Exploding Offers and Other Hiring Abuses

I am so glad that Michael raised the issue of exploding offers, because it raises the general issue of the abuses that go on in the world of law school hiring. Exploding offers are arguably one example of such an abuse, but there are others that are worth highlighting. One key factor to consider in predicting whether abuses will take place at a particular school is the relationship between a faculty and its dean. If a dean perceives herself as working for the faculty in trying to recruit people about whom the faculty is enthusiastic, then she might play hardball, but she will do so in a way that increases the chances of bringing a happy new recruit into the fold. This in itself is an incentive against abuse. If, on the other hand, a dean views herself as a benign dictator who knows what is best for the faculty, then there is likely to be a problem.

The dean-as-dictator will attend a meeting at which the faculty votes an offer to a candidate and view that meeting as conferring absolute discretion on the dean to do with the offer what she sees fit. Such a dean considers as a first priority the importance of conveying to the candidate (if only implicitly) that joining the faculty means becoming her (the dean’s) subject. As you might have guessed from the way in which I speak of this, I long ago had an experience with a dictator dean. It happened about eleven years ago, when I went on the market again after only two years of teaching to facilitate my spouse’s lateral move to a new law school (consistent with our living in the same place). Since I had been teaching for a few years, I had areas in which I had already invested time and energy, both as a teacher and as a scholar, and wished to continue to pursue those areas. Though it limited my options, I made my plans on curriculum clear to each school considering me, to avoid any future misunderstandings.

At one school (which will remain nameless here), I was invited to interview and give a job talk. I gave my job talk and then waited. Ultimately, I heard through the grapevine that the faculty had voted me an offer. I was pleased and waited to hear officially from the dean. The dean called me and told me about the offer and said that she (I use the feminine pronoun here generically) was interested in what my ideal teaching package would be. I told her, and she said that the school could use those subjects but that I might also have to teach civil procedure. I explained to her that civil procedure is not one of my areas and that I had told all schools from the beginning that I wanted to continue pursuing the areas that interested me (and even some new areas that I had not yet taught) but that civil procedure was not among these subjects (no offense to people who teach and love civil procedure – it’s just not my cup of tea).

This dean responded that I might have to teach civil procedure if that is what the school needed. I asked whether my offer was contingent on my willingness to teach civil procedure, and she replied that if I were not willing to teach civil procedure, then I did not have an offer. I told her I would need some time to think about this unexpected turn of events, and she asked how much time I wanted. I said a week, and she responded that okay, we could talk in a week. I was not feeling very good about this school or its dean.

Then, after three days (note here that three days is less than a week, a fact whose significance will become apparent in a moment), I received a call from the dean. She told me that my reservations about civil procedure had given her reservations about me. I said that she had given me a week to think about things and asked whether she was now revoking my offer. She responded that at this moment I no longer had an offer but that if I had something to say about the whole matter, I could call her and let her know and things might change. Shortly thereafter, I received calls from concerned members of the appointments committee who tried to persuade me to visit the dean and tell her that I would love to teach civil procedure. One faculty member assured me that the dean was only like this with recruits but was a “pussycat” with actual faculty. I responded that I would sooner take a two-hour train ride every day to continue teaching at my old institution than join a faculty with the sort of dean I had just had the misfortunate to meet.

Sadly, this person remains dean, even after all this time (which confirms that monarchs rule until death). When -- after about a year had passed -- I asked a member of the faculty in question how the dean had explained my disappearance from the scene, I was told that an email had gone out from her office explaining that the dean and I could not figure out a teaching package that worked for me. Nothing was said about the attempt unilaterally to impose a particular subject or the revocation of my offer. The dean, in other words, had lied to the faculty about having bullied a candidate to whom the faculty had voted to extend an offer. This should not be surprising. Dictators lie all the time about what they’re doing and why, and they lie about why things did not work out at the end.

A good dean does not bully and abuse potential recruits, and a dean who does so can be expected to abuse the faculty as well.

For people who are now on the market, I recommend that you keep my story in mind as a cautionary tale. If your gut tells you that there is something creepy about the way that a dean is treating you, don’t ignore it. And don’t wait eleven or twelve years to talk about it. I invite people to post their stories of hiring abuse as comments here so that others can learn from your experiences. The legal academy should not be exempt from norms of civility that govern everyone else. (Sorry for such a long post).