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.