Miriam Seifter on the William H. Hastie Fellowship Program at the University of Wisconsin Law School

Next up in my series interviewing VAP and fellowship directors is is Miriam Seifter, an Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School. For the past two years, she has chaired the committee that oversees the William H. Hastie Fellowship Program at Wisconsin. An edited transcript of our conversation is below, and I have invited Miriam to respond to any questions in the comments on Prawsblawg. Thanks, Miriam, 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 a little bit about the Hastie Fellowship Program, including its history. 

A.  The Hastie Fellowship is an academic fellowship program aimed to help prepare candidates for the law teaching market.  The program is named in honor of William H. Hastie, who was a renowned lawyer, teacher, judge, and civil rights advocate who, among other things, championed the value of legal education. The Fellowship was founded in large part by Professor James E. Jones, who was a labor law expert and one of our celebrated professors here at Wisconsin. The program has been around for over 40 years, and it reflects a commitment to foster diversity and inclusion in the legal profession.

Q.  That’s great. Tell me your role with the program.

A.  I have been on the Hastie Fellowship Committee for the past three years and was the chair of it for two years, although I am not on the committee this coming year.

Q.  I’d love to move chronologically through the fellowship starting with the application process and moving to the fellowship itself and then the job market. Turning first to the application process, when does the committee start to accept applications?

A.  We accept applications beginning October 1st each year, and the deadline is February 1st. I should note that we are currently hiring every other year and just hired a new fellow, so we will next open applications in October 2020.

Q.  Are you reviewing those applications on a rolling basis?

A.  We take a look periodically, but we do not make any decisions until the deadline actually passes.

Q.  What materials does a candidate who wants to apply need to submit?

A.  This information is on our website. It is a personal statement, a resume or CV, a research proposal, two or three letters of reference, and official transcripts from relevant higher education institutions.

Q.  Can I just follow up, you said a personal statement?

A.  Yes.

Q.  Yes. Tell me, what do you want from that personal statement? What’s the purpose of that?

A.  We ask candidates to explain their interest in the legal academic field and legal scholarship and law teaching. We also ask them to explain how their involvement would contribute to the program’s goal of increasing diversity and inclusion in the legal academy.

Q.  What’s the timeline for interviews? How many interviews do you typically conduct, and when do they start?

A.  We don’t have a set number of interviews that we conduct. We aim to conduct those interviews sometime around March, depending on the volume of applications.

Q.  Is there only one set of interview, or are there first-round interviews and then second-round interviews?

A.  Typically there is just one round.

Q.  And are those done over Skype, or do the candidates come to the University of Wisconsin?

A.  We have done them by Skype. If someone was local, we would be happy to speak to them in person, but we don’t ask applicants to incur the cost of a trip to Madison; Skype is perfectly adequate.

Q.  By when has the fellowship typically filled all of the positions?

A.  We generally hope to have responses out by March-April, depending again on volume and how the interview process goes.

Q.  Is it one fellow per year?

A.  We currently have one fellow per year. For many years we had two. I’m not sure whether the number will be one or two in the future.

Q.  How long is the fellowship?

A.  The fellowship is two years.

Q.  How many applications do you typically receive in a given year?

A.  This has varied over the years, but last year we received 23 applications for the one fellow position.

Q.  Who actually selects the fellows? Is it that committee that you mentioned earlier?

A.  Yes. We have a committee of faculty members and staff who review the applications and make the decisions. The committee sometimes consults with subject matter experts on our faculty if the research proposal is not in the field of the committee members.

Q.  Does the Hastie Fellow have teaching responsibilities?

A.  The Hastie Fellow has teaching opportunities, but not responsibilities. We really want to allow the fellow to focus on their research agenda and their scholarship, and for that reason they do not have ongoing teaching obligations. That gives them protected time to research and write.

We do offer the opportunity to teach, typically in the second semester of the second year, when hopefully the market process is mostly wrapped up. We offer that as an opportunity to get practice teaching before they start a teaching job. We invite the fellow to pick what they teach, which might be an existing course of ours or a seminar they design. We’re not hiring them to fill a curricular need.

Q.  Are you trying to gauge teaching ability during the application process? Is that one of the factors that you’re looking at?

