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December 27, 2012


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Can the effect of the Washington gridlock (re "fiscal cliff") on higher education be predicted? If so, what is the CW on what might happen when DC doesnt get its act together?


The general consensus is that this year's hiring cycle was awful, next year's is going to be worse, and there's nothing to suggest that the following year will be any better. This coincides with a massive VAP/fellowship industry that's grown to the point where most successful job market candidates have one.

Question 1: What do unsuccessful VAP or fellow candidates do if they strike out?

Question 2: If the answer to that is "try to get another VAP/fellowship or extend the one they currently have and go back on the market," are we headed for a death spiral like many humanities disciplines experienced five or so years ago, where the same group of (relatively) recent PhDs chased an ever-dwindling number of jobs?

Question 3: If the answer to that is "yep, looks that way," then what's the endgame? Those humanities programs essentially mothballed their PhD programs -- many didn't admit anyone for several years to let the glut work its way out of the system. So that would mean shutting down VAP/fellowship hiring until the market picks back up. Other options? Maybe a limit on how often you can submit a FAR form (i.e., no more than two years in a row, or three times in a five year period)?


Alfred Brophy

Hi Anon @ 11:30 -- that's something we should probably all be thinking about; I don't have a good sense of this, other than Washington gridlock is bad for the economy and anything that hurts the economy is generally bad news for the academy. I'd be interested in the thoughts of people who know more about this.

And anon @ 4:10 -- you raise a lot of questions that are central to the legal academy. I wish I had a better handle on this and I hope others who're more knowledgeable than I will join the conversation. My sense is that faculty candidates are now doing a series of VAPs (what you anticipate the answer is). I wonder if as law school budgets decline VAPs will become even harder to obtain. This is a fear I have.

As to your third question: I have a somewhat difference answer. The academy is looking for more practice experience in entry-level candidates these days then say a decade (or even five years ago), I think. I'm guessing that as the number of academic jobs declines candidates will spend more time in practice. That's one of the benefits of law over the humanities: aspiring faculty can continue to practice. When the market for law faculty begins to turn around, they'll be really well-positioned to enter the academic market, with strong practice experience and also, perhaps, some more publications. (Also, I agree with you, anon, that this year the market's bad for faculty candidates. When I was on the market nearly twenty years ago it seemed really difficult, but those days were better for candidates.)

I'd be interested in your thoughts and also those of people who're looking at this from different vantages from me.


Here's what's been on the back of my mind: how are the various responses that schools have had to dwindling applicant pools going to affect their US News rankings? It seems there have been a few different responses, from shrinking class size to lowering credentials (LSAT, GPA, or both) to even maintaining status quo for some schools.

Here's the crux of the question: assuming a school's expenses stay roughly constant (primarily driven by salary, assuming the school continues to spend the same amount of scholarship money to buy qualified students), but it reduces its class size to maintain credentials, it would benefit in the rankings from increased per-student expenditures. But compare this to a school that maintains its status quo, or even increased its class size while maintaining credentials (of which there are a few). The latter school would receive no benefit, or even be penalized from having the larger class.

Facially, this makes no sense. In context, the former school is very likely one of the many struggling relative to its peers -- it is wrong that it should benefit in rankings from an out-of-equilibrium short-term move, especially as compared to the latter school, which would appear to be doing very well in this market.


Jacqueline Lipton

@ anon 4.10. When you say the hiring cycle has been awful, do you mean that there are a lot less entry level jobs being offered? I'm at a school that has made a significant number of offers this year, but I get the feeling we're not representative of the current trend. Could someone give me a sense of how bad this year is compared to other years overall? Are people not getting job offers at all? Or are they getting offers at less "desirable" schools (whatever that means e.g. ranking, location etc)? Or getting offers with worse packages (e.g. higher teaching loads, lower salaries etc)?
Sorry for my ignorance. I've been a little out of touch with overall hiring trends this year.



I'm on the market this year, and it's awful in the sense that there are far fewer entry-level jobs being offered. All of my academic advisers and recommenders are calling it "brutal." My understanding is that the number of schools that attended AALS was down about 20% over last year. And many of the jobs that seemed to be available at the conference have evaporated as schools have decided not to hire in the face of decreasing class sizes, reduced applicant pools, and significant reductions in first-time LSAT takers.

Bill Turnier

Probably because I have grandchildren, I wonder about the economic world they are entering. Of great concern to me is the growing shift of income from the bottom 90% to the top 1% that we have experienced in the last 30-40 years. Will this trend reverse or will it accelerate? Or will we stabilize at what is not, at least to me, a satisfactory level. Also part and parcel of my concerns is what the shifting of more service work outside the US will mean for our economy. We have already seen the impact on laborers of the shift of light and some heavy manufacturing. The shift of service work started with things such as call centers and has moved to a far lesser degree to medical and some legal work. Should the pace of this shift of legal work further accelerate, we will find the situation for law school graduates and consequently for law schools themselves to deteriorate even further. We in legal education are really being swept up by the same tidal wave that first struck unskilled factory workers. Where will we as a society find ourselves in the decades to come?


I'm the anon from 4:10. (I'm having a little trouble posting, so sorry if this is a duplicate)

Al -- I think there are two issues here, the short/medium term and the long term. Long term, the applicant pool is going to adjust to a world with far fewer entry level openings. Maybe that can just happen by people not pursuing academic jobs because they're perceived as very difficult to get, but I doubt it. It's just too easy to apply out of a firm or government job. My guess is that you'll see some sort of gatekeeping mechanism emerge. Perhaps it will be a requirement that applicants have substantially more practice as you suggest -- I hope so! But I suspect that it will be something else. Maybe a law PhD if Yale's experiment works. Maybe the school/grades/clerkship/publications credential threshold will just crank up even higher than it already is.

