Why we should train law students not to complain anonymously, part 2

In an earlier post, I explained why I don’t believe that law students should file anonymous complaints. Here’s a follow-up post. According to an article on law.com, an internal investigation at the university level determined that those anonymous complaints were false. So what we have here is a situation in which a student newspaper published false accusations (which, to my knowledge, have not yet been retracted on the paper’s website, as of 4:30pm today). I see at least two problems: a student newspaper that has published something that is false (and that hasn’t been retracted), and anonymous law students who apparently gave false information to the reporters.

I clearly wasn’t in the discussions between the reporters and the students, so I don’t know if the students said something like, “I think that the professor said X.” If they actually said that “the professor said X,” without proof, that troubles me deeply. (It should trouble the reporters, too, but that’s not my focus here.) But even saying that “I think that the professor said X” is not what responsible lawyers do when making serious allegations. Responsible lawyers make sure that what they say is accurate and truthful, to the best of their ability.

As lawyers, we have certain tools: we have our brains; we have our words; and we have our reputations. Words matter to good lawyers. There is a world of difference between “I think” and “I know.” When we make representations to a court, or to opposing counsel, or to our own clients, or to our colleagues, we need to be precise and truthful. Precision and truth, in this particular situation, seem to have been left by the wayside. And imprecision and falsity should have consequences.

Those accusations have damaged a professor’s reputation, with no consequences yet for those who made the allegations. My question is: what’s the next step here? I can certainly envision a situation in which the state bar could investigate–as part of a character and fitness inquiry–the good faith of those who made the allegations, if the state bar is able to uncover who made the statements. There may be other consequences as well. Time will tell.

I became a lawyer because words matter. My word choice matters. Every time I say something, I am giving my word that what I say is as accurate and as truthful as humanly possible. And words matter in this sad situation, too.

Sarah Weddington, R.I.P.

When I saw the tweet about Sarah Weddington’s passing and read the Texas Tribune’s obituary, I thought back to the first time that I met her. She spoke at an event at the University of Nebraska, back when I was working there, and she told a classic story about how she learned to take some time for self-care (“put the oxygen mask on yourself first”). She and I started corresponding, and when I went to work at the University of Houston, I invited her to be a commencement speaker at graduation. I figured that our students would love to hear from a Texan who had argued her first Supreme Court case before she’d turned 30, who had served in the Texas Legislature and in the Carter White House, and who was a beloved teacher. Some of our students were, in fact, thrilled, but others were not, given her role in Roe v. Wade.

We had to plan for contingencies at that graduation: Would someone take a shot at her (or at me, for inviting her)? Would the protests be unruly or respectful? (The protests were respectful, with the protesting students wearing baby-feet pins on their gowns.) Sarah took it all in stride, having long become used to plainclothes protection, and — despite having been diagnosed with breast cancer shortly before she spoke at UH — she gave a touching speech that, as I recall, had nothing to do with Roe and everything to do with leadership and service. I was so happy that my parents and my spouse got to meet her that day.

We continued to stay in touch, with a few of us trying to find a home for her papers. Jeff and I toured the Women’s Museum at Fair Park (now closed) and saw the suit that she’d worn in her first Supreme Court argument. She continued to mentor people, and to speak, and to appear fearless. Appearing fearless is no easy trick, but brave people are brave not because they’re fearless but because they do what they need to do even when they’re terrified.

We’ve lost so many people in the last few years, and we lost two Texas giants this year: Sarah and Muffie Moroney. I just assume that they’re hanging out in Heaven with Ann Richards and Molly Ivins, and I miss them both. R.I.P.

Score: Delta and our travel agency, infinity; Southwest, 0

So we were among the thousands of people stranded by Southwest last week, trying to make it to a long-planned milestone occasion. I awoke at 12:15am on Sunday morning to read a 11:30pm Saturday text from Southwest. That text said that our flight to Atlanta was canceled. Oh, the connecting flight after that was allegedly fine, but not the one that could get us to that connection.

Because I am one of those people who have had A-List Preferred status (along with a yearly Companion Pass, plus hundreds of thousands of points), I reached a Southwest agent who told me:

There were no flights to where we were going on Monday, no matter how we tried to route ourselves there.

There were no flights on Tuesday.

There was nothing that Southwest could do. Pretty much ever. No promises of a return flight on Saturday. No way to reroute us. Nothing.

I asked why. The agent didn’t know. He guessed “weather,” but since our destination had zero weather problems for any of the other airlines, that explanation didn’t make sense.

Who was available to help on Saturday night/Sunday morning? Our travel agent (Mary Ellen McDaniel of The Travel Authority), who had booked our milestone trip months earlier, and our Delta messaging agent (Loela Lou). Loela got us on flights on Delta (the last two seats, by the way–each way) so that we missed only one day of our trip, and the Delta experience on each leg was beyond pleasant. It was superb.

Southwest doesn’t have any arrangements with any other airline, so it couldn’t rebook us or any of the thousands upon thousands of people who, like us, had trusted Southwest and its touted customer service.

What did we get from Southwest? Not a $250 voucher, but a promise of an eventual $250 voucher. By our count, that only leaves us $3,500 short in terms of how we had to scramble to catch our flights a day later than we had planned.