A.  Not really. I think if there were red flags in the application or in the interview, we would take those seriously because we want our fellows to be contributing members of the legal academy. But we do not, for example, require the submission of teaching evaluations, primarily because most of our candidates have not taught before.

Q.  How about practice experience, is that something that you’re looking for? If so, how many years of practice experience do you typically look for?

A.  We do not require practice experience and do not have any set number of years of practice or other experience that would be useful. Generally speaking, the program is looking for academic promise and a strong research agenda. Some of our fellows have helped establish that through years in practice that gave them great ideas for things they wanted to write about. But people could apply to the program with no practice experience and still be very successful.

Q.  Let’s turn then to the academic promise, the scholarly side of the fellowship. The successful candidate, how much scholarship do they typically have before they start? Is it one paper, a draft, more than one published paper? What’s typical, recognizing that of course it varies?

A.  We have had a very wide range. We have had people who are in the midst of or have completed a Ph.D. program and have done extensive writing, though often not in legal publications. We have had people who have been in practice and have published maybe one article on the side while they were in practice plus a student publication, if they had one. We do not have a set number of publications that we require, and we definitely do not require people to be basically tenure-able at the time that they apply. We focus more on trying to help people develop their scholarly work.

Q.  How do you compare a candidate who maybe has a Ph.D. or is pretty far along in the Ph.D. process and therefore has a pretty significant body of scholarly work with a candidate who’s coming out of practice who may not have had that opportunity? It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, so I’m just wondering how as a committee you try to sort through that?

A.  Other features of the application can help to shed some light on these dilemmas. The research proposal in particular can be very helpful. If that research proposal sounds interesting and novel and doable in the time that they have as a fellow, then that can work strongly in their favor even if they don’t have a lot of existing publications.

We also consider letters of reference to get a sense of how diligent and productive and resourceful someone is likely to be. We consider the personal statement. We consider other things on their resume. We look at their transcripts. We try to the best of our ability to get a full picture of the candidate’s academic potential, even though, as you said, it’s never an apples-to-apples comparison.

Q.  Sure. Let’s circle back around to Ph.D.s. Does the program have any preference for candidates with Ph.D.s, or how do you weigh that in the application process?

A.  We do not have a preference. I think it’s just one of the possible markers of showing someone’s academic interests and potential to generate scholarly work.

Q.  Does the candidate’s curricular area ever come into the mix on the hiring side? For example, are you saying, well gee, this is a candidate who’s in a curricular area that’s heavily in demand on the entry-level market; this candidate not so much?

A.  We do pay some attention to curricular area in making sure that we can provide good mentorship and support for the fellow. It’s a plus factor if we have faculty members who will be knowledgeable about and engaged with the candidate’s areas of interest. Curricular area might, at the margins, also distinguish a research agenda, if the area appears to be under-written.

Q.  On the Hastie Fellowship website, it says that the fellowship reflects a commitment to diversity and inclusion in the legal profession, and I’m wondering how you interpret that in the hiring process and the role that diversity and inclusion specifically plays in the hiring process?

A.  Sure. The program is aimed at giving an opportunity to people who are underrepresented in the legal academy. A desire to create a more inclusive legal profession was important when our program was started, and we think it’s still crucial today. We invite people to explain in their personal statements why they would contribute to greater diversity and inclusion in the profession. We let people tell us why it is that they would advance those aims rather than imposing our own pre-set definitions. A list of our past fellows is available on our program website.

Q.  As I’ve talked about this interview series on prawfsblawg, I’ve had many people reach out to me and say, “Can you ask, what about candidates from more nontraditional backgrounds?” In other words, candidates who may not have the traditional markers that law professors have often had. Maybe they didn’t go to Harvard, Yale or Stanford. They didn’t do an elite clerkship. What advice would you have for those candidates?

A. I’m glad you’re hearing from those candidates. Our fellowship is targeted in part at candidates like that; part of what we hope to do is to provide a platform for people who have not already had a chance to prepare themselves for the law teaching market.

