Building Relationships with Professors: Easier Advised than Done
By Lauren Howard • September 30, 2008•Curriculum and Classroom Dynamics
Fall is the time of year for Tips - hundreds of helpful lists of "Tips for Surviving-and-Thirving in Law School" are published across the internet, indoctrinating hopeful 1Ls into the rigors of outlining, the socratic method and "not getting too stressed out."
One of the most common tips, along with "Don't be a Gunner!" is "Get to know your Professors." These tips generally recommend seeking out time with faculty during office hours, volunteering to be a teaching assistant, or writing a note with a favorite faculty member. As a 3L Student who has done all of these things, I can tell you - building relationships with professors is great advice - but like "don't get too stressed out," extremely difficult to accomplish.
There seem to be a few reasons for this difficulty.
First, many law professors are less than easy to talk to. Indeed, some law professors seem to be attracted to the academy for this very reason; they can write, holed up in their offices, evaluated purely on intellect rather than their ability to entertain clients. In addition, those popular law professors who can perform engagingly in the classroom are often endowed with substantial egos, which can translate into an intimidating presence.
Second, there is little incentive, from the perspective of the professor, to generate close relationships with students. One of the most acclaimed professors at my top law school posted office hours and then never seemed to actually be IN his office at the times posted. Others that I have sought out have responded so icily to my inquiries as to communicate their distaste for my distracting efforts at out-of-class contact.
Third, many students are frightened of faculty members, and scared to waste their time. I have spent many an afternoon cobbling together a list of intelligent questions to ask professors in office hours, rehearsing in my mind so as not to find myself facing an awkward silence or giggling anxiously in response to everything the professor says. Yet even with that level of preparation, it is hard not to feel critiqued in-office as you are in-class. Even the kindest, most understanding professor can seem like a judge passing sentence when they utter the painful words "I don't know if I understand the question," or "I think we covered that already in class."
I also wonder to what degree professorial contact anxiety is particularly strong for women law students. I have noticed that the conga line of eager classmates charging toward the professor following lectures is generally almost completely male. Other anecdotal evidence from classmates indicates that men also seem more open to seeking out time with professors after class, often just to chat or ask about their career options - at least in my experience women students are strikingly less likely to do that.
Yet, it remains obvious that professorial contact is important - both for your future, in the form of obtaining precious recommendation letters, and for your present, in terms of mastering the difficult material presented by a course or obtaining an adviser for a law review note.
From the student perspective , I believe it is important that women realize that they are entitled to time from their professors. I often am plagued by the sense that I am encroaching on a professor's time-better-spent-elsewhere when I knock on their office door. However, I am in need of an attitude adjustment - teaching students is why professors are hired. Instead of feeling as though their conversation with me is a favor that I should attempt to earn through preparation, I should start thinking that they are obligated to assist me as a student in any reasonable way that I ask. Perhaps if women started insisting on receiving the type of teaching experience they need, instead of remaining an anonymous intimidated face in the crowd, we would no longer bemoan a lack of faculty mentors, and receive a more enriching experience, both personally and academically.
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Peg October 07, 2008
However, I took a decidely different approach to law school. I started law school however, with a crystal clear objective of getting a good job as a practicing corporate attorney. (Make no mistake—I was a little older and on a second career and not at all considering doing anything else with my law degree.) I didn’t seek out relationships with my professors. I approached law school as a professional school and not so much as an educational experience to be had just for education’s sake. I read my case books, studied hard, participated in class and overall tried really hard to do really well in my classes. However, I didn’t make any effort to build a relationship with my professors outside of class time—the one that we were naturally building by my professional approach to class which included showing the professors respect by being prepared and engaged in class. In the end, I had decent relationships with a couple of professors that were the result of taking small classes with them and classes that required writing papers.
So why didn’t I try to build relationships? My career path was not going to intersect with these people. They chose a career in academia and I was headed to a career in a law firm. The chances of these paths ever crossing in the future were slim to none. I wasn’t on law review and didn’t want to be a judicial clerk. One only has so much time in the day and mine was spent building relationships with fellow classmates, studying, commuting, hanging out with my family, volunteering with the admissions department and working on a journal.
