Signaling Strategies and the Quest for Employment

For fairly obvious reasons, the issues of signaling in the employment context have been heavily on my mind lately. It has been clear for some time now that I am in dire need of a new strategy for my own signaling methods, but knowing that something needs to change is a good deal easier than knowing what to change. But as it stands, I am failing to send potential employers a clear (and hopefully accurate!) indication that I’m a worthwhile candidate.

This post on snap judgments and taking superficial first impressions seriously summarizes the basic situation nicely:

If you’re applying for a job, you want good credentials so your resume doesn’t go straight to the circular file. The key elements in this story are (a) high rewards, and (b) high search costs. Since the rewards are high, lots of people try to win; and since lots of people are trying to win, it’s too expensive to carefully study all of the candidates. The result: People try really hard to make a good impression, and anyone who fails to make a good impression pays a heavy price.

There are a lot of people “trying to win” right now, so employers are forced into ever greater reliance on arbitrary filters, in order to pick out a rough list of the candidates for whom spending more on search costs is most likely to offer a good ROI. While conducting the initial screening, employers know there’s a high rate of false negatives, but accept this as a necessary cost; even if the “best” candidate is accidentally overlooked in favor of a candidate marginally worse, the company is still better off, as it is not efficient to spend ten times more in search costs merely to find the candidate that is just a tiny bit better.

This is a problem for me, as, unfortunately, I am pretty sure I am not making it through that initial sorting. That is, right now, I am doing a poor job at signaling to employers my potential value.

I look decent on paper: decent class rank at a decent law school with the usual decent assortment of accomplishments and attributes on my resume. Not a rockstar by any means, but nothing that should flag me as a potential axe-wielding sociopath to be avoided at all costs. However, to an employer sorting through resumes and making a couple hundred snap judgments, I would imagine I also look pretty boring. Boring is not necessarily bad — if I looked like I had all the personality of a box of Shredded Wheat, that might actually count in my favor so long as I boasted an editor position with a law review and a couple summers at Skaddington McKirkland & Jaworsknight.

But I don’t. So as it stands, there is very little reason for an employer, in an initial evaluation, to tag me as a candidate worth expending additional search costs on.

To make things worse, right now I have another factor working against me: it has been more months than I care to count since graduation, and I still do not have a job. To employers, this can be taken as a strong indication that I am not likely to be a good employee, and may have some hidden flaws that my resume is not revealing. It makes sense for someone hiring to assume that, “Well, if this young lawyer has been unable to secure a job from anyone she has previously applied to, that raises an assumption she was not good enough for any of them, and therefore is likely not good enough for me either.”

Effectively, I am pre-screened as a candidate who likely should not be hired by all of the many employers that have previously failed to hire me. It is simply not worth it to an employer to spend extra resources on giving me a closer look, when presumably other firms already have given me such a look and found me to be wanting.

So my problem is this: I need to find a strategy that increases the odds of an employer deciding to invest further time and money on obtaining a closer evaluation of me. Once they do that, they will, hopefully, discover that I am a capable and effective lawyer, and worth hiring. I believe this to be true; if it’s not, well, I have far bigger problems to deal than merely getting hired, and addressing the whole signaling issue would be kind of unnecessary. So for discussion purposes only, I am just going to stipulate that I am in fact the employee that any firm or agency making a hiring decision might like to find. How, then, can I quickly signal to employers that (1) I am worth taking seriously, and (2) the signal is very likely to be truthful?

I’ll be discussing this more here, both how it might particularly apply to my own situation and strategies for employee signaling in general. And who knows, with a good deal of luck, maybe in the near future I’ll even get some first hand experience on what signaling strategies work.

-Susan

Words Invented By Law Professors

Law professors coin new words at roughly the rate of one neologism for every five articles written. Most of these words, however, either never catch on, or if they do remain in use, are strictly a legal term of art and do not enter the mainstream. I can think of two recent examples, however, of words that were first invented for use in law review articles, and have now started to become mainstream English.

