Friday, September 8, 2017
In clinic this week, we had the traditional discussion about how each thing we do as lawyers reflects something about us to others. Clients, judges, government officers, opposing parties, teachers, and others gauge us as we interact with them. What seems irrelevant to our role in working with them may matter a lot in whether they first decide to trust and respect us. Although many of us wish that people would decide these things based on our reasoning or work product, often it is things like how we sound or look that bring early assessments that are hard to overcome.
This week, however, I began thinking that perhaps I have gone too far. As it does most semesters, the discussion began when a student asked what he should wear to clinic. Usually, students regret the question because of my answer, which those of you who know me will have guessed: “Well, what do you think you should wear to clinic? Should I think it matters? Will anyone else?” It devolves into what I hope is a teaching moment. It is one of the first times in the semester for students to learn about clinical pedagogy and what it means to really reflect on all you do. In fact, many clinical teacher readers of this blog may consider the question a “gimme.” Every action matters, from how lawyers and students present themselves to what witnesses they call. They must reflect on all of them and the decisions will have consequences. What they wear is strategic: do we dress down so the client thinks we are like them? Do we dress up so they think we are professionals? If we dress down, do we have to do something else to show we can be real lawyers? Whatever the answer, it must be thought through. The discussion also helps students grasp that they are really going to be responsible for all the decisions they make in the clinic and that they really will be the primary lawyers for their clients. Students often have a hard time getting this otherwise. I write it all over my syllabus. I say it explicitly many times. However, it is this discussion that starts to help them get it—they are going to be asking themselves questions before they ask me and their decisions on everything from what to wear to what witnesses to call will be honored as much as possible.
I also learn a lot about my students in this discussion, perhaps judging them unfairly. Some of them take the discussion in, understand the method, transfer it to other discussions, make a conscious choice about what to wear, and later do or don’t explain their choice to me. Others half-heartedly listen and try to figure out what I want as they do in many other student-teacher relationships. And others have this look in their eyes or will say something to the affect of “Can he just f(*&king tell me what to wear? I know it matters to him. It’s not that hard.” I learn I am going to have a hard time teaching these students and will have to adjust how I teach them to make us both happy. (For those non-clinical teacher readers not understanding this reflection thing, think about whether blog writers like me should use the word “f(*&king” in blog posts and what you think about a)what I am trying to say about the professionalism of students or my relationship with them by putting the word in students’ mouths in this blog and b) what you think you know about me when you saw I wrote “f(*&king” in the blog instead of spelling out the real word.)
Which leads me to why I feel I may have gone too far with this clothes discussion. I came back to the office and started thinking about all the things I do other than teaching that send signals to my students about me. I began to go a little nuts. What did I wear to class? Why did I choose not to wear a tie that day? Was it a conscious choice? What should I generally wear? I teach a clinical class and a few non-clinical ones like Poverty Law and soon an interviewing counseling and negotiation class. In all these classes, I want to teach students about practicing with a social justice lens. Do I have to wear a shirt and tie so they think of me like a teacher? Would they think more about social justice if I was the hippy-ish flannel shirt guy they sometimes expect to find sitting in my first floor/basement office with my guitar in the corner eating homemade granola (I am that old). Would that be a problem with my colleagues or clients if I choose to look that way with how they see me? What other things am I doing that show my students who I am so that they can best learn from me? Must I insist they call me Spencer instead of Professor Rand to be the social justice guy? I have two pictures in my office. One is a picture I made at a painting party for my daughter where we painted Boathouse Row, a Philadelphia landmark. The other is a Pop Art picture “seja marinal seja herói,” which I understand to mean “Be an outlaw; Be a Hero!.” It was painted in honor of a man who was killed by Brazilian resistance in the 1960’s who was known to the artist and others for working to empower lower class movements. Is only the second one okay? Is even that poster bad because it is in Portuguese and too stuck up-ish?
For now, I think I have at least learned that maybe my students who only partly engage in this exercise are keeping their sanity and I should respect them more than I have. The ones who do engage I will have to give credit and think of how I can help sort through those choices that matter more than others and how to not drive oneself crazy doing so, once I figure it out. And maybe I’ll go out to a thrift shop and find a good jeans and flannel shirt collection for the rest of the semester and see how it goes. At least I'll think about it.