Over at the Prawf’s Blawg this week, there have been a couple of posts (uno and dos) discussing whether professors should answer should answer substantive questions over e-mail.  And, if you know professors, you can expect that many will balk at the idea of doing any sort of extra work, especially if that extra work involves something other than simply answering a question with a question and telling students it’s their job to teach themselves the law.

Professor Glenn Cohen had this to say about giving substantive answers via e-mail:

I specifically tell students that I do not do substantive questions over emails. I do so for 3 reasons: (1) I get 60 to 100 emails a day without substantive questions, and I worry that I’ll miss substantive questions over email in the shuffle. (2) Office hours are important as actually offering an opportunity to get to know the students on a personal level, which is essential for me when I write letters of recommendation. (3) Perhaps it is the subjects I teach, esp Civil Procedure, but I find the staccato iteration of questions and answers over email is likely to lead to confusion, or at least incompleteness. I’d rather talk through the question with the student to determine what is really afoot, including underlying premises that are off that might not be detectable by the simple email back and forth. I also live in fear that I’ll accidentally screw up an FRCP number or the like in a quick email and get it cut and pasted back into my final exam, and be in a quandary about how to grade it later on. Such mistakes may happen in face-to-face communications as well, to be sure, but I am more confident I can detect it in real time the conversation.
Obviously emails would be quicker for the students and make them more likely to ask more questions. Whether that is a benefit or not depends on some elements of one’s own pedagogical theory, i.e., how much you want students to try and work through their own questions and pare them down versus have easy and constant access to the professor. In my own view the benefits of face-to-face office hours are large enough that I would rather just schedule more of them to be accessible than shift to email questions.

Professor Jason Mazzone (Brooklyn) also gives his reasons for spending the evening watching …whatever TV show is popular with law professors.  Jersey Shore, I guess:

I don’t answer substantive questions by e-mail and if I get them I ask the student to come and see me. This is for three reasons. (1) I have found that unless the student is really on top of things, e-mail exchanges are not pedagogically effective. Often a student isn’t asking quite what the e-mail suggests the student is asking and therefore the answer can create greater confusion. These risks are much lower in a face-to-face exchange where clarifying questions can be asked and a student’s puzzled look observed. (2) I can talk much faster than I can type and so I can answer many more questions in person. (3) Because e-mail is costless, it leads students to think of the professor as the first resource for an answer.

Anyone who has practiced law in the last 10 years can tell you that it is not unusual for a lawyer to receive a question by e-mail and be required to give a substantive response by e-mail.  Anyone practicing in the last 5 years has probably had to give a substantive answer by Blackberry, and is expected to be available for a response at all hours.

Yes, it is true that a face-to-face conversation will probably lead to a better understanding of both the confusion of the student and the answer from the professor.  But, lawyers out in the real world often don’t have the luxury of telling a partner or a client to stop by during office hours later in the week.  We have to figure out what the issue really is, give the answer, and give it such a way that anticipates the person on the other end misunderstanding it.

Electronic communication is a growing part of the legal practice, and with it comes new issues, new problems, and new opportunities.  If a professor refuses to give substantive answers by e-mail, they are not engaging in the real thought processes lawyers deal with, and that should raise serious doubts about their ability to teach others to think like a lawyer.

Perhaps it’s time for an updated version of The Paper Chase:

You teach yourselves the law, but I collect the paycheck. You come in here with a skull full of mush and, if you go the extra mile to teach yourself practical skills in your spare time, you leave thinking like a lawyer.

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  1. Aline Says:

    I think professors want students to meet with them in person because they can’t a BJ through the Internet.

    I told my Con Law professor that I would not have sex with him so I got a C in the course. I did not give him a BJ either, but Linda did.

  2. Dan Says:


    I predict you post, due to it’s accuracy, will result in another one of those “young lawyer blogs run afoul of legal ethics” post

    As they said in hook ” lost boy”s we got” em on the run!”