I know that we’re lucky. We had saved enough to be able to afford to salvage our trip. But there are countless people whose plans were also ruined. Southwest needs to up its game significantly to regain customer loyalty. In the meantime? We “LUV” Delta these days.

Here’s what I think we’re missing in terms of teaching law students how to communicate well.

I’ve written before about how we might train law students to defuse tense situations in order to improve our ability to hear each other. Last night, as I was listening to our school’s monthly Town Hall meeting, it occurred to me that we are quite good at getting students to express themselves clearly. What we’re not yet good at is helping them acquire the instinct to empathize before they communicate.

I heard some of them assume, without checking to see if their assumptions were correct, that our dean could make a decision about whether to have an in-person graduation ceremony without running through the hoops of the university’s central administration, the city, and the state, given our pandemic. (Deans are middle-management at universities, but for many law students, they’re the top of the pyramid.) And, in the middle of the meeting, I heard students talking about the stress of being distracted in Zoom-classes by the chat function or by too many emails burdening their inboxes.

These are real stresses, and our students are at their breaking point at this stage of the pandemic. What I would like to learn how to convey to them, though, is that everybody else on that call was at a breaking point, too. Just as students have caregiver responsibilities that keep them from being able to focus entirely on their studies, so do the faculty and staff members. They’re also stressed to the max, though they’re trying to mask their stress so that they can focus on the well-being of the students. I am at a loss as to how to convey to students that thinking in advance about how listeners might react to the way that they phrase their legitimate concerns will help them to communicate more effectively. Lawyers have to think empathetically when they negotiate and when they appear before adjudicators. “Know your judge” isn’t an empty mantra. But I have no idea how to convey to people who are in distress that they are also talking to people who are in distress, and I would love some suggestions. One of the comments last night was both hurtful and embarrassing to me personally, though I truly doubt that the anonymous student who made the comment intended that result. That’s the point: we’re encouraging students to tell us what they’re experiencing so that we can find ways to help them, but we have not yet found good ways to remind them that they are talking to people who are experiencing many of the same stressors that they are. Empathy might be innate, but perhaps it can be a learned skill, too. How do we help our students remember empathy?

I’m so tired of snotty personal attacks in politics.

I get it.  Politics can be an ugly business.  And I wouldn’t want to be a politician these days.  Most of the time, I just ignore the vitriol on both sides of the aisle, because I have better things to do with my time than watch people call each other names.  Recently, though, a news story hit close to home because a politician attacked a friend of mine.

Having read this news story, which reported on Michelle Fiore’s comments about Roxann McCoy, all I can say is that the Roxann McCoy I know bears no resemblance to the Roxann McCoy that Councilwoman Fiore is impugning.  I’ve known Roxann for several years, and for as long as I’ve known her, I’ve been impressed by her integrity and her commitment to the public good.  She’s fought hard to protect people’s rights as the President of our local branch of the NAACP.   She’s put her own needs second, time and time again, in order to work countless hours—and serve on countless committees, and speak at public events (like this one, which is coming up on August 20 at The Mob Museum)—on behalf of our community.  I stand with Roxann.


For those law students out there who are turning in drafts of papers–a few thoughts on professionalism.

Here are some things that law professors should tell you so that, when you’re out in the real world, senior lawyers don’t have to worry about your professionalism:

  1. Lawyers care about the written word.  So do law professors.  When you turn in a poorly proofread draft, we’ll form a not-very-flattering impression of your talent.  (We may like you, but we’ll still judge you.)  We will worry that you don’t know how to write well or, worse yet, that you do know how to write well but have decided that your time is more valuable than ours.  Making us parse your sentence fragments, your misspelled words, and a disorganized structure means that you didn’t take the time to check your work before handing it over to us. If you turned in this type of work to a lawyer at a firm, you would probably not get any more assignments, and your job would be in jeopardy.
  2. Deadlines matter.  Clients don’t care that you worked hard on some other assignment and that you’re exhausted.  They don’t care that you’ve got the flu.  Law is a service industry, and the clients who are ill-served by lawyers who miss deadlines (or who wait until the last minute to finish their work) will find other lawyers to do their work in the future.
  3. Yes, sometimes emergencies happen.  If you want us to form a better impression of your work ethic, ask for an extension before the date that something is due.  It’s best not to need an extension (see #2 above), but occasionally life interferes in some pretty awful ways.  If it looks as though you’re going to miss a deadline, the time to ask for help is well in advance.  (That’s why you don’t want to wait until the last minute to start a project–or to finish it.)  You never, ever want to be in the position of telling a senior lawyer who is counting on your work that it’s not going to get to her in time.

We want you to succeed.  The more professionally you behave in law school, the better your habits will be when you’re out in the “real world.”

R.I.P., Judge Hedges

My friend Tommy Fibich just passed along the news that the wonderful Adele Hedges has passed away.  She was one of a kind:  whip-smart, a fair and even-handed judge, a talented writer (and a talented jewelry-maker), and a Renaissance woman.  She and her husband were so kind to Jeff and me when we arrived in Houston.  She left us far too young.  May she rest in peace.