Stuart Benjamin from Duke Law on its Visiting Assistant Professor Program

I’m excited to announce the latest interview in my series on VAP and fellowship programs. This interview is with Stuart Benjamin, the Douglas B. Maggs Professor of Law and co-director of the Center for Innovation Policy at Duke Law School. He spoke to me about Duke’s Visiting Assistant Professor Program. An edited transcript of our conversation is below, and I have invited Stuart to respond to any questions in the comments on Prawsblawg. Thanks, Stuart, for participating in this series!

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

Q: Can you start by telling me about Duke’s VAP programs?

A: We have one main VAP program and, by design, it is a very small program. And so we hire anywhere from zero to two VAPs a year. We keep it that small because we want to make sure that the VAPs have a great experience and can be fully part of the faculty. Ultimately, because of the small size of the program, we really can make sure that they get a lot of attention and a lot of feedback that will really benefit them.

Q: What I’d like to do is essentially move through the VAP program, chronologically, starting with the application process and then moving through the fellowship itself and then the job market, if that works. When does the program start accepting applications typically?

A: We accept applications on a rolling basis and applicants can send them in any time through November 15th.

Q: And when do they open up in the fall?

A: It is open now.

Q: What materials do candidates need to submit?

A: A CV, a transcript, references, copies of any articles they’ve written, whether published or unpublished (including a rough draft), a list of the courses they would be interested in teaching listed in order of preference, and an outline of their scholarly agenda with a particular focus on what it is they plan to complete during the VAP.

Q: And what’s the timeline once somebody submits those application materials?

A: The law teaching committee does a fairly intensive review of all of the materials. We’ll read the articles, we’ll discuss the various candidates, and we will then come up with a list of candidates to interview. We tend to reach out to candidates by the end of November or early December and try to have those interviews usually in mid-December.

Q: Those interviews, are those at Duke’s campus or by Skype?

A: They’re generally by Skype.

Q: And is it just with the law teaching committee?

A: Correct.

Q: How many applications do you typically receive?

A: In recent years we’ve had anywhere from 40 to 75.

Q: And then when do you typically fill all of the positions, recognizing that it may vary by year?

A: Usually we make offers by mid-January. But let me reiterate that we fill zero to two positions. We offer a VAP only when we think an applicant really would benefit from the program and have scholarly promise. In some years there may not be anybody that we think is a great fit.

Q: Do the fellows have teaching responsibilities at Duke?

A: We designed this program to be maximally beneficial to the fellows. So they teach only one class a year and it’s usually a small seminar. It is always a class that they’re interested in teaching – every VAP has taught a class they wanted to teach. We never have them teach legal writing. We don’t have them teach any first-year classes. The idea really is to give them time to write, and we want them to be able to teach a class that’s going to help their scholarship.

Q: So then during the application process, how were you gauging teaching ability?

A: That can be tricky to assess, and our main gauge is the interview itself, trying to get a feel for the person and how that person would be in the classroom. But sometimes an applicant’s teaching ability is noted in a letter of recommendation or evaluations from a TA-ship are included, and we consider all of that information as well.

Q: Are you looking at practice experience at all and how much practice experience do you typically want or prefer?

A: I think we’re unusual among VAP programs. We have a preference, for one of the two VAP slots each year, for those with two or more years of practice experience. And the reason is we know that it can be challenging to find time to write when you’re in practice and that you might not have as much writing as somebody who’s been in a more writing intensive program like a  Ph.D.. We want to give people from practice a chance to come into a VAP and shine.

Q: Let’s turn to the scholarship side. How much have the typical successful applicants typically written when they apply? Are they coming in with one piece, five pieces, no pieces, typically?

A: I wouldn’t say that there is a single, typical successful applicant. Everybody we’ve hired has had at least a draft, although that draft might not be something that they end up working on as a VAP. We might say to them that this draft shows you have great promise as a scholar, but actually this might not be the best way for you to spend your time, here might be some suggestions on slightly different routes to go. And we’re often looking for diamonds in the rough. Some programs are essentially post docs. Ours isn’t. We really want to give a person the opportunity for a higher trajectory. And so our focus is less on people who have written a significant amount and more on people who we think have enormous potential and who can benefit from coming to a program like ours.

