By Craig Forcese

Full Professor
Faculty of Law

Email: cforcese[at]uottawa.ca

Twitter: @cforcese

 

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Bleaching Law

Welcome to my blog on teaching law.  I have entitled it "bleaching law". This is an obvious contraction of "blog" and "teaching".  It is also a play  on words capturing the endless struggle of a law professor to convey as neat, tidy, proper and well-starched things that are emphatically not, like the standard of review in administrative law.  All opinions are my own and do not reflect on anyone else who I work with, for or around. 

Tuesday
Oct232012

Grading and Other Ghoulish Creations of the Law School Laboratory

Grading is among the most arcane of issues in any law school.  It is difficult, controversial, personal, emotional and necessary.  Grading policy is apparently even more mysterious.  So in a modest effort to shed light on policy, here is how it works at uOttawa.   And here also is how it works elsewhere.

Grading Guidelines

We have guidelines.  The guidelines specify the average permitted for various types of courses, allowing also some range of deviation from that average.  None of this is in the least secret.  Those specifics are all on the law school website.

No final grade is released until Faculty Council meets to review the average for each class.  If the average is outside the range permitted by the guidelines, the professor is asked to bring their grading into line.  They are not obliged to do so, but if they decline, they provide reasons for it.  Sometimes Faculty Council accepts the reasons.  In my experience, mostly it does not.  And most of the time, the professor then adjusts the marks.

The professor does so in contemplation of the chief reasons for the guidelines.  First, they prevent grade inflation.  Grades cannot drift up without the guidelines being adjusted up.  In the past, we did adjust our guidelines (after all the other law schools lifted their equivalent thereby placing our students at a disadvantage).

Second, the guidelines reduce disparities between sections of the same course, creating equity between courses regardless of the section in which a student enrolls.

Third, they mitigate the effects of hard profs and soft profs.  No matter how hard an exam and no matter how easy, the class average will be within the guidelines.  There is no incentive to seek out “bird courses” or avoid challenging profs.  Students still do this, of course, but I wouldn’t necessarily consider that fully rational behaviour.

Four, it makes arguments about “unfair” evaluation less compelling.   Evaluation cannot be unfair if everyone is measured by the same standard and marks then comply with the guidelines.  Grading is only unfair if some students in the same class were treated differently than others.

So that’s how it works for us.  But there is a new issue.  Every law school appears to use a similar benchmark average, give or take.  (University of Toronto has opted for its own world, eliminating letter grades in favour of a different narrative description.  I don’t have much to say on that, because I haven't studied it closely and I don’t really understand why it does anything different than change the nomenclature.)

Quotas: Good, Bad or Indifferent?

But it is worth noting that several other schools in Canada do more than have a benchmark average like ours.  In addition, they also control distributions of grades within the class.  That is, they place a quota on the number of marks above and below the B range.  I won’t name these schools – but their system is freely available for review on their websites.  By my back of the envelope estimation, about half of the law students in Ontario are subject to a quota system.

In a quota system, everything then hinges on the proportion of students allocated to these sub- and above-B grades.  School policies do vary on this point.  But last year, we conducted an internal analysis of these systems as compared to the de facto distribution produced by our uncontrolled distribution system.  On the basis of that analysis, there is reason to believe that in relative terms, quota systems squeeze students into the B range.  This is especially true in some schools that cap sub- and above-B grades very aggressively. 

Put another way, under a quota system, an average student appears more likely to receive a series of undifferentiated Bs.  Under an uncontrolled distribution system, the student may have the same overall B average, but her or his transcript may include more sub-B and above-B grades.  

But truly, which is better: the more mixed transcript or the mono-B transcript?  We don’t know, because there is no metric by which to measure what we mean by “better”.  I imagine that weaker students do better in a quota system that squeezes them upwards towards a B.  Some might regard this as grade inflation by stealth.  It is “easier” to obtain B grades in at least some (but not necessarily all) quota systems. 

Then again (and this too is important), I imagine stronger students do better in a system like ours, one that doesn’t force them down towards a B.

