My criminal law professor was the stuff of nightmares. His name was Christo Lassiter and prior to joining the legal acadme, he was a prosecutor for the United States Marine Corps JAGs. Imagine The Paper Chase’s Prof. Kingsfield with the ability to shoot an M-16. That was our Professor Lassiter.
In the spring of my 1L year, a group of female law students decided to join the university intramural softball league. It seemed like a good way to relieve stress, even if most of us were creaking towards 30 (…ha!) and our opponents were going to be 20 year old sorority girls. Someone got the hilarious idea to name our team “Christo’s Angels” after our feared professor.
Although we were just 1Ls, the lawyerly characteristic of being risk adverse had already reared its head. We decided that we should probably let Prof. Lassiter know that we were going to use his name and make sure it was okay.
Now, I was in this meeting. Even so, I cannot tell you how it came to be that our plan to inform him of our “Christo’s Angels” team name got interpreted as a request for him to be our coach.
A request that he happily accepted.
My thoughts on the situation could have been summarized as: “Great. So now Prof. Kingsfield with an M-16 is going to be LITERALLY hitting line drives at my head instead of just figuratively. Greeeeeeat.”
Oh, and he took coaching seriously. There were Saturday practices and drills and way more organization than the usual intramural softball team. But there was also laughter and beer and a realization that…shock of shocks…Professor Lassiter was a human being after all! Kind of a nice guy, actually. Almost….silly. Still absolutely terrifying in class but thanks to our softball experiences he ended up being a bit of a mentor to me.
So why this trip down memory lane? Well, I figure that by the time you read this it will be early August. Much too late to make any substantial changes to your class plans or curricula but much too early to start thinking about Spring classes. However, it’s never too late to think about how we interact with our students.
When it comes to stress and emotional toll, law school has a reputation second only to military basic training. It seems that somewhere along the way intellectual rigor has been conflated with an idea that we need to “toughen up” our students emotionally. Personally, I am torn on this issue.
On one hand, law is a serious business. Whether or not you choose to believe the generational studies about “helicopter parenting” and other (negative) traits of “millennials”, I think we can all agree that many of our students are coming to law school without much -if any- professional experience. In short, they’ve never had to act like an adult.
Additionally, depending on practice area, our students will be dealing with real people with real life changing problems. A dispassionate, non-emotional approach will be needed in order to best serve one’s clients. If “there’s no crying in baseball”, then there’s definitely no crying in chambers!
Assuming that the above is true, and that as a professional school, law schools should teach and facilitate professional acculturation (not just black letter law), then it follows that law professors should embody a certain gravitas in their classrooms and prepare students mentally and emotionally for the practice of law.
On the other hand, of all the crises facing the legal profession, none is more deadly and yet less talked about than the mental health crisis. Lawyers have an disproportionately high rate of depression, suicide and substance abuse. Maybe, juuuust maaaaaybe, the existing approaches of law student professional emotional training are not working.
How does one balance these two competing needs? I can’t say that I have a full answer to this question. I absolutely believe that we need to keep enforcing strict deadlines and high ethical standards when it comes to course work. That is non-negotiable for me and I believe they provide good practice for the real world.
I am less convinced that a course grade based on one final exam is either emotionally healthy or an accurate assessment of a student’s understanding of the course material. I am also not convinced that the beloved Socratic method and putting students on the spot for oral answers is good training for most types of lawyering or a good method for learning law. However, changing these two would require a significant overhaul to one’s courses which we’ve established that we don’t have time to do before fall.
So, what can we do right now?
How about this: Be a human being.
Back in my teaching days, this is actually something I had to struggle with on a daily basis. As a youngish female professor teaching a “worthless” legal research course, I had to really work to be respected by students and for them to take me (and, by extension, the skills that I was trying to teach them) seriously. However, outside of class I was their librarian. For that part of my job I needed to be the opposite of intimidating. I wanted them to feel comfortable admitting ignorance and asking me for help.
I eventually settled on what could be termed “The Las Vegas” system. Basically it was like this: whatever happened at the reference desk, stayed at the reference desk. You could also substitute my office for this because, also probably due to my age and gender, I had many students who chose this place as one to have a good cry. And I was fine with that – as a matter of fact, I began to start my courses with mentioning that I had a good supply of tissues and candy if they did want to talk to someone about their law school stresses.
And you know what? It went okay. Students were able to separate Prof. Glassmeyer from Sarah the Librarian. Once social media entered the picture, things got a little more difficult, but that’s another blog post for another day.
I encourage you to take a chance. Make yourself available outside of your class and office hours and drop the persona of “law professor.” Have a cup of coffee in the student lounge and sit with some students – and, most importantly – talk about something besides that week’s readings in your class. Pop in on student organization meetings even if you’re not the faculty advisor. Think about calling your students by their first name instead of Mr. or Miss. Encourage them to do the same outside of class. The smallest change may be all that a student needs to become more emotionally healthy.