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January 26, 2012

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Softie

I will avoid the cheap shot (high grades, low personal skills - point her toward teaching law), and note that the buzz term of the year is "soft skills." She doesn't have them, she needs them, and presenting the issue, correctly, as one of skills that can be learned rather than inherent traits is the first step in the right direction. The specific resources you can direct her to will depend on your institution. As a general matter, all young professionals need soft skills and they generally haven't been taught them before, so you can make the suggestion with a high degree of certainty that you are being constructive.

John Kang

Hi David,

Your post shows that you're a compassionate teacher and care much about your students; a lot of teachers probably wouldn't care. I wonder if the career services folks would be a good resource that you can suggest to her (of course, the very act of suggesting can be a bit awkward, I guess); they know interviewing, and networking, and might have some good pointers for the student. I wonder also if your school might want to have a brief role-playing scenario exercise (our career services did something sort of like that) where the student might get the hint and be more personable.

Just my two cents,....good luck.

Ann Marie Marciarille

Many successful professionals, of all fields, have found their careers stalled by many of the skill deficits you describe in this student. It is, of course, not widely discussed that promising executives, managing attorneys, etc. with these deficits are sent for media training. There