As for average students, well a case can be made that one looks more constant with the mono-B than with a sprinkling of marks of different sorts.  But then, who can say?  Maybe our system enabled the student to obtain an A- in that important course the hiring firm was most interested in, while at another school, a similarly situated student was squeezed into the B range. 

So it really isn't clear that quotas are a good thing for anyone except students who habitually get low grades, and then only when the quota is set at a level that really does force them up to a B.

Going Forward

Law profs generally are not keen on grading schemes that exagerrate the credentials of truly below-average students.  Many of us see ourselves in the consumer protection business when we assign grades. 

And because of this uncertainty about which system is better and suspicion that quotas are grade inflation by stealth, I can say that there is not much appetite in my school for incorporating a quota system.  And setting aside principled concerns and the difficulties in implementation, we have a senate rule that prohibits mathematical systems of mark distribution.  (It does not, by the way, stand in the way of our existing guidelines – that was confirmed when the senate rule was introduced).

So the case for moving to a quota system at uOttawa would have to be strong to obtain a carve-out from the senate rule.  Examining the merits and demerits of that case is an empirical exercise.  Nothing will budge without this clear-eyed analysis, and that is a major undertaking. 

Any students interested in a directed research project?

Monday
Oct082012

5 Unorthodox Strategies for Excelling in Law School, Now!

Apparently, the best way to get someone to read something these days is to promise a definitive short-list.  That is why every magazine seems to boast of the “5 strategies to your fastest marathon” or “7 secrets to losing 50 pounds effortlessly” or “6 strategies for X-rated things that are quite properly not the topic of this blog”.

So, to tap into the list-obsessed zeitgeist of the times, I propose 5 unorthodox strategies for excelling in law school.   These are based on qualitative observations of thousands of students over 10 years, without much rigorous quantitative data – another way in which this post resembles those magazine articles.  Before we begin, a quick terminological note: by “excel” I mean more than “get lots of As”.  I mean: sucking the marrow from the bone of law school, seizing the day, carpe diem, etc.

1. Do Better in School by Doing Less in It: 

Studying law is like a goldfish.  A goldfish will expand into a good-sized carp if you take it from bowl and place it in a pond.  Likewise, law school will consume every waking moment, if you let it.  Everyone’s point of diminishing returns is different, but the reality is that you quickly reach it.  At some point, the extra hour spent really, deeply understanding an extraneous factual detail in that obscure 1957 case in your property class produces no additional quantum of skill, understanding or intellectual well-roundedness.  It also doesn’t produce a better mark.

The fact is that in law school you luxuriate in ridiculous, billowing blankets of time.  Law students don’t believe us when we tell them this – they think they work hard.  And then on the first day on the job, they discover that they’re expected to turn out work-product in five hours that we give them five weeks to do.  I love the visit from the former law student halfway through their articling job that amounts to a “I had no idea, boy was law school bubbly and effervescent” admission.

So do your schoolwork, but don’t live to work at school.  That is not an invitation to squander life’s precious moments on the Xbox.  Instead, be the law student you read about and see in the movies, the one that doesn’t let the distance between the present and the freshly minted JD degree stop them from being a force to be reckoned with and a public citizen.  And that’s strategy number 2.

If you combine strategy numbers 1 and 2, you’ll likely find that it hones your time management skills, and makes you very efficient.  And that is one of the most important attributes you could ever hope to acquire in law school.

2. The Credential is Not the Starting Line: 

That shiny new law degree is not the beginning of life’s career race.  It is more like the aid station in the marathon: a nice little hit of Gatorade.  The race should begin long before – for many law students, it began in the distant past, if their admissions personal statements are any indication.  To continue the sporting analogy, while in law school Just Do It.  Just do it if you have any interest in a career in social justice, human rights, environment, development, international law – any alternative career.  Very few people – nay, NO ONE – goes forth with a fresh JD and an empty resume and finds a job in this sector. 

