I'm confused.Yes, Orin, a clarification is warranted. So here goes.
The widespread use of VAPs is all about MoneyBall, right? Schools are no longer relying exclusively on law school credentials, and instead want actual proof of writing ability. The more, the better. It's hard to write at a law firm, though, so candidates do VAPs in order to get a chance to write and prove they can and will write.
I would think you would applaud this; it seems to me that it's all about actually proving scholarly merit rather than relying on proxy credentials. In other words, it's all about the spread of MoneyLaw.
I do applaud the rise of the visiting assistant professorship. Anything that favors performance over credentials is good. To the extent that VAP programs help worthy candidates prove their scholarly mettle, they deserve to be praised and promoted. I'm proud of my contributions to a VAP program that has produced the likes of Susan Franck, Kirsten Matoy Carlson, and Mary Pat Byrn, all of whom were able to establish scholarly beachheads as VAPs. Susan is flourishing at Nebraska; Kirsten and Mary Pat, I can confidently predict, will soon be attending AALS events as members rather than supplicants.
Other recent MoneyLaw commenters, however, have put their fingers on two caveats:
- Suzanna Sherry exhorts us not to overlook teaching candidates who "didn't know they wanted to be a law professor from the age of 10 and/or have been working too hard at a 'real law' job instead of going into some VAP, LLM or other program." Suzanna astutely notes that "the ability to do the latter can be severely constrained for some people, especially those with family obligations." Well said. As matters stand, this business raises very steep barriers to entry by people of ordinary means. If the VAP becomes a de facto prerequisite to a tenure-track job, it will raise those barriers even higher.
- The ubiquitous A. Nonny Mouse delivers the point even more sharply than Suzanna (if such a thing were possible!): "the new 'helping hands' for junior professors serve mostly to make entry to tenure track slots later, more costly, more laborious, more credentialist." Mr./Ms. Mouse adds: "It's similar to adding a 2-3 year layer of non-equity partnership at law firms; both are ways not to completely pull up the gangplank but rahter to make the gangplank longer and longer."
As with so much else, there is no substitute for hard work and anti-elitist vigilance on the part of evaluators of academic talent. Visiting assistant professorships can indeed enable people with empty or modest writing portfolios to put pen to paper in a way that private practice cannot. But already we are observing the rise of an insidious pecking order among VAP placements. With big names come big prestige; Bigelow and Climenko are analogous to IBM and Microsoft. This is not to say that these programs do a poor job in selecting their participants. I've had the privilege of encountering three Climenko fellows in the past few months, and all of them have impressed me immensely. The key is to keep one's eyes focused on each candidate's actual scholarly record, plus other indicators of as-yet unrealized scholarly promise, without being bedazzled by the prestige attached with that candidate's VAP program.
So, Orin, we have traveled a long way in pursuit of some clarity. Let's see if we can find it. The presence of a VAP post on a teaching candidate's CV may explain how she or he found the time to write. But we should not be so bedazzled by the prestige of the school at which the candidate held the post that we neglect to read and evaluate the actual portfolio. And perhaps even more important, it behooves us not to treat a VAP stint as this generation's obligatory rite of academic passage, in the sense that law review membership and a clerkship have historically represented compulsory stops on the road to becoming a law professor.