Investing Time in Your Teachers

Vol. 40 No. 8

By

Christi Guerrini is an attorney and affiliated researcher at the Institute for Intellectual Property and Information Law, University of Houston Law Center.

There is a New Yorker cartoon from the ’80s that shows a bearded, middle-aged man sitting alone on a couch during a cocktail party. With one arm slung on the back of the couch, the man, surely drunk, stares happily into space. As guests mingle at a distance, a woman peers over the man’s shoulder and exclaims, “My goodness, Professor Sydney, isn’t anyone talking to you?”

Although the primary joke here is the professor’s inappropriate inebriation, the cartoon also has a little fun with what is in some respects a common image of a professor: that of a preoccupied intellectual who is happiest—and therefore best—left alone with his thoughts.

As a law school instructor, I have had numerous conversations with students and academics about their relations with each other. And while I would concede that there are a handful of professors at every institution who, because of a lack of time or interest, prefer to keep their students at bay, I am also convinced there are plenty of professors who consider helping students to be a critical function of their job. For instructors, then, the issue is that too many students aren’t making the effort to interact with them.

This happens for several reasons. Some students are intimidated. Others are overwhelmed by their demanding schedules. And a surprising number do not believe that their professors can help them in any tangible way.

Whatever the reasons, the consequence of paying no attention to one’s professors is the same: missing out on one of the most valuable resources a law school has to offer. To receive such favors from professors, students must engage them.

Law professors as exam guides. As the individuals who teach the courses and assign the grades, law school professors are the source of information for students interested in improving their GPAs. Nevertheless, many students who are concerned about their grades never broach the subject with their professors.

That is not to say that a student should feel free to unload all of his grade anxieties on a professor’s doorstep. It would be appropriate, however, to ask questions that probe the standards by which the professor evaluates student performance. For example, it would be fair to ask why certain model answers to old exam questions are considered by the professor to be exemplary. And it could not hurt to ask if the professor would be open to evaluating the student’s own written answers to those questions.

If the instructor is anything like Associate Professor Michael Dimino of Widener Law School, such a critique may be easy to come by. Every semester Dimino offers to sit down with any student who writes an answer to a casebook hypothetical and review it with the student. His purpose is to give students the opportunity to practice reasoning through exam-type questions with the benefit of his input. Unfortunately, “only a handful of students actually take me up on my offer,” he says. But those who do receive valuable insight into how to analyze these problems in practice and on exam day.

Law professors as career advisors. Law professors can also help students chart their career paths and identify job opportunities. As students sometimes forget, most professors practiced law before entering academia and so have a familiarity with certain practice settings that, if asked, they would gladly share with their students.

For example, Marvin Ammori, former assistant professor at the University of Nebraska College of Law, was able to draw on his past experience as general counsel to Free Press to help students navigate careers in telecommunications law and policy. “If my students wanted to pursue a career in this field,” he says, “I knew where to steer them.”

But even if the professor does not have firsthand experience working in a specific area of law, she may know someone who does and is often happy to make the introduction for a student. For Ed Cheng, professor of law at Vanderbilt Law School, sometimes this means connecting a current student with a former student. “My students have gone on to do a lot of different things,” he says. “This gives me a broader perspective on the various paths a career can go down. It also means I can link up students with graduates to discuss those paths.”

Law professors as candidate backers. After deciding on a career path, a student must then do the hard work of landing a job. Here, a law school professor can help lock up the offer. She can write letters of recommendation, follow up with e-mails, and even launch a telephone campaign, all in the name of getting the student hired.

Ammori, for example, routinely went to bat for students with prospective employers. Former student Sarah Morris says he was instrumental in helping secure her current position at New America Foundation. Although Morris was a superb candidate in her own right, e-mails and phone calls by Ammori on her behalf most likely helped cinch the deal. “Breaking into the public interest community is hard even with the best qualifications,” she says. “So having the recommendation of someone who knew my work and is well-respected in this community was critical.”

Cheng makes a special effort to support those students who are strong performers in class but not on exams. Like many of his colleagues, he believes that law school grades are not always a good predictor of future success, so when a student who makes sharp comments in class doesn’t do well on his exam, “sometimes it becomes my project to make sure that his grade doesn’t hurt his career.” For Cheng, this means providing the student an enthusiastic recommendation when potential employers come calling.