In terms of how to stand out if you are looking for ways to distinguish your application, we place a lot of emphasis on the research agenda because the timeline for a two-year fellowship is actually pretty tight. Particularly if you’re trying to produce two works of scholarship, that requires you to come in and pretty much know what you’re going to be doing from day one. Seeing a really coherent, well-thought-out research agenda and having the confidence that that candidate is going to be able to start and on their first day really dive in is part of what helps distinguish a successful application from one that isn’t going to work.

Q.  We’ve talked about scholarly potential, the research agenda, practice experience, and the personal statement. Is there any additional criteria that the committee uses to select the fellow? Anything else that might help an applicant stand out in the application process?

A.  I think we discussed this, but we also ask for letters of reference.

Q.  Okay, perfect. Let’s turn to some of the nuts and bolts of the fellowship itself. You mentioned that it lasts two years. Does that mean essentially you’re hiring every two years in general?

A.  As I said, right now that’s what we’re doing. Having one fellow at a time has allowed us to really pour the institution’s resources into one individual, which I think has its benefits. We just hired a new fellow, so we expect to hire again in 2020-21.

Q.  Is that fellowship ever renewable for a third year?

A.  I don’t believe so.

Q.  Are you comfortable sharing how much the fellows are paid?

A.  Sure. I believe this is on our website, but the current stipend is $40,000 a year. We do say that it’s increased from time to time to reflect the local cost of living, and there’s a research support fund that the fellow gets, which is currently 4,000 per year for each year of the fellowship.

Q.  Is that research fund meant to pay for both travel and research assistants?

A.  Exactly.

Q.  How about benefits? Do the fellows receive health benefits?

A.  Yes. They are eligible for health benefits, including medical insurance, dental care and life insurance.

Q.  Do they receive access to university or subsidized housing? This may be less of an issue in Madison, but I’m asking everybody.

A.  Yes. We connect them with our extensive housing resources. Because they are technically enrolling as an LL.M. student, they are eligible for university housing, although many of them choose to live in grad student neighborhoods, which are not part of that program. Madison does boast very affordable housing compared to many other cities.

Q.  Do the fellows receive any additional reimbursement for market-related expenses, for example, the costs of the AALS registration fee and attending the AALS bar conference, or does that come out of the $4,000?

A.  I believe that that comes out of the $4,000 per year allotment, though fellows can apply for additional funds if they run out.

Q.  Are they required to live in Madison? Or could somebody live in Chicago or New York and commute?

A.  We ask them to reside primarily in Madison. We have had people who have spouses elsewhere and have done some traveling, but it’s really helpful and important for the person to be part of the life and community of the law school.

Q.  Let’s turn to how somebody might make the most of the fellowship year. Are the fellows integrated into the intellectual life of the law school? Do they, for example, attend the faculty workshop series?

A.  Absolutely. We think that that is really helpful to the fellows. They are invited to basically all law school events. They come to faculty workshops. They come to symposia and colloquia to the extent that they’re available for those. They participate in an event we have that’s called Big Ideas Café where people present often early-stage ideas of what they think they might work on next, and they’re invited to workshop their own work at a faculty workshop whenever they are ready to do so.

Q.  Do the fellows have any connections with other fellows at the University of Wisconsin? They are the only fellow at the law school, is that right?

A.  Wisconsin is a great place for making connections across the university, if the fellow is interested in doing so. Recent fellows have participated in our Institute for Legal Studies Law and Society Graduate Fellows Program, which provides a community of fellows and graduate students who meet regularly, workshop their papers, receive mentoring on topics of interest, and host presentations by professors.

Q.  You mentioned earlier that the fellows receive an LL.M. Can you tell me a little bit more about that? What do they have to do to get that LL.M., and what is it an LL.M. in?

A.  Good question. It’s a general LLM (Master of Laws), not subject-specific, and the work product they would ordinarily do as part of the fellowship is typically sufficient for conferral of the degree, subject to approval by faculty members. The details are all in the LLM/SJD handbook on our Graduate Programs website – I can send you the link.

Q.  Who actually supervises the fellows? Is it the committee? Is it the dean? Who’s in charge of their overall experience at the law school?

A.  The way that we envision it working in a typical year is that the committee provides general purpose mentorship, legal market support, and logistical guidance (like when articles should be submitted, when first drafts should ideally be done, etc.), and can provide another set of eyes on drafts. We also involve a subject matter advisor, someone who is knowledgeable about the fellow’s area of work, who provides more substantive feedback on drafts.

