Ignore Law School Etiquette at Your Career Peril

Vol. 42 No. 3

By

G.M. Filisko is a lawyer and freelance writer in Chicago.

Law school is a social and cultural world unto itself. Like all societies and cultures, it has its own set of norms and rules. Understanding and employing proper etiquette will help you succeed.

“We had an incident in a student’s first week at school,” recalled Sarah Zearfoss, senior assistant dean for admissions, financial aid, and career planning at University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor. “She was anxious about on-campus interviewing results and had come into the career planning office literally the Monday after interviews had concluded because she hadn’t gotten callbacks.”

It had only been one business day. “But she was undone—completely beside herself—and expressed her anxiety to a counselor by screaming, shouting, and ranting,” Zearfoss continued. “The counselor called the head of the office, who calmed the student down and used that as a teachable moment about what a bad decision it was for students to alienate counselors trying to help them.”

In law school, you’re creating relationships with faculty, administrators, and fellow students that will shape, perhaps even make or break, your career. Building these relationships is good practice for your future interactions with law office supervisors, colleagues, clients, and subordinates.

“It’s easy to learn substantive and procedural law over time,” said Robert E. Kaplan, associate dean and legal writing faculty at William & Mary Law School in Williamsburg, Virginia. “It’s much more difficult to undo a negative reputation and negative perceptions others have of you.”

Ruth Carter, owner of the Carter Law Firm, PLLC in Phoenix, agreed that it truly matters what others think of you. “When I think of why it’s important to make friends and influence people in law school, the first thing that comes into my mind is a quote about college from speaker Will Keim: ‘You’re setting the banquet table for the feast you’ll eat the rest of your life,’” she recounted. “That’s also true in law school. You’re building the foundation for your professional future. These are colleagues you’ll have the rest of your life, especially if you stay in the geographic area.”

It’s important to start on and stay on the right foot when it comes to things like borrowing notes or an outline, classroom behavior, and treading that fine line between bragging and commiserating over things like jobs and grades. These etiquette tips will help you succeed in law school:

No one likes a gunner. The overeager law student has existed likely as long as law school. Often called “gunners,” these students can annoy their less vocal classmates. Sometimes that ire inspires their classmates to creative pursuits like the long-standing tradition of Gunner Bingo.

Michael Helfand of The Law Offices of Michael J. Helfand, LLC in Chicago recommended asking yourself a simple question before you act: What am I trying to achieve? “When you do something like raise your hand to answer every question the professor asks, it’s very shortsighted,” said Helfand. “Your grade will still come down to how you do on your exam, and people don’t like a know-it-all. You’re really accomplishing nothing other than trying to make yourself look good.”

Understand your school’s norms. “My comments on etiquette are very much context-dependent for Michigan Law School,” explained Zearfoss. “The norms here are that it’s absolutely okay to ask to borrow someone’s notes. In fact, particularly when students have had a problem, like an illness or something that causes them to miss class, often it’s not necessary to ask. Classmates will offer. But you should have a sense of the norms in your school.”

Give freely, take little. Generally, it’s not a problem to ask a favor occasionally as long as you’re also willing to extend the same courtesy. “If you miss class, usually you can figure out who your buddies are, and they’ll hook you up with their notes for that day,” said Carter. “That’s not an issue. But I had a classmate who decided not to come to class for the whole semester. A week before the final, he asked if he could buy my notes for $50. I said, ‘Sure, but good luck deciphering them. It’s written in my own shorthand.’

“I don’t think he asked for my outline,” added Carter. “But at the time, I thought to myself, ‘You don’t get my outline.’ With outlines, the other person has to offer to share them. When I was a first-year, I had a mentor through the women’s law association who very graciously offered her outline since she’d had the same professor. It’s up to the person to make their outline available, not for you to say, ‘Hey, can I get a copy of your outline?’”

If you’re the person who needs a favor, Zearfoss recommended asking in a way that allows people to say no. “You might say, ‘Are you comfortable sharing your notes? It’s totally okay if you’re not,’” she explained. “Recognize you’re asking for a favor and not entitled to this, and be smart in listening to the answer to identify if you’ve overstepped your bounds. Also, asking for an outline is definitely a step above, and I think that’s not appropriate unless there’s some, as we say in the law, quid pro quo. Have you offered something that would be valuable in exchange?”

Follow classroom behavior basics. “The things that really annoyed me were behaviors that were inherently obnoxious or disrespectful, like people who were talking during class,” said Carter. “I’m paying a lot of money to hear the professor talk, not you. Coming to class late is also a problem because it’s a production to set up your laptop, books, and so on. This is your job. If you want to be here, be here. If you don’t, don’t.”

Arriving late is sometimes unavoidable. When that happens, the courteous approach is to take a seat in the back or at a row’s end. You can relocate at a break. If anyone should be inconvenienced or distracted because of your tardiness, it should be you.

