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February 21, 2013


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Michael Risch

I am not following the logic. First, our VAPs have been great, and most of them have gotten jobs (good jobs, at schools much higher in the US News Ranking than our own). If there is an opening somewhere, why wouldn't we want to fill it with folks who had time to get some writing and teaching experience.

Further, let's assume that this is a sea change, and that enrollments are decreasing. Does it logically follow that we get rid of VAPs? I think not. First, part of the sea change is that we need MORE professor to student contact, so VAPs help more than adjuncts. Second, part of the sea change is that we need to keep costs down, so VAPs help more than permanent hires.

Of course, this doesn't help the VAPs much if they can't get jobs, but it's not like this was an easy market before, either. It's always a risk, and I would rather have someone full-time in the building who wants to make a go at an academic career despite long odds. The typical VAP is someone who can go back to practice if things don't pan out.

Uh, no.

"The typical VAP is someone who can go back to practice if things don't pan out."

Really? You think firms would be eager to hire someone who is probably a minimum of five years out of law school (clerkship plus two years practice plus two years VAP) but who likely has only very junior-level practice experience? Oh, and throw in that it's obvious that the only reason that the person is looking for a job is that s/he totally failed in an attempt to get a job in his/her preferred field (teaching) -- AND the person is probably a flight risk if the law school hiring market ever rebounds?

My guess is that firms won't want to touch failed VAPs with a ten foot pole. They'll either be able to beg and plead for the firm that they left to do a VAP to take them back, or they won't be able to practice law. Maybe the VAPs who had more substantial experience -- as in, 5+ years -- might have some success. Maybe.

I say this as someone in a similar-but-slightly-better situation. I'm not VAPing/fellowing, but I'm also doing a term-limited job. On the plus side, it's much less obvious that I am a failed academic job-seeker (for a couple of plausible reasons), and I have a good bit of meaningful practice experience. And still, a couple of recruiters have said something to the effect of "top 5 law school, federal clerkship, several years of impressive practice experience -- well, I might be able to get you a staff attorney job at a firm."

Orin Kerr

Eric, this is an interesting question that I have thought about a lot. (Full disclosure: my school has a VAP program and I am on the committee that interviews and mentors VAPs, but these thoughts are entirely my own.)

My tentative answer is that it is ethical to sustain VAP programs for a few overdetermined reasons: (a) being a VAP is still very helpful to get a tenure-track position (b) although tenure-track jobs are harder to get now than 2 years ago, there are still many schools hiring for tenure-track openings (c) the individuals who get VAPs are paid for the position and the teaching responsibilities tend to be very light, and (d) the individuals who obtain VAPs tend to be among the most sophisticated at understanding the market and among the most credentialed young lawyers around (including recent Supreme court clerks). As long as schools are up front and honest as to what the program is and the realities of the hiring market, I don't see an ethical problem with hosting such a program.

Sad Vap

I tend to agree with "Uh, no." While I had more than 5 years experience before accepting a VAP, I'm otherwise in the situation s/he describes. I struck out on the academic job market this year and am now trying to figure out what to do at the end of the semester. I'm very worried that my resume reads exactly as "Uh, no" suggests: only interested in returning to practice because I failed to land a teaching job and ultimately a long-term flight risk. Whether or not that's true, I'm having a hard time drafting cover letters to explain why else I Vapped for two years and am now looking to get back into practice.

I certainly don't blame anyone else for my predicament, but I think Eric is asking the right questions. I have no idea what the numbers are, but my sense is that--at least in the short term--there are going to be many more people coming off VAP programs than entry-level hiring slots. Whether continuing to offer VAP positions is "fair" to these people or not, I don't know. I'm a grown-up; I made my own decision. Perhaps I underestimated the risk (although I like to think I would have landed an academic position in years past). In any event, I'm in an unpleasant position now, and whether schools can help prevent others from ending up in my situation, again, I'm not sure, but I agree it's at least worth thinking about.

Uh, no.