This is the way it works: while in law school, you volunteer or intern; you prove reliable; you make yourself indispensable.  Then, as you graduate, someone in the organization that loves you goes on parental leave.  And so you get an acting position.  And while there, other opportunities arise.  And because you’re so good at your job and so entrepreneurial, before you know it, you’re working at the international secretariat in London, England.  So the starting line in this race is NOW, not in three years.  And it’s all on you: you need to pound the pavement to make this happen.

And if you don’t want a career in non-traditional sectors, well then feel free to go forth with a fresh JD and an empty resume and compete in the job market against all the other people who followed strategy item #1 and #2.  Good luck with that.

3. Be Humble:

Gandhi famously insisted on washing the toilets, even when he had acquired a status of the sort that one doesn’t associate with such a task.  It’s hard to put on airs when you’re washing toilets, which is why most people won’t do it.  I’m not proposing that you literally take up the bristly brush, but don’t be too proud to work in the proverbial restroom.  The reality is that unless you’re in the “car and driver, staying at the Savoy on the taxpayer’s dime” class, sometimes you need to take up the plunger yourself.  And when you’re starting out and fulfilling strategy #2, expect to be plunging an awful lot: you need to prove yourself.  It is the coin of the realm.  It also keeps you humble.  And there is nothing more dangerous than an overinflated sense of self-worth to guarantee calamitous failure at some point in the future, celebrated by all who have grown weary of your top-heavy ego. (Witness what often happens to "the car and driver, staying at the Savoy on the taxpayer's dime" class.)

4. Eat the Green Eggs and Ham: 

Oh, the number of omniscient students in law school with a fixed sense of what they will be doing years from now and laser-like precision about which courses are necessary and which unnecessary to their pre-ordained destiny.  Please.  It doesn’t work that way.  You are a bottle tossed on heavy seas.  Enjoy the current.  See it as an opportunity.  Dare yourself with the course you thought would be useless.  There are so many times when that afterthought of a course proves unexpectedly elemental.  And yes that means all you with social justice impulses.  Don’t confine yourself.  Advancing social justice means hardcore skills, not just good analyses of the ills of the world.  You’d better understand tax law and securities law and so much else better than the 12 extremely well-paid big firm lawyers on the other side of the table. 

And you big firm-bound lawyers, if you don’t get the context – why are those people camping on Wall Street – you risk being blindsided.  Really.  I pursued corporate social responsibility as a human rights activist and every bit of that expertise was of relevance when I later was briefly in private practice, helping advise large companies scratching their heads over Sarbanes-Oxley and with overseas operations subject to ATCA lawsuit and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

Same goes for applying strategy #2: be omnivorous.  Pursue unexpected opportunities even if they’re not part of your master plan.  Don’t be too discerning too early in your career.  Run with things that drop in your lap, even if you think they aren’t really what you’re interested in.  You just don’t have the experience base to know.

In sum: relish the green eggs and ham.  Savour every slimy bite.

5. Don’t Run on Empty, Just Run: 

Exercise.  I’m serious.  Exercise.  Do it out of pure academic self-interest, if for no other reason.  The research on the correlation between exercise and academic performance is now absolutely overwhelming.  If you’re like most of the human species, get in your morning constitutional and you will learn more, faster and with greater ease.  More than that, it relieves stress and it makes you feel better (and yes, there will be a painful transition if you’ve been completely sedentary.  Just buckle down and get through it).  So it is both intelligence booster and coping strategy.  If it were a drug, they would patent it.  (And some pharmaceutical companies are actually trying to manufacture the benefits of exercise in a pill.)  Don’t rely on big pharma or the coffee fields of Ecuador.  Just Do It.  Walk, run, swim, roll, pedal, ski, pilate, yogasize, deepwater run, spin, ballroom dance.  Whatever.  Move in whatever ways are open to you.

And if exercise for its own sake doesn’t get you out of the bed, pick an event.  Set it as a goal.  Work up a training plan.  Fundraise for a cause.  Suddenly it becomes bigger than yourself.  See above about feeling better.  Ottawa Race Weekend is a natural for Ottawa law student.  It comes in late May and so is a goal that keeps you running through exams.  Register now – it sells out quickly.