The first is Copyfraud, coined in 2006 by Prof. Jason Mazzone in his article of the same name. Mazzone introduced the word to describe a pattern of widespread abuse of copyright laws:

Copyfraud, as the term is used in this Article, refers to claiming falsely a copyright in a public domain work. These false copyright claims, which are often accompanied by threatened litigation for reproducing a work without the putative “owner’s” permission, result in users seeking licenses and paying fees to reproduce works that are free for everyone to use, or altering their creative projects to excise the uncopyrighted material.

Since then, the word has evolved slightly; I see uses of “copyfraud” that apply not merely to claims of copyright in works in the public domain, but claims of copyright against uses that are either clearly not infringing or else clearly fair use. However, copyfraud still seems to remain in the neologism stage, and while in certain circles it is a common phrase, it has yet to achieve the popularity that, say, “unfriend” has.

In contrast, the term Net Neutrality, first used by Prof. Tim Wu in a 2003 law review article, is in widespread use today. It can fairly be considered to have entered the popular lexicon, and is regularly used in the mainstream media unaccompanied by an explanatory definition.

The most famous word invented by a law professor is still “genocide,” which was coined by Raphael Lemkin in 1944. Today, the word genocide is as well established as patricide or even homicide, and will almost certainly remain a part of the English language for centuries yet. The word genocide first appeared in Lemkin’s book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, and was described as follows:

This new word, coined by the author to denote an old practice in its modern development, is made from the ancient Greek word genos (race, tribe) and the Latin cide (killing), thus corresponding in its formation to such words as tyrannicide, homocide, infanticide, etc.(1) Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.

I am sure there are other examples of popular words invented by law professors out there, but these seem to be the most prominent examples. If anyone else knows of another word with similar origins — either more modern creations or words of an older vintage — feel free to share them in comments.

-Susan

“Thou shalt not sit/With statisticians nor commit/A social science.”

W.H. Auden is probably my favorite poet, and the only poet I’ve read enough of that I feel like I could discuss seriously without feeling like a giant fraud. His poem “Law Like Love” is undoubtedly the best known among lawyers, for obvious reasons, and from a quick search, the poem seems to have been quoted in law review articles over 40 times. It says something about Auden that his other works are also quoted relatively often in legal academia, a community that, in general, does not pay all that much attention to poetry.

Auden’s appeal, for me, is that he embodies some strange brand of cynically ironic libertarianism. How else would you describe a line like “To be free/is often to be lonely”? Still, his libertarian streaks are often overlooked, as Auden is better known for his dabblings in Marxism. Two of his most famous poems were, technically, communist propaganda, but his later repudiation of them is telling. The poems were removed from his later collections for being “dishonest,” and, as Auden described it, “A dishonest poem is one which expresses, no matter how well, feelings or beliefs which its author never felt or entertained.”

Auden’s communism was not based in some economic theory, or in any desire for the state to control the machinery of civilization. In Auden’s view, communism’s appeal was that it provided a path to freedom from the oppressive coercion of the State. As he wrote in his poem “New Year Letter,”

“Who has ever met a poet (at least one who has had any success) for whom the real attraction of Communism did not lie in its premise that, under it, the state should wither away for others as it has already withered away for him?”

I’m pretty sure the idea of Auden-as-a-libertarian is not exactly widespread, but under the brand of textualist interpretation that Auden endorsed, I don’t think it’s an unfair characterization. His communism was motivated by much the same impulses that motivate libertarian ideology today, and he was unquestionably anti-totalitarian and pro-individual. His poem the “The Unknown Citizen” is my favorite of his commentary on the state verses the individual, and I wanted to share it here below. I always feel like it should be read alongside Epitath on a Tyrant, so go check that one out as well, it’s short.

As a side note, to carry on with my quest to show how every topic is, in some way, connected to international law, I’ll also mention that Auden translated the work of Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary-General to the United Nations.

The Unknown Citizen

(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

W.H. Auden (1939)

-Susan

Coyotes & Unintended Consequences

At the moment, I’m down in Atlanta, visiting my family for Thanksgiving. My dad and I were home yesterday when he called me to come look out the front windows — and there was a coyote lounging about across our front yard, in broad day light. He was also clearly injured, and heavily limping; my best guess is he was hungry and desperate enough to be wandering in the open, otherwise he would never have made himself so obvious to see.

