Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Law prof hiring trends and law librarian tenure

PrawfsBlawg guest blogger Lior Strahilevitz of the University of Chicago Law School today adds his comments to the oft-noted inflation in standards for law faculty hiring.

It’s a cliché for existing law profs to look at the market for entry-level types and say something to the effect of "I could have never been hired in today’s market." And indeed, the cliché is often factually true. What’s less clear is what follows from that statement. Does that statement preface an argument by the senior faculty member that his law school should look for throw-back legal hires like himself? Or does it precede a comment about how her law school colleagues shouldn’t be so hard on entry level candidate x for a few slip-ups during a job talk? Or does it just reflect an awkward effort to break the ice and flatter a nervous interviewee?

I bring up this cliché because I am getting to the point where I feel the urge to start saying it myself. The punch-line is that I was hired as an entry-level candidate at Chicago just four years ago. I recently completed a two-year tour of duty on Chicago’s appointments committee, and I believe there is a palpable difference between what the market was like in 2001 and what it is like today. During the past couple of years, Chicago interviewed perhaps forty candidates at the AALS conference, virtually all of whom obtained tenure-track teaching jobs somewhere. What was striking about the candidates we interviewed was how few of them fit the "throwback" profile of graduating from a great law school with law review bells and whistles, clerking once or twice, and working in legal practice for a couple of years. Indeed, over the past three years, we hired six entry level profs, but none of them fit that profile. Two of our hires clerked for a year following the completion of their J.D. / PhD’s, and four had worked as writing fellows or Visiting Assistant Professors (“VAP”), following their completion of judicial clerkships and, in most cases, some practice experience. Our hiring is by no means an outlier. As Larry Solum’s fantastic survey shows, Chicago recently has hired fewer JD/PhDs than most of our peer schools.

People like me who enter law teaching with neither a PhD nor experience as a writing fellow or VAP are finding the entry-level market decreasingly hospitable. Without engaging in too much self-flagellation, I think this development is worth applauding. Tenure denials are necessarily contentious and divisive, and many law faculties have granted tenure because doing so constituted the path of least resistance. As a result, there is a lot of dead wood in the legal academy. VAPs, Fellowships, and PhDs have introduced a post-doc institution into law teaching, permitting schools to gain greater information about candidates earlier in their teaching careers, without incurring high risks of tenure denials or mistaken tenure grants. And it would not surprise me to see schools that do take tenure decisions seriously relying increasingly on hiring fellows and VAPs from within.

This raises all kinds of questions for me about the issue of tenure for law library directors. The ABA Standard 603(d) requires that "Except in extraordinary circumstances, a law library director shall hold a law faculty appointment with security of faculty position," but some have noted with alarm a trend of law library director positions without tenure. Some of us have suggested that some law libraries and law librarians may have shot ourselves in the foot in our efforts to identify as the experts in technology administration, perhaps at the expense of scholarship. Staking out this position in the law school makes the library director look more like an administrator and less like a faculty scholar.

This situation is magnified by the trend noted in the PrawfsBlawg posting. In some instances, there seems to be an increasing chasm between the interests and skills of the library directors and the other law faculty. Law libraries are edging ever closer into technology administration, working with hardware and software, and farther away from the scholarly interests of the other faculty and the educational priorities of law schools.

As evidenced in part by the increasing number of law professors with Ph.Ds and other advanced degrees in non-law disciplines, legal scholarship is become increasingly interdisciplinary. I've written about this inLaw Library Journal. The problem is that law libraries have narrowed their focus at the same time that legal scholarship has broadened its scope.

Here's the thing: law librarians have a unique contribution to make to the interdisciplinary endeavor of legal education. We have always had advanced degrees in a non-legal discipline, but we haven't done enough to encourage recognition of that fact. We need to do more to promote scholarship in the management and use of legal information as an interdisciplinary, semi-autonomous field of scholarship. Here are a couple of ideas:

(1) There is a tremendous need for good empirical research on how legal information is used by novice and expert researchers, and on how to teach skills of legal information management and use. Much of the work that has been done so far consists of borrowing scholarship on adult learning and "applying" it to law students, lawyers, and law faculty, without much inquiry into the specific disciplinary communities of practice involved. Library directors should do what they can to promote research in these areas, either by doing it themselves or by supporting their librarians in pursuing such work.

(2) Law faculty have well-established practices that allow them to refine their scholarship by presenting papers at faculty workshops, engaging in discussion with other faculty, and revising their work before the next presentation. Only a very few law librarian have been able to break into this network. We need to develop our own opportunities to workshop our papers for the purpose of improving the quality of our scholarship. I have been working on bringing law librarians into the cycle of faculty workshops here at UB, and I hope to invite one or two law librarians (not necessarily library directors) to present papers to our usual interdisciplinary audience of law faculty and others. I suspect that other law schools could do the same.

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