At Prawfs, Bill Araiza laments unprofessional students:

“So, let’s say a student contacts you, wanting to meet with you, his prof.  You set the meeting up — Wednesday at 11:00, say.  (By the way, these are not actual facts, Wednesday at 11:00 was not an actual meeting time, nor does this question have anything to do with anything that’s happened to me recently.  So there.)  The student doesn’t show.  The student then contacts you later, apologizing and giving, let’s say, what I would consider a bad reason or no reason at all.  The student asks for a new meeting date, soon (say, the next day).”

True: law students (like their professors) sometimes behave unprofessionally, and one particularly irritating variant of unprofessionalism is terrible excuses for trivial offenses.  Often, the excuse makes the conduct less forgivable.  So, I empathize with a “recent graduate” on Bill’s thread, who snarked “I thought professors didn’t really want to hear about my diarrhea/family issue/bad day that made me miss one meeting/class/clinic? I guess I should have been sending much longer, groveling emails.”  Indeed, I provide students free participation passes (a limited number in some classes, unlimited in others), but explicitly tell them not to tell me why they are passing.  Nonetheless, every year a student will provide an excuse that is so godawful that it makes me feel angry and resentful.  Such as: “I was unprepared and forgot to pass because I was watching March Madness, and I plan on being unprepared until it’s done.” (This was not an email I received, but it was close.)  I’ve never known what to do with these bad excuses on petty matters.  Not one seems significant enough to engage with:

If you write back, making a lesson out of it, you are a crotchety, tetchy, pompous pill.

If you don’t, and internalize the irritation, you will be a crotchety, tetchy, pompous pill.

Basically, a classic collective action problem.

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6 Responses

  1. Paul Gowder says:

    It seems like the march madness thing would be the perfect opportunity for the one-word reply e-mail:


  2. I don’t empathize with the recent graduate at all. I don’t want to know what a student’s excuse is; I simply want to know they are not making the meeting BEFORE the meeting, so my time is not wasted. That is basic courtesy. (That said, if there is a genuine emergency — which there usually is not — it’s a different story. A polite email after the fact in that case is fine.)

  3. Gerard Magliocca says:

    The oddest reason I ever got was from a student who told me he couldn’t come to class because he had tickets to an IU basketball game. Dude, make up a cover story!

  4. Ben Madison says:

    The above blog and comments remind me of an excellent article by Professor Cynthia Batt and Harriet Katz, “Confronting Students: Evaluation in the Process of Student Professional Development,” 10 Clinical L. Rev. 581 (2004). We’re being urged by the Carnegie Report to help students develop professional identities before leaving law school. So, it seems pretty fundamental that we ought to let students know when their interaction with professors, law school staff, or fellow students falls short of behavior that will be acceptable in law practice. I used to let missed appointments, etc. “slide.” However, articles like the one above changed my thinking not only on how to teach but also on the need to give these students basic instructions on how to be a professional. I do not like stereotypes and don’t like to be stereotyped. However, I have to admit that a friend who has studied differences in generations (boomers vs. Gen-X vs. Millenials–our current majority of students) changed my thinking, especially as I observed what she said to be true about the current generation entering laws schools. Essentially, she told me: “These students don’t get it! Don’t assume that the students know what acceptable or professional behavior is. We actually have to spell it out. If you do, most will listen.” So I’m less apt now to let students slide. Instead, if they e-mail apologizing for a missed appointment, I respond by emphasizing the need to reschedule ASAP. Then, I address at the outset of our next meeting how they missed an appointment, sent an e-mail that would turn off someone in law practice, etc. I say that “I’m not going to judge you on one instance.” However, I tell them that it may be okay to be late or miss meetings with their peers, but it’s not okay to do so with one’s professor, with firms and prospective employers, with courts where one clerks. When in practice, I explain, your colleagues, other lawyers, judges, clerks–anyone in the legal profession–will will expect you to be on time. Emergencies happen, but it better be a true emergency and in those cases you call (don’t write an e-mail) so that the person expecting you will know you took the matter seriously. I finish these “mini-professionalism-tutorials” by reminding students that the habits one develops in law school will translate to practice. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by students’ willingness to listen and have had students later thank me for taking the time. So, essentially, I’ve found what my friend suggested. Many current students just do not know better and need to be told how to act professionally.

  5. Ken Rhodes says:

    @Ben (and everybody) — It isn’t unique, or even special, to law school, or to law. It’s professional life in every field.

    When the top consulting firms hire the best and brightest students from the best schools, the first thing they (the firms) do is to send these budding young stars to “consulting school.” There is no assumption that straight A’s in the MBA program at Harvard or Wharton will mean the young genius knows how to be a professional in a world filled with clients who have their own problems, their own priorities, and their own peccadillos.

  6. Susan Apel says:

    If a true emergency, express sympathy and reschedule. If not, don’t reschedule and tell the student why.