Short/medium term, the issue is that you have a bunch of people who made the significant career decision to do a VAP/fellowship thinking that they were going to be in a very different hiring environment. There just aren't academic jobs for many of them, at least right now. Maybe they can go back to practice, but I doubt it, at least for the stereotypical candidate (who probably only practiced for 2-4 years at a big law firm and likely has limited practical skills at this point). Plus, my guess is that they'll be very disinclined to even try -- after 2+ years making peanuts as a VAP and spending countless hours writing 2-4 law review articles, they may be unwilling to cut their losses. If I'm right in all of this, my concern is that for the next few years you'll see the same people on the market, applying for fewer jobs each year. If the humanities are any guide, it will take 3-5 years for that glut to work its way out (by some finally getting jobs, but most just giving up and doing something else with their lives).

(I should note that I'm not one of these unsuccessful VAPs/fellows, though many of them are my friends. I consciously chose to do another pre-academic route with better prospects at returning to practice -- which seems to have been a wise choice in retrospect!)

Jacqueline -- I think whether the tough market manifests itself as no job offer or a job offer from a less desireable school depends on what type of candidate you are. The superstars are still getting jobs, but much further down on the food chain than they used to. Meanwhile, many of the solid-but-not-superstar candidates (I hope I'd be considered one of these) are striking out.

In any event, based on what my formal and informal advisors are saying, the number of openings was down this year by a quarter to a third. There were about 20% fewer schools at AALS, and then some of those decided not to hire. Complicating that, there apparently are a lot of lateral candidates from less-regarded schools who are trying to trade up to schools that seem less likely to be affected by the current law school environment. They are essentially taking a lot of jobs off of the table, at least for the non-superstar entry level candidates.

(Incidentally, this matches my experience this year. Close to half of the schools I interviewed with either didn't end up hiring or hired a lateral.)

Alfred Brophy

Hi anon 11:12,

Thanks for breaking this all down. Very helpful to have all this information.

I wonder if some of the people who've been looking for law school teaching positions will find positions in other departments, such as business schools? I don't know what will happen for well-qualified people who don't find a placement this year. I would certainly suggest that it makes sense to go on the market again -- each year will bring a new set of hiring priorities are schools. Having said that, my sense is that it's becoming much harder to get a job in the legal academy.

To comment briefly on my sense that the academy's looking for more practical experience -- I've heard from a couple of people who questioned whether this is right. I think this is happening in a few ways. First, the slots being filled are those that tend to require more practice experience. Second, hiring committees are looking for people whose interests run towards experiential learning, which I think tends to self-select for those with more practice experience. Finally, I think we're seeing the pendulum swing towards interest in faculty candidates with more practice -- where the pendulum had gone the other way rather decidedly in the late 1990s. That's my sense; I may be wrong. I'd be interested in other views.

Jacqui Lipton

Thanks to everyone who answered my query. That makes a lot of my sense and my heart goes out to those who are having problems although I agree with Al that you should definitely try again next year and perhaps look at business schools etc if they're hiring.
Also, the perception of more lateral offers this year is interesting. I guess laterals may in some senses be regarded as less "risky" hires in a tough economic environment because they have proven track records, but they're also more expensive and can be more difficult to move e.g. often more settled with family commitments in other cities etc. Is the perception that laterals are being preferred because they're less risky, they add more "cache" to a faculty than an entry-level hire, or something else? Just interested if anyone has any thoughts.

Bob Strassfeld

I don't know whether or not we are likely to go the way of the humanities (I gulp as I write that, since I have two children who started history graduate school this year). There is a significant difference in so far as disappointed academic job candidates in law do have some real prospect of making a living with their law degree outside of academia, subject to the constraints that anon describes and to the miserable job market for lawyers. If we really go the way of the humanities, I think the picture is even grimmer than anon has described. The trend in universities has been to rely increasingly on contingent labor. The majority of faculty are no longer tenured or tenure track. To misappropriate, perhaps, a term from Marx, law schools might come to exploit more and more the reserve army of academic labor. If that is the case, we will see more VAPs rather than fewer. In some instances the VAP will launch a tenure track career. More typically it will lead to a series of VAPs and despair. Happy New Year?

Alfred Brophy

Hi Jackie,

As to lateral hiring, I'm wondering if a lot of the lateral hiring is of relatively junior faculty? The market's been bad for so long, there are a lot of really good faculty who've now had a few years to develop as teachers and scholars who'd like to move. I'm not sure if this is though about so much in terms of "risk," as they've accomplished more. Also I'm not sure they're much more expensive they entry-level candidates, given the salary compression at a lot of schools these days.

Ray Campbell

Path dependency will impact the VAP situation. Dropping out of law practice to pursue a VAP comes at a cost - relationships with senior partners and clients will be disrupted, and given that such relationships are critical for lawyers beyond the entry years it's not to be assumed that a mid-career VAP can reenter practice where he/she left off if the pursuit of an academic job fails to work out. It's going to be a pretty high stakes decision for a mid-career lawyer with options to leave practice for a VAP.

Jacqueline Lipton

That's an interesting point, Al. I hadn't thought about that - I was thinking of laterals as being post-tenure, but of course pre-tenure laterals might make up a lot of the lateral hiring this year.

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