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Research Pimping Ain't Easy

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Last week, NYU Law Professor Rick Hills got into quite a tiff over his research assistant for the summer rescinding her acceptance and taking a job with a law firm. She had applied to the firm in January but initially did not get the job. In April, the firm had a new slot open up and extended the offer to her. She sent Professor Hills an e-mail plainly explaining the situation and that she would be taking the other job. The e-mail was polite, didn't beat around the bush, and as far as we know it was done as timely as possible. All around a pretty professional job by the student.

Doing what any law professor in his situation would do, Professor Hills took his lumps and posted the new RA opening to the internet to complain about how damn unprofessional kids are these days:

I have a gripe about law students' lack of what might be called a "professional ethic." But may be my grumpiness is just the irritated ennui brought on by grading 90 exams. Consider the following interaction, and tell me whether I am wrong to think that kids nowadays are unusually callow and immature.

Yes, how immature of his RA to promptly deal with what must have been a very uncomfortable situation and risk alienating the faculty of her law school in order to take a job that will give her a foot into the increasingly competitive legal job market. And so callow, too.

Professor Hills then posted her e-mail to him on Prawfs Blawg. He removed her name, but good lord, in a post about kids lacking professionalism you have to take two seconds and think about whether what you're doing might be incredibly unprofessional. Posting online a private communication from a student might even be a FERPA violation. And by "might be," I mean I don't really care to read the statute to check.

Professor Hill then went on to explain what he thought the correct course of action was:

But there are professional way s of breaking a contract to take a better offer, and my 2L's e-mail is, to my mind, not among them. After all, I have been left high and dry after turning down several other students who wanted the RA position. I'd expect, therefore, a gesture indicating that an obligation was broken and compensation is owed -- say , an offer to help me find a replacement or to perform some research. Better yet, when my 2L first applied for the RA position, she could have informed me that her acceptance of my offer was contingent on her not getting another "a position more in line with [her] career goals and timeline." With such warning, I could have made an offer to another RA as insurance, in case she bolted for the better deal. At the very least, I'd expect an apology that admitted culpability about not giving me a head's up earlier rather than blaming the late notice on the "suddenness" of the "opportunity ." (Is not the whole point of contracts that one foregoes future opportunities for present security?)

If you think that an at-will employee has agreed to forego other opportunities and owes you anything as compensation for taking other work, you need to retake 1L Contracts this Fall.

Professor Hill did at least have the decency to pull the post after realizing what a boneheaded mistake it was (we have it because, you know, the internet is forever), and he put up a new post apologizing and admitting that among the 75 or so comments, only 7 thought he was in the right and everyone else thought he was a right jackass. But that's none of that is really the point of this post.

 

In the summer of 2006, I worked as a research assistant at NYU's law school, and let me tell you, it sucks. Unless you're planning on being an academic, it's the job of last resort.

You gain absolutely no skills that will be useful in legal practice, and the topics you research are even further removed from the real world. Odds that you will ever see a substantive due process claim in your legal career? Lower than the odds of a Cooley grad landing in Big Law.

You also get to see just what an absolute mess such a highly regarded law school is. If you've ever worked on a law journal you know how rough professorial writing can be, and that's after it's been cleaned up by an RA. In my case the writing was standard law professor fare, but with a number of dubious assertions with no attempt to back them up with facts. I pointed this out, but it was too late. The article had already been accepted for publication. It was too late to think about whether the basic premises were true, let's just accept them as such with no evidence at all and just focus on cleaning up the footnotes instead. (They weren't just dubious, I actually knew one of the claims to be false, and I suspect the professor did too.)

Writing articles is supposed to be a tenured professor's bread and butter. Teaching law is just that chore they have to do twice a week. And somehow they're terrible at it. The writing is simultaneously verbose and sub-literate. They need multiple RAs to write a single article, and then when faced with the prospect of not having an assistant they piss their pants and whine to all their friends about how hard it is to be paid $150,000+ and have to do you own job yourself.

 

The worst part about the job though is the pay. $12.50 an hour. That's less than what I was paid as an undergraduate teaching assistant at a state university. It's actually the exact same hourly rate, but my department let us write in more hours on our time sheet than we worked because they thought we deserved more. The money was coming out of the department's budget, but they had to abide by university pay policies.

