Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Don't ask, Don't tell

How often have you had a normal, mundane meeting with a student that is suddenly interrupted by a bombshell sort of announcement? 

For example, one day, after reviewing a student's outlines and setting up what I call an "exam plan," I asked my signature end of meeting question, "So, how is everything else going?" 

"Oh, really much better than last year at this time; I talked to my wife about separating yesterday. "

"What??????"  Okay, I didn't really do a Danny Kaye and spit my coffee on this fellow, but I was a little surprised.  And then confused.  What do I say to this?  "Gee, student, are you sure a divorce is a good plan this close to exams?  Can't you remain in this terrible relationship until after finals and then start proceedings?"

So I said nothing.  "Mazel Tov" seemed patently wrong and "I'm sorry" didn't correspond with his somewhat glib tone either.  I let him talk it through; he explained that this was not unexpected, that he had been in marriage counseling for some time, etc.  When he had questions about the university housing office listings, I went back to safely drinking my coffee and gave him some advice on that.

At the beginning of an ASP relationship with a student in academic difficulty, I always ask if there is some reason why this has happened (and I always phrase the question in this way purposely).  The answer often explains an egregiously inconsistent grade or a slew of bad finals following a set of lovely midterms.  But I looked at this student's form, and he had written that he had been sick much of the prior year without a clear diagnosis.   Now, however, he had finally completed his treatment; and I assumed that was it.

But then again, what did I expect?  Would anyone really answer my gently phrased question with, "Well, my marriage appears to be loveless, and frankly we are bored with each other, so I imagine that might have had some effect on my grades"?  No, that would be a bizarre insight stemming from such a vague question and perhaps one that eluded the student as well.

But there is a teachable moment here.  As lawyers, we are all trained to think on our feet: to have the ability to respond immediately; but we are never taught in law school that sometimes silence is golden.  I have advised new attorneys that learning when to sit down and shut up is a very high level skill for lawyers.  In fact, it may be the most difficult skill for a lawyer to master.  Now I know that ASP folks need to be able to do that also. (ezs)

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