The Costs of a Look-See Visit

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Generally law professors are hired in two fashions. First, entry-level candidates are hired at the outset of their careers through the AALS Faculty Recruitment Conference (also known as the "Meat Market"). Second, professors can "lateral" from one school to another. In some cases, schools will ask a potential lateral candidate to visit for some period of time–maybe a full year, maybe a semester, maybe a few weeks. These so-called "look-sees" are designed, in theory at least, to provide the faculty with enough time to get to know the candidate, and make an informed hiring decision.

I encourage you to read an essay by Professor Tess Wilkinson-Ryan (Penn) who recounts her experience pursuing three look-see visits. Here is a snippet:

In the early winter months of 2014, pre-tenure, I got really flattering phone calls from deans at Stanford, Harvard, and NYU, respectively. I agreed to a one-semester visit at Stanford, a three-week teaching visit at Harvard, and eventually to a two-week non-teaching visit at NYU. I was not looking to move, but you never know, and in any case visiting appeared to be the coin of the realm.

My family and I moved into an Airbnb in Menlo Park in August of 2014, and I started teaching 1L Contracts at Stanford. The faculty was largely kind and forthcoming, the dean both lovely and frank. But I had a displaced three-year-old and seven-year-old in tow, not to mention their 35-year-old father, who were not getting taken out to lunch and complimented. . . .

While I was at Stanford, the hiring chair from Harvard called. He expressed his own enormous enthusiasm (thanks!) and asked if he could go out for letters before my arrival. I said sure! I went to Harvard in January, and taught a three-week winter term version of Trusts and Estates. This was only my second time teaching it, and a truly terrible decision on my part. I lectured from 9–12:30 every morning then prepped well into the evening. I FaceTimed with my sobbing preschooler each night while my husband assured me they were doing fine. I gave a job talk that was pretty good; neither the hiring chair nor the dean were present for it. I had to start teaching Contracts when I got back home, a week late into the semester and behind before I began. I was exhausted. I never heard from Harvard again. . . .

I heard from Stanford that spring. My file would not get out of committee; I did not get an offer.

By the time I went to NYU a year later I was a little more clear-eyed and organized about the process. I was mid-semester at Penn, though, and hustling to fit the two-week visit in. My job talk, on Day 3, was not great by any measure, and multiple faculty members accidentally telegraphed their Intellectual Lightweight verdict. But they were mostly quite friendly and I went to some convivial dinners. My husband and my parents took my kids on spring break to Florida. I was exhausted. I never heard from NYU again.

I have long been skeptical about the value of such semester-long visits. First, universities may not be fully transparent about whether the visit is a "look-see," or instead is a "podium visit." This latter approach, which is quite common, invites a professor to teach a class--literally fill a podium. With such setups, both the professor and the university share the same expectations--he or she will be invited for a semester, and after that, there is no expectation of any further engagement. But with a "look-see," there is always the lurking fear that the invitation is motivated, at least in part, by a need to fill a podium. The candidate may not find out the truth until the end of the visit, when no offer is tendered.

Second, when a "look see" invitation is made, the candidate often does not know the committee dynamics. Perhaps one member of the committee wants the candidate, but the rest are opposed. Maybe that champion thinks the candidate can woo over the rest of the committee. Or, perhaps the committee is gung-ho about a candidate, but the majority of the faculty would never even consider the hire. There are often many variables at play--information seldom known by the candidate. These information asymmetries create a lot of risk in process.

Third, while on campus, a visiting professor has a daunting, grueling challenge. During an interview, candidates routinely have to put on their best face, make excellent impressions all around, and close the deal. But with a look-see this sort of interview can last four months. It is impossible to put on a show for that long. And at some point, a visitor may drop his or her guard, and tick off some member of the faculty. A borderline candidate is now burned.

