Appointments Insecurity

The blogosphere Law School Appointments meme may have run its course temporarily. I’m out of thoughts, for sure, except this one: Why is the topic so fascinating — not just to candidates and prospective candidates, but to tenured and tenure-stream law professors?

Aside from summer tedium and the desire to put off writing serious stuff, a couple of anxieties may be at work. One is the obvious anxiety of faculty candidates. The other is the less obvious professional anxiety of faculty themselves. Do we reinforce the mystical nature of law faculty hiring in order to help satisfy ourselves that we are “real” academics? What follows is a hypothesis.

The student side isn’t so difficult to understand: In other disciplines, the process of getting an academic appointment is (or should be) simply built in to the academic training. The Ph.D. is an academic degree; part of the process of working toward the Ph.D. is deciphering the mysticism of the academy and learning how to get a job. (There is “job seeking advice” for Ph.D. candidates, so I could be overstating the case.) Law school is different; the JD is a professional degree. Even at the elite law schools, only a handful of law students get meaningful exposure to the academic side of the legal profession. (Law review service rarely counts as meaningful exposure.) Almost all JDs who set out on the academic path do so with a minimum of prior knowledge regarding what that path involves. There is the widely-shared misconception among lawyers that the law professoriate is primarily a teaching body, when in fact it is primarily a writing body. Among candidates, the thirst for knowledge is tremendous.

On the faculty side: Law faculty have lots of reasons to satisfy that thirst. One is that we use hiring practices (along with lots of other things) to speak to the rest of the university. Remember that law professors are suspect academics in the eyes of many of our non-law academic colleagues. Most of us don’t have terminal degrees or formal training as researchers and scholars. We’re armchair theorists, mostly, not empiricists, and worse, we like to poach on other disciplines with amateur “interdisciplinary” writing. In lots of ways, we have to justify our place in the academy. One is via hiring and promotion norms, such as they are: ensuring that faculty are appropriately credentialed (a proxy for: serious intellectual and scholarly potential), appropriately vetted (academic candidates in all disciplines give talks), and all in all, appropriately intimidated by the process. We need to be snooty and mystical; this makes law faculties “look like” other academic faculties.

Two is that we use hiring practices to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the legal profession. Academic lawyers aren’t like practicing lawyers. There is no “talk” involved in getting a job in a law office, and (relative to getting a faculty job) credentialing requirements for law practice are minimal. Moreover, many law professors are familiar with the abusive hiring and retention practices that characterize large law firms and want to ensure that faculty hiring and promotion is “different.” Law firms hire lots of new associates knowing full well that most of them won’t survive the partnership track. Law faculties typically don’t want to hire anyone they wouldn’t want to promote to a tenured-appointment. We think of ourselves as being nicer than law firm partners. So we get as explicit as possible about how our snootiness works; if you’re able to follow our elaborate paths of bread crumbs, then you’re worthy, and we really, really want you to join our academic club.