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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

What Should Students Call Professors?

A decision that many of us make early on (or sometimes change later) in teaching is what to have students call us: “Professor X,” or our first name, or by some sort of nickname. Or this may organically evolve. I’ve gone from being called Professor Baradaran to most often, “Shima” in the last 6 years, but not by choice. I introduce myself every year in class as “Professor Baughman” pronounce it and sign all of my emails “Prof. B”, but still somehow, I am referred to as “Shima” by a large number of students. I understand that I went from one hard to pronounce last name (Baradaran) to another (Baughman) when I got married, but I don’t think that’s the problem here. I’ve spoken to several colleagues and they have experienced frustration with this nonconsensual first-name calling as well. I believe that students call me by my first name because there is a growing movement by professors to allow students to call them by their first name, both in undergrad and in law school.

I wonder what percentage of law professors encourage or allow students to call them by their first name and whether this is a good move. I tend to think that it is not a good development. Here are a couple reasons why:

  1. Call one professor “Frank”, call them all “Frank.” Some of us prawfs want to keep work life separate from casual life and having a title at work, helps us do that. Some of us feel like we have earned the title of Professor, and feel cool when our students call us that. Others are young (or look young), and the title of Professor may be the only separation they have to distinguish them from their students. Whatever it is, I think that this should be an individual choice that the professor makes. Maybe this can be avoided if professors who like to be called by their first names, warn students that they should not assume that other professors like this and to always ask in advance.
  1. The Classic Slippery Slope Argument. As far as I understand it, some law firms and definitely judicial chambers are places where judges or partners may not like to assume that interns or new associates or clerks treat them casually. I worry that calling professors by their first name in law school, may lead to false expectation that this is how it is in the legal profession. I actually think the legal profession is one of the few remaining professions where there is a sense of formality in our practice of law. We have to address judges by a certain title (or they will correct you at oral argument), we have to carefully include exact language, color, and formatting on briefs or they are rejected, addressing of opposing counsel and often clients often has to do this by their full name and title. And I believe an awkward situation may arise where a student may call his judge by her first name and it may be seen as a sign of disrespect (And unfortunately, serving on the Judicial Clerkship Committee I have heard these horror stories actually happening). Are we communicating these norms to our students? I worry about this given the growing casual nature of law teaching.
  1. Casual Nature of Law School. I have noticed in my time teaching that students are getting more casual at law school every year. Where in my first year of teaching, hardly anyone entered the classroom late, brought snacks to eat during class, or wore sweatpants or pajamas to class, these are now regular occurrences. Students have called me on my cell phone regularly (I’m not sure how they have obtained this number) and two students asked me if I could Skype their study group before one of my finals since they had a few extra questions and email responses just didn’t suffice. I regularly am asked if I can review a student’s 40+ page outline to see if there are any mistakes. These are requests I would never have made in law school even if I was paid a large amount of money. I worry that students have an extremely casual view of their professors and calling them by their first names may be exacerbating what I think is an already bigger issue of casual Millennials and respect.

But, trying to see this from the other side, the argument for having students call prawfs by their first name, I can understand. Prawfs want students to feel comfortable (especially possibly some nervous 1Ls) and feel that being on a first name basis provides that. This is also on trend with law schools having more mixers between students and professors and inviting students over to professors’ homes for social events to allow more natural interaction. For some it may be an equity thing—I call you by your first name to call on you, so you can call me by my first name. Finally, I totally understand the argument that these are professional students who have often worked in the business world and professors don’t need to artificially place themselves in a superior position to them.

Still, though, I believe the arguments against what I see as a new development among prawfs are stronger. What do you all think? Also, do you think this is a bigger problem for female professors? Minorities? Or younger professors? Or is it pretty universal?

Posted by Shima Baradaran Baughman on August 16, 2016 at 04:18 PM | Permalink


My only view is that I think that in dealing with adults, which law students are, it's a two-way street. I call students "Mr." & "Ms." (so far no one has asked for a gender-neutral term, but I'm ready for that), or in rare cases "Dr." or "Col.", and expect them to use my last name and title too. That is, until they graduate, at which point I ask if we can be on a first names basis.

Posted by: Michael Froomkin | Aug 12, 2016 1:57:05 PM

Howard, I am female, I use last names, no one has ever used a first name, and some struggle a bit with the shift when they graduate. I think the analogy is partner/associate. Perhaps the answer is that the analogy depends on the professor's style. That is my style.

Posted by: F | Aug 12, 2016 1:49:10 PM

BTW: I don't sign emails to students. I let my sig file at the bottom do that.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 12, 2016 1:47:59 PM

Also, absolutely, going back to Shima's post, they need to understand the rules and conventions in law practice and professional society, such as never (ever) calling a judge by his/her first name (unless expressly permitted to, and even then never ever in front of other people, is my rule) and rarely doing so with a significant public figure (US senator, for instance, after retirement, context and relationship dependent, of course), to almost always use last name in formal letters, and so on. This is partly "emotional intelligence" and partly "business intelligence" & it can and should be taught. But my instinct is that the artificial formality with law professors could undermine efforts to teach people how to read cues, and situations, and how to make a good judgment call about these issues.