We get a fair few foxes and rabbits here, and last summer, we even had a young (and presumably rather lost) black bear wander up about a mile from my house. But that’s the first time I’ve even heard about a coyote showing up this far in town. I know coyotes have become much more prevalent on the east coast in general, though, not just in Georgia, and I got curious about why it seemed like coyotes are suddenly appearing everywhere. From what I found, though, it does not look like anyone’s too sure about the answer.

Essentially, coyotes are an invasive species in most of their modern day territory. Coyotes were unknown east of the Mississippi until the second half of the twentieth century, and it has only been in the past few decades that they have really established a population in the Southeast. Explanations for the expansion pretty much boil down to “changes in habitat caused by humans” and “loss of competition from wolves.”

Despite their amazingly successful take over of North America, it’s not as if coyotes have been allowed to waltz over to the rest of the continent unchallenged. They are the most heavily persecuted carnivore in the U.S., and yet they now range from Los Angeles to Central Park, and from Panama to Alaska. I’m trying to think of another native apex predator that has had its range so dramatically expand as a result of human activity, but they’re the only ones that come to mind.

Coyotes are the primary cause of depredation losses in U.S. agriculture, resulting in around $40 million in damages every year, from killing sheep, goats, and calves. Coyote predation apparently took out 2.3% of the U.S.’s sheep in 1999. Although, proportionally, they kill far more sheep than cows, because there are so many more cows than sheep, most the coyote losses are in the cattle industry.

Coyotes are hard to get rid of, too:

[Coyote removal] costs in Virginia for FY 2002 were $228,000: $85,000 from the state; $22,000 from the VA Sheep Industry Board; and $121,000 from the federal government. (that works out to $578.68 per dead coyote).

Despite these numbers, it appears that coyote management in Virginia has been relatively successful. The program has been described as “fairly effective”:

During fiscal year 2007, the total number of sheep, calves and goats killed by coyotes in Virginia was 249, which represents a significant decrease from 369 killed in the previous fiscal year. Since the program began in 1990, “the number of sheep killed per farm has gone from 17 killed per farm in 1993 down to two killed per farm in 2007,” Fox said.

I don’t know where I’d find the numbers for this, but I wonder if it’s the case that the near extermination of the North American wolf population has, in the long run, caused a far greater net welfare loss than would have occurred had the wolf populations been left intact all along. Coyotes are by far the biggest killers of livestock, and they’re now essentially everywhere — bye bye wolves, hello rising coyote damages. So if it’s really the demise of wolves that lead to the coyote’s expansion, and if leaving the wolf population alone would not simply have resulted in the same amount of depredation but merely change the species responsible for it… Well, that’s a lot of ifs. But I’d be curious to know, in the long run, over a time period of centuries, what the net monetary impact of wildlife management has been in the United States. For coyotes, anyway, wildlife policies made a century ago could be partially responsible for agricultural losses today.

Bonus trivia fact: In Virginia, coyotes are classified as a nuisance and may be killed at anytime, except that if you’re trying to kill a coyote on a Sunday, it is illegal to use a weapon. I guess you’re stuck with using a trap or trying to strangle it with your bare hands.

-Susan

The Five Stages of Legal Unemployment

Although Michael is good to have around as a reminder of how green the grass on the other side really is, in the interest of being Fair and Balanced, I now present the five stages of legal unemployment.

  1. Denial: “Well, I guess this is what unemployment feels like! It’s not so bad… And it won’t last long. Besides, after just taking the bar exam, I’d probably want to take a week off anyway, so I’ll just enjoy things for now. I’m going to organize all my files and catch up on every book I wanted to read the past three years but couldn’t find time for during law school! Yay!”
  2. Anger: “#@$%*&$@%! Did you hear about that chick who sued her college because she couldn’t find a job? Maybe I’ll try that. No, wait, I won’t sue GW… I’ll sue the Career Development Office!! Fracking useless good-for-nothing CDO! This is all your fault! And also the fault of all those stupid experienced lawyers who got laid off and are now rudely taking my jobs!!! You know what would be a fair way of deciding who gets a job? From now on, all hiring decisions should be made by a barehanded fight to the death, last lawyer standing gets hired! I WILL DEFEAT ALL CHALLENGERS.”
  3. Bargaining: “Dear law firm: Please hire me. I promise I am a decent lawyer. Also I have other useful skills, such as coffee-fetching, supply closet organizing, and shameless sycophancy. You don’t even have to pay me. All I ask in return is for a janitor’s closet to sleep in and full access to any food left over in the break room.”
  4. Depression: “Rejection letters? Meh. Rejection phone calls? Meh. No big deal… I already knew they were going to reject me. I think today I am going to sit here and count how many times these job listings contain the phrase ‘must have 52-weeks post-JD experience to be considered.’ While eating this entire box of Oreos. By myself.”
  5. Acceptance: You must not accept unemployment. Acceptance is the mind-killer. Acceptance is the little death that obliterates any chance of being a lawyer. The only acceptance permissible is the acceptance of a job offer. If no job offer is forthcoming, skip Stage 5 and start again at Step 1.