Q: So let me ask you a question, which is something that I’ve been thinking a lot about on the entry level hiring side, which is how do you find the diamonds in the rough? In other words, you’re looking at people who presumably aren’t fully polished yet, right? And so what are you looking for that gives you a fair level of confidence that they will become great scholars even if they’re not there yet?

A: That’s a great question. And of course there’s no simple answer.

Q: I wish there was.

A: Especially because the same question arises for entry level hiring. Let’s be honest—what is now required for a VAP was in earlier decades what was required to be an entry level hire.

Q: That’s what I had when I was on the entry level market — I had a draft.

A: Right, exactly. I often think of it as looking for someone with a lively mind who has a methodology or approach that will add something to what already exists in that field. So it’s somebody who looks like they can make a contribution. It’s tough at the draft stage, no question. But does it look like this is a person who’s really got a fire in the belly and is really ready to write interesting things? This is difficult to determine.

Q: Right, right. I mean, it’s very much the inquiry we go through on the entry level side as well. So I feel the challenge in that question. Is there any preference in the application process for candidates from particular curricular areas?

A: No.

Q: Not at all?

A: Not at all.

Q: How about preference for candidates with  Ph.D.s?

A: No particular preference for  Ph.D.s. As I noted, in fact for one of our two slots we have an explicit preference for candidates with two or more years of practice experience. That said, we have hired a bunch of  Ph.D.s over the years because  Ph.D.s often come in showing exactly the kinds of scholarly potential that makes them really attractive.

I think other programs might be looking for people who just seem like safe bets, and that tends to favor people with lots of writing and academic experience. We don’t limit ourselves to safe bets because we’re hoping to enlarge the pipeline with our program. We’re hoping to give opportunities to people who otherwise might not have the opportunity to go into law teaching.

Q: Well, let me follow up there because when I started this blog series, I had a lot of emails from people saying essentially I didn’t go to one of the top 10 law schools. I didn’t perhaps do an elite clerkship. How do I stand out in this process? If you’re looking at 70 applications, how do those people stand out? What advice would you have for them?

A: Given that we are looking for people who will benefit from our program, we’re naturally interested in candidates who come from all backgrounds, including non-traditional backgrounds. They often can benefit the most. And as it happens, three of our last five VAPs came from law schools outside of the three schools you mentioned in your email, Harvard, Yale, and Stanford – these three came from GW, Duke, and Illinois law schools. Again, the reason is we want to cast our net as widely as possible. So the way to stand out in our process isn’t based on what law school you went to. The way to stand out is to have a draft that shows, wow, this is a person who has interesting ideas and has an interesting approach or methodology. And with the benefit of our program this person can develop into a great scholar who law schools and law professors will value. That is what we’re focused on.

Q: Do you make any special efforts through that process to hire candidates from diverse backgrounds?

A: Oh yes. We greatly value diversity—a value that is reflected in who has come through our VAP program. For example, over the last decade, more than half of our VAPs have been people of color. Beyond that we’re interested in multiple aspects of diversity, including ideological diversity and methodological diversity. And I think we’ve done pretty well on all those scores.

Q: Do you have any special ways that you try to broaden your pipelines to recruit diverse candidates into your pool?

A: We hope that anybody who looks at the program will see that we aren’t limiting ourselves to the people who’ve already gone to the same law schools and then gone to the same  Ph.D. programs. And so I would hope that anybody who examined our program would say to themselves, it really does look like rather than just talking about enlarging the pipeline, they’re actually doing it. I don’t know how to advertise that, but the proof is in the pudding.

Q: Is there anything else that comes into the application process? Any additional criteria that I might’ve missed?

A: I don’t think so.