Fourth, participating in a look-see, and not getting the job, could be embarrassing. Wilkinson-Ryan explains:

Visiting is public. Literally, visits are listed on blogs and publicized by the schools themselves. The fact that I'm still in my old job suggests to anyone who cares (hopefully that's a real small number) that I went out for three jobs that I wanted badly enough to go way out of my way to get, and I was turned down.

If a school were to offer me a look-see (hasn't happened yet), I would ask how many professors have visited in the last decade, and how many of those professors were given offers. If a school is unwilling to give that information, the look-see offer should be viewed skeptically.

Fifth, there is a significant cost to visiting professors with families. It is often difficult, if not impossible, to move a significant other from employment, and uproot children from school. As a result, the professor may decide to spend the semester abroad solo. That choice could mean flying home every week--not cheap. This option, however, could harm the semester-long interview. The constant travel could create the impression (however unfair) that the person simply isn't committed to the job. For example, traveling professors could miss workshops and other meetings. Alternatively, the professor could simply spend extended periods away from family. The costs of that absence--especially compounded by a no-offer--are staggering.

Sixth, people often feel that the grass is greener on the other side. It's usually not. Far too often professors, like everyone else, think that moving to some other school will improve their lives. That perspective is overrated. If you are happy where you are, relish that situation. Don't chase a higher-ranked school because it might give you some more elite points. Letter-head bias is overrated. Motivated scholars can make their career at any school. Law professors have a unique opportunity to impact hundreds and thousands of students over a career. That impact can be felt at all tiers of the rankings.

The cost of a look-see visit is far too high for most candidates, with far too much uncertainty. If a University wants to hire a professors, they should be able to do so based on that person's record, with a reasonably-timed interview.

Update:  It is fairly common for people to travel a lot within their current jobs, often for weeks or months at a time. Such roles, however difficult they may be, are designed to create opportunities for upward mobility within an organization. Look-see visits are different. The professor is not traveling to promote opportunities within the home institution; rather, the professor is leaving the home institution to try to find opportunities elsewhere. It is difficult to think of any non-academic jobs, in which employers allow employees to embark on a 6 month interview at a different firm. Moreover, at the end of this 6-month interview, there is a very low chance of success for promotion; at that juncture, the professor simply returns to the home institution.

Update 2: Mike Dorf offers some further thoughts on the costs of a look-see visit:

Remember how I said a few paragraphs up that it's stressful to be on your best behavior for months at a time. So it is. But it's also true that visitors are on their best behavior during the course of a visit. If the point of a visit is to be able to distinguish those potential colleagues who only seem smart and personable from those who really are smart and personable, it will typically fail. I know of multiple faculty members at law schools around the country who are, to put it delicately, not team players, who nonetheless managed to put on a good show during a visit. I know of only one case of someone being such an incredible asshole that he (and it was a he) could not hide his assholery for the course of a visit, thus costing himself an offer. . . .

In fact, however, in my experience with multiple law schools, visiting offers rarely reflect the sort of thought that ought to go into such a potentially life-disruptive event for the potential visitor. A visiting offer could be the result of some internal disagreement among faculty, with some favoring a day of interviews followed by a permanent lateral offer, while others opposing a lateral offer; the resulting visiting offer may be a compromise on the ground that "it's only a visit;" yet the tepidness of support is rarely communicated to the person to whom the visiting offer is made.

Even if there is not pre-existing opposition, faculties rarely give the same kind of scrutiny to potential visitors that they do to permanent lateral hires or even entry-level hires. Members of the appointments committee will have read a good deal of the candidate's work and been impressed, but even when the appointments committee broadly represents the faculty, the full faculty will often have so many idiosyncratic views and tastes that they could ultimately take a different view. Or they could make decisions based on criteria wholly unrelated to the candidate. For example, a faculty member might vote against appointing a highly qualified lateral who works in a methodology that she does not value or might vote no because she thinks higher priority should be placed on some curricular need that the visitor does not fill.

