Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Yadda Yadda Yadda, Lawyer Style...

Here in our neck of the woods (that is the cold and wintry northeast), we are all abuzz in the legal community about an e-mail scandal.  Basically, a young, new attorney decided to decline a job offer (after possibly accepting it) at the very last minute and did so in a fairly bratty e-mail to her future (and more experienced) employer.  She told him that she was opening her own practice so that she could essentially "reap what I sew."  (She was not, by the way, opening a tailor shop).  He responded that although he did not take issue with her decision, he did have a problem with her delivery method.  She told him that real lawyers put contracts in writing-and he told her (in a fairly restrained way) that this was not a "bar exam question" and that her behavior would certainly not bode well for her in our fairly insular bar network.  She responded, "bla bla bla."  Which demonstrated a complete lack of H's and an overabundance of chutzpah if you ask me.

So why do we all know about it?  Well, like those old shampoo ads, the potential employer told two friends, and they told two friends and so on and so on.  Within three days some forwarded version of this exchange was probably found in every attorney in Boston's in box, complete with commentary from the folks who had read it along the way.  In my version, it appears that someone actually sent it back to our bratty seamstress along with a really long list of cc's.  I know that I then sent it to, among others, my husband (an environmental lawyer) and a former colleague serving over in Iraq with JAG. 

The next day, it was on the front page of the Boston Globe and last night I saw it on Fox news (please don't form any political judgments based on the fact we were watching Fox news; we don't have cable, CSI: Miami was a repeat and I find the Olympics kind of nerve-wracking).  Another faculty member here saw it on a national news broadcast also.

So, (and here is where I finally link this to ASP), what is the role of an academic support program in fostering professionalism among students?  Last week, before the whole "bla bla bla" thing, coincidentally, I had to deal with a student who sent me an e-mail with the subject line, "MY SWEET-ASS MEMO."  Yes, it was all in caps.  This was quite shocking as I sat at home checking my e-mail on the laptop with my nine-year-old looking over my shoulder.  I knew I could not let this slip past without pointing out that this lacked appropriate professionalism on the part of the student.

But then I wondered.  Isn't ASP, by far, one of the least formal places in the law school?  Shouldn't we try to create the kind of rapport that makes students feel comfortable coming to us for help?  How can I point out this student's error without sounding prudish?  I ended up scolding the student in a return e-mail (I deleted the offending language from the subject line).  I told him that while we are essentially a safe haven and more relaxed part of the law school, that his correspondence with our office still had to be professional.  I asked him to refrain from using such language in the future. 

I felt like I had put on my traditional lawyer garb, put my hair in a tight bun and perched my glasses on the tip of my nose for a moment, but I know I did the right thing because his response was, "I'm sorry" and not "bla bla bla."  Maybe I have prevented the big e-mail scandal of 2008, and maybe not.  It remains to be seen.

In a note of disclaimer, or perhaps even just an ethical honesty issue, I should point out that our seamstress is a graduate of the school I teach at-and no, I have never seen her before. (ezs)

February 21, 2006 in Professionalism | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Give It a Rest

As exams wind down, I think we would do our students a great favor if we reminded them to rest over the holiday break.  The first-year students are especially worn out, physically and emotionally; and the upper-division students often take on more than is realistic as journal opportunities, moot court competitions, clerking positions, and clinical experiences become available. 

All of that hard work is fine if it is kept in perspective, but it is easy to lose perspective both in law school and in the practice of law.  Too many lawyers are workaholics, and their personal lives suffer for it in ways that are often unfair to their families and unfair to the lawyers themselves. 

Whether that tendency to overwork is created in law school or is inherent in the types of people who enroll in law school, it behooves us to counter its pull on our students.  We are the first examples of legal professionals many students  have ever seen up close.  They look to us for guidance as to the right way to practice law; and they take our words to heart, probably more than we realize.  So we should be circumspect about the messages we send.

One of the great professional skills, I have always thought, is the ability to pursue excellence without unnecessarily sacrificing life's other important concerns.  If our students are going to master that balance, they need to begin doing so in law school.  The profession is not particularly forgiving, and pressures always exist to do more and do it better.  Those who enter the profession unprepared to manage those pressures in healthy ways are very likely to be molded by those pressures in ways they will later regret.

The concern always exists, I suppose, that we will encourage the slackers to slack or fail to prepare our students for the hard work of practice; but that concern is probably overblown.  The hard workers needn't be sacrificed to make certain the less motivated step up their efforts.  In fact, between the two, I'd rather spend my energy taking care of the dedicated, hard working student.

So let's tell our students to give it a rest over the holidays.  Let's tell them to take a few days and pretend they are not law students, or clerks, or journal editors, or whatever else wants to take them away from their personal lives. 

