Distant … Nitpicky … Dismissive … Cruel.
That’s how the public pictures law school professors. More than 40 years after The Paper Chase, the fictional Professor Charles Kingsfield still haunts every law student’s imagination. Standing in front of class, high and mighty, they elicit a conflicting mixture of awe, anxiety, admiration, and antagonism. In cold calls, law professors are viewed as unforgiving sadists who knot up students with their own logic, taking delight as they squirm. In a world where rank determines fate, these professors simultaneously play unforgiving judge and callow jury.
THINK ADVOCATES, NOT AUTOCRATS
Of course, that’s not how the best law professors really are. Contrary to popular opinion, most aren’t sheltered scholars looking to rack up citations. Many are highly connected practitioners who know their way around a courtroom as well as the faculty lounge. And they are also advocates and mentors, committed to grooming the next generation of jurists.
That was the big lesson for Christine Kim. During her stint at the Duke University School of Law, Kim and some fellow students came up with a plan to host a civil rights conference at the school. Though the professors they approached told them they were “crazy and too ambitious,” they agreed to help supervise the project, which took two years to plan. With the faculty’s help, the conference became a major success, drawing over 150 speakers and 300 attendees.
“The professors supported us every step of the way — and many other professors who were not intimately involved in the planning process devoted their time to attend almost all of the two-day conference,” Kim says. “We would not have been able to pull off the conference without their help.
“I have been floored throughout my time at Duke by how truly supportive the professors are. I feel very fortunate.”
‘TO GOOD LAWYERS WE MUST MAKE OUR POSITIONS FIT INTO THE LAW AS IT IS’
Other law professors make quieter, though no less significant, contributions through their teaching — and through the examples they set. That was one reason why Michael Harper, who teaches civil procedure and employment discrimination at the Boston University School of Law, was selected by Sabina Mariella as her favorite law professor.
“Professor Harper’s classes are challenging and intellectually stimulating, and he is generally very down-to-earth, approachable, and funny,” Mariella says. “More importantly, he makes sure to remind students that they are in law school to learn how to be good lawyers. He teaches his classes in a way that focuses on applying the law to difficult problems, rather than on normative, philosophical issues.”
At the same time, Mariella says, Harper imparts a crucial lesson to his students: Work with what you have. “I think one of the most important lessons I’ve taken from him is that sometimes we might not like the law and the way that it affects people, but that to be good lawyers we must make our positions fit into the law as it is rather than argue that the law should be different,” she says.
Most importantly, says Robert Rossi, who graduated from Boston College Law School this spring, professors like Ingrid Hillinger set a high bar to bring out the best in their students. “She expects nothing less,” Rossi says. “She doesn’t just teach the course material — she teaches ways to be a better student, and hopefully a better lawyer as a result.”
This spring, Tipping the Scales surveyed the 2016 graduates who were named by their schools as being among their Best & Brightest students. The question we asked: Who is your favorite professor (and why)? Here is what the students say makes these professors so influential and successful both inside and outside the classroom.
THEY CONNECT PERSONALLY WITH STUDENTS
“Professor Bob Bloom, who teaches Criminal Procedure. Not only is he so brilliant and accomplished within the arena, but he also knows how to relate and connect with his students so that we, too, can follow along and understand the material. There hasn’t been a single class where he hasn’t made us all crack up with his hypotheticals or questions (which is quite impressive given it is an 8 a.m. class). He addresses everyone as ‘my friend’ before proceeding with a cold call. I’m also one of the four lucky students who got to call him ‘coach’ of our Criminal Procedure Moot Court Team. He pushed us to analyze every sentence of our argument, to speak with conviction, and to have fun with the experience. We were competing in a national tournament and second to winning, he cared that WE were enjoying the experience. He’s so genuine and thoughtful in that manner.” – Andrea Clavijo, Boston College Law School
“I have had the honor of taking four classes with the same professor. Professor Gregory Maggs’s ability to present Contract Law, Constitutional Law, and Secured Transactions and Commercial Papers with superior clarity is sufficient to make him one of the best professors at the law school — but it is his warmth, his sense of humor, and his willingness to meet with students to discuss their goals that seals his status as my favorite professor at GW Law.” – Julie Haigney, George Washington University Law School
“Professor Michael Chasalow. Professor Chasalow has been a mentor to me since I interviewed with him for the USC Law School Small Business Clinic. He was my clinic supervisor and business organizations professor, and now I am his teacher’s assistant. He told me once that he would give me advice like I was one of his children, and he hasn’t failed. No matter what I am struggling with in school or otherwise, Professor Chasalow has advised me in the best way possible. He is also an incredibly smart and good professor. I consider myself very lucky to have worked with him extensively.” – Tania ElBayar, USC Gould School of Law