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Replicating class privilege via elite hiring norms

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I’ve mentioned Lauren Rivera’s excellent book Pedigree, which outlines various ways in which social class functions to keep insiders in and outsiders out in the context of supposedly meritocratic hiring decisions in elite labor markets.

Here’s a small but telling illustration from the market for entry-level jobs for tenure-track law professors.  The standard model for getting such a job requires getting initial interviews at an annual hiring conference, always held in Washington DC in the fall.  Successful interviewees then get day-long callback interviews to the schools themselves.

This thread at Prawfsblawg is compiling information about this year’s process, and allowing candidates to ask questions about it. A candidate asks:

“Thinking ahead… thank you emails after AALS interviews. Good idea or too much?”

Another candidate replies (this is often a multi-year process): “I have done it [in previous years] but find it awkward. Who to email? Everyone [on the interview committee]? Do committee members find it awkward?”

A renegade law professor who didn’t go to the right schools replies:

“Please don’t email thank you notes.

First, it’s part of our jobs. We aren’t doing interview candidates a favor: you’ve earned your shot.

Second, we get way too much email already.

Third, it’s hard not to come off as desperate or at least trying too hard. You want people to feel like they’re lucky to have a chance to hire you.”

AnonHiringChair replies:

“I’m sorry, but I have to disagree. I strongly recommend you send thank-you emails. Most candidates do and, if you don’t, you risk standing out in a bad way. Plus, we have occasionally used them as a tie-breaker in situations where one of the candidates just seemed way more interested in us by virtue of their thank-you email. Also, it can’t hurt — I mean who is going to ding you for being nice?”

This of course leads to questions about whether these crucial thank notes should be only to the chair or to all committee members.  AnonHiringChair replies that they should be to everyone the candidate interviewed with (probably a half dozen people at each interview, and a strong candidate is likely to have anywhere from a dozen to up to thirty such interviews).

Orin Kerr notes:

AnonHiringChair writes: “We have occasionally used them as a tie-breaker in situations where one of the candidates just seemed way more interested in us by virtue of their thank-you email. Also, it can’t hurt — I mean who is going to ding you for being nice?”

That’s fascinating. And, to my mind, potentially troubling. Here’s my concern. If writing thank you notes really gives you an edge, because within a set of elite insider norms it is considered “the right thing to do,” then the insiders with connections who can tell them about the norms (and who are playing the game to maximize their chances) will write thank-you notes regardless of whether they are interested. On the other hand, the outsiders who don’t have the elite connections to tell them the norms won’t write thank-you notes even if they’re super-interested because they don’t realize this is the thing to do. The result, I would fear, is that highly valuing an e-mail — so much that it is used to select which candidate to pick, presumably for a callback — will favor those with connections to the insider norms and disfavor those without those connections. That is, a practice that within the norm is viewed as just favoring “being nice” is really favoring having enough connections to know how to play the game. That’s my concern, at least.

Exactly.

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