Currently, I am at Stage 3, for the fourth or fifth time. However, my theme song never fails to cheer me up. You can listen to it here.

-Susan

International Humanitarian Law Does Not Prohibit Shooting Locusts, Brutes, and Infected: Why Game Developers Should Stop Being Lazy and Stop Using War Crimes in Lieu of Plot

Via Opinio Juris, a Swiss NGO has produced a report on the promotion of violations of international humanitarian law in video games. [PDF] This is a subject that’s actually bothered me before, and I am glad to see someone giving it some serious thought. Not only is the report’s game-by-game analysis of possible international law violations fascinating, but I’m completely on board with the authors’ stated purpose:

The goal is not to prohibit the games, to make them less violent or to turn them into IHL [International Humanitarian Law] or IHRL [International Human Rights Law] training tools. The message we want to send to developers and distributors of video games, particularly those portraying armed conflict scenarios, is that they should also portray the rules that apply to such conflicts in real life, namely IHRL and IHL. We would thus like to propose the producers to incorporate the essential rules of IHL [obligations].

First person shooters are pretty much the only game type I seriously play, but as a general rule, I don’t play FPS games that involve hunting down and killing other humans. My avoidance of them is due to a variety of factors: in part due to a dislike for the game concept, in part due to personal squeamishness, and in part due to an inability to suspend disbelief enough to become immersed in a game when I’m busy murdering people left and right. I would never advocate censorship of video games, but I would love for developers to be more aware of their games’ incidental promotion of war crimes, and to see new games incorporate into gameplay some of the real considerations involved in armed conflict, including compliance with humanitarian law.

As it stands today, many games treat war so callously and so unrealistically that they are not only offensive, they are also just plain bad and boring to play. I remember Army of Two, which is discussed unfavorably in the NGO article, being particularly nasty. Aside from the gameplay being laughably asinine (collecting “agro” so your partner turns invisible? For reals?), I had serious problems with playing two white dudes who are happily blasting their way through various hordes of Somalis and then blasting their way through various hordes of Iraqis, with the general mission guideline being “if someone looks like a native, shoot them.”

The game was even more disturbing when you realize that its timeline (1993 in Somalia, 2003 in Iraq) explicitly matches up with real life armed conflicts that the U.S. has been involved in. These games are not about theoretical, imaginary wars where only bad guys die — they are about very real events that resulted in the very real deaths of many innocent civilians.

War crime-promotion is disturbing in itself, but also bothersome in that, oftentimes, games that require the indiscriminate killing of human beings do so at the expense of having an enjoyable and nuanced story line. Pretty much all the games I do play, with one partial exception, feature clever and creative stories that avoid any need for human-on-human carnage. As a result, I can happily blast my way through Gears of War’s Locusts, Left 4 Dead’s zombies, and Halo’s Covenant troops without ever worrying about accidental humanitarian violations. (Well, okay — I sometimes feel a little guilty for mowing down terrified Grunts. But I do it anyway.)

The one FPS I enjoy that does involve killing humans is Half-Life. A lot of the shooting is directed at adorable little head crabs and antlions, which is cool by me, but the game also requires you to shoot at human Metro Cops. However, even there, thanks to the masks and voice disguisers, the CP’s are fairly easy to dehumanize. In terms of the game’s narrative, killing them does not tread as far into moral gray zones as do other human-killing games; they are an Orwellian paramilitary police force whose troops are all citizens who have become traitors to humanity. So shooting a couple in self-defense ain’t so bad, and doesn’t entail any risk of torture, summary execution, POW mistreatment, or abuse and murder of civilians.

