A Primer To Law School Etiquette

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Ignore Law School Etiquette at Your Career Peril

Your reputation: It matters more than what you know. Natural talent and know-how only go so far. In the end, your classmates want to be around people they like. They long for a world governed by the rules we learned in kindergarten: Respect your peers, be kind, and act with humility. Your professors have expectations too: Follow decorum and don’t distract classmates. In other words, they want you to practice etiquette.

So what is etiquette in law school? Well, it’s an extension of a school’s culture. It is those unspoken practices that convey how students and faculty should interact. Quite often, they are basic courtesy and common sense.  Your mastery of these practices reflects your character and establishes your reputation. Ultimately, they determine if you’re insider or a leper.

This week, The American Bar Association interviewed Sarah Zearfoss, Senior Assistant Dean at University of Michigan Law School; Robert E. Kaplan, Associate Dean at William & Mary Law School; Michael Helfand of The Law Offices of Michael J. Helfand, LLC; and Ruth Carter, Owner of the Carter Law Firm, PLLC about common etiquette gaffes. Here are some of the taboos to avoid:

Don’t Be A Gunner: You want to dazzle everyone with your insight (or just show the professor that you read the material). But there are no gold stars in law school, just sighs and eye rolls. When you’re tempted to ask a question or share a thought, consider following this litmus test: What am I trying to achieve?  According to Helfland, “When you do something like raise your hand to answer every question the professor asks, it’s very shortsighted. Your grade will still come down to how you do on your exam, and people don’t like a know-it-all. You’re really accomplishing nothing other than trying to make yourself look good.”

Remember, friends don’t let friends gun in class.

Reciprocate: Follow the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. That said, always ask for a favor politely, giving others the opportunity to say no. For example, if you miss class due to illness, Zearfoss suggests that you ask a question like, “Are you comfortable sharing your notes?…Recognize you’re asking for a favor and not entitled to this, and be smart in listening to the answer to identify if you’ve overstepped your bounds. Also, asking for an outline is definitely a step above, and I think that’s not appropriate unless there’s some, as we say in the law, quid pro quo. Have you offered something that would be valuable in exchange?”

Don’t Distract Your Peers: Coming late to class. Chatting with the person next to you. Taking phone calls. Surfing the net instead of paying attention. These are all disrespectful behaviors that annoyed Carter and Zearfoss. Carter, in particular, takes it personally: “I’m paying a lot of money to hear the professor talk, not you. Coming to class late is also a problem because it’s a production to set up your laptop, books, and so on. This is your job. If you want to be here, be here. If you don’t, don’t.”

Show Deference: It’s never easy. If you address professors with a prefix, you risk coming across stuffy. If you call them by their first name, you could be perceived as overly familiar, if not disrespectful. So what’s the rule of thumb? Zearfoss believes in the former: “The best thing to do is use people’s title and last name…and assume they’ll tell you if they want something less formal. That’s different from a work setting, where you shouldn’t go in that direction because it’s self-infantilizing. [At work,] you’re a colleague, where in law school, there’s a hierarchy. We’re in the midst of change on this issue, and being emotionally intelligent means recognizing that and at least alluding to it.”

Be Cautious About Self-Promotion: Nobody likes braggarts, especially when their accomplishments overshadow their own. It’s a certain recipe for resentment. So where is the line that can’t be crossed? In Carter’s view, “It’s perfectly fine to list your awards on your LinkedIn profile and to add them to your résumé. However, your GPA and class rank belong only on your résumé—keep them out of social media. Zearfoss suggests a more personalized approach: “Think about your audience. Do they want or need to hear this information? Rather than communicating positive information about yourself to a mass audience, I think you’d always be better off sending the news individually.” She adds, “Being humble is always better, and being self-deprecating always goes a long way.”

For additional insights on law school etiquette, click below:

Source: American Bar Association