I’m giving idle thought to starting a little law school running group with the Ottawa Race Weekend Half-Marathon as its objective.  I’ll coach lightly (I’m certified NCCP level 1 in triathlon) in return for participants committing seriously and agreeing to support and run in support of Girls Gotta Run Foundation.  We can call it Fartleks with Forcese.  (And if you don’t speak Swedish and don’t know what a fartlek it, that’s your first homework assignment).

I may roll that out later in the year, but treat this as a trial balloon and feel free to email me to let me know if you’re interested.

Friday
Oct052012

Outlook Slave or Scholar and Gentleman

Today, I completed a ballpark calculation of how much time I spend reading and responding to email on my work account: 22.7 hours per week.  To be fair, this is a figure that guesstimates the amount of time on average it takes me to sort, read or delete, and compose emails.  It is also computed with reference to the volume of email in September, a heavy email traffic month for a vice dean and professor.  Even so, it is a terrifyingly large number, especially given the number of emails that were sorted, read or deleted or composed during evenings, early mornings, weekends, walking my daughter to school and generally whenever I had a second of supposedly untasked time.

Around those 22.7 hours, I perform what I believe to be my actual core job of preparing to teach, teaching, supervising graduate work, writing, and reading what others have written.  So needless to say, I am always looking for time management shortcuts that allow me to be a scholar and gentleman and not simply an organic extension to my Outlook Exchange account.  These tools assist my crack support firm of Me, Myself and I manage what might otherwise be unmanageable.

1. Automated appointments: Cut away a 100 emails a week by using an automated appointment maker.  I have been using tungle.me.  That service allows you to choose times of availability on an online calendar and allows people to select times within that availability for appointments.  The results are shared with you and synced with the Outlook calendar.  Brilliant.  Unfortunately, tungle.me is closing up shop and so I will need to find another platform.  Timetrade.com seems to have possibilities, although not free.  Still, well worth a modest fee to free the shackles of the endless calendar pinpong emails. 

It has also freed me of the antiquated "office hour" model: the one in which I fixed time each week to sit in my office like the Maytag repairman awaiting an occasional drop in.  Now everything is by appointment, which liberates the empty, fixed hour for other purposes.

2. Email management:  When I started the vice dean gig, I was perpetually grumpy because emails were constantly arriving and I wasn't disciplined enough to leave them sit.  The fear was that leaving them sit would consume more time as I scrolled back through my inbox at a later date, with the additional risk of missing something. 

I have since seen the light.  Now I read and sort into subdirectories according to urgency. 

Emails I can respond to in 2 minutes or less, I respond to right away (ideally during "email reading" slots in my day, although I am not great at limiting myself in this way).  The subdirectories for less urgent or more time consuming matters are labelled with the days of the week, and emails are deposited in proximity to the current day according to relative urgency.  Then, the next morning, I get up and go through the emails deposited in the subdirectory for whatever day it is.  Works pretty well, but I do still slip into the insta-response illness.  I acknowledge my addiction.  And I get grumpy again.

3. Toodledo: Toodledo is a free online service that lets you create prioritized task lists, with relatively minor maintenance.  I have found it useful in the past, especially for jotting down to-do items before I forget them.  I confess I have fallen off the wagon a bit with that service, but can envisage returning to it soon.

4. Classroom management tools:  Classroom administration can be enormously time consuming.  Things like presentation sign-ups can be a huge pain.  I use signupgenius.com.  It is easy to access for students and saves me from the suffering of posting paper on the wall outside my office and trying to decipher scribbles and arrows.

5. The iPad:  How did I survive without it!  I lecture from it -- nice illumination (unlike the crummy podium lights).  Nice big font.   Nice and portable.  No huge binder.  Oh, and the apps!  I use the SSRN app (see below on SSRN).  I use Dropbox -- upload those lecture notes.  And my recent discovery: iAnnotate PDF.  This app is my new best friend.  It allows me to read and notate PDF documents -- circle, scribble, draw arrows, type notes.  It is perfect for those reviews of draft graduate theses, or articles you are peer reviewing or editing in the final stages of publication.