Law professors as mentors. Finally, a law professor can become, over time, a student’s mentor and even friend. According to Assistant Professor Sapna Kumar of the University of Houston Law Center, too many students view their professors as useful for only a short window of time and for only a narrow didactic purpose. But, she says, the reality is that with respect to each professor “you are potentially forming a lifelong relationship” that can pay dividends for years to come.

In some instances, a student’s relationship with his professor, if properly nurtured, can ease into a kind of friendship. Like most who have spent time in the legal academy, I have several former students who have made a point of keeping up with me. These individuals know they can always count on me for letters of recommendation and words of encouragement. But every once in a while, a former student will get in touch just to tell me what’s new in his life and to ask me what’s new in mine. At times like these, I feel a kinship with the student that goes beyond that of advisor and advisee, and more nearly approaches that of colleague and friend.

 

HOW TO ENGAGE YOUR PROFESSORS EFFECTIVELY

Fortunately, it is never too late for a student to begin the process of engaging his professors. Even a 3L still has time to impress one or two professors and enlist them as allies in his professional advancement.

To be successful, however, the student must be prepared to work hard to distinguish himself. The student must also accept that some professors will not respond to his efforts, however earnest. Between teaching; researching and writing; speaking at conferences; and advising students, administrators, policymakers, and professional organizations, there simply are not enough hours in even the most well-meaning law professor’s day to get to know each of her students well.

A student should therefore attempt to interact one on one with all of his professors, but aim for meaningful interaction with only a few. Although these odds may sound discouraging, the depth of each relationship is more important than the number. Here is what students can do to lead professors into their corner.

Speak up. Law professors are by practice and perhaps also by nature an argumentative bunch. Nevertheless, there is one subject on which their opinion is unanimous. It is that law students, even those who get top grades, cannot expect the full backing of their professors if they never speak up in class or engage their professors outside of it. “If you just go to class, do the reading most of the time, answer when called on, and never attend office hours,” says Dimino, “you will be doing what is expected of you as a law student. But you won’t be making an impression on your professors.” And professors cannot effectively help—and frankly aren’t particularly eager to help—students who don’t make any effort to connect with them on an intellectual or personal level.

One obvious but important way to make this connection is by participating in class. Unfortunately, a consequence of rewiring law school classrooms for personal computers is that some students now spend entire class periods hiding behind their laptops. In fairness, many are busy typing and organizing notes. But others are quite obviously working to avoid making eye contact with their professors. The danger of playing this game, though, is that it takes the student off the professor’s radar and thus outside the ambit of her goodwill.

A student can avoid this result by looking engaged and speaking up in class. Here, the emphasis is on the quality of a student’s comments and questions, not the quantity. “The student who says things that are consistently interesting and thoughtful,” says Cheng, “is more memorable than the student who monopolizes the conversation.”

Dimino agrees that effort and interest can go a long way with a law professor. “Professors usually care a lot about the subjects they teach,” he says, “so a student can make a strong impression on a professor just by being enthusiastic. That makes a professor think: Here is a student I really want to teach.”

Show up. In addition to participating in class, a student can stay on a professor’s radar by regularly showing up to office hours. Through these one-on-one conversations, the professor is able to develop a more three-dimensional picture of the student, says Lara Freed, associate clinical professor in the Lawyering Program at Cornell Law School. “After several visits,” she says, “you get to know a student pretty well and develop a rapport with him.”

There are a number of ways to approach an office visit, but professors agree that, at least during the first few visits, the student should have an agenda. One agenda that is always well-received is asking a question related to class that the student made a significant effort trying to answer on his own. For example, suggests Dimino, the student might ask about whether it is possible to square the holdings of two cases that appear to be inconsistent in their reasoning.

If the student stays long enough or visits frequently enough, eventually conversation will turn to other topics and the student and professor may find that they share a common interest or experience. “I have plenty of students who want to talk about children and sports,” says Dimino, a father of two and author of a sports law casebook. “I enjoy these kinds of conversations as much as academic ones.” And like most professors, Dimino enjoys having them with all of his students, not just those with the highest GPAs. “It’s not true that professors just want to speak to the top quarter of the class. If you can engage a professor as a human being, you can do that irrespective of your grades.”