Essentially, there is no game-based justification for why a game should allow players to engage in consequence-free war crimes. Designing games based upon a theme of wanton murder is a cheap cop-out by developers; gameplay could only benefit if violations of humanitarian law had serious in-game consequences, forcing players to either find a way to accomplish an objective without committing a war crime, or else go ahead and commit the war crime but then be forced to pay a substantial cost as a result.

I’d also point out that that even if a video game does not involve shooting humans, there is still ample room left over for indulgent, ivory tower analysis of gameplay under international law. Many important legal questions remain, such as, How is it in Halo that the UN finally got together the funding and state support necessary to create the elite UN Marine force? How do the laws of international organization responsibility apply to ODSTs? Does the treaty that formed the COG in Gears of War actually permit the forced conscription of soldiers in return for feeding their families? Not to mention, if a massive zombie invasion breaks out in an allied nation, does NATO require other states to act in collective defense of that state?

-Susan

American States Purposefully Claim Copyright In Their Own Laws, Demand That Citizens Pay If They Want To See Them

I realized that my last post may have been overly unfair to Liberia, and may have implied that an entity claiming copyright in a state’s legislation was an unusual occurrence.

It’s not. Numerous sub-Federal government bodies in the U.S. (and Canada) have attempted to do exactly the same. (Feds are prohibited from claiming any copyright under Sec. 105 of the Copyright Act.) California, for instance, claimed copyright in its “building codes, plumbing standards and criminal laws”, and charged users to obtain copies of the statutes and regulations they are already presumed under the law to have knowledge of. And it’s pretty clear why states do it: there’s money to be made.

To purchase a digital copy of the California code costs $1,556, or $2,315 for a printed version. The state generates about $880,000 annually by selling its laws, according to the California Office of Administrative Law.

Oregon also tried the same copyright-in-the-compilation trick that Banks is doing in Liberia:

The State of Oregon takes exception to Web sites that republish the state’s Revised Statutes in full, claiming that the statutes contain copyrighted information in the republication causes the state to lose money it needs to continue putting out the official version of the statutes. Oregon’s Legislative Counsel, Dexter Johnson, has therefore requested that legal information site Justia remove the information or (preferably) take out a paid license from the state. …

While the text of the law is not copyrighted, the “arrangement and subject-matter compilation of Oregon statutory law, the prefatory and explanatory notes, the leadlines and numbering for each statutory section, the tables, index and annotations and other such incidents” are under copyright.

Luckily, the judiciary has, so far, not looked on to such claims too kindly. Recently, California got its rear end handed to them over its attempt to claim copyright in public maps.

A California county’s three-year battle to prevent a nonprofit group from obtaining public mapping data has ended disastrously for the county after it was ordered by a court to pay the group $500,000 in legal costs.

Last February, Santa Clara County, the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, was ordered to hand over the public records to the California First Amendment Coalition for a minimal duplication fee after initially trying to charge $250,000 for the data and then appealing to the federal government to designate the data a national security secret that couldn’t be released. This week the county paid out to the coalition twice the amount in legal fees that it had once hoped to rake in as profit for the data.

With the release of the exciting (if kinda unwieldy) addition to Google Scholar that allows you to search full federal and state court opinions as well as law journals, ever more “public information” is being made, for the first time, actually available to the public. Meanwhile, I’ll be cheering on the development of Law.Gov. Sorry, Wexis — I loved the freebies you gave me in law school, but it’s time for you to take a less prominent position in the U.S. legal system:

Law.Gov is a movement that is determined to work to raise the quality of government information. They are determined to establish standards for state and local courts, legislatures and agencies to follow in the production and distribution of their own legal materials.

If Law.Gov succeeds in its mission, it will mean that governments and courts will produce better information, in formats that are reliable, accurate and distributed freely to all who need it. And all who need it include both private citizens and providers of VHPPLM [Very Highly Priced Primary Legal Material]. As such, this is good for news for providers of VHPPLM, as well as ordinary consumers of primary legal materials.

-Susan