth with the law school’s scholarly community. And for that to work, people have to be around the building. There is no requirement that Associates spend particular hours here, but folks are usually around, in and out of each other’s offices. It’s a hard-working group, as it should be.
Mentoring & Placement
Q. In terms of engaging with faculty, how do the fellows find mentors? Are they assigned a mentor? Are they given assistance there?
A. We haven’t assigned formal mentors. However, we build mentorship into the program right from the start, with the hiring process. We identify who are likely to be the crucial people for that candidate’s scholarly development and bring them into the on-campus interview process. After the interview, we ask the potential mentors, “Is it someone you want to work with?” We won’t hire an Associate unless we are confident they will have faculty to mentor them.
Q. Then what assistance are they given once they arrive?
A. The committee members and I always stand ready to make introductions and smooth the way to faculty here at Columbia and elsewhere. That said, we choose Associates whom we know will succeed: self-starters with articles and research agendas that excite current faculty members. This ensures a strong base of organic support for our Associates, and means that Associates go on the market with Columbia recommenders who authentically believe in their potential and are committed to their success. Additionally, the existing Associates are a great source of information for each other. They know who likes to see early ideas, who prefers more polished papers; who will read multiple drafts, and who wants to see just one; who prefers to read just an intro, who reads whole drafts, and who likely won’t respond at all—you know, the same dynamics we experience as regular faculty with our own colleagues!
Q. Are you the one who’s directly supervising them? Not necessarily in an employment capacity, but in terms of day to day life, or is there someone else on the faculty?
A. Yes, that’s me for day to day life, like help with getting extra research funds, or early access to library databases.
Q. And on the job market?
A. For the job market, we have an Academic Placement committee that helps make phone calls for Associates, get in touch with recommenders, and reach out to entry-level hiring committees at other schools. They also run Columbia’s “Moot Camp” each fall. At Moot Camp, each fellow gets to present their job talk as if it were a regular entry-level talk, with a 20-minute presentation followed by faculty questions. Usually, one faculty member asks questions from within the candidate’s field, another from outside, so it mimics the entry-level talk. After the Q&A, the faculty then give feedback to the fellow.
Q. We’ve gone through a lot of the details. Let’s step back for a moment. If you had a candidate who was choosing between the Columbia program and some of the other top programs out there, how would you sell them on Columbia’s? What do you think makes it stand apart?
A. First, the most exceptional part of the Columbia program is the Fellows Workshop, along with our broader faculty workshop culture. The Fellows Workshop, in particular, turbocharges the Associates’ teaching skills, presenting skills, and workshop skills. It hones their intellectual development, their papers, and their readiness to be tenure-track faculty. Finally, it facilitates a collaborative, collegial community among the Associates, one that carries on even after they leave the program for tenure-track positions. Many former Associates who are now tenured law professors themselves remain very fond of the program and are eager to mentor our current Associates.
Second, I think we offer the right balance between teaching and writing – which is to say, less teaching, more writing. Since we are able to hire the very top candidates on the market, they are, by and large, already great teachers. By limiting teaching to a short burst in the fall, we make space for the Associates to hone their writing. Scholarship comes first.
Third, we offer wide-ranging support for Associates as they go on the market. As a large faculty, Columbia usually has several people who are expert in each Associate’s field. So, Associates are not dependent on any one relationship, and can usually get varied feedback. Also, by being in New York, Associates have access to the leading faculty in their area, all within lunch or workshop distance. Being known by the core people in your field matters not just in the hiring process, but in your life as a scholar.
Fourth, and perhaps more mundane, we try to make being at Columbia seamless and frictionless. You don’t have to waste time house hunting. Everything is walking distance, the gym is across the street, the park a block away, the library gets you anything you need. We work hard to strip away irritations so Associates can focus on their scholarly development.
Q. Do you happen to know off the top of your head the percentage of fellows over, say, the last five years, who have landed in tenure track positions at law schools?
A. All of them, I think, with the caveat that one or two took parental leave, which shifted back their entry-level hiring timeline. Here’s the link to recent Associate placements. The four Associates who went on the market this past year accepted great tenure-track law academic jobs.
This series is cross-posted on PrawsBlawg.