While the ostensible purpose of the visit is to get an overall sense of the visitor beyond the paper record, negative decisions can be based on any number of other factors, from a belated lukewarm evaluation of the scholarship to an intra-faculty disagreement that renders the visitor a kind of collateral damage. But whatever the real reason, the visitor will feel rejected in a way that inevitably feels personal.

Mike offers a proposal to remedy this system:

 Law schools should abandon the semester-long or year-long visit as a part of the lateral hiring process. That would leave three kinds of visits: (1) Enrichment visits bring interesting faculty to a school for a semester or longer simply because they will enrich the atmosphere for students and faculty, with no expectation that the visitor will stay permanently; (2) podium visitors fill short-term teaching needs, again with no expectation of a permanent lateral offer; and (3) reverse "look-see" visits allow a person who holds a lateral offer to decide whether to accept it by spending a semester or year at the new school first.

Update 3: Paul Horwitz offers thoughts on the potential benefits of a look-see visit to the home institution:

A visit does benefit the visiting professor's home institution–and the professor qua professor (that is, in his or her teaching, scholarship, and institutional service), even if no move results. Owing to a fortuitous lack of greatness and/or stability, I had the pleasure of teaching at several law schools before landing at my home school, and one post-lateral visit elsewhere. It is tremendously useful to see how other professors and institutions do things; to learn something about the different capacities of students at different institutions and the ways in which different law schools succeed or fail at exercising and enlarging those capacities; to see what a different curricular structure looks like in practice; to see what faculty governance (or dysfunction) looks like in different places; and so on. Law school travel, in short, broadens the mind. Some people start and end their careers at the same institution; the advantages in institutional memory and loyalty are real, but so is the possibility of being cocooned or losing a sense of alternative ways of doing things. Some of the things I learned from visiting or teaching at other institutions have affected both my own teaching here at Alabama and my sense of what things my institution as a whole could and perhaps should do differently.

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  1. “Alternatively, the professor could simply spend extended periods away from family. The costs of that absence–especially compounded by a no-offer–are staggering.”

    Staggering? Many professionals do this as a matter of course: servicemen, fishermen, merchant marines, et.al.

    1. Many professionals do this as a matter of course: servicemen, fishermen, merchant marines, et.al. . . and they face considerable bodily risk while making considerably less salary than law professors.

    2. In fairness though, those professionals (and more importantly, their families) generally go into the relationship knowing the costs ahead of time. That doesn’t make it any less challenging but it is easier to manage when you plan and mentally prepare for it.

      1. Blackman is presenting this as a known part of the law professor life-cycle, so it sounds like this falls under “go into the relationship knowing the costs ahead of time”.

        1. Maybe but probably not. Of my two prior careers with significant travel, the first was the military where being deployed was constantly discussed and prepared for. It was, in fact, the entire point of the job. Even in peacetime, month-long training exercises were a regular occurrence. The second was a job the required 5-day-a-week travel. The occasional assignment in-town was the rare exception, not the rule.

          By contrast, what Blackman describes is a cycle that I suspect most law professor families would only go through once or twice in a career. I don’t think that rises to the same level of expectation or mental preparedness.

          1. The question was do they “go into the relationship knowing the costs ahead of time”, to which you’ve agreed the answer is “yes”.

            I’m not sure why frequency should negate that they do, in fact, have foreknowledge.

            1. The law professor might know, but is a spouse likely to know?

              I think it’s within the realm of common knowledge that servicemen get deployed, that fishermen go to sea, that salesmen visit clients, and that each of these travels are sufficiently common that even should a person not know before entering a relationship they’ll learn quite quickly. But is a law professors spouse likely to know this? Or have a likelihood of learning it early on before a relationship is settled? I think not.

              1. From an academic perspective, this type of arrangement (Come, visit us and teach for a semester and maybe we’ll give you a job. Drag your entire family!) is a bit absurd and unexpected.

                This isn’t military or the diplomatic core (which might be expected to bring your family, and where travel is mandated). This is a professorship. And this type of semester-long interview sounds like a way to get free labor, not a productive hiring process.

