During orientation week in law school, you may have heard the phrase “don’t be afraid to go to your professor if you need help” ad nauseum. Even I say it in quite a bit of my posts! Professors repeat this advice many times and encourage students to utilize their office hours.
Why is it a good idea to go to your professors for help? They can explain difficult concepts that they cannot spend a lot of class time on. They can help you develop good study habits early on in the semester (rather than waiting until it is too late). And if they are not able to provide the assistance you need, they can usually point you to someone who can. If you are able to go to – and make the most of – your law school professor’s office hours, you may find yourself at a huge advantage over your peers who do not take advantage of office hours.
The problem is that (from my limited experience) some professors are not very helpful or encouraging to students who actually show up at office hours.
I had a professor who I thought was extremely nice and helpful in class. I had a few questions for him so I decided to visit him during his open office hours. I showed up without an appointment (which I now always advise against, even if they are “open” office hours). He acted annoyed and hurried. I felt like my questions were stupid or as if I were “overthinking.” Later in the semester, I went to another professor to ask a few questions about a lecture she gave. She acted like my questions were ridiculous and the answers were obvious. After that, I stopped going to professors.
These are just anecdotes from my own experience. But they were powerful. Law school classes already tend to make even the brightest law students feel unintelligent and unqualified to be there at some point. It can be devastating to have the same feelings when talking one-on-one to a law school professor.
Not all professors are so discouraging. After talking to friends who were more open-minded, resilient, and determined to go to each professor’s office hours, they have informed me that some law school professors are extremely nice and helpful and will go the extra mile. However, many of those friends also have had experiences that echoed mine.
At the same time, many law school professor’s feel as though students misuse office hours or have unrealistic expectations. This post details how law professors and students can each make the most of a law school professor’s office hours.
How can law professors answer questions and give feedback in a meaningful way?
I recently read Brené Brown’s book, “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.” She has an Engaged Feedback Checklist in her book which tells her when she is ready to give feedback to a student. And although she is not a law professor, I think some law professors could really help students by looking over this list. She says:
I know I’m ready to give feedback when: (list is redacted)
- I’m ready to sit next to you rather than across from you;
- I want to acknowledge what you do well instead of picking apart your mistakes;
- I recognize your strengths and how you can use them to address your challenges;
- I can hold you accountable without shaming or blaming you;
- I can talk about how resolving these challenges will lead to your grown and opportunity; and
- I can model the vulnerability and openness that I expect to see from you.
Keeping vulnerability in mind – and especially how vulnerable students feel when they go to law professors for help! – could help make office hours more meaningful to students. What else can law professors do? Be very clear about office hours and the expectations of the student. Be clear about when students can show up, how many students can come to office hours each day, and if necessary, have a sign-up sheet. In my opinion, it is better to not have office hours then to have sessions that leave students feeling worse than when they walked in.
With that said, law students can miss the point of office hours too, and I’m sure sometimes professors can come across as discouraging or frustrated simply because students come into office hours with unrealistic expectations. That brings us to our next question:
What can law students do to make the most of office hours?
- Have clear questions. Not “I don’t understand problems 1-50. Can you explain them to me?” Narrow it down to a few things you want to ask.
- Go through the material you want to discuss and use every resource available before consulting your professor. Your professor should be a last resort. Not a first resort.
- Let your professor know when you will be going to their office (and only go during office hours) rather than just barging in unannounced.
- Don’t expect to spend 2 hours with your professor. Be realistic about the time they can give you. (You are not their only student!)
- If you want your professor to review your outline (which some professors will do; some won’t) do not bring a 100-page outline for them. Just bring a page or so for them to look at to see if you are on the right track.
- If you disagree with a grade and your primary reason for going to office hours is to contest that grade, be respectful. If you are angry or emotional, make sure you have cooled off before visiting your professor. If you honestly think your grade is flawed, explain why but be open to feedback. Listen to what your professor has to say and try to take away the most from it.
Lastly, if a professor is not helpful to you, do not take it personally. And do not let it discourage you. Be more open-minded than I was in law school! There are plenty of helpful and encouraging professors for every not-so-encouraging one out there.