Law School Lessons: The Teacup Rule

Over at PrawfsBlawg, Dave Fagundes posts another of the beloved lists of 10 that seem to permeate the blawgosphere, this one about things he wished he knew  before he stated teaching law.  Not being a lawprof, I defer to the Dave’s list, which strikes me as pretty good.  But two items stood out.

5.  It’s easy to lose sight of how fragile student egos can be.  It’s getting to the point where I can no longer say “I was a law student not too long ago,” but if I think back, I can still recall the anxiety of being called on in class, and the attendant embarrassment if it didn’t go well.  I try to constantly remind myself of this when teaching, because student anxiety/sensitivity is an inevitable factor in the classroom and one that requires delicate management.  In light of this, I make a big effort to stress when a student has hit the right answer to a question, and correlatively try to find the kernel of value in even off-base student contributions.  Related, on the rare occasions when a student is so visibly wracked with anxiety upon getting called on that they’re visibly struggling, I have no problem moving on and sparing them (though often informally arranging to call on them in the next class so they have a chance to redeem themselves).

This it the Teacup Rule.  If memory serves, it’s genesis is the reviews that law students write about their professors at the end of a course, where they get to say whether they loved or hated the lawprof.  These surveys have something to do with tenure, compensation and breast/penis size.  Lawprofs care deeply about their students liking them.

Unfortunately, it also involves one of the most important lessons a student can learn about being a lawyer.  We lose. We are often treated like dirt in court.  We are put on the spot constantly, and humiliated when we fail to perform.  And rightfully so.  People’s lives rest in our hands, and yet lawprofs coddle students for fear that their fragile egos might crack.  If they can’t handle a decent humiliation in a class with similarly fragile, yet empathetic, law students, however will they survive a vicious thrashing in court before their client?

Toughen up, teacup.  No matter how brilliant you think you (and your argument) may be, the day will come when you will be told in no uncertain terms that you are laughably wrong.  Will you cry?  Will you run out of the courtroom ashamed?  Will you write a bad review of the judge?  Will your mass of hurt feelings do anything to help your client?

For crying out loud, there is likely no lesson more critical to the practice of law, and weeding out those who have no business doing it, than the strength of character necessary to face humiliation and maintain the fight.  And yet, the lesson is just the opposite.  No wonder why young lawyers find the practice of law so miserable.  They are taught that it’s all about making them feel good about themselves, when the harsh reality is that no one, but no one, in the courthouse cares about their fragile ego.

A corollary to the Teacup Rule can be found in Dave’s seventh “thing”:

7.  Jokes have to be deployed with the utmost caution.  A well-timed, truly funny joke can be a great way to liven up a class.  But the danger is that a joke that doesn’t go over well—or, worse, offends someone—can have just the opposite effect.  The first time I taught copyright, for example, I made a snarky remark about the painting at issue in Lee v. A.R.T. (which is kinda depressing—see what you think here), and a student raised her hand and said icily, “Annie Lee is my favorite artist.  I think her painting is wonderful.”  Ouch.  That moment was tough to get past, and was a wake-up call that even  an innocuous remark can have unforeseen consequences (see #5, “Fragile student egos,” above). 

A joke might offend someone?  Nobody ever gets offended in a courtroom.  Or a law office, Or in real life on the street. 

What life exists within such a bubble, where tepid is elevated to an artform?  Some fairly raunchy jokes are told in the hallways, in the bar across the street.  At bench conferences.  Perhaps it would do the “Annie Lee law student” better to learn that nobody, anywhere, ever, cares whether she is her favorite artist, and if that makes her icy, then she should be prepared to be frozen.

It’s bad enough that the teacups think, feel and act as they do.  That the rules of the lawprof game are to encourage this teacup behavior is absurd.  If these law students are ever to be lawyer, then they will need to toughen up to the realities of the practice of law.  If they can’t handle it, then maybe they shouldn’t be lawyers. But under no circumstances should this be the lesson of law school, that the practice of law revolves around their fragile sensibilities.  While it may enhance the lawprof’s body part on the student surveys, you’re doing them no favors by enforcing their expectation that nobody is every going to hurt their feelings. 

A tougher lawprof might produce a tougher lawyer. 

13 comments on “Law School Lessons: The Teacup Rule

  1. mglickman

    I think it’s safe to say that my favorite law school profs were, without exception, the ones who didn’t give a damn about things like that.
    This goes back to a point I can’t seem to get away from – law school students are too immature in general. They need some life lessons, some perspective. Even the ones who work part-time at the .
    Maybe they’re too young? (I know I’m not that old, but I’m older than most of them.)