Posted by: F | Aug 12, 2016 1:47:18 PM

I have never had a student call me by my first name (my problem is getting them to stop calling me Professor once they have graduated), although I use first names in class. I certainly have not had a student simply begin doing it after I had introduced myself as Professor. I am very curious to hear from my female colleagues to as to whether their experiences have been different.

The question of first-or-last-names in class does not have a good answer. I take Larry's point about helping them develop a professional identity. On the other hand, complaints about the Socratic method have always focused on how unfriendly or rude it feels. I have always used first names because I believed it creates a more relaxed (but still challenging) environment. Maybe I need to rethink that balance.

An interesting question in this: What is the analogue for the in-class relationship between professor and student: Is it judge/lawyer or is it partner/associate? I think that matters to this question.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 12, 2016 1:44:24 PM

I spent a good amount of time in private practice. I never called younger lawyers by their last name. Indeed, after initial introductions, I rarely called clients by their last name (exception for C suite, at least most of the time). (And as a younger lawyer, I generally called the senior lawyers by first name.) It seems to me that preparing for private practice might actually mean learning to use first names -- and internalizing the fact that in a professional environment, use of a first name (or a person permitting use of his/her first name) does not mean and should not be taken to mean you are equals. Over the long haul, I think it does more harm than good to teach a direct association between clothing/titles (and other traditional trappings) and the respect owed a person.

Posted by: F | Aug 12, 2016 1:39:42 PM

At both schools where I have taught, there's been a strong norm that doctrinal professors are called "Professor." When I first started, I was ambivalent about what I wanted to be called, but I knew I didn't want to be the new, young, female professor who went by her first name when all the rest were "Professor." At this point, I think I prefer "Professor," for some of the reasons you mention, but I have two major areas of awkwardness --

(1) Also at both schools where I've taught, the norm is that students call their clinical professors by first names. While the argument for first names may be stronger in clinic, but the difference in norms reinforces an undesirable hierarchy within the faculty. It's also just awkward -- I co-direct our family law program with a clinical professor, and when we have events it's strange to have the students address us differently.

One possibility would be to use different forms of address in different contexts. For example, one of my professors in law school called me "Ms. Hendricks" in class but "Jennifer" if she saw me in the hallways. When I was in practice, we did something similar with local judges: One was "Judge Sherlock" in the courtroom but announced himself as "Jeff the Judge" when he called on the phone. (On the other hand, when it comes to the judge I clerked for -- as far as I'm concerned, her first name is "Judge.")

(2) I haven't figured out how to sign emails. Usually I use my initials.

Posted by: Jennifer Hendricks | Aug 12, 2016 1:18:58 PM

Interesting post and something I've thought about over the years. I wonder whether your colleagues are having the same problem and whether there are gender differences. I teach at a business school and had this problem several years ago with male students - I assumed it was a business school thing even though the female students almost always used "Professor". I found out that it wasn't happening to my male colleagues although they were being referred to by nicknames or by just their last name (behind their back, typically not to their face). Now that I'm older and have more female colleagues, the students almost always use "Professor."

Posted by: Nancy | Aug 12, 2016 1:03:19 PM

I definitely requested the title of "Professor" when I started, largely because I was about the same age as my students and wanted to create some distance between us (prevent casualness when I am not their friend). I strongly believe in continuing the title, as a reminder that I am not their friend but their teacher, and that law is a profession where formality matters. I suspect that students reverberate to first names with women more often than with men, because as a male professor I rarely if ever have students call me by my first name (if they even know it - ha ha). YMMV

Posted by: Anon | Aug 12, 2016 12:59:27 PM

The relationship between law professor and law student is a professional relationship. Even more important, students are entering a profession, and it is important that we teach them the norms of professional relationships. I signal the professional nature of our relationship on the first day of class by referring to all students by their last name. I never vary, even in one-one-one discussions in my office. The students, of course, immediately get it, and consistently refer to me as "Professor Rosenthal".

I have never understood why law professors do not think that there should be symmetry in the way that students and faculty refer to each other. If you refer to students by their first names, you should not be surprised when they reciprocate. It may be that the impulse toward symmetry is what causes some faculty members (many of whom spent little time in the profession and who have little sense of professional norms) to adopt the universal use of first names. In my view, that ill serves our students; it is our job to help them develop a professional identity.

Larry Rosenthal
Chapman University
Fowler School of Law

Posted by: Larry Rosenthal | Aug 12, 2016 12:56:31 PM

Denigrating a whole generation of people is unfair and inaccurate.

Fwiw, the student I've had who made the most unreasonable demands was not a Millennial but a second-career person, mid-40s, who (among other things) interrupted class to demand I post copies of my teaching notes online.

Posted by: anon | Aug 12, 2016 12:51:04 PM

For the love of god, not everything is about Those Damn Millennials.

Posted by: Jason | Aug 12, 2016 12:27:16 PM

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