Sad Vap -- have you thought about trying to pitch your VAP stint as a mid-career "sabbatical" of sorts? You could basically say something along the lines of you had always wanted to see if teaching was for you, but after experiencing the academic world for a couple of years (and especially the legal academic world during a time of such transition), you decided that you prefer practice.

What I'm basically trying to do is to pitch my current term job as an effort to transition from one sphere to another (like private practice to government or somesuch). We'll see how that plays.

another VAP out in the cold

I'm with Sad Vap and Uh, no.

Generally speaking, the VAPs that placed this year are the ones who came from Harvard, Yale, Chicago, etc., and I know of several from these and other T14 schools who DID NOT place. These are our options:

1. Beg and plead for our current school to extend our tenure (which we know from other blog postings that at least one prominent school is not doing)

2. Apply for another VAP, which (if we can even get it) leads to another short-term move and upheaval for us and our families, plus serious uncertainty about the job market in 2013 or 2014

3. Go back into practice and bag the whole academic thing, assuming we can get a job, which is not a fair assumption for many of us

I haven't even started to discuss the problems with the legal academy as a whole viz. the VAPs coming from T14 schools. I don't have the time. I have an article to place and students to mentor.

The thing is, many of us are good at what we do. Better, in several cases, than the faculty members who considered and voted on us as candidates. You didn't hire us for whatever reasons. I can think of several reasons that will never see the light of day.

I'm obviously jaded. But to the extent that VAP programs are being used for good and cheap labor, you should stop running them. And we should all stop applying. If you want to continue a VAP program because you firmly believe you'll be able to strenuously advocate for your VAPs on the market and help them get jobs, since we all know that no one gets a job on their own these days, then maybe you can ethically keep going.


Just out of curiosity, what percentage of VAP's from the big-name programs are NOT placing in tenure-track jobs this year? 20? 50? 80? I am just wondering how tight the market is right now...


Much as it may annoy a few people here:-

Schools offering VAPs are somewhat close to "trap schools" like American University offering incentives to get 1Ls in seats. Like it or not layoffs are coming - and junior professors (even tenured) will under most tenure rules take the brunt of the layoffs. Most VAPs have the credentials to survive as lawyers (more or less) and while they may not be enamoured of the possibility of actual practice, it is better than unemployment (Uh no. is right.)

Indeed, it may well be that after the shakeout and layoffs that are imminent law schools will want to see a level of practice experience on a tenure candidate's resumé than is currently considered excessive. Certainly many in the profession are pushing for 5+ and even 10+ actual practice experience to be the norm for faculties.

Sad Vap

Uh, no: Yeah, that's pretty much how I'm trying to spin it (as well as geography: for personal reasons, I wanted to move to State X, I got the opportunity to VAP here, now I want to stay and practice here, etc.). I just worry that employers will see these as weak attempts to explain a failed academic job search (which, to be fair, they probably are) and not want to touch me with your metaphorical ten foot pole. I'm just hoping that, as Orin implies in his point (d), because I'm a relatively well-credentialed young[ish] lawyer (thought not a Supreme Court clerk by a long shot!), I'll be able to land on my feet.

Michael Risch

I hear you that there are risks and concerns, but I have to think you are going to get hired before our graduates, based on a) your credentials, and b) your experience. I agree about the sabbatical pitch, and I also think that there are ways to structure the VAP while not actually leaving the firm - I have heard of bigger firms allowing that time off, especially when the law firm market is slow.

I didn't want to paint it as a rosy picture - it is risky business. I was lucky to get hired myself, and I am in a growing field and times were better. Risk averse folks can try the market without VAPing - I don't know that it falls on the schools to not offer the opportunity because it might be risky for some. I'm barely convinced of that for students, and they are paying tuition, at least. Here, the school pays the VAP, provides the office, provides free access to research services, etc.

Uh, no.

"I'm just hoping that, as Orin implies in his point (d), because I'm a relatively well-credentialed young[ish] lawyer (thought not a Supreme Court clerk by a long shot!), I'll be able to land on my feet."