              2. The law professor might know, but is a spouse likely to know?

                Unless the law professor is a shitty spouse, yes, they are likely to know.

  2. This does not even qualify as a first world problem.

    What exactly happened here that Wilkinson-Ryan could not have anticipated?

  3. While I agree with the professor here that look-sees are not good, the laws of supply and demand are such that there are more potential law professors than slots, so if one is not willing to engage in a look-see, someone coming up behind you will.

  4. The same thing happens in the private sector. People are asked to come on as “temp to perm,” but the permanent position never appears, never had a requisition for it, was never in the plan. Meanwhile, the pseudo-employee is on a months-long audition for a job that won’t happen, turns himself in knots to impress those whose impressions won’t matter in hiring, and delays finding a company that actually wants to hire him.

    The other question worth asking is if there is even a requisition out to hire for that position. Has the school budgeted for an additional professor, and if so, what areas is s/he expected to teach? What are the cost differentials between an entry-level professor and someone on a look-see? And bluntly, if they are considering hiring you, why don’t they just hire you without the months-long audition?

    1. And bluntly, if they are considering hiring you, why don’t they just hire you without the months-long audition?

      Another option from the private sector: hire you with a probationary period.

      That said, it turns it from a “default deny” to “default accept”, and we all know how that changes human behavior.

      1. “Another option from the private sector: hire you with a probationary period.”

        Isn’t that what the tenured/untenured thing is all about?

        1. Sort of, but tenured carries a lot more security and protections then most full-time jobs, and probationary periods for new hires usually last a lot less time then a professor can expect to spend untenured.

      2. From what I’ve heard, other areas of academia will be very upfront with professors long before the tenure decision – they often know well in advance if it’s going to work out or not. They can find a more compatible institution while still employed at the current university, but their timeline is to have left before tenure review.

        1. In many cases, the ones who aren’t going to get tenure aren’t going to get tenure because they are bad at reading the politics of the local arena. This same feature is often the reason they’re in academia in the first place; they aren’t cut out for real practice because they can’t read people and situations. That’s also how the guy facing charges for stabbing his previous lawyer with a pencil manages to get a new lawyer.

    2. I had a four month contract with option to hire. Two months in, they hired a new VP who brought several employees with him, so I was told the option to hire was gone, and found my next job. Then one of the old employees quit; miffed that the new VP had been given his office, and told the option to hire was back, and my job was permanent if I wanted it. Nope, too late. And then the new job disappeared in a wave of cost cutting, and I found another job.

      That’s the way of life at startups.

      I’d never heard of look-sees before. The idea of having a permanent full time job, and taking time off (presumably!) to try out a different job across the country for half a year, or three weeks, or whatever, seems pretty strange to me. If any job prospect had ever hinged on such, I’d have run away.

      1. Ideally, the new professor will have an experienced mentor who lets him know about this whole game, help him shoot for an appropriate level of school based on their scholarship for a permanent gig, and further, is willing to work the phone now and again to help seal the deal with a hire. Note, this doesn’t happen as often as it should.

      2. I agree.

        Imagine going in and saying, “Hey, boss, I need a few months off to go work for one of our competitors, because if I do well they may hire me permanently. OK with you?”

        1. “Imagine going in and saying, ‘Hey, boss, I need a few months off to go work for one of our competitors, because if I do well they may hire me permanently. OK with you?’”

          Well, the first thing would be, you obviously can’t go teach somewhere else if we need you here teaching. So this only affects individuals who don’t have any classes scheduled at their home institution. So, you have to ask “why don’t they have any classes to teach?”

          You’ve left off a big unspoken part of the question in your hypo. It’s not “hey, boss, mind if I go try out at one of our competitors?”, it’s “hey, boss, mind if I go try out at one of our competitors, and if they don’t hire me, I’ll just come back here like I never left?”

