The Real Problem with Law Teaching Fellowships

Orin Kerr blogged yesterday about a new Visiting Assistant Professor program in the works at Harvard Law School and attracted a pretty predictable chorus of critics (of Harvard, not Orin).  The post is hard on the heels of this post by Rick Swedloff at Concurring Opinions about law teaching fellowships, and Paul Caron’s roundup of fellowships, VAP programs, and advice for aspiring law teachers.  (Shameless self-promotion:  Paul doesn’t link to my own contribution to the advice literature:  Part I, Part II, and Part III.)

At CoOp, Rick offers the standard, best defense of fellowships and VAP programs.  So long as they really do offer time to read and write, they help would-be faculty find their academic feet before diving into the job market.  That’s consistent with my core advice to academic job-seekers:  To become a professor, be a professor.  Be the ball, Danny.

The chorus at volokh.com (and some of the commentary at CoOp) offers the standard cynical view:  The programs exploit cheap labor, undervalue the practitioner credentials of the candidates that they purport to promote, and reward candidates who are already likely to get teaching jobs, regardless of a fellowship or VAP appointment.

Let me offer a different view.  The real problem with law teaching fellowships and VAP programs is what I’ll call scope creep. 

It is possible to do what Dean Elena Kagan at Harvard now claims she is trying to do:  give experienced practitioners a meaningful opportunity to access the market for law teachers.  When I first got into law teaching, some fellowships (and to a lesser extent, VAP programs) really did try to do that.   Back in the day, there were far fewer of these programs than there are now, and it was less true that appointments committees looked for some academic experience in the CVs of candidates who didn’t follow “traditional” routes to teaching.  Practitioners had some real opportunities to leverage intermediate academic appointments into law teaching careers.

I was one of those people.  I was a “Climenko Fellow” at Harvard when that program was an experiment run by a handful of faculty, before the program had that name, before the content of the program took its current form, and when the purpose of the fellowship was precisely what Dean Kagan is describing now.  There were only six of us, originally, over three years.  Of that group, I had the most experience as a practitioner — roughly nine years — but none of us was strategizing a teaching career from the day we graduated from law school.  Three of us now have tenure at U.S. law schools.  For the Harvard faculty who originally conceived the fellowship, that’s a pretty good record.

Over time, the Climenko Fellowship changed.  It got funded and named.  Institutional needs intervened; interests of the original sponsoring faculty were not always shared by their colleagues.  As it got institutionalized the fellowship got flattened, that is, it lost its distinctive character.  Across the country, distinctive VAP and fellowship programs (Chicago, Columbia, for example) begat copycats that likewise lacked distinctiveness.  The goal wasn’t necessarily to create training space for candidates on their way to the market; the goals included promoting the school’s brand in a market for scholars, and hiring cheap teachers.

In short, what was a relatively unique credential and experience has become more or less common (pun intended) in the legal academy.  The scope of hiring committees’ expectations have changed in response.  A fellowship or VAP position may be regarded as a prerequisite for any but a few candidates, which may mean that the experience makes a difference for only a few.  As non-elite law schools created programs to democratize the market for law teachers (and buy themselves some reputational capital in the process), they inadvertently made it more difficult for any non-“traditional” candidate to attract attention.  Everyone with non-standard credentials (and even many with standard credentials) gets advised to take a fellowship or a VAP appointment before going on the teaching market. 

What to do?

If you’re a candidate:  You need to manage two somewhat contradictory imperatives.  On the one hand, be the ball.  Learn how to walk, talk, write, and think like a professor — like most of your would-be colleagues — and then apply for a job.  On the other hand, distinguish yourself in some way beyond the usual stuff — beyond where you went to college or law school, beyond your grades and clerkship, beyond the name of your law firm, beyond the increasingly-standard VAP position, even beyond where you placed that first article.  Distinguish yourself with the sophistication of your ideas; distinguish yourself with the sophistication of your presence.  On both counts, this is where connections with other academics, conferencing, and even (in a pinch) blogging may help.  On both counts it likely requires both time and money and a manifest emotional commitment to the pursuit of an academic career.  Some commenters to Orin’s post are skeptical of the Harvard program because practitioners are going to be reluctant to give up their practices and will worry about returning if the academic path doesn’t pan out.  Yes, that’s absolutely right.  If you’re risk averse in that way, then don’t take the job.  Stay in practice.

