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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Perfect Makes Practice?

 I wanted to revisit a comment that I posted on a really thoughtful post by Robin Effron about students' lack of professionalism and when the duty to seize a so-called teachable moment kicks in. I wrote that


...[F]riends from law school, who unlike me, do not teach law students, but supervise junior attorneys in practice... have confirmed that to the extent that students are thoughtless in their approach and interactions with professors, they're not necessarily polishing up and putting in the effort to be more diligent, considerate, and prepared for their supervisors and clients. So, for example, a student who asks me questions about what the reading is for that day because he can't be bothered to consult the syllabus is likely to be the same student who wastes a partner's time by asking certain basic things about an assignment that are clearly knowable without resort to the partner. A student who expects me to keep track of, look up, and report to her about her absences likely is the same junior associate who, a few years later, is seen by the senior associates for whom she works as having unrealistic expectations that they will keep track of her work, deadlines, and responsibilities and that they exist to make her life easier instead of vice versa. A student who shows that he cannot be bothered to consolidate questions or proofread assignments or correspondence is likely the same associate who yanks things out of the printer and drops them on a senior associate’s desk as he strolls out of the office, or shoots careless correspondence off to a client or judge without regard for who is going to catch his careless mistakes. These associates quickly tarnish their reputations internally, externally, and permanently. They don't last in jobs, and they don't last in practice.
Today's cost-conscious client does not want to pay 3/4 of a senior person's hourly rate to employ a junior person and have shoddy work, wasted hours, and an unreliable person who cannot be bothered to exhibit professionalism as counsel. They'd rather pay full price for the real thing, because it's cheaper and better for their case and for their overall representation. I have long thought that we as law professors owe our students more in terms of their complete professional training, but I, too, have struggled with how to address certain of these issues without alienating students or seeming less approachable; I pride myself on being very accessible to students. I won't even get into scenarios where a student is disrespectful, but clearly doesn't realize that she is being rude at all. I fear we may do our students the greatest disservice when we remain silent as we strive to build their confidence and facilitate their ability to speak freely to us. We graduate them, but then the real world must (and invariably does) correct what we have not deemed to be our place to address. It's a topic worthy of further discussion, and I am glad that you brought it up.  who employ and supervise junior attorneys.
Fast forward to this year, and I have found myself chairing our school's Faculty Placement Committee.
This committee works alongside the Career Development Office to plan and staff programming geared toward helping students find and land jobs in this competitive market. I also find myself  surrounded by friends in several major cities including Miami, New York, and Washington DC who employ and supervise junior attorneys. I have geared much of the advice that I dispense at panels called things like "How to Find and Keep a Job" or "How to be a Good Summer Associate" toward addressing the pet peeves and sought-after traits that I hear about.
This year, as well, I joined several junior faculty members in creating what we are calling a "working group" on classroom culture. With the goal of identifying and heading off behavioral and other problems in the classroom that seem to be engendered by students' lack of accountability and/or professionalism, we started off the school year by addressing students at Orientation. Although most of our students do not exhibit a lack of professionalism in the classroom, our goal was to identify what we considered unprofessional behavior before anyone engaged in it so that the discussion could be thoughtful, rather than antagonistic or accusatory. We identified behavior that had the potential to harm others' experiences, like a student's not doing the reading and then coming to class with a series of questions designed to catch her up at the expense of her classmates' time (and patience).  Aiming to create a culture of professionalism and civility from the outset, we talked about the connection between the habits and mindsets that our students would form and those that they would engage in or subscribe to as working professionals. We talked about the state of the profession and about how many leaders of the bench and bar bemoan what they term a loss of civility and professionalism in the practice of law.
I wanted to see if any of you or your schools had attempted anything similar and what the results had been. We were very careful to make clear that students could act and approach their studies as they wished, but the impressions that they made on their professors and one another could have long-lasting and far-reaching ramifications. I would like to think that we aided some students who hadn't given much thought to these issues with self-awareness, law school protocol, and accountability that will give them a competitive edge in the profession.

Posted by Kerri Stone on November 13, 2011 at 11:51 PM in Workplace Law | Permalink


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Whoops. My apologies, Miriam! (Or, Kerri, you can just delete my mistaken post.)

Posted by: John Steele | Nov 15, 2011 10:13:47 AM

I think she meant the very first poster who commented. He is John also. Your comments were really helpful and valuable. I plan to share with my students what you said about professionalism and the "entitlement attitude" as a prime cause for professional failure. Your thoughts reinforce the importance of our mission to make our students employable in all respects and prepared to face the challenges and expectations of the legal market.

I happen to agree with Miriam that our students are most certainly not clients. The school's job (and by extension, the professors') is twofold. We educate, prepare, recommend, root for, etc. our students. But we must simultaneously evaluate them to ensure that they are worthy of the degree we confer and suitable in all relevant respects for bar membership.