Q.  The subject matter expert, is that an assigned mentor, or is that a relationship that tends to develop more informally?

A.  It’s an assigned mentor. We ask someone to do that at the same time that we are making final decisions about the application process.

Q.  Are they given any assistance in making connections with law faculty in their area of interest outside of the Wisconsin Law School?

A.  Absolutely. That’s one of the things that their subject matter advisor can help with, but it’s also something that the committee or our faculty colleagues can help with. All of us feel a commitment to helping this person get their start in academia, and so to the extent that we know people who are working on things that are of interest to them, we’ll try to make those connections.

Q.  I assume that they have multiple faculty members sitting down with them reading their drafts, giving them feedback on their articles?

A.  Yes.

Q.  I know some fellowships differ on this, but I’d love to get your thoughts on the expectations around the scholarly timeline during the fellowship. You said that it is a tight timeline, those two-year fellowships. How do you recommend to your fellows that they use that timeline? In other words, are they coming in with a draft that they’re trying to polish? Are they typically starting from scratch in that first summer? What’s the norm and how do the two years work scholarship-wise?

A.  I think it really depends on the candidate. I apologize for saying that over and over, but it is true. If someone is coming with an early stage draft, then of course that candidate is going to come in and pull out that draft and start to develop it. If someone’s research agenda said, “I’ve been in practice and I haven’t had time to implement this, but here’s my inquiry and here’s how I want to pursue it,” then they would begin doing that. Either way, it’s really important that they be ready to get started on the first day of the fellowship and to adhere as best they can to the goals in terms of drafting that we set for them.

Q.  Are they given any other support related to their research agenda? Obviously people are looking at their drafts, but how about on the overall research agenda?

A.  We talk about with the research agenda from the beginning of the fellowship. We encourage the fellow to reflect on what they envision their scholarly profile looking like, and how they think their papers fit together. That conversation continues and evolves as the year goes on..

Q.  Do you have any specific advice for fellows who come in with Ph.D.s in terms of transitioning from their Ph.D. program back to the norms of legal scholarship?

A.  If fellows have or are completing a Ph.D., we connect with members of our faculty who have made that same transition. They can provide the best advice on how to make that transition, how to reach different publication outlets, how to change gears a little bit, and how to build on what they’ve already done.

Q.  Let’s go back to the teaching opportunity that you mentioned earlier. Is that something that most fellows take advantage of? Do most fellows teach a class in the spring of their second year?

A.  Yes.

Q.  How is the determination made of what course they might teach?

A.  We let the fellow choose, though we are happy to provide input. Some fellows have wanted to teach an existing class that we offer, and others, like our most recent fellow, have wanted to create a seminar in their area of research. We’re flexible on that choice. The teaching opportunity is meant to provide the fellow with useful and relevant teaching experience rather than to serve a particular need that we have.

Q.  Do they receive training or feedback on their teaching during that spring semester?

A.  We welcome them to sit in, if they would like to, on other people’s classes to get ideas, and we as a committee talk with them about teaching. We would be happy to provide additional feedback if the fellow wants it.

Q.  Does the fellow have any other responsibilities other than their scholarship and teaching that course if they decide to do so?

A.  No.

Q.  We’ve now gone through a lot of the details of the program, but stepping back for a minute, imagine that you had a candidate who had several different fellowship options and they were trying to decide between them. What do you think makes the Hastie Fellowship particularly valuable, and how would you try to sell the candidate on that program?

A.  I think that we are distinctly attractive in our commitment to allowing the fellow to focus on their scholarship and supporting them as they do so. We don’t give them institutional responsibilities, and we provide extensive support as they prepare for the job market. We also have a really warm and welcoming community here at the law school.  And Madison is a glorious place to work and live, so I think most of our fellows find it to be a really pleasant two years.

Q.  That’s great. What other advice do you have more broadly for fellows when it comes to making the most of a VAP or a fellowship? It could be the Hastie Fellowship or another one, just in terms of thinking about successful candidates and what they’ve done?