There are, of course, ways to “show up” outside of class and office hours. A few worth mentioning are: sending the professor a news article related to an issue discussed in class, posting an astute comment on the class’s online discussion board, or striking up a conversation with the professor at a student event.

Finally, and most crucially for those interested in writing-intensive jobs, a student might apply for a position as a professor’s research or teaching assistant, or ask the professor to supervise the student in an independent study. A professor who works closely with a student on a teaching or writing project is in the optimum position to evaluate the student’s abilities to analyze and communicate. And if the student hopes one day to land one of the more competitive jobs, like a clerkship, he will need professors who can attest to the student’s competence in these areas.

Act professionally. Even the most talented student, however, will not get his professors’ support if he behaves foolishly. Although it may be fine to wear jeans and a T-shirt to class, a student’s manner with professors should always be dressed up.

For most law students, most of the time, this is not an issue. After all, students already have more than a dozen years in school under their collective belt during which they have learned to respect their teachers. Nevertheless, law school has been known to frazzle even the most composed of students, and inevitably some respond by forgetting their manners. Most professors will forgive the isolated offense, but repeated unprofessional behavior will turn them off to a student for good.

Thus, it is worth reminding students of the following basic courtesies: Show up on time to class and all appointments. Immediately inform the professor if it becomes necessary to reschedule an appointment. Promptly respond to all e-mails from a professor requiring a response. And always thank a professor when she has done something to deserve it.

There is one last point on professionalism that deserves special emphasis. It is that there is perhaps no more crucial time for a student to act professionally than when requesting a letter of recommendation. Two days is not enough notice to write a persuasive letter, and even the most enthusiastic letter will do zero good if the student provides the wrong address. Yet as any law professor can tell you, these what-not-to-dos, among others, are done by students all the time.

 A student can avoid annoying his professor at precisely the time he most needs the professor’s support by being well-prepared. Kumar advises a student requesting a letter of recommendation to put together a packet for the professor that includes, at a minimum, the student’s résumé and transcript, as well as materials that describe the position that the student is applying for and informs where and to whom the letter should be sent. Kumar also recommends that the student include an informal statement explaining what makes him a good candidate for the position. “This additional information,” she says, “provides color that can make a letter more effective.” Finally, the student must solicit the letter well in advance of any deadlines. “No professor appreciates a last-minute request.”

Stay in touch. The thing about letters of recommendation is that the need for them never seems to go away. The student who graduated from law school and never looked back may find himself years later unsatisfied with his career path and wanting to change course. Whether he applies for a clerkship, a competitive prosecutorial position, or a spot in an advanced degree program, however, all too often those reviewing his application will want to hear from his law professors.

And his professors can more effectively advocate for the student if he has made a point of keeping up with them. This includes updating them on the student’s geographic and career moves, as well as adding them to the student’s online professional networks such as LinkedIn. Agrees Kumar: “Send me an e-mail. Send me a Christmas card. Just let me know what you’ve been doing.”

Last year I was pleased to be on the receiving end of one of these notes. I had gotten to know this particular individual six years earlier when he was a struggling 1L. Accustomed to getting top grades, he earned only mediocre scores in my legal writing class and on his first-semester exams. Although he worked mightily that spring and managed to improve his grade in my class, the rest of his transcript remained solidly average. By the end of the year, his confidence was shot and he was considering leaving law school. He returned at the end of the summer, however, and over the next two years he recovered his mettle, readjusted his expectations, and, perhaps as a result, revived his GPA.

The student remained in contact with me throughout this time, dropping by my office every now and then to report his doings and get advice. And after he graduated, the student kept me abreast of his travels across the rocky landscape of the legal job market. So it was no surprise when, several months ago, he dropped me a line.

The surprise, rather, was in the package that accompanied his note. The same student who had at one point doubted his ability to draft a single sentence of legal analysis had sent me a most remarkable thing: a published law review article that he had authored.

I told the student that I was proud of his success and asked him, as always, to continue to stay in touch.

 

 

 

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