Q: Okay. Let’s turn to the fellowship itself. You mentioned that you hire anywhere between zero and two a year. How long is the fellowship?

A: It’s generally a two year program, with the VAP going on the teaching market in the second year. We’re open to the possibility that somebody coming right out of practice might feel that in their first year as a VAP they might not be able to go from having never been in academia to writing all the scholarship they feel they would need to go on the teaching market. And so we’re open to people doing a third year, but ordinarily it’s a two year VAP.

Q: And so in some circumstances you were saying perhaps it’s renewable if somebody needs a third year, is that possible?

A: Right. There are some people who might think, “I need two years to write instead of instead of one year to write.” We’re totally open to that. And whatever year you go on the teaching market is your terminal year.

Q: Okay. And are you comfortable sharing how much the fellows are paid?

A: It’s 60,000 dollars plus benefits including health insurance. And then there’s also a faculty account that you have as a VAP, just like the faculty account we have. It’s a $5,000 account that covers travel to conferences, etc.

Q: And is that 5,000 per year or over the course of the VAP?

A: Per year.

Q: Okay. And are fellows expected to live in the Durham area?

A: Yes. And the reason is that our VAP is not about adding one more line on a CV. This is a VAP for people who will benefit from the intense experience of being a faculty colleague right alongside the rest of us — with an office along the same corridor as us, going to all the faculty workshops, invited to all the job talks, etc. So you’re going to benefit from the program if you’re actually here.

Q: Yeah, yeah, I agree. I think that’s probably the most valuable part of VAP or fellowship. Do the VAPs have their own intellectual community of sorts? Do they get together on their own to workshop papers or anything else?

A: There is a group of VAPs and fellows who get together and workshop papers. But the amazing thing about our program is, because it’s so small, we don’t need to have a separate program: as a VAP, you are guaranteed at least one slot to present in the general faculty workshop and you’re participating in all of the workshops. So VAPS don’t need to be their own cohort. My understanding is that at some law schools, there are so many VAPs and fellows that the faculty often don’t often know who all of them are, and the VAPs and fellows need to be their own cohort in order to get feedback. That’s just not the case here. Everybody in the faculty is going to know you and you’re going to get all the feedback you could want and so you don’t need to create your own route to get that feedback. VAPs aren’t part of a separate program; they are part of the faculty.

Q: That’s a great opportunity to then make those connections and get people reading your stuff. I mean is it the case that for example, the regular Duke law faculty are routinely reading the VAP’s papers, giving feedback?

A: Absolutely. If we make an offer to a VAP, that means that not only has the Law Teaching committee been impressed but also faculty in the VAP’s areas of scholarly interest have said they are interested in working with the VAP and have committed to mentoring the VAP. So any VAP comes in with a group of faculty in their fields who are interested in helping them develop.

Q: And are they given assistance in developing their broader research agenda, not just their job talk paper, but thinking about their scholarship more generally?

A: Yes. Those are the main conversations that most of us have with VAPs. For most of those who are not in their field, it’s difficult to give great, detailed substantive comments on a paper, but those faculty can and do give a lot of advice about how the VAP can develop a scholarly agenda.

Q: Are they given assistance making connections with faculty in their area of interest outside of Duke in other law schools?

A: Absolutely, and that’s easy for us, because the VAPs arrive at Duke with faculty in their field who are excited to work with them and who help them make connections with faculty in other schools.

Q: Yeah, that’s great. I’m wondering if you have any advice for candidates who come in with  Ph.D.s? Any special considerations that they should keep in mind during their fellowship to make the transition back over to legal scholarship?

A: That’s a great question. I think that the kinds of questions we ask in faculty workshops and about papers that we read are probably different from the kinds of questions that people ask in other disciplines and in legal practice. So there is a way in which, if you’ve gotten accustomed to certain lines of inquiry, you have to re-acclimate yourself to the way we approach things in law schools. But that’s true for  Ph.D. students as well as people coming out of practice. The difference for  Ph.D. students is that they have to acclimate to a slightly different approach. For people coming out of practice, it may involve being newly exposed to academic workshops as well as acclimating more specifically to law workshops.