The iPad is also a better work platform than a laptop for travelling.  No more slouching in the economy seat trying to see the screen of the laptop, forced down by the aggressively reclined seat in front of me.  Using an iPad, I completed more airplane work on a recent conference trip than I ever have before.  It also helped that there were no emails.  Thank goodness for excessively restrictive limitations on electronic devices in the air.

6. Keeping up with the Literature Tools: I do try to keep up with the literature in my areas, with greater or lesser success.  I use the SSRN app to download pertinent articles onto my iPad.  And vast troves of reading material are weightlessly carried from place to place. But my greatest success comes when I find ways to multitask.  Here are a couple.

NaturalReader: This Mac software (which does cost $) converts written word into spoken word.  In about 10-15 minutes I can download a journal article, strip out the footnotes (which I really don't want read to me) and create an audiobook out of some article I wish to "read".  And then off I go for a ski, or a run or on my indoor bicycle trainer.  There is a zone of aerobic effort at which I actually retain and process incoming oral information more readily.  This oral conversion tool (and there are many on the market) is the perfect multitasking device.  (Indeed I have been known to review draft graduate theses in oral form, while skiing.  Students probably benefit from the authoritative English accented voice to which I convert their written word.)

Audible.com: So many relevant books that I should read to be a better, worldly prof.  So little time.  But happily so many of them are in oral form on audible.com.  See above on multitasking while running, skiing or indoor cycling.

So those are a few of my shortcuts. There are lots of other possibilities out there, and many survival strategies.  I am happy to receive other tips on time management technology and techniques for the academic world.

Thursday
Oct042012

Law school 2.0: Turning the scary into the innovative

The Ontario government threw down the gauntlet this past summer with its discussion paper on rethinking post-secondary education in the province.  To be clear this re-thinking is being driven by money -- the government has none to spare.  There is, therefore, the classic getting more from less aspect to the process.  But in keeping with the adage that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste, a rethink of post secondary is certainly in order.  Universities are stuffy, conservative places with teaching staffs habituated to a genial, comfortable social order.

Pulled in Two Directions

As part of these institutions, law schools are no different, with one exception. They are pulled in two directions: towards the profession and towards academia.  In recent time, the academy has been in ascendance and law schools and their full time faculty have become more clearly professors and less frequently lawyers with a foot in both worlds.

Publishing (especially peer reviewed), conferences (especially academic) and research grants (especially SSHRC) are now clearly the coins of realm, with public policy involvement, legal case or other forms of professional involvement becoming either less common or less valued or both.

One shouldn't exaggerate -- both worlds still cohabit.  But the academic profiles of younger colleagues when contrasted to those hired in the early 1990s or before seem to bear out the march towards "ivory tower" and away from "trade school".

The Profession Strikes Back

The profession, for its part, does not seem tremendously amused.  Through the Federation of Law Societies it has reimposed a raft of old, new-again (for Ontario schools) mandatory requirements.  This has elicited various cries of concern from an academic community habituated to autonomy in deciding the composition of a law degree guided more by what the market will bear than formal prescription.  The Law Society of Upper Canada, meanwhile, may try to cure its articling problem by hijacking the third year of law school,  downloading a perceived market crisis onto the law schools without curing it.  Even a voluntary practical legal practicum available through law schools will drive a move back to trade schools.  It will be difficult for law programs retaining a three year academic model to compete with a three year law degree + articles approach.

The Centre Cannot Hold

The two pressures -- provincial deficit budgeting and the profession -- will likely change the sedate world of legal academia in relatively quick order.  Among the possible consequences:

More practitioners, fewer academics:  Part time professors/ full-time practitioners are essentially the backbone of the program in my own institution.  As a professional school, we are different from other university departments and must leaven full-time faculty with an active presence of the profession.  More practically, these parttime instructors are prepared to teach in areas demanded by students but often abandoned by academics inclined to twin their teaching with their research interests.  For example, it is now rare (although not unknown) to find an academic teaching wills, real estate or civil procedure.

