The Right Coast

August 19, 2004
Recommendations from Professors
By Tom Smith

With all respect to Eugene, I think recommendations from the professors of applicants for law professor jobs are a waste of time. Rarely, the recommendation will say something impressive, like "this is the best student I have had in 20 years of teaching," and be from somebody not given to exaggeration. Usually, however, all the letter does is prove that the student took the time to suck up to the professor recommending him. Indeed, while such a study would make one unpopular, I would bet a survey of the most overrated, tedious and puffed-up law professors in the academy would reveal that they were, by objective measures, such as grades, less qualified than others, but that they got their job because some worthy intoned that "he (or very frequently she) is the best student I have blah blah blah."

At Yale, the upsucking was a veritable industry. It got to the point that I suggested that professors announce at the end of class that those students who wanted merely to suck up please wait for those who had genuine questions. Of course, this was naive, because it overlooks the fact that one of the most effective upsucking techniques is to ask a question that reveals that you have thought long and deeply about your professor's profoundly dumb idea. I suppose that this is, in fact, a valuable skill in the academy.

In my limited experience, having recommendations from large gorillas matters a lot more if you are trying to get a job at a top ten law school, and you have not yet written any of the brilliant articles you have convinced someone you someday will.

Most of the recommendations stuff is just old boy and girl networking. What you really want is some sort of objective measure of a person's talent. This is why gold medals at the Olympics are not awarded on the basis of who has the best letters. "Without a doubt, Sally Salmon is the fastest swimmer I have ever had the privilege to coach in my blah blah blah." I would like to see professorships awarded by examination, as for example fellowships at All Souls at Oxford are, though I imagine that process is probably more corrupt than it looks, fetching female scholars doing well in a way that rather defies the laws of statistics. Awarding jobs on the basis of a track record of published articles is sensible, of course.

Ah, but I am leaving out that inestimable quality, colleagiality. This is the quality that junior, untenured faculty members display in sucking up to more senior faculty members, no matter how unworthy of admiration they may be. And true enough, the knack for it can be demonstrated by one's upsucking skills as a student. I remember a particularly gagging meeting I had with professor-maker Bruce Ackerman at Yale, in which I had gone to ask him how one went about becoming a law professor. (That's how dumb I was.) He replied "It's simple. You have to make us like you." I managed to stop myself from saying "But what if I think you're a dick? Could you still like me?" Nevertheless, it was a truly yucky moment. I ended up hitting it off with Bob Bork, which probably explains a lot about me. In spite of his demonic reputation and admitted appearance (he is proof that not everyone should be allowed to make their own decisions about facial hair), Bork was as nice a man as you could hope to meet, in a rather shy way, and very smart.

Come to think of it, Eugene is right. In this fallen world, students who want to be law professors when they grow up should find some professors, preferably those with vast influence, and attach to them like a lovable leech. Disgusting, but true.