Q: Yeah, I agree. I think it’s one of those transitions that’s easy to overlook or minimize, but it’s a real one. So it’s important for candidates with  Ph.D.s to keep in mind I think. Let’s flip over to the teaching side again. I’m wondering if the VAP, when they’re teaching that seminar every year, if they receive any training or feedback or mentoring related to their teaching.

A: Yes, but we leave it up to the VAP’s discretion how they want to utilize what we can offer. So for instance, we offer to have people sit in on their classes. Some VAPs don’t want that in a small seminar because it can change the feeling around the table if you’ve got eight students and then one or two faculty colleagues, so VAPs often prefer instead to get input in other ways. We can also record classes, and they are always welcome to sit in on our classes and discuss them with us afterwards. Beyond that, we have resources about how to structure a class so that it goes well, for instance with examples of syllabi and approaches that we use. We have found what works best is letting this be driven by the VAP’s own sense of what would be helpful.

Q: So we’ve talked about the scholarly side, we’ve talked about the teaching side. Do the VAPs have any other duties at the law school, any administrative duties, anything else?

A: No. We see this program as really doing a service to the VAP. To be blunt, the program is not particularly helping us because we aren’t filling important teaching needs, and as I noted we don’t have them teach legal writing, first year classes, or large lecture classes. We want the program to be maximally beneficial to the VAPs, and we want their time not to get taken up with other kinds of duties. So there are no other responsibilities that VAPs have. They are in a better position than tenured and tenure-track faculty, in that they focus on scholarship and teaching with no administrative responsibilities.

Q: And so my next question was going to be what do you think makes this VAP program stand out? But I wouldn’t be surprised if you said that’s what makes it stand out.

A: Yes, and also that you are completely fully integrated into the faculty. You are right alongside us as another member of our faculty, your office is with us. You’re going to all the faculty events, you’re joining us. And I think that that’s different from a lot of other VAP programs where frankly the VAPs can sometimes be a little bit off on their own.

Q: And so given that close connection at Duke between the VAPs and the rest of the law school community, I’m wondering if you have any advice to fellows in terms of making the most of that opportunity?

A: Don’t be too shy to knock on people’s doors. People will definitely knock on your door to offer help, but don’t be shy to knock on their door. You’re fully a part of the faculty and you should take full advantage of that.

Q: Let’s switch over then to the job market. What kind of mentoring do the VAPS receive related to the hiring process?

A: A ton. We’re providing support right from the outset, helping them think about what papers they want to write and what their larger research agenda is. We then give them lots of feedback on their papers, and guarantee them a workshop slot. Jumping to preparation for the teaching market, we help them understand what to emphasize in their AALS form and CV so that they can look their strongest and how to flesh out that research agenda that they’re going to be sending out to law schools. And then we do mock AALS interviews and mock job talks.

Q: Who’s doing that? Is there a faculty or staff who are responsible for shepherding the candidates in some ways through that hiring process?

A: That is the responsibility of the Law Teaching Committee, which I chair.

Q: Yep. Okay, great. Let’s talk about the program’s success rate, so to speak. If you look back over say the last five years, 10 years, what percentage of the fellows have landed in tenure track positions at law schools?

A: In the history of the program, all but one of the VAPs have gotten tenure track jobs.

Q: Okay, great. And for candidates who might not get a job in a given year, you mentioned before that the year they go on the market is their terminal year, wondering what happens if somebody doesn’t get a job that year?

A: It only happened one time and the particular VAP decided that legal academia ultimately wasn’t where she wanted to go. And so it was less about the market I think, and more about her own interests. So it’s really not something that we’ve had to confront. But that’s in part because we are able to choose people who really do have pretty great potential, and give them a lot of support along the way.

