The AALS Meat Market Intrudes on Domestic Tranquility

I'm a single parent for the next few days, as Caroline is in DC for the annual hiring meeting of the AALS which begins tomorrow. Blogging may be light as a result. Caroline is the Chair of the law school's appointments committee, which is a brutally hard job, but one she does well. Some of our colleagues have joked that Caroline should be Appointments Chair for life, but I don't know that she or I could take that.

Every year Miami and every other law school gets over a thousand forms provided by the AALS's central clearing service. Each contains a one-page summary of the c.v. and the teaching interests of a person who'd like to become a law teacher. In our school, the chair is the only committee member who has to look at them all; the other committee members get a chunk each, although they're invited to look at more if they wish. Then those thousand-plus forms must be culled. To the extent they can, the committee members call references, and read writings, of the applicants whose forms pique their interests. Then they debate.

Some years we have only one opening, or none. This year, as it happens, we have several openings, and also some fairly specific subject-oriented needs, so the committee is interviewing in two parallel teams. Even so, that means winnowing down the 1000+ hopefuls to about 50 persons who'll be seen at the, excuse the term, “meat market,” for about 30 minutes each. From that group, the committee will have to select a small number to invite to fly down here and spend a day being interviewed, presenting a paper, and having dinner with a semi-random group of faculty. It's a very intense process for the interviewee, and fairly high stakes for the faculty since people tend to get tenure here. (That would be because we make such good initial choices, of course.) The initial hiring decision thus risks being the start of a lifetime relationship, and the faculty takes it very, very, very seriously.

Many of the applicants are extremely well credentialed; indeed credential inflation is rampant. When I went on the market I had published a student note, a book review, and had a fairly final unpublished draft article. My sense was that that record, plus an extra graduate degree and a few other things, put me comfortably above the credential median. Today, that package might still put you above the median, but not comfortably given all the Ph.D's, and the people with half a dozen publications.

I vividly remember my on-campus callbacks from more than a decade ago, but the AALS experience itself is now a bit of blur. We were living in London, with jobs that couldn't be abandoned for long, and even with coming a day early had some lingering jet lag. I had 17 interviews in two days, which meant I had very little down time and spent most of the day racing up and down the two towers and long corridors in the confusing hotel complex in Washington that the AALS uses for this event. Caroline and I were both interviewing all over, trying to find a geographic pairing, a feat ordinarily considered just short of impossible—but made somewhat possible by her stellar record, albeit discounted by the fact that some schools seemed incredulous that a British academic would dare suggest that she might teach US Securities law as well as European law and a common law subject.

Caroline had either one more or one less interview than I did — I can't recall which. What I do remember is that we hadn't anticipated the amount of walking and running we'd be doing to get from one interview to the next, and that Caroline's feet were literally bleeding from her elegant shoes by the time we were done. (Another vivid flash of recall is of passing rapidly through the lobby in transit between towers, and seeing an acquaintance moping around; he said he had two interviews and asked how I was doing—I was too embarrassed to admit the extent of my good fortune.)

A thirty-minute interview isn't much. I do recall the one question that totally flummoxed me: Judith Resnik asked me to name the legal academic whose work I most wanted my writing to resemble. The question had never occurred to me — I'm afraid I'd always wanted to be myself. I stammered out the names of the more productive people I could think of. USC did not call me back.

By far the worst AALS interview I recall was with another school that had an even better reputation. I was their last interview at the end of a long day. If I was exhausted, and I was, they looked even worse. The first 15 minutes were devoted to their sniping at each other—I barely got a word in edgewise. It was obvious to me that I'd walk out of there and they'd have no idea of who I was. Not good. At some point maybe five minutes before the end of the interview, I managed to intrude into the conversation with some polite version of 'hey, isn't this supposed to be vaguely about me?'. At which point the three disputants focused on me for the first time.

'Well' said one of them briskly, 'do you have any questions for us?'. I hated that question. But I had a standard riposte prepared: “What is your idea of a good colleague?”. So far, it had seemed to have the virtue of not being a stock query that schools heard all the time; once or twice it had even elicited an interesting reply. This time the reply was unexpected, venomously directed at one of the other figures in the room: “Someone who doesn't talk in faculty meetings.

Naturally, they didn't call me back either, which is perhaps just as well. By that standard, I might not have been a good colleague.

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One Response to The AALS Meat Market Intrudes on Domestic Tranquility

  1. A great descriptoin of the process. One needs to have a sense of humor in the midst of the maelstrom. I’m on the academic job market this year, and right now I’m slurping email and coffee at Starbucks on Connceticut Ave. before heading down to the meat market hotel for my interviews.

    My biggest surprise so far — they had really great food at the Harvard alumni reception last night. I guess I know where our donations are going. Wish me luck….


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