Not to be debbie downer, but I'd urge you (and me, and anyone else in our boat) not to feel too overconfident that a sterling resume is going to make it easy to move back to practice. My resume is probably pretty standard academic job market fare -- good grades from a top school, clerkship, several years at an elite firm, several years doing interesting public sphere litigation, including a few cases that got national exposure (and lots of stuff that got regional exposure), lots of publications. When I realized that I probably need to go back to practice a few months ago, I sent it to a couple of recruiters that I know in my home market (a head hunter type and a firm recruiter) to gage what I should expect. Here's what they said:

Head hunter: You're too senior for firms to want you as a new associate, and you don't have any business to come in as a partner. You've also been away from private practice long enough for it to be a problem. Firms are going to think you won't be willing to bill 2200 hours again. They're also going to think that you'll get bored doing "normal" cases. Oh, and they're going to be concerned that you won't work well with partners who don't have your academic or professional credentials. I hate to break it to you, but if you have to stay in this market, you might need to start looking at staff attorney jobs. Maybe even non-doc review contract work.

Firm recruiter: Wow! That's the most impressive resume that I've seen in quite a while. You literally have everything that we say we want when we hire lateral associates or counsel. Just wow. But we totally wouldn't be interested. We hire midlevel associates with 4-5 years of experience. We take in partners with a book of business. We don't hire people that sort of fall in the middle of those two. You might see if some of the firms around town that have had higher-than-expected turnover over the past few years need any bodies.

another VAP out in the cold

Uh, no and Sad Vap - I've also been playing with the "sabbatical" concept. There are plenty of reasons for leaving the academy right now. Plus, sometimes you have to do a job to know you don't actually want to do a job. I'm working with a geographic constraint as well.

Michael - if we are competing against your graduates, who have zero experience, while we have 2-5+ years of practice experience PLUS the time we've spent teaching, we are in serious trouble.

anon - I heard of several Climenkos who didn't place this year. There was a recent posting on Prawfs about Cornell(?) not renewing VAP contracts as well.


Part of the answer will depend on what type of VAP "program" we are talking about. Some VAP programs offer mentorship, interaction with the faculty, discussions about how to improve teaching, a chance to have your work reviewed, practice job talks, and people promoting you on the market. In some programs you are essentially a warm body to fill a podium spot, with a regular (not light, as Orin mentions) teaching load, and with no interaction with faculty other than a hello in the hallway.

I think that many schools are already cutting the latter type of VAPs, since as class sizes are shrinking there is less need for extra faculty and no need to incur the cost. The former type, however, I can still see being valuable for those that can afford the pay cut and the upheaval of moving to a new city, since it is those type of candidates that are best prepared for idiosyncratic nature of the hiring market.


The post and comments have emphasized the appropriateness relative to candidate VAPs. As to that, I think that defenders of the programs, particularly those at other than top-ranked schools, are thinking too rosily about job prospects -- it's reminiscent of the way Ph.D. programs kept churning out grads far in excess of market demand. But let me suggest two other potential problems.

First, bringing in VAPs necessarily creates an obligation to help those VAPs secure jobs in academia. Beyond asking professors doing the hiring to think very carefully about how successful those (their) efforts are likely to be, I'd also note that there's a tension between promoting those VAPs and promoting graduates of the law school who have an interest (and who worked and published, or even found VAPs elsewhere). I don't know how to reconcile those in an environment of scarcity, unless we think they're really completely different classes of candidates.

Second, faculties hiring VAPs should reflect closely on their motives. VAPs are great to have around as proto-colleagues in terms of intellectual life, which helps influence academic reputation, maybe. They are great to have around to the extent they should assume classroom responsibilities, too, but those are usually light (as noted above). Anything that involves hiring additional personnel who are *not* going full bore in the classroom, or assuming another responsibility for which someone would have to be hired at the same rate, adds to the cost of legal education in a way that seems increasingly suspect. Of course, if the VAPs *are* teaching heavily, they are not being prepared for the academic job market -- at least as it presently exists -- and it often works to reduce fulltime faculty burdens.