  3. bl1y Says:

    Where’s the other “young lawyer blogs run afoul of legal ethics” post(s)?

  4. Larry Says:

    I never got any chance to meet with my profs in their offices, because every time I knocked, the door was locked, and when hours were over, the professor came out with one of 3 different women students, all of whom I thought were bone-able.

    I am guessing the professor was NOT discussing the latest case law with these women, unless the cases dealt with the PENAL LAW.

  5. Anon Says:

    Professors refusing to answer questions via email is for two clear reasons. First, it means that they will have to actually perform some work on behalf of the students who are paying his or her salary; “office hours” is no more than a deterrant-through-inconvenience, and allows the professor to hide and do nothing, and email means that the professor can no longer hide and enjoy a life of doing very little work.

    Second, email will expose the professors for the intellectual and legal frauds that they really are. Most do not know the law beyond the pages of an archaic casebook, and they are worried that if they have to provide answers in writing, that their ridiculously impractical and inaccurate understanding of the law will be preseved electronically. Normally, professors can hide their bullshit behind statements like “oh, the student must have misheard what I said.” When the bullshit it in written form, it is on display for all to see.

  6. evrenseven Says:

    I really think it depends on the level of depth in the email. If I were a professor, and I got an email that says “So what exactly is the difference between substantive due process and equal protection?” I’d ask the student to come in, at which point I’d counsel him on leaving law school.

    However, a substantive question about the distinction between two companion cases, yeah I’d answer that.

    Also, the “check you email” analogy doesn’t work perfectly, because in the law firm environment, you’re waiting for assignments and expected to give executive summaries over email, not deep explanations.

  7. Larry Says:

    Dudes, stop being so philosophical. It all comes down to one thing:


    If a professor knows he will be getting pussy, he will send an e-mail.

    If no pussy, no e-mail.

    Simple enough. Read it. Learn it. Live it. It is the same in real life.

  8. Dan Says:

    The LA times had an article on it too but I couldnt find it with a quick google search

  9. J-Dogged Says:

    When I was in undergrad studying philosophy and political theory with professors I respected, two or three of them actually REQUIRED in-depth questions to be submitted via e-mail so they could put actual thought into the question and compose a coherent answer that benefited everyone rather than spouting off top-of-the-head BS that confused the student and made the teacher feel like he’d fumbled.

    To me, a preference to address questions in office hours in a salesman’s bullshitting technique. When you don’t really have a high intellectual capacity, you’d rather address students’ questions face-to-face so your personality can compensate for the fact that what you’re saying has no sound reasoning behind it. The professors who prefer office hours interaction to written e-mail, to me, see students as a dumb jury they can persuade with suave rhetoric rather than a law clerk who would consciously evaluate their arguments. They’d rather control the forum because in a neutral forum (i.e. the written word) they can’t articulate themselves.

    “I find the staccato iteration of questions and answers over email is likely to lead to confusion, or at least incompleteness.” Translation: I’m a really poor writer.

    Back in the colonial ages, men like Madison and Jefferson (you know, those dudes the Con Law professors bone it over) communicated via letter a good 75-80% of the time. A philosophical revolution came about largely on letters from party A to party B and these numbnutz idiots can’t answer simple 1L questions in electronic letter form? What the hell is wrong with them, what the hell is so deficient that they can’t communicate clearly?

  10. bl1y Says:

    Very good point about historical figures conducting highly intellectual discussions by mail, perfect counter model to the modern professors.

    And, I 100% agree that it is easier to get away with bullshit face-to-face. The student doesn’t have time to process the information to see if they really understand it, and I imagine many professors use the opportunity to just turn the questions back on the student and use “training their minds” as an excuse for not exercising their own.

    Contrariwise, I found it easier to produce good answers by e-mail than in person. I’m good with concepts and rules and such, but terrible with remembering facts and case names, so e-mail is pretty ideal.

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