Recently, a friend sent me links to a few articles from The Faculty Lounge: ”Counseling Students – The Socially Awkward Student“, ”Counseling Students – The Student Who Has No Idea Why He Went to Law School“, and “Counseling Students – The Student You Immediately Know Is Wrong for Law School“.
The central question of the three articles was:
When, if at all, should professors intervene and act as counselors to their students?
“The big problem is that you have an adult who is lost in life. Law school was an easy option, so it was taken. At some stage, this kid is going to have to sit down and think hard about what matters, identifying values and goals. Once that is sorted out, the onion can be peeled down a layer to the level of careers. Until that work is done, though, I don’t think much real progress will be made. I don’t know about you, but I’m not the kind of guy who is all that good at guiding people to epiphanies about the purpose of life, and yet I don’t see that lack as a reason I shouldn’t be teaching law.”
– Comment by “Softie”
The articles, posted by Professor David S. Cohen, puzzled over the appropriate role that law professors should play in the lives of their students.
In the comment sections, other professors chime in and enter into an interesting debate over what to do with students who don’t fit the prototypical model of the “no worries, they’re flying high and headed into the equivalent of legal astronautical fame” type of student – those kids in our class, aka “the problem children”. I count myself as one of them.
“Most of us [law professors] have no academic or professional experience as job, career, or life counselors. Yet, so much of what we do is exactly that”
– Professor David S. Cohen
The Professor’s Role
What is a professor to do when he or she is confronted with a student who is struggling to find a job because of social awkwardness, or apathetic about his education but too far in to the program to drop out, or simply not cut out for law school? Should the professor share his or her opinion and offer guidance, direct the student to someone else (career services, for example) who might be able to help, or simply say nothing and let the student find her own way?
“But then again, with some students, it’s just so obvious. You know that three years later, this student is going to be miserable or without direction or searching for a liberal arts graduate program or applying for bartending jobs or whatever else it is that is a much better match . . . and was obviously a much better match when you first met her. Isn’t it wrong to let this student go forward when you know what the outcome is going to be? Especially given the cost of law school and the current economy? . . . When it comes down to it, I’ve always followed the path of saying nothing. I don’t think it’s my job to interfere at this point. But, it always makes me feel like I’m shirking my responsibility — like watching a car that you know is going to crash into a brick wall and saying nothing.”
– Professor David S. Cohen
I don’t know if there are any “right answers” to these questions. I think it largely depends on the professor; who she is as a person and how she views her role as a teacher. But I get the impression that most law professors (at least most professors at my school) see their role as a font of academic wisdom, whose job is to impart the theory and black-letter that will get us through the course, through the bar, and into practice. That’s it.
This approach is perfectly legitimate. For all the similarities, law school isn’t middle school; teachers aren’t expected to hold our hands and help us figure out who and what we want to be when we grow up.
We, the students, are supposed to be “grown ups” already. We are supposed to know, essentially, who we are, what we want and how to achieve the goals we set for ourselves. By the time we walk through those columned halls, we are supposedto be fully equipped with the self-awareness and the skills necessary to succeed. We are supposed to enter as fully functional human beings; just add legal knowledge and PRESTO! You’ve got yourself a fully functional and fully loaded lawyer.
The Reality: Law Students Need Guidance
But all those “supposed to dos” don’t change the fact that law students are often confused, scared, frustrated, lacking, lost and desperately in need of counseling.
Growing up, this role is most often taken by a teacher because they are in a position to view us frequently, ideally objectively, and most often with an emotional investment; they watch us. They see our strengths and weaknesses as we learn, work, and socialize. In law school, professors are still in this position, but they no longer feel it is appropriate to intervene, guide and council.
And maybe they shouldn’t … but somebody should.
There should be at least one person in the school whose primary role is to care for and to counsel students. Not just to help them find a job or an internship, but to help them figure out how to cope with the stresses of law school, how to play to their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses, and how to know when they are on the right course … or the wrong one.
That’s right. I’m suggesting that law schools start employing a guidance counselor, and most likely, they will need to hire more than a few.
Not a therapist who helps you work through your daddy issues or childhood trauma, but someone who takes the time to know who you are, where you are coming from, and who can be there for you when law school beats you down so low you don’t even remember who you are anymore.
Because, when push comes to shove, we don’t walk through those doors fully formed, functional and self-aware. We don’t always know what we want, what our weaknesses are, and what steps we need to take to be happy or succeed. Sometimes, we need that neutral-yet-affectionate figure to lean on when we struggle to help us work through it.
Some people might argue that this is essentially coddling students – that it isn’t the law school’s job to provide this sort of counseling. I would argue that everyone benefits – not just the students but also the school, the legal profession and society as a whole.
Everyone is best served when students receive ALL of the care, training and guidance they need to thrive as students, professionals and human beings.