Q: I’d love while I have you on the line to ask you some broader questions about the VAPs and fellowship, I’m wondering what do you think are the benefits of these programs as an entry point into legal academia and what do you think of the cost?

A: That’s a great question. I think the main benefit is that VAP programs, if they are designed to increase the pipeline, can increase the pipeline. But if VAP programs are focused only on those who’ve already had time to write, it may not accomplish that goal. And that’s why we designed our program to look hard for those haven’t had tons of time to write and who would benefit from being fully integrated into a law school.

Q: Do you think that these programs have a greater obligation than perhaps we’ve seen to open up law faculty positions to candidates from diverse or non traditional backgrounds? And if so, how might we do a better job as a profession at that?

A: Yeah, absolutely. Law schools traditionally have been very wary about taking risks in entry level hiring. In our VAP program we are willing to take risks on people who haven’t yet had as extensive opportunities as others. We think it’s really important that a program like ours cast its net as widely as possible. And this isn’t just words, we’ve actually done it.

Q: I’m sure you’ve heard the criticism from hiring committees that VAPs and fellows get so much help on their job task paper, on their research agenda, from the faculties, from the schools where they are, that it can be hard for hiring committees to know how much of the work is their own and how much of the ideas come from the faculty where they’re employed. What do you think about that criticism?

A: I’m not persuaded. VAPs workshop their papers with us and we give them tons of feedback just as we do for our tenure track and tenured faculty. And I don’t think other schools have difficulty evaluating our tenure track and tenured faculty.

Q: Perhaps one difference is that a tenure track faculty member is coming up for tenure in that same faculty. So the faculty knows how much help that person’s gotten and is able to evaluate it appropriately. It may be harder for a VAP, right?

A: Right. But when schools are looking at laterals and that person is pre-tenure or immediately post-tenure, they similarly have the person’s papers to rely on. School X considering someone at school Y doesn’t know exactly what help the candidate got at school Y. But most of us assume that anyone on the tenure-track received a lot of help, because that’s what it means to be on the faculty. That said, ultimately the papers are the author’s responsibility. I don’t know why that’s different when you’re thinking about hiring somebody who’s been a few years at another school on the tenure track as opposed to being a couple of years at another school as a VAP.

Q: That’s a good point. On another point, let’s talk about trade-offs. Time is zero sum in so many ways, and so time spent in a fellowship is obviously not time spent, for example, in practice. I’m wondering what you think of that trade off given that law schools are in the business of educating lawyers?

A: These days to be competitive on the entry level market, you must have already demonstrated some scholarly productivity. It’s hard to do that coming straight out of practice. Part of the reason we designed our VAP program was in particular to help people who have not had time to write, so I think VAPs from active practice makes a lot of sense.

Q: Do you think the rise of VAPs and fellowships is contributing to the small amount of practice experience we’re seeing today in new hires?

A: Perhaps, but at least with our program there is a countervailing consideration, which is that our program helps to enable those with practice experience to enter the legal academy. If there were no VAP or fellowship programs of any kind, then  Ph.D.s would have an enormous advantage over those in practice because the  Ph.D. would have had a ton of time to write. It would be very hard for somebody coming out of practice to look attractive compared to someone coming out of a  Ph.D. program. So I see VAPs, or at least a program like ours, as providing a greater opportunity for those with practice experience to enter the legal academy.

Q: So I’ve asked you a lot of questions. I know we’ve been through a lot of different topics, but I’m wondering if there’s anything else you want to share about Duke’s VAP program or thoughts on the law teaching market more generally.

A: The main feature that I like about our program is you really are a full member of our community. Moreover, it gives people who might not otherwise have a chance at becoming legal academics a real opportunity to cultivate themselves and to have time to write. In some ways I wish our program could be bigger so we could do that for more people. The problem is if it were a bigger program, then it wouldn’t be the same program, then VAPs wouldn’t get the kind of attention that they actually get in our program.

Q: Great. Thank you so much Stuart. I really appreciate your time today.

A: Thank you.

This series is cross-posted on PrawsBlawg.