From grumbles, I suspect many academics would abandon bread and butter courses like property, torts and contracts if not countervailed by institutional expectations and the deterrent of having to surrender a course already in the can.  It is incredibly rare to see job applicants for tenure track positions with a genuine teaching interest in private law.  Everyone wants to be a constitutional deep-thinker or an international lawyer (a criticism I level at myself as well).  The latter are all interesting subjects of course, but marginally relevant to most clients who will be served by our graduates.

In response to the FLS requirements, uOttawa has now added business associations and administrative law to its stable of mandatories.  We are reasonably well staffed in those area, but the reality is that we will inevitably need to turn to part timers to staff the number of sections of those courses we now need.

If the third-year practical legal training idea comes to pass, a lot of those upper year seminars now much loved by full time faculty will die (in a risk-adverse student culture, many are already dying).  And resources will need to be shifted to whatever practical legal training is.  And I say "whatever" advisedly -- academics are not necessarily equipped to do practical legal training.  (Of course, my own experience with the now abolished mandatory LSUC course requirement is that practitioners may be even worse.)

A second driver in this area is the relative cost: practitioners are inexpensive, being prepared to teach for relatively small honoraria and motivated by a variety of interests other than salary.  This isn't the way they make their living.  Full-time faculty are very expensive, especially at a modest teaching load of 12 credits.  When you need to staff-up courses quickly, flexibly and cheaply, practitioners win every time.  Even in the present, we simply could not offer enough courses to be a real law school using only full time faculty.  There aren't enough of them x 12 credits each to offer enough courses for our students.

If the provincial axe falls, deans will need to find financial room in a budget that is almost entirely salary.  Why anyone would want the job of being a dean in an era of slash and burn is beyond me.  But in the interest of paths of less resistance, expect that when a senior colleague retires, replacements will come in the form of a force multiplier of part timers and not an expensive, 12 credit teaching tenure track academic.  The net result will be a reduction in the academics' imprint on the life of the law school.

Radical redesign:  If the risk is a bunch of academics marginalized, outsourced and increasingly irrelevant to the actual teaching business of a law school, the virtue is the prospect of reinvention.  If colleagues resist the siren call of research über alles and think of themselves as educators, then what is crisis becomes opportunity.  

The dark shadow of practical legal education need not be the failed model of a practitioner relying on LSUC-approved material to complete a connect-the-dots will drafting exercise.  It could instead be an innovative course in litigation strategies for social justice or effective public writing of parliamentary briefs or media training for advancing environmental causes.  Put another way, the practical could be geared to the same substantive topics that galvanize full time academics but convey universal skills.  Academics who lack these skills will need to reinvent themselves -- but the skill is only part of the equation. Teaching the skill is the other, and the component that practitioners do not necessarily possess.

The result may be more classroom co-teaching between academics and practitioners, each complementing the other and spreading academic availability over more courses without more cost.

Another radical redesign should be in how law school is semestered.  A building empty all summer is simply an unsustainable use of physical plant.  Classroom capacity is stressed in the school year and endlessly available outside it, possibly prompting universities to bring on line more supply than they need to meet artificially concentrated demand.  On the other hand, a supplemental May-June term amortizes physical plant over more months and potentially opens the door to an accelerated law degree in which credit requirements can be met in a shorter period of time.

Here too there is potential -- use the new term for summer schools in social justice, environment,  international or aboriginal law.  Experiment with concentrated course formats that may enable new forms of pedagogy.  

As to who will staff these courses, well, practitioners don't care if they teach in February or May.  Courses could be staffed easily.  The hope would be, however, that full time faculty would not render themselves irrelevant to the new reality.  And to be fair, shifting a teaching load to free up time elsewhere in the calendar by teaching in the new term may be attractive to research oriented academics.  (As I write this, I am flying home 9 hours from a conference hoping that my late flight will not leave me brain dead for tomorrow's class.)

