Law Teaching Interview Advice
posted by Daniel Solove
The AALS law teaching interview season will be commencing soon, and since a number of our readers will be interviewing for law teaching jobs, here are a few quick words of advice.
First, keep in mind that your interview lasts only for 30 minutes, and the law professors interviewing you will be interviewing dozens of people. They will be cooped up in a stuffy room all day, meeting one bright-eyed candidate after the next. Only a few of these scores of people will be invited back to the law school for a full all-day interview. This means that at the end of the day, your 30 minutes needs to be memorable. You need to make an impression on them. But what kind of impression?
Here’s the ideal impression, in my opinion, that you should create:
(1) You are a true intellectual, who is a thoughtful and careful thinker.
The interviewers are trying to imagine you as a law professor. They don’t want a political hack; instead they want a scholar. They want somebody who is genuinely interested in thinking about things, not just winning an argument. The interview isn’t an argument before a court. You don’t have to have all the answers. Instead, you want to convey that you think deeply about issues, that you understand the problems in your positions, that you have an intellectual curiosity. The interviewers don’t expect you to have it all worked out and the answers to every issue that you’re thinking about. They want to see whether you think about things in an open-minded and thoughtful way. It’s more impressive to demonstrate how you wrestle with issues rather than how you think you have conquered them.
(2) You have a coherent scholarly agenda and a vision for where you see yourself as a scholar within the next five years.
A scholarly agenda is essential. Interviewers are taking a big gamble when they hire an entry level candidate, especially since tenure is usually granted in law school and tenure battles can be immensely unpleasant and divisive. That means they want to be sure to select the person who has a bright future, who has a sense of direction. They want to imagine you in five years as being involved in a field, in a set of debates. Your agenda also must have some coherence. That doesn’t mean that you must say you’re intending only to write in one field or on a narrow issue. But the interviewers must see some degree of coherence.
(3) You are articulate and enthusiastic about ideas, and you will be able to teach a class effectively.
The interviewers will want to see if you can express ideas clearly and concisely, as well as with enthusiasm. They’re trying to imagine how you’ll be in the classroom. Will you bore students to tears? Will you be unable to explain the law in a clear understandable fashion? And will you be dull when you present papers at conferences? The interviewers must decide whether or not to bring you before the full faculty for a job talk. If too many job talks are duds, the faculty will start to grow a bit annoyed at the appointments committee for wasting their time. So there is some pressure on the committee to bring back candidates who will be interesting and engaging speakers.
(4) You are creative and interesting, and you can generate new ideas rather than just rehash existing ones.
So many teaching candidates are smart and well-read, but there are only a few who have that creative spark, who can create new ideas. An analogy can be made to basketball — there are players who can create their own shot and there are players who can only thrive if others help set up their shot and pass them the ball. Those that create their own shot are rare, but when they are spotted, they are greatly prized. It is very hard to convey this in the 30-minute interview, but if you can, you will really stand out above the rest.
(5) You are friendly and pleasant to be around.
When a faculty hires a new professor, the odds are that he or she will be on the faculty for life. Yes, some folks will move laterally, and there is the occasional denial of tenure. But for the most part, hiring a person is like adding a permanent member to the family. It is important that you’re likable; nobody wants to spend a lifetime around a sour and unpleasant colleague.
(6) You are confident about yourself and your work, yet not arrogant.
Confidence is very important. Those who are confident in themselves sound more authoritive, more convincing, more in command of what they are talking about. You may have doubts about yourself, your work, your ideas, your worthiness to be hired by a particular school, or your worthiness to be hired at all. But you can’t let these doubts show. This doesn’t mean being arrogant, which is a big hindrance to getting hired. It doesn’t mean that you should pretend to be totally assured that everything you say is correct. But you must be confident that you have something interesting to say, that you are capable of thinking clearly and deeply about an issue. Arrogance is thinking that you’re always right and brilliant. Confidence is realizing that you’re not always right, that you’ve got a lot more thinking to do, but that you nevertheless have interesting thoughtful observations to contribute to the discourse.
(7) You are enthusiastic about being at the school you’re interviewing with, and you will be happy living in the place where the school is located.
Interviewers at many law schools might try to guage your interest in the school and its location. There are only so many people that a school can call back for full interviews, and why waste a slot on a candidate who is most likely desiring to go somewhere else? Each school has its own virtues and faults. Think deeply about the virtues of the school you’re interviewing with before the interview and go in with an enthusiastic and positive attitude.
That’s basically all I can think about for advice for law teaching interviews at the AALS interview meeting. Most of what I have said has been said before. There are no secret magic tricks; and I think the tips I offer are just basic common sense. But for some odd reason, when you’re a teaching candidate, the whole process seems mystical and opaque. It’s not really, but it’s hard to see through the fog when you’re enveloped in stress and uncertainty. Anyway, best of luck!