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.

Why customer service matters so much

Few things in life push my buttons so much as bad customer service does. Why is that?

One reason is that I work in two different service industries. Law is certainly a service industry, and so is higher education. The former involves my fiduciary duty to my clients. The latter involves duties to my students (to teach them well), to my profession (to create good scholarship), and to my university (to perform my job duties well). I try to do a good job every day–I don’t always succeed, but I try–and, for the life of me, I can’t understand people who don’t take their jobs seriously.  Is it the pay? Probably that’s part of the story, but I hope that’s not the entire answer. I know highly paid people who are bad at customer service, and I know low-wage people who are marvelous at it.

Another reason why bad customer service pushes my buttons is what bad customer service represents. An organization’s customer service is one measure of whether the organization is healthy. It’s the window to an organization’s inner workings. What an organization values is what it rewards. If it rewards customer service, customer service is good. Chewy.com is a perfect example of great customer service, as is Zappos.com. Both companies go out of their way to make sure that their employees treat their customers well, and both companies are rewarded for their efforts with customer loyalty.

Bad customer service, on the other hand, indicates poor morale and thus indicates a low-functioning organization.

So here’s the question that puzzles me: how can we take the symptom of bad customer service and use it to fix the unhealthy organization that has generated it?