My point is this… Don’t worry too much about building a great relationship with that star professor unless you really think that you’ll need that relationship to help you achieve your professional goals in the future. Don’t sweat going to office hours if you have other things to do. And, of course, don’t take my advice if you think it is stupid advice.
undomesticated October 07, 2008
I’ll echo the observation that it seems to be easier for men to develop relationships with male professors. However, I think that the same can be observed with female students and female professors. It isn’t impossible to have a mixed gender prof-student relationship… but there seem to be some unspoken limits to the degree of camradery. Perhaps it is the fear of having your companionship misinterpreted by either the other person or outsiders, but it is certainly there.
Moreover, I don’t think that this isssue is something exclusive to law school. I remember having the same observations in my political science department in college. However, it seemed to be more of a significant burden then because all of the professors in the department were male. In law school, there were profs of both genders.
I think that law schools and colleges alike would do well to keep this in mind as yet another reason for diversity (gender, racial, etc.). The more diverse your professors, the more likely your diverse students will successfully be able to develop meaningful relationships with their professors.
As advice, I’d also like to add that having a great relationship with one professor isn’t always enough. Someone told me when I started law school to get to know your favorite 1L professor and then you can build on that relationship during the next couple years. This is great advice… but it can also bite you in the rear. I developed a great relationship with my favorite professor (Torts) only to have her move to a different (and less distinguished) law school the next year. Needless to say, that was not a name I was anxious to add to my reference list, so I was faced with the 2L summer job search the next fall without a genuine reference from anyone at my law school. The point is, don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
Manamana October 07, 2008
I’d like to second Peg’s remarks about relationships with professors. Like her, I approached law school like a professional school—I think I shocked some of my peers in the first week of school by bluntly stating that law school is a means to an end, not a path of self-discovery (although I would bet many of them came around to my point of view by our third year).
I had great relationships with professors in my undergraduate years, but for some reason did not find those kinds of relationships easy in law school. I didn’t particularly seek them out, as I’m not the kind of person to rush to a professor after a lecture. I also took almost all large lecture classes in boring but functional areas (copyright, advanced torts, antitrust, etc.) that I thought would serve me in my career, and even the one seminar I took turned out to be closer to a lecture class. Like Peg, I wanted to be a practicing attorney on the private side, so I didn’t need the connections and recommendations that professors are good for in public practice and academia. I was not on law review but I was the EIC of my journal, which, if anything, lowered my opinion of professors (reading their submissions and trying to work with them through the editing process was an eye-opening experience).
The only place I differ from Peg is that I’m on the litigation side of things and was interested in clerking after school. That is the one area that I believe my lack of professor connections hurt me, since I was at a real loss as to professor recommendations, a must-have for clerkship applications. I did not apply for a clerkship for the year following graduation, in large part because I did not have three professors I could ask for recommendations. This is something I would have liked to change, if only to afford myself that opportunity to apply during the 3L year, and it’s something I would advise law students to start thinking about during their 2L year (or whenever they sign up for 2L classes)—aim for small seminars or clinics where you get a lot of professor contact. Since more judges are hiring clerks who have worked for a year or two, though, it’s not the end of the world if you miss this—you can go for one or two recommendations from your job and only one professorial one.
karen1 October 26, 2008
As previously mentioned, building relationships with your professors is crucial if you want to clerk. I received twice as many clerkship interview offers as some of my classmantes with similar grades, and I have no doubt that my success stemmed from the glowing recommendations from professors.
There are several ways to build these relationships. I never go to office hours, nor do I approach professors after class (ugh). My relationships were built by (1) taking several seminars and (2) leading in student organizations. Seminars help because I like to talk in a small group setting, so the professors got a good sense of the way I think. You also generally have an opportunity to discuss your seminar paper with your professor.
I participate in lots of student groups, so I have enlisted professors’ help on several occassions. Last year, I organized a symposium, which required me to work closely with the three professors moderating panels. One of those professors (who, not coincidentally, had also taught one of my seminars) became my mentor throughout the clerkship process.
Beyond just getting good recommendations, I have found that professors are incredibly valuable to have as mentors. The good ones will give you career advice, help you think through complex legal issues, and assist you in your scholarship. I have had a much richer law school experience as a result of my friendships with professors.