Let's remind them that, as someone once famously remarked, no one on his deathbed ever wished he had spent more time at the office.  Better to figure that out now, before it's too late to do anything about it.

And while we're at it, let's remember it for ourselves.  Let's step back from the incessant demands of our profession and, for a few days, say, "Oh, give it a rest." (dbw)

December 10, 2005 in Professionalism | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, November 2, 2005

Predicting Success or Failure

Some students just aren't going to make it.  Either they are not going to make it through law school; or if they do, they will not be able to pass a bar in any state.  Sometimes the admissions office has made an error; sometimes the student has.  But who am I to say?

In today's economy, many college graduates are opting for more school rather than a full-out job search.  Law school applications are going up, and while that trend may give each school a better crop of applicants overall, sometimes students are just here because they didn't know what else to do.

Not knowing what else to do isn't a good reason to be in law school.  Often students forget their altruistic reasons for wanting to be lawyers (right about this time of year according to the studies), but students who never had one find all the work crushing and not a means to any end.

As ASP professionals, we often encounter these students.  They did well as undergraduates; and, pushed by parental or other pressure, they applied and came to law school.  But law school is not nearly as much fun as college; in fact, it requires some work every day, not just before exams. 

I think students who find themselves in law school for no apparent reason are more likely to be in academic distress.  Not only that, but once they are in academic distress, they are more likely to stay in distress or be dismissed.

Sometimes just doing poorly on exams is impetus for students to want to improve their grades because, after all, they did do well academically before law school and they think of themselves as academic achievers.  But this reaction doesn't always work.  If it doesn't, can we help these students manufacture a law-related goal that will be the light at the end of their tunnel?  Or can we admit to them (and ourselves) that they don't belong in law school and save them the time and money a few more years of school will entail? 

Are we really doing students a favor when we tell them to pack up their toys and go home?  I thought so until I worked with one particular student. This student came to me and said she was going to give up law school.  She already had a bunch of advanced graduate degrees, a full time job and a young child at home.  She was going to school at night.  She was extremely intelligent and told me that law school was more of a hobby, an extra degree for her resume.  She had no intention of changing her job or life after law school.  I agreed with her decision; but in the end, she spoke with another faculty member who talked her out of leaving.  She will be graduating in December.  She still stops by, and I am still embarrassed that I thought she should leave. 

On the other hand, I worked with  another student who was told by other faculty members that he did not belong in law school.  I told him to use those professors' comments in his graduation speech, and he did.

So here's the bottom line:  I am averaging about .500, which is great for baseball but not for predicting another person's future.  And sadly, I am sometimes grateful for the academic standing rules that dismiss students automatically when their GPAs and/or accumulation of unsatisfactory grades reach a certain, numeric level.  I wish I had some quantifiable, or at least reliable, way to figure out who wears the cap and gown and who doesn't.  I can make an educated guess or I can flip the ASP coin--the odds seem to be the same. (ezs)

November 2, 2005 in Professionalism | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

A Reason to Sacrifice

Mario suggests that we not shy away from the word “sacrifice,” and I think he is right.  But to make that word ring true, our students must understand what makes the sacrifices worthwhile:  the reality that clients will soon entrust to them some of life’s most precious concerns.  That same reality should drive our academic support efforts.

Those who criticize the notion of academic support often do so because they perceive academic support as a “bag of tricks” for getting incompetent students through law school when flunking them out would be better for the profession and the public.  Whether we need to answer those critics is a topic for another posting; but it is imperative that, at the least, we strive never to deserve the criticism. 

As academic support professionals, we should be about the business of preparing our students to handle the serious, real-world problems of their clients.  Our students should realize from the first day of law school that they have but three years to prepare themselves to deserve their clients’ trust and competently handle their clients’ affairs. 

Like doctors, our students will spend their days diagnosing, treating, and preventing legal “illnesses.”  Like patients, their clients must not encounter shallow diagnoses, superficial treatments, or ineffective prevention. 

Our efforts, therefore, should ensure that our students are learning as deeply, completely, and accurately as possible.  Grades and ranks will take care of themselves.

Law school exams, legal writing assignments, upper-level research and writing requirements, and even bar exams are nothing more than the proving grounds for things much more important than grades or class ranks, interviews or first jobs. All of the ASP strategies for briefing, outlining, preparing for exams, using study groups effectively, and the like are really just exercises in deep, complete, and accurate learning. 

Certainly, grades provide powerful short-term motivation (and often short-term learning), but mature law students are motivated by the fact that people will soon depend upon them for thoughtful, accurate advice.  We can foster that maturity at the very time we are helping them prepare for exams – if we ourselves remember that the exam is just a means to an end and that the end is not better grades but deeper learning.

I am admittedly the new kid on the block in academic support – I am in my first year as an ASP director.  But I already know that if all I am doing is helping students find tricks to study faster and get better grades, I’ll be bored by Thanksgiving and working on an exit strategy by Christmas. 