Don’t let your technology interrupt class. “Don’t distract your classmates—that has to be the standard for technology,” said Zearfoss. “That means things like chronic texting or watching a video during class are a problem. I actually heard a story from a colleague from a different school that a male student was looking at porn in class. That’s not just distracting but a hostile act that goes beyond etiquette.”

And your phone? It should be untouched—and silent—the entire class. “Turn your ringer off if you’re going to put your phone on the desk, especially if it’s a long table because if it vibrates, the whole table will know,” said Carter. “The better plan is to at least put your phone on your lap so it’s not obvious if you’re checking it during class.”

This may seem obvious, but it happens enough that it bears repeating: unless the sky is falling, don’t take a call during class. “Though it wasn’t in one of my classes, there was one example I heard about because I knew the professor,” said Carter. “He was teaching, and a student’s phone rang. The student stood up, went to the back of the classroom, and took the call. The professor said, ‘What are you doing? If you’re going to take a call, do it outside.’ The student said, ‘It has to do with an internship,’ or something like that. The professor said, ‘Who cares? Get out of my classroom!’ The student didn’t understand he had to leave the room to take the call.”

When is the sky truly falling? Your mom is having open-heart surgery or your wife could go into labor at any minute. But even then, you should take the call outside.

Address professors and administrators professionally. “This is a generational thing, but it’s also part of professional life, and it’s tricky—knowing how to address people,” explained Zearfoss. “I feel so old and worn when people I don’t know who are a couple of decades younger send me an e-mail beginning with, ‘Hi Sarah.’ I find that disconcerting, and I think professors do, too.

“The best thing to do is use people’s title and last name (e.g., Professor Jones; Dean Smith) and assume they’ll tell you if they want something less formal,” Zearfoss suggested. “That’s different from a work setting, where you shouldn’t go in that direction because it’s self-infantilizing. [At work,] you’re a colleague, where in law school, there’s a hierarchy. We’re in the midst of change on this issue, and being emotionally intelligent means recognizing that and at least alluding to it.”

This rule applies to e-mail, too. “You don’t want the tone or content of an email with a faculty member or administrator to be any different than you’d have face to face,” said Kaplan. “I also think there are issues that aren’t appropriate for e-mail. For example, if I had a complaint about a faculty member or administrator, I don’t think my first means of communication would be via email.”

Understand the difference between smart and heavy-handed self-promotion. The Internet has made it easier to broadcast your successes, but it’s also created traps when self-promotion backfires. At one school, a student was criticized for listing her grade-point average on a social media site. Another student e-mailed about 50 people to announce each of her latest achievements—which was not well received. One student mentioned his continued surprise every time a classmate posts “I got all A’s” on Facebook.

Carter offered some basic guidelines. “It’s perfectly fine to list your awards on your LinkedIn profile and to add them to your résumé,” she said. “However, your GPA and class rank belong only on your résumé—keep them out of social media. It’s also okay to announce you made it onto a journal on Facebook, but even then it should be couched in context: ‘I’m really excited I made it onto X journal. I really want to write my note about Z.’”

Zearfoss suggested applying the same standards to social media as you would anywhere else. “Think about your audience,” she said. “Do they want or need to hear this information? Rather than communicating positive information about yourself to a mass audience, I think you’d always be better off sending the news individually. If you can’t think of a good way to frame why you’re sharing the news with a particular person, that’s probably a good indication the person isn’t an appropriate recipient of the news.”

Discuss jobs, law review, or grades only with your close friends. “Whether to talk about these things depends on your relationship with the other person,” said Helfand. “With your closest friends, it’s okay to say, ‘How did you do on the final?’ But it’s all in how you say it. It should never be a way to say, ‘Look how awesome I am!’”

Zearfoss advised putting yourself in your listener’s shoes before broaching touchy topics. “The golden rule is so good here,” she explained. “If you didn’t have a job, would you want to hear about someone else’s job? If you’d expect someone to share that information with you, then you can share it with them. But even then, be sensitive. If someone in your group is struggling to find a job, keep that in mind.

“Tone is important, too,” added Zearfoss. “Being humble is always better, and being self-deprecating always goes a long way. We had one student who was brilliant and went on to clerk for the U.S. Supreme Court. He never said what his grades were, and he became sort of famous for being incredibly generous with his brains and never ever doing anything self-promoting. If you’re really smart, people will figure it out. You won’t have to tell them—and they’ll love you more for not telling them.”

When in doubt, Zearfoss suggested introspection. “Students sometimes don’t turn a critical eye on themselves,” she explained. “They recognize when other people behave annoyingly and aren’t applying that standard to themselves. So other people’s texting in class seems distracting and rude, yet yours seems necessary. It’s a hugely human failing we all have. However, be emotionally intelligent and think: ‘How can I behave in a way that won’t alienate my classmates?’” 

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