A.  There are so many ways to succeed that it’s sort of hard to answer that question, but I think that a willingness to share work early with lots of different people is a really useful practice for people who are in VAPs or in early stages of breaking into legal academia. It’s so tempting to want to hang on to that draft until you think it’s perfect, but talking about ideas at an early stage will help you figure out what you want to say while also giving you practice framing and conveying arguments.

Q.  I could not agree with that more. I think the more people can share ideas early, the better. It was certainly transformational in my early years here at Richmond, so I always tell people, “Share as much as you can.”

A.  Yep.

Q.  Let’s turn to the job market. What type of mentoring does the Hastie Fellow receive related to the hiring process?

A.  The first thing that we do early on in the fellowship is just describe that process to them–because again, many of our fellows are not on a legal academic track that gives them inside knowledge about the process. We describe the AALS conference, the timing of applications, and so on. We talk to them about the market documents, what does a FAR form look like, what does a research agenda look like.

As the market gets a bit closer, we have a variety of people give feedback on their application materials. Then as the market gets even closer, we do mock hiring conference interviews and mock job talks for them.

Q.  Who’s actually responsible for providing this advice and doing these mock interviews?

A.  The core responsibility is with the Hastie Fellowship Committee, but for the interviews we involve broader members of our faculty, who are usually happy to volunteer.

Q.  Do you happen to know the percentage of fellows, let’s say, over the last 10 years who have received a tenure-track job offer at a US law school?

A.  We have been at 100% in the three years I have been participating, and I know we’ve had a lot of success in prior years. I am not sure we have kept consistently formal records to allow for long-term percentage calculations, but a list of many past fellows is on our website, and you can see where they are now. It’s a very distinguished group.

Q.  I’d love to link to that if you don’t mind. [Here’s the link. Scroll down to the bottom of the page to see the list.]

A.  Oh, absolutely.

Q.  Perfect. What about fellows who may not get a job in that second year of the fellowship, how do you support those fellows?

A.  That is not a situation that I’ve encountered.

Q.  I’d love now to turn to VAPs and fellowships more generally and just get your thoughts on them if you’re willing to share them.

A.  Sure.

Q.  I’m wondering what you think are the benefits of the rise of fellowship and VAP programs as an entry point into law teaching, and what do you think are the costs?

A.  I don’t really have a long enough memory and experience in the academy to give an answer to that because I don’t have direct experience with the pre-VAP world. Certainly a downside of the reliance on VAPs and fellowships is that it requires people to press on for years without job security or any certainty whether academia will work out for them. I can’t speak from experience about whether the alternative, prior system was truly easier or more of an equal playing field, or whether it actually had its own costs.

I do think that to the extent that the VAPs are selecting only people who are already totally ready for the market, then the status quo is insufficiently open and inclusive to people who actually would be wonderful law professors. I think that that’s a gap that we hope to fill by hiring people who do not have traditional legal academic backgrounds but who have great academic promise.

Q.  On a slightly different note, one of the criticisms that you often hear if you hang around with hiring committees a lot is a concern that VAPs and fellows may get too much help on their scholarship from the schools where they are serving as a VAP and that therefore it’s hard for hiring committees to know how much of the work and ideas come from the VAPs and fellows themselves. Have you heard this criticism, and what do you think about it?

A.  I haven’t heard that criticism. That’s interesting. There’s a sense in which all legal scholarship is a collective enterprise. If you do 10 workshops, you’re always going to be drawing on some ideas that didn’t start with you. Certainly we as a fellowship program and the market generally want to make sure that it’s the candidate who’s driving the train, and I think we do that.

Again, just to come back to something I’ve emphasized, one of the ways we do that is by taking a really close look at the research agenda at the outset and making sure that the candidate has a set of ideas that they want to pursue that are theirs. Once that is in place, to the extent that we can help with polishing, workshopping, and network building, I think those are all to the good.

Q.  Anything else you want to add either about the Hastie Fellowship specifically or any messages to pass along to hiring committees about the state of law faculty hiring more generally?

A.  You’ve been really thorough in your questions, so I don’t think I have anything to add, but I’ll let you know if I think of anything.

Q.  Great. Thanks so much, Miriam. Take care.

This series is cross-posted on PrawsBlawg.