Fellowships for Aspiring Law Professors

Paul Caron collects them here.  The growth of these fellowships has been quite remarkable.  I managed to scrounge one in 1994 at Columbia, but that one was funded specifically for me for that year only, and it was unusual in those days to do a fellowship before entering the academy.  Now, it’s commonplace, almost expected unless a candidate has a Ph.D. in a law-related subject area, and maybe even then.

One interesting aspect of the growth of fellowships is that it’s happened with virtually no discussion or debate on what one might call the “distributive consequences” of this growth.  In my day, the typical faculty candidate went to an elite law school, clerked for a federal judge, and then worked at a big-city prestigious law firm for two to four years.  While this often involved some moving around, it was entirely possible to, for example, go to law school at Columbia, clerk on the Second Circuit, work at Skadden’s New York office, and then become tenutre-track law professor.

Nowadays, a non-uncommon path is elite law school to federal clerkship to big-city law firm to fellowship to visiting assistant professorship, then tenure track position. Or perhaps a candidate will have pursued a masters degree or Ph.D. instead of, or sometimes in addition to, either the VAP or fellowship.

So who loses from this system, relative to the old system? Candidates with families, because it’s much easier to bounce around from place to place if you don’t have kids; potential candidates with spouses or serious significant others with high-powered but not especially mobile jobs–and such candidates are far more often women than men; and candidates from relatively modest economic backgrounds, who are likely to be far less willing and able to take relatively low-paying fellowships and VAPs, much less pursue an additional degree, than are their wealthier classmates.

Imagine, if you will, a woman who is about to graduate from Harvard Law School.  She has a First Circuit clerkship lined up. Her husband is in the first year of a very prestigious residency at Massachusetts General; her four-year-old and two-year-old are thriving while being cared for to a large degree by her mother-in-law, who lives in Newton; and she and her husband collectively have $300,000 in student loans.

Twenty years ago, she could have gone to Ropes & Gray for three or four years, made a ton of money, paid down some of her debt, and then gone on the teaching market when her husband was available for a permanent position.  Nowadays, she’d have to think about getting a fellowship a year or two after her clerkship.  How can she afford it?  What if she can’t find one at in the Boston area?  What if she finds one elsewhere and her husband doesn’t want to give up his residency? What if she manages the fellowship, but it only leads to a VAP offer in god-knows-where?  She might just decide that the balance of things weighs against pursuing an academic career, in a way she wouldn’t have under the more traditional system.

That’s not to say that current expectations don’t have their advantages–if they didn’t they wouldn’t have proliferated so quickly and widely.  But  I don’t think much thought has been given to the consequences I describe above.

NOTE: I speak from experience here.  Of George Mason’s eight untenured faculty  who have started since 2007, two completed both a master’s degree and a  fellowship (one of them in two different cities, indeed two different countries), one held two research fellowships, one had a VAP for two years, one had a  fellowship (I think for two years), one had two different VAP positions in two different cities, one completed a Ph.D. and later held a fellowship in a different city, and only one took the once-typical law school to clerkship to law firm to law professor route–and even he has law degrees from schools in two different countries, Australia and the U.S.

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