Our actual hourly pay came out to $16.53, and that was just awesome. It was a part-time gig and brought in more than enough beer money. But a summer research assistant position at a law school is a full time job, you need that money to pay rent. $12.50 an hour living in New York City doesn't get you very far. And we were only allowed the Euro-socialist 35 hour workweek instead of a proper Ameri-protestant 40 hours.

If you don't want to do the math, there's about 22 work days in a month, and at 7 hours a day, you're bringing home $1,925 a month in pre-tax income. That's pretty rough, even living in one of the more ghetto neighborhoods of New York. (In my case it was Inwood, the Dominican neighborhood, living just off 200th street.)

To really drive the insulting pay home, the monthly wage for an RA at NYU was less than what the school calculated you needed in its student budget, which was right at $2000 at the time. That's the budget they put together for figuring out how much you can take out in loans to cover your living expenses during the school year. The school knows how much you need, and then decides to pay you less. And again, that's pre-tax income. Sure you don't have to worry about income tax at this low rate, but you do still have payroll taxes. Those eat up 7.65% of your paycheck, leaving you with $1,778 a month. That's a greater than 10% budget shortfall.

 

So Professor Hills was miffed that his RA didn't make it clear that she would take another job if a better opportunity came along. Unless NYU has substantially upped their pay for research assistants over the last 6 years, then I don't understand how this wouldn't be implied from the start. If a job is paying less than a living wage (as per NYU's own calculation), then you should be operating under the assumption that your employees will leave at the first chance they get. If you want to hold on to your research assistants, then reach into your own pocket and make the job worth staying at.

 

As an extra special bonus for readers who made it this far, we have the response Professor Hills sent to his former future research assistant. He posted in the comments on Prawfs Blawg making it public, so we consider it fair game to repost here:

First, let me congratulate you on your position. I am very happy to hear that you were able to get a summer associate job in a tight market.

Second, I want to offer some unsolicited advice: It would have been better if you had told me when you accepted the offer that the acceptance would be contingent on your not securing another and better offer from another employer. I could then have considered whether to extend an offer to the next person on my list. As it is, I am now stuck without research help, as potential RAs have already taken work elsewhere.

As you know, the whole point of agreements is to sacrifice future possibilities for the sake of present security . I am sure that, had I e-mailed you in late April to say that I decided to rescind an offer to you because an unforeseen opportunity arose to hire another RA that I liked better, you would be not only offended but also practically inconvenienced.

I am not offended and, indeed, am really happy that you got a good job. But several of my current students asked to be my RA, and I turned them down in favor of hiring you. Had I known that you would renege upon getting a summer associate position, I would have hired one of the 1 Ls as a backup or “understudy ” to insure my self against the risk of y our going elsewhere.

All of that said, I still would now urge you to accept the summer associate position. I just would advise, in the future, that you be extra-clear about y our intentions when you accept future offers of employment.

One final note to Professor Hills, there is no shortage of 1Ls still in need of paying work this summer, and with the number of law schools located in New York City a modest effort ought to result in filling the position quite quickly. Professor Dan Markel at FSU posted on Prawfs Blawg that he was looking for a research assistant for the summer and received multiple responses within just a few days. If the job can be telecommuted and you're willing to look beyond NYC, you will certainly find many qualified 1Ls, 2Ls, or recent graduates in need of work. Rather than whining about how unprofessional kids are these days, you could have promptly remedied the situation.

If you're curious as to how much you should be paying your research assistant, I have a very simple formula:

(# total summer hours the RA works / # of total annual hours you work) * (your annual salary / 2)

This basically treats the RA as being half as valuable as you are. You're outsourcing one of your primary job duties, so getting to keep half the wages is pretty damn generous.

If your RA works 350 hours in the summer (35 hours a week, 10 weeks), and you work a normal 2000 hour year, and you make $150,000 a year, then your RA's total summer pay should be $13,125. Though really, you can just call the job an "internship," offer no money at all, and still have people banging down the door just to get a gap-filler on their resume and a reference.

[Read more from BL1Y]


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