The real trick, in other words, is balancing the interests of the VAPs and those of currently enrolled, tuition-paying students. We have to discount our own interests.

Jeffrey Harrison

Is someone making people be VAPs or even to apply to law school. I would hate to think we are at the point of such extreme paternalism that we would discontinue VAPs because it might not be fair to VAPS to have VAPs.


The most interesting thing about the VAP situation is that there are folks out there who seem genuinely unaware that failed VAPs are in a sticky situation if they don't get teaching jobs. I think in many situations this is an artifact of the non-academic job seeking experience of the professors being limited to the first two or three years out of law school, when glittering academic records do indeed open all doors. It's a different game further into one's career, when the coin of the realm becomes the coin of the realm - that is to say, portable client business. VAPs that are no longer that junior and who do not have client relationships may not find it impossible to land happily, but they will find it hard. Path dependency matters, and they've cut the path of practice.

That said, I'm not in favor of outlawing VAP programs. I am in favor of wannabe VAPs asking hard questions - and schools providing truthful answers - about where their predecessors really landed. For the schools, not knowing when asked (and not wanting to know) what happened to all their former VAP colleagues is not a morally defensible position.


One more point - the VAP situation really ought to be looked at in the context of the overall academy, where a significantly increased proportion of the undergraduate course load is being taught by non-tenure track temporary faculty. Recent Ph.D.s stitch together a living teaching classes at two or three different schools. The typical Ph.D. may not have the debt load of law graduates, but in many cases their alternative career options are even more compromised. For schools, hiring people at a lower per credit cost with no benefits allows them to lower their costs.

If I were the predicting type, my bet would be that law schools afraid to hire new faculty will over time resemble the other university departments a bit more. I don't see schools giving up on the advantages of temporary faculty, especially in light of uncertain prospects, and I see people willing to take the jobs.

John Thompson

Why would VAPs be treated with any more regard for their near-term employment outcomes than the students they teach?

To a law school dean and his faculty, law students are the trees on which federal student loans grow, and you sub-elite VAPs are just the Mexicans hired to help pick them clean this season. Welcome to our rapidly expanding JD underclass.


Jeffrey Harrison: It is not "extreme paternalism" to talk through how a pitch could be made accurate (e.g., "It is increasingly unlikely that anything like this will result in a tenure-track job at a place where you'd want to work, and it won't be as easy to return to practice as you might be guessing") and then decide that you don't want to be pitching on that basis, or that you're concerned your colleagues won't be. It's more like dignity, self-respect, and regard for others. And, as I said earlier, there are other parties to be concerned about, like those footing the bill.

Michael Risch

another VAP out in the cold says: "The thing is, many of us are good at what we do. Better, in several cases, than the faculty members who considered and voted on us as candidates."

Let me first say that this story is not targeted at "out in the cold" - I don't know about his or her interviewing style. But I've seen it before and it makes me think of my time on appointments at my last school. Since VAPs are reading this, I'll share it.

When I was at WVU, we had candidates who clearly felt this way just in the way they interacted with us. They were usually the first to not get callbacks, and certainly not offers. Some of them got "better" jobs elsewhere. Some of them got no jobs.

I will now share some of the "reasons that will never see the light of day." People like good colleagues, and "I'm better than you" is contrary to that. People like good teachers, and "I'm better than you" is contrary to that. People like good scholars, and "I'm better than you" signifies a scholar unwilling to take constructive criticism. That, plus people don't like assholes, even if you are better than them and they know it.

I will never understand the law hiring market, and I've been through it twice. I should have had more meat market and callback interviews and offers than I did. But my -- admittedly anecdotal -- advice is to suck it up and be a mensch. At the very least, you will see these folks again. At conferences, on the lateral market, wherever. Graciousness and humility go a long way, no matter how awesome you are.

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