Monday, May 16, 2011

Advice for legal historians on the entry-level law market: Part I

I've hesitated to blog about this subject, since I just went through the process of interviewing for entry-level law teaching jobs and I haven't yet seen the hiring side. (It wouldn't exactly be the blind leading the blind, but I'm an extremely near-sighted guide.) That said, I remember how I felt at this point last year: I craved information. With hopes that others will chime in, I'd like to pass on to legal historians in the candidate position a few general lessons I took from the experience, as well as some of the valuable advice I received from mentors and friends.

I'll start with a suggestion: around this time last year, I found it useful to take stock of all my works-in-progress and decide, in consultation with my advisors, what would work well as a job talk. My sense is that legal historians, probably because many come from Ph.D. programs, don't tend to be in the position of having to create a job talk paper from scratch over the summer; rather, they refine and rewrite material that they have already developed.

Here are some of the questions I asked myself as I looked over my work and considered how to shape part of it into a job talk paper.

  • What makes me special as a candidate and what aspect of my larger project will show that off? For example, one skill that historians bring to the table is an ability to find and analyze primary sources. I tried to craft a paper that highlighted that skill.

  • What is the core of my research agenda, and how can I show that off in a short piece while still advancing a manageable argument? My project, writ large, is about how welfare administration changed between 1935 and 1960 from a localized, highly discretionary system in which welfare payments were gratuities to a more centralized, legalistic system in which welfare payments had many of the trappings of legal rights. It's a project that seeks to advance big arguments about the practices of American federalism, the uses of rights discourse, and the roles of law and legalism in welfare administration in the years before the welfare rights movement. I toyed with the idea of using a short summary of the dissertation as a job talk paper, and I wouldn't be surprised if candidates have done that in the past (anyone?). I felt most comfortable using a chapter of the dissertation as the core of my job talk paper. (I chose one about the rights language that federal administrators used to talk to state and local welfare departments in the late 1930s and 1940s.) I then made revisions that signaled my larger arguments and ambitions.

  • What will engage the audience? Or, phrased differently, how can I make my project interesting and accessible to a wide swath of legal scholars? Casual conversations are a good starting point: bat around some ideas with legal scholars of different backgrounds and specialties and see what aspects of your project get people talking. If you can bring those aspects to the fore in your job talk paper, you have a better chance of convincing interviewers that your work is relevant and exciting. For example, there are parts of my dissertation that delve deeply into historiographical debates. I hope that someday other historians in my area will engage with my views, but I quickly learned not to expect non-historian legal scholars to be interested.

Readers, do you have additional advice on this topic?