  2. SHG

    Now if only the lawprofs grew a pair and decided to take the risk of hurting a feeling instead of coddling them for favorable reviews.

  3. Dave

    Someone sent me the link to this response to my post. Couple quick thoughts:

    1. Not all students respond well right off the bat to intensive Socratic questioning. Some do, but others need to be brought along so that by the end of the course, they can handle a challenging dialogue. Immediately dismissing students who don’t do well when first questioned Socratically as “teacups” does them a disservice (and seems like a lazy abdication of a professor’s responsibility). On the contrary, it’s my experience that the best learning experience a teacher can deliver is convincing a student that they’re capable of something they didn’t think possible.

    2. Point seven was about jokes (which I consider expendable), not substance. While I think it’s important to maintain a hardline with respect to substantive issues (e.g., telling students when their answer is inaccurate or—worse—poorly thought out), I totally disagree that non-substantive personal mockery has any place in the classroom. In all the law practice settings I’ve experienced, the norm is one of professional respect and decorum, even in the presence of intense disagreement or heated argument.

    3. What’s the evidence for the assertion that profs are desperate for high evaluations? I tell my students that numbers are irrelevant, and I’m really only interested in (good or bad) substantive comments, and I think this is pretty universal.

  4. SHG

    Nice of you to stop by, Dave.  Let’s deal with number 3 first. I’ve heard this, and read about this, with near universal consistency. It may not be true of you, but then you were publishing your rules to others, so it applies with full force to those scared to death that their students won’t love them. 

    As to your first point, if your position now is that you start them off softly at the beginning of the first semester of law school, but bring them along to withstand the rigors of full frontal assault by the end of the semester, that’s great.  But of course, that’s not at all what you wrote.  I’m very happy to learn that you meant something entirely different than what your original post said, or perhaps you’ve learned a bit since then, because what you originally wrote was a recipe for disaster.

    I remain curious, however, why you think it’s a “lazy abdication of a professor’s responsibility” to prepare them for their chosen profession?  Too “trade school-like” instead of nurturing?  I suggest that both law students and lawyers would much prefer they come out of law school a little more lawyerly and a lot less nurtured, even if it flies in the face of scholarly sensibilities.  If they haven’t got the ability to be a lawyer, than it’s a “lazy abdication of a professor’s responsibility” to keep taking their money and pushing them along when they will never be capable lawyers.

    As to your second point, you’ve again moved the target, now turning the joke issue into “personal mockery.”  I see nothing about personal mockery in your original post, so I assume this is merely a strawman.  Your example, and the one I adopted, was the “Annie Lee” painting joke.  Was that a personal mockery?  If it was, then you are being disingenuous, because you do engage in it.  If not, then you are being disingenuous because you’ve tried to pull the old switcheroo on me and just got nailed for it. 

    But this is interesting:

    In all the law practice settings I’ve experienced, the norm is one of professional respect and decorum, even in the presence of intense disagreement or heated argument.

    As I read your background, your total time practicing law was two years at Jenner & Block, after a judicial clerkship and before the Academy.  So do you really want to compare your practice experience with mine?  Even with your two years experience, are you seriously suggesting that no one ever told a joke in front of you?  If that’s true, that’s really weird. In any event, consider that people who read this blawg are mostly practicing lawyers, reading the wisdom of your two years of practice, and laughing their asses off right about now. We tell jokes all the time.  Maybe your J&B office was a total dud, but not the rest of the legal world.

    Oddly, I didn’t attack your 10 things post or you, yet you come here and comment defensively.  Your initial post was hardly a transgression, and certainly didn’t compel this effort at a cover-up.  It’s a shame that you proved yourself as fragile as your teacups.

  5. Curt Sampson

    Of course they’re too young. But how are you going to fix that? Give them an education in something else and send them out in the world for twenty years until they’re ready to come back to law school?

    Back in my Uni days, I was quite an idiot and an ass. (Even then, we liked to refer to that as “only somewhat above average.”) I still am both (though less so, at least for the former), but it’s interesting to look back at twenty or so years of experience and see how much better I understand that now, and how much better I understand the profs that (quite correctly) gave me a hard time. Still, back then I wasn’t capable of understanding how much I didn’t know, and I have no idea how you might make people in that position capable of that in any quick way.