Posted by: Kerri Stone | Nov 15, 2011 9:24:47 AM

It's never been my position, in my comments here or anywhere else, that "students are clients" and that it's OK to "give students legal advice."

Posted by: John Steele | Nov 15, 2011 9:10:03 AM

Great post, Kerri.

I don't agree with John's statement that students are clients. In fact, while I am happy to help students with class material, I am hesitant to give students legal advice. I suppose John could mean it as an analogy, but it's still inapt because a professor is obligated to grade students and an attorney does not grade his or her clients.

Posted by: Miriam A. Cherry | Nov 14, 2011 8:20:23 PM

It’s an important post on an important topic. I was a hiring partner and ran the associate evaluation process at an AmLaw 200 and when I teach professional responsibility I can’t help but think about whether a particular student is ready for private practice.

Some quick thoughts . . . . (1) The best way to teach those attitudes is to set an example. That includes teaching a course that students will see as important to their professional future. (Imho, far too many students in far too many courses believe, correctly or incorrectly, that law school is about what the professor finds important to her career rather than what’s important to the students’ career.) It might also include asking students what topics and skills they want out of the course and then making room for them during the semester. That sends the signal that lawyering is service-oriented and that lawyers, including professors, always need to be “adding value.” (2) Be clear that attendance and participation count in the grade and stress that it’s participation that demonstrates pre-class preparation that gets the grade bump. “Quality, not quantity.” (3) If the course lends itself to it, have the students work in teams, present in class, get professionally critiqued in class by the professor and by the other students, and have team members evaluate each other. We did that with 1Ls in Indiana, resulting in lots of student engagement and in frank evals for the occasional student who dogs it. (4) If there’s been a lack of professionalism, then add an occasional comment at the end of class about the way that “sweating details” is what lawyers do best.

Fwiw, at my firm we estimated that for each summer associate who got no-offered because of work quality, there were three who got no-offered because of EQ issues like working on teams, meeting deadlines, communication, and having an entitlement attitude. We also concluded that the partnership was full of former associates who spent their first couple of years being professional and doing “B+, B+, B+” work; whereas lots of former associates who did “A+, B-, A+” and lacked teamwork never made partner.

Finally, there's always LSSSE to track student engagement and to help faculty set internal goals for improvement.

Posted by: John Steele | Nov 14, 2011 1:27:09 PM

Brad--I think your question is execellent. My understanding is that while all disabilities must be reasonably accommodated (like for example, allowing an alcoholic attend an AA meeting through a flexible work schedule, if it's feasible), damaging disability-caused misbehavior need not be tolerated. You raise some really good and interesting points. I am familiar with a case in which a business was told that it needed to assign an "easier" client to a salesman with bipolar disorder to help him meet his quota. With the ADA, everything is taken in context and all queries are fact-driven and individualized, so I think what a court would mandate in a given situation can be somewhat difficut to predict. As a matter of practice, (barring compulsion by a court), I am not sure what firms do voluntarily.

Posted by: Kerri Stone | Nov 14, 2011 12:44:50 PM

I wonder if I could raise a related, but somewhat touchy issue.

All level of the schools, under federal mandate, have put into place more or less effective procedures for accommodating students with learning and/or emotional disabilities.

I know that under the ADA workplaces are likewise required to make reasonable accommodations. But what happens in the real world when a junior associate blurts out something inappropriate at a client meeting? When an associate needs extra time to complete an assignment, does the client get billed? Are note-takers provided for junior associates at meetings with their partners?

Posted by: brad | Nov 14, 2011 12:24:22 PM

I wholly agree, and I am somewhat proud to say that those of us here who have been engaged in this task neither think of ourselves as nor act like partners like the ones you describe (and with whom we are all familiar.) In fact, some of the most patient, clear, responsive, accessible teachers are the ones who care the most about creating a culture of preparedness and professionalism. It is incumbent upon us to work with all of our students so that their substantive knowledge, skill sets, and attitude, approach, and habits are superior by the time that they graduate.

Posted by: Kerri Stone | Nov 14, 2011 7:35:10 AM

Here's a better starting point for professors who want to give their students a "competitive edge": making sure the students' time in class is more productive for all of them (not just the stars) than an equivalent period spent reading a commercial supplement.

I expect partners to believe that their time is so precious that it can't be wasted speaking to a mere associate doing some task new to him, or reviewing an area of law with which he is unfamiliar. (Thank God most of mine aren't like this, although I've met enough who are.) However, professors shouldn't think of themselves as partners in the classroom because their clients are sitting in the seats in front of them.

Posted by: John | Nov 14, 2011 7:28:06 AM

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