          This makes a lot of sense for a prof who teaches a particularly arcane subject matter that is consistently in demand, but not consistently in HIGH demand, AND who is not suited to teaching 1L classes. So, for example, you might have a prof who specializes in teaching UCMJ. Rather than teach that seminar every semester, or even every year, the school might prefer to offer it only every other year, and, in between, allow the prof to go visiting to other schools who might want to offer a seminar in UCMJ, but not have anyone really qualified to teach it. This suits a prof who is better than an adjunct, but not quite tenure-track.

  5. The simplest solution here is to decline a look-see, no?

    1. Whining about it may be more fun for some people.

  6. I don’t understand the people insisting this ain’t nothing because other jobs have and accept this sucky thing and sometimes worse.

    It sucks. It should stop. Short of unionizing, publicizing it with a bit of shame attached is an easy step to take towards ending this practice.

    1. I don’t understand the people insisting this ain’t nothing because other jobs have and accept this sucky thing and sometimes worse.

      I think it’s a “leopards eating faces” party thing.

      When someone who’s supported the party for years suddenly starts shouting how wrong it is now that it’s their face being eaten by a leopard, most folk find it hard to be sympathetic.

      Which isn’t to say it isn’t “sucky”. But it’s a self-inflicted kind of “sucky”: created and perpetuated by law professors on law professors.

      Makes it hard to be sympathetic. Especially when you remember how much cash they have to dry their tears with.

      So yeah. It’s not nice, it’s not fair. But it’s also understandable.

      1. Fair enough. I didn’t much consider the sort of policies they advocate for incentivize such behavior generally for those with much less voice in public affairs.

  7. This must be fascinating for the small proportion of readers of the VC who are, or want to be, law professors. And perhaps law students, although less so. Kind of a yawn for the rest of us. I view it similarly to law professors (or aspiring law professors) who complain that academia is biased in favor of liberals and leftists. Perhaps so, but most of the ones complaining have a law degree. So get a regular job if you don’t like it.

    1. So get a regular job if you don’t like it.

      The very first statement in the description of this blog is “Mostly law professors”. On occasion they are going to opine on what its like for law professors. If you don’t like it – find a regular blog to read and comment on.

    2. I find it interesting merely as a student of incentives and institutions.

      1. Interesting, sure.

        Sympathy-producing? Nope.

    3. ” I view it similarly to law professors (or aspiring law professors) who complain that academia is biased in favor of liberals and leftists. Perhaps so, but most of the ones complaining have a law degree. So get a regular job if you don’t like it.”

      If you don’t like the rules of the game, don’t play.

  8. The school accepts the risk of disenfranchising the talent pool. A months-long interview and selection process might seem like a good tactic which would allow for thorough vetting. But, strategically, the school (employer) earns a reputation; high-value talent tends to have low tolerance for fishing expeditions. This happens in my industry on a much shorter timeline. Highly capable candidates become fatigued by a lengthy vetting process and eventually those candidates withdraw from consideration.

  9. The update makes the whining even less attractive.

  10. This whole process sounds very complicated and stressful. Wouldn’t it be a lot easier to just claim to be a member of some kind of underrepresented minority group? I hear that’s worked for some people.

    1. Keep standing tall for poor, persecuted, stale-thinking white males, Tall Paul. If you huff and puff loud enough, maybe you can hold back the demographic tide that figures to cost whites the majority position in America soon.

  11. Law schools should abandon the semester-long or year-long visit as a part of the lateral hiring process.

    Why? The only reason to do so is to placate the professors who are subject to this bait & switch.

    For the law schools it’s a good deal. You get a professor who will “put on their best face” for a year (as opposed to those grumpy adjuncts / podium fillers who know they’re potentially out of a job in 6 months); you fill the spot; and – if things go really well – you can hire a well qualified full-time position.

    The only ones really getting screwed are the professor (who goes into this relationship voluntarily, so we can mostly discount their opinion) and the professor’s law school that is short a qualified staff member for a semester.

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