    To “start them off softly at the beginning of the first semester of law school, but bring them along to withstand the rigors of full frontal assault by the end of the semester” is great. And that’s what I read, or misread (but wanted to read) in Fagundes’ post. Scott is right that that’s not precisely what Fagundes said. But I’d rather see some sort of attempt at pedagogy that’s going to take the lame and move them, even if only an inch, along the path to being less lame than the almost wholesale abandonment of most of the young as unteachable, which is something of the impression I get from Scott’s comments on these sorts of things.

  6. SHG

    The core problem (IMHO) is that we raise them carefully and with plenty of love, with the expectation that they realize that one day they will have to strike out on their own a deal with a hard, hostile world.  They’ve gotten way too much of the former and absolutely none of the latter. 

    It’s not a personality flaw that some people can’t handle pressure, or humor, or hostility or a host of other things.  But not every personality is suited to every occupation/profession.  Some kids in law school aren’t meant to be lawyer. That’s fine, and doesn’t make them bad human beings.  Just bad lawyers.  But if you’re going to be a lawyer, get used to getting kicked in the teeth, and the occasional joke that doesn’t meet your sense of humor.  That’s the life you chose.

  7. Curt Sampson

    I’m going to disagree with that one: it certainly is a personality flaw if you can’t handle pressure, humour or hostility. The real world provides a plentitude of all of that, in any profession. (Well, the humour tends to be of the Strangelovian sort, too often, but that’s just life.) Sorry, you lawyers don’t have unfairness all to yourself.

    But yes, parenting has gone a bit funny, hasn’t it. My thoughts over the last decade or so on this have been that your duty is to protect your kid from the decisions that have drastic consequences (such as dying when playing in traffic), but otherwise, the more skinned knees, the better. Failure is a harsh but accurate teacher. (Don’t ask me why I know this. :-)) If only parents will let their kids learn from it.

  8. John R.

    You know what, Scott? I agree that the way it’s currently practiced, law takes the ability to get kicked in the teeth. At least that’s true if you represent the underdog. I’m not sure that DA’s or insurance defense lawyers experience the same thing. Mostly, I think they are as coddled as 1L’s.

    Without in any way meaning to kiss your butt, you have chosen the hard path and done well at it. It is very admirable, not least because it is so very difficult. Most people cannot imagine being 100% right and getting crap for it. You can. I daresay that very few people other than CDL’s have a comparable experience in life.

    But there’s something else, too. I’m not going to side with the professor. You have the better of the argument. Nevertheless, your path, and the path of other CDL’s, shouldn’t be as difficult as it is. There’s something wrong about that. There should be a little more collegiality that actually includes CDL’s, whereas now CDL’s are generally treated like scum, by judges and other colleagues alike. I think this is highly objectionable. I think CDL’s are the most important players in the criminal justice system and should be treated as such, by everyone.

    Especially cops.

  9. SHG

    Not too many people have thought well of me lately. Feel free to do so.  I’ll survive.

  10. Stephen

    The Annie Lee comment is weird. I don’t think it would ever occur to me to raise my hand in the middle of a lecture and tell the class that I actually quite like that song/book/musical/play/painting/team/sport/whatever. I can’t empathise with where the need to stand up for the famous artist against all comers comes from.

  11. mirriam

    There was a time (gasp!) when we didn’t have sexual harrasment laws. I wonder how this current generation would have taken it if they had been goosed by a 78 year old DA?

  12. SHG

    It struck me as weird on many levels.  Somebody didn’t like one of her paintings while a student loved her?  So what?  If that’s what a student considers an issue, sufficient to “icily” react, she’s in for a miserable life.  But then, since when does a law student think she’s so important that the professor should bow to her likes and dislikes?  Rampant narcissism, and then the lawprof reinforced this pathology by acquiescing to it?  Unbelievable.

    What happens the first time a judge tells that law student that she’s a loser?  What happens to the client when the analogous argument is, “well, who cares what the judge thinks, I love Annie Lee and that’s the only thing that matters. That judge better change quick if she doesn’t want to invoke my wrath.” 

    Why are they allowing/supporting this sick perspective in students?

  13. Stephen

    It seems comparable to raising your hand and icily saying “Actually, I’m a Yankees fan.” It’s crazy.

    My gut reaction is the best way he could have handled it is to have said, “Ok” and got straight back on with the content of the class. I just don’t see how it would be “hard to get past” and a “wake up call” for “unforeseen consequences”.

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