The last radical change will be technology.  Every year I teach the same courses and give, essentially, the same lectures in about 90% of the classes, varying only where the law has changed or to improve delivery or flow.  I even make the same jokes.  It is totally irrational (the approach, not the jokes), especially in light of research suggesting that this way of teaching is least likely to induce learning.  But it is standard practice, both because it is professorial habit and because the most conservative constituency in the law school are the students, always looking anxiously for the feeding spoon.

I will eventually experiment with turning those lectures into standing podcasts, re-recording them as needed.  I will expect students to view the recorded lecture.  I will then re-purpose class time.  The question I confront is how to re-purpose a 1.5 hour block in a lecture theatre of 80 or so students and induce learning.  Group work is the standard response, but group work requires willing and engaged participants not inclined to passivity or freeloading.  See above regarding the expectations of law students.

I suppose the alternative is classic socratic, a strategy I eschew in the survey style courses I teach because of its sedate pace -- in administrative law, for example, I don't have 5 credits of time that I can deploy in a scorched earth study of offer, acceptance and consideration.  But if the forest is covered in a podcast, then classroom time could reasonably be used on a socratic study of the trees.

Whatever the resistance of students and professors to re-purposed classroom time, I believe that it is the future.  I welcome feedback from colleagues confronting similar dilemmas.  I promise to archive their suggestions on this blog.

In the meantime, if my prognostications have any bearing in reality, law schools would be advised to consider seriously whether the future will be something they seize or something inflicted on them.

Friday
Sep212012

Email and other risks to your reputation

In my few years in private practice, a decade ago, much of our client communication was conducted through email.  And those emails were exhaustively edited and re-edited, proofed and re-proofed, every comma queried and intonation measured.  A typo was practically a firing offence -- and there were legends about such firings. (Students sometimes don't seem to believe us when we say that attention to detail is a bedrock in practicing law.)

I have slipped -- I am not resourced like a law firm and I do make typos in the trillions of emails I ship out daily (and no doubt on this blog). Still, I try.

Fast forward a decade, and in my academic capacity, I have become a practical connoisseur of inappropriate emails that would have had the sender quite properly out on the sidewalk in front of my former firm, complete with boot mark on the backside.  The emails in question are usually (although not exclusively)  from students.

I thought the time had arrived, therefore, to write the definitive Emailophiles Bestiary of Law School Email.  These are composites, and names have been removed to protect the identity of the not so innocent. 

I hasten to add that these examples constitute a small, but disproportionately tiresome percentage of the emails I receive.  The vast bulk of those notes (from students and otherwise) are normal, perfectly reasonable and appropriate.  As in so much in life, it is the 1% that consumes 90% of our energy.

The Bestiary:

1. The Surfer Dude (or Bill and Ted's Excellent Law School Adventure):  "Heya prof, I'm just rolling into town from Cancun.  Totally awesome!  Please send me the readings for the last week and tell me what you covered". 

2. The "Spwellcheckaphobe": "Dear pwofessor Furcesen, I were wundering if u culd send me the redings for lst wk and tell me whyt you covered". 

3. The Tweeter: "OMG, Pr. F, plse snd redngs fr lst wk & lect nts, LOL". 

4. The Selectively Deferential Student: "Vice Dean Forcese, I respectfully request a meeting to discuss my concerns with my inability to enroll in Prof X's class" [message to me].  "You are incompetent and don't know your job -- I am paying $14K a year and I demand that you enroll me in this class because I am a law student and you are lower in my imagined social hierarchy and can be treated in this way" [message to staff]. [Response: "As a student at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law, we expect that you will honour the spirit of Rule 6 of the Rules of Professional Responsibility.  When you meet that standard, we will be happy to discuss with you the matter you raise.  You will appreciate that communications like that which you sent to staff do not reflect well on you, regardless of the merit of your position. I will remind you that reputation is an important commodity in the legal community that you wish to join."]

5. The Plain Un-deferential Student: "You are incompetent and don't know your job -- I am paying $14K a year and I demand that you enroll me in this class because I am a law student" [message to me. Response: See #4 above, plus a note that enrollment issues are to be addressed, politely, at the staff level in a proper exercise of the chain of command].