If, on the other hand, what I am doing is helping students engage the law more deeply and effectively, ASP probably has its hooks in me for the long term.  Then my own sacrifices will be worthwhile.  (Dan Weddle)

October 12, 2005 in Professionalism | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Sacrifice

Sometimes, the common (though rarely overtly stated) thread running through much of what Academic Support professionals do is a critique of law school pedagogy and the legal profession itself, because of the tremendous demands it places on time, family, and life in general.

Dennis Tonsing’s writings remind students of the need for both conscientious, active planning of their time and balance in their lives. But perhaps what we all need to focus on more is an acceptance of the reality of the practice of law. We all recognize it, certainly.

Dennis and I, as members of the legal academe who have also spent considerable time in private practice, certainly caution students that, to be a professional practitioner of law, you must begin the practice of law as law students from the first day of law school. But we all seem to avoid a word that encompasses what we all know is necessary, but are afraid to voice, because it has a pejorative connotation in today’s society: sacrifice.

The professional practice of law requires sacrifice: sacrifice primarily of time, but also of other needs, wants, and desires. As lawyers, we, and our students, cannot talk freely about our clients and cases—there is a duty of confidentiality—so we must sacrifice some predilection toward gossip. As lawyers, we have limits placed on us with regard to trial publicity, so, despite the way some celebrity lawyers seem to behave, we must sacrifice a natural penchant for the spotlight. As lawyers, we must be willing to represent unpopular people and unpopular groups, so we must sacrifice the natural desire for approval of our actions. As lawyers, we must be willing to provide services pro bono, and often to forego seeking payment even when a client who can pay refuses to do so, so we must sacrifice financially. But above all, as I noted in the beginning of this paragraph, we must sacrifice time.

We must learn to say no to people we love, and situations that are more tempting and more enjoyable than sitting in a cubicle or at a desk writing a memorandum or a brief, or doing research. Modern American society eschews the need for this kind of sacrifice. Certainly, when disaster strikes, we are all willing to reach into our wallets to contribute. But how many of us are willing to spend a week or two building houses for those who lost their homes to a hurricane, as one of our recent graduates did? Too often, modern society suggests we live for the moment, seek out whatever is pleasant and pleasurable, and shun that which requires sacrifice.

So, when we try to communicate how law school is not school—as Dennis points out in his book—we still do not say, “Law school is not school in part because you have to sacrifice. It takes a tremendous amount of sacrifice of time to exercise the mental muscle needed to self-learn.” It seems as if the word, “sacrifice,” has become a dirty word.

Sacrifice is not a dirty word. The founders of this nation sacrificed. A number of generations of Americans have sacrificed far more than time to preserve the freedoms represented by the very legal system our students seek to enter. I know this sounds controversial. I know it may sound insensitive to students’ needs and pressures. But it is also realistic. We aren’t going to change the nature of the profession to make it more “lawyer-friendly.” Clients are not going to care that the lawyer has to miss a loved one’s birthday party.

Dennis himself uses a vignette of a lawyer who arrives unprepared for court because he was celebrating his wedding anniversary. Our students rely on us to prepare them for this oft-times unforgiving and difficult profession. But preparation is more than learning to read and brief cases. Preparation is more than learning how to take active notes and make good course summaries. Preparation is more than taking a number of practice exams. Preparation is committing to sacrifice—both now, and in the professional practice of law.

Shouldn’t we be honest with our students and use the word we all know we mean—sacrifice, and tell them that we, and their future clients, expect it of them as much as we expect it of ourselves? (Mario Mainero)

October 11, 2005 in Professionalism | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, October 10, 2005

Practicing Now

Marrapese In "What Did I Do Wrong," an article by Jennifer J. Marrapese, Esq. (a law firm coach and consultant), the author offers "outrageous" examples of attorney behaviors that drive clients away.

When I encourage students to "practice" law in law school, professionalism is the watchword.  This article, written for attorneys, highlights ten no-no's ... many of which our students can practice avoiding now.

How about this as an example of professionalism directly applicable to the academic enterprise: "Prepare ahead for a ... meeting with a client by anticipating his questions and having the answers ready...." 

Several of Ms. Marrapese's examples deal with timeliness.  "I received five frantic-sounding voice mails from my client today.  He wanted my immediate help ... Unfortunately, I was tied up ... and didn't have time to call him back."  Here's another: "I didn't do my homework today.  I received a message from the client about a matter he had asked me to research a week ago."

Suggestion: encourage your students to practice professionalism, preparedness and timeliness as they work their way through law school, with this objective: entering the professional practice with excellent professional skills and habits.  Guess what: their grades may reflect their professionalism.  (djt)

October 10, 2005 in Advice, Miscellany, Professionalism | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)