If you’re a law school that wants to promote itself and/or its graduates as potential teachers:  Create something other than a copy-cat VAP/fellowship program, and create something that has a concrete and discrete mission.  Current tenured and tenure-stream faculty need to be personally invested in both the operation of the program and in its success.  Give the fellows/VAPs time to learn and time to write, work with them (read their stuff, have lunch with them), and don’t give them too much to teach.  It’s difficult if not impossible to pull this off if the school doesn’t already have a strong institutional commitment to producing quality scholarship.

5 thoughts on “The Real Problem with Law Teaching Fellowships

  1. As a former Northwestern VAP, I have nothing but praise for the program. Adopting Mike’s terminology: a VAP position gives you a chance to (1) practice being the ball and (2) credibly signal your commitment to being the ball. Both are distinct advantages on the market.

  2. I agree with much of what you’ve written, Mike. I will add only one thing – and it’s just my own view. I think the number of VAP programs has now gotten sufficiently large that they don’t have the same resume value they once did. As you note, most of the people getting VAP’s have the type of credentials that would have made them likely to get a teaching job a few years back. And I don’t think that, as between candidate A (who has excellent credentials, a published article and a VAP) and candidate B (similar excellent credentials and a published article, but no VAP), the VAP position actually does much work for the candidate.

    Assuming you’re in the pool of “legitimate” candidates in the first place, I think there are only 2 things that distinguish a candidate: (1) the quality of the candidate’s paper and his or her ability to engage in real, substantive discussion about the topic; and (2) references.

    A VAP position could help a candidate with both of those things, at least indirectly. If the program really does incubate scholars, then it may improve someone’s chances of writing a good paper. Speaking for myself, there was a real transition period learning how scholars write and talk (how to be, as Mike says, “the ball”). A VAP position could conceivably aid that process – but I only say “could conceivably” because I have seen several candidates on the market who have had VAP positions who still clearly haven’t figured out academic writing. And, in a VAP program in which faculty really are involved with the fellows, one could really benefit from developing relationships with scholars in one’s fields. That is especially true for candidates who didn’t have the “future law professor” look about them in law school, and who therefore probably don’t have former professors who can speak on their behalf.

  3. “That is especially true for candidates who didn’t have the ‘future law professor’ look about them in law school, and who therefore probably don’t have former professors who can speak on their behalf.”

    I would add that it is also important for those who have been out of law school for a while – memories fade over time, so new connections, support, input, references, etc. are important.

  4. To my mind another problem with many VAP/Fellowship programs is that they are only one year and so do not give enough time to people to do what they are supposedly meant to do. It would be impossible for someone to take such a position, write a publishable paper (let alone publish it!), and go on the market all in one year, even if she were not teaching at the same time. A two-year program can allow for that. A fair number of fellowships now are for two years, but those that are not will be of strong use only to a pretty select group.

  5. i think a finely targeted VAP program can have benefits far beyond those suggested here. that is, if a school is interested in developing a scholar in a particular field and that school’s faculty are willing to mentor VAPs, i can easily see how that would be useful.

    i got an LLM and established a wonderful relationship with the dean of my program, and, but for the LLM, i could not imagine myself even thinking of entering academia. i learned how to write and also learned how to be a ‘professional’ from him. of course, perhaps most VAP programs are just a source of cheap labor and nothing more. i have no firm basis to suggest one way or another, but I do believe an LLM/vap program can potentially be good for aspiring scholars (but, again, what do I know?).

    all that being said, as someone who is currently engaged in the practice of law, i imagine strong legal experience (and especially a targeted VAP program) will be against a candidate — my understanding is that most schools abhor candidates who actually understand how the law affects the real world. that is, if someone actually understands the practice of law (not to say *I* understand the ins and the outs), I imagine most hiring committees would be extremely inimical to such a candidate. instead, a candidate who can offer worthless (but interesting!) “law and…” scholarship will be preferred to a candidate who can add something to the world besides talking points to sophisticated ivy league circles.

    in short, the problem mr. madison’s post hits on goes beyond the simple question of hiring junior adjuncts, but goes towards the fundamental mission of the law school itself: if a school is to take on a VAP, what is the goal? is it to find substitutes for professors who offer no real-world experience and who write useless scholarship? or is it to help cultivate an academic culture that values a connection to the real world? to the extent the program serves the latter goal, I believe a VAP program can be an integral part of a law school, and I believe mr. madison’s remarks are off-base. to the extent that a VAP program does not serve that purpose, i believe mr. madison’s comments are spot-on.

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