6. The Teachable Moment Student: "Dear [academic administrator],  That decision really sucks.  I demand that you reconsider it.  I am paying $14K a year and I deserve the decision I requested.  Respond within 24 hours or I will go to the Dean".  [My response, after this email is forwarded to me by staff: "Dear X, I appreciate that the decision in question may be a source of frustration.  It is, however, a proper implementation of our rules.  Those rules are designed, at their absolute core, to ensure equitable and fair treatment of all students.  Your request would have us depart from that standard and extend a benefit to you unavailable to anyone else.  We can and will not do that.  I must also observe that the tone of your message is imperious and discourteous. [Add in paragraph on rules of professional responsibility from student 4]."  Response from student: "Vice Dean Forcese, I apologize.  I did not intend in my message to cause offence.  It is part of the peril of email. I was overtaken with frustration and meant no disrespect."  My further response: "Thank you for reacting favourably to my comments and considering them in the light that they were intended."]

7. The Un-teachable Moment Student: Same as number 6, but response from student not a "standing down" retraction but instead even more over the top and close to aggressive.  Time for a sit down meeting and a discussion of the university's harassment policy.

8. The Incoherent Student: "So, those readings, could you, with the lectures. Just back now.  And I don't understand what you meant yesterday in class.  Could you explain?"

9. The Instant Messenger: "Professor Forcese, I was wondering if you could send me the readings from last week and indicate what you covered?" [1:00 am]  "Professor Forcese, you still haven't responded to my message and I am afraid of falling behind." [4:00 am].

10. The Good Old Buddy Student (who I have never met): "Hey Craig, How are you. Had some business out of town the other day with Bob. Could you let me know where you are in the course.  Perfect, thanks.  Have a good one." [NB, I am not generally a stickler for formalism and usually do refer to myself by my first name, but there can be an excess of informality in "first contact" that does convey an unprofessional insouciance.]

11. The Student who needs to read the online syllabus, take responsibility for their readings and turn up in class: Students 1-4 and 7-10.  [Response: "Dear X, Please note that you are responsible for the readings, as noted in the syllabus supplied on line and emailed to you.  As for what was covered in class last week, I am afraid you must rely on assistance from a classmate's notes.  In the absence of an excused absence authorized by Academic Office, you are expected to attend classes in full, as the syllabus plainly says.  Moreover, a seminar class depends on dynamic discussion and it is neither possible nor desirable that I should try to distill the substance of that discussion for someone who has absented themselves."] 

And just to be fair, because all of our email woe cannot be laid at the feet of students: 12. The Common Law Administrative Email: [14 paragraphs, single spaced in French.  12 paragraphs, single spaced in English, sometimes not all that well proofed], followed by 13. Reminder Common Law Administrative Email [same, with an additional paragraph or two] x 12,000 per term.  Response rate: poor.

We're working on solutions to 12 and 13 -- one of the perils of being big and complex is difficult communications.  And I'm really hoping not to see many more of 1-11, because they sour you on a job I truly love (especially #4-5 and 7).  And it's even worse for staff, who don't have the benefit of being able to interact with terrific students on a daily basis in the classroom. It is very easy to become jaded by our version of the "1%".

Another lesson from my days in private practice and law teaching: there are a thousand ways any decision-maker can legitimately say no to a request, and be absolutely unassailable for doing so.  And yet, an administrator who likes you, and wants to help, can envisage workable solutions and move mountains.  Same with a law prof -- I have seen professors go well, well beyond the extra mile to assist students.

In private practice, I have seen law cases won because a decision maker -- able to choose validly between a yes or a no -- said yes because he or she liked the person asking.  I shall blog on the honey and vinegar parable when time permits. 

All of this is to say, law school is a good place to start practicing the art of being respected.

And if you're worried you might accidentally be student #6, apparently some law students in the US are using a new email app: Tonecheck, described as allowing "you to do a quick once over check of your message to prevent you from accidentally saying something that you might regret. Now completely free..."

And since vice deans often see communications from the other side of the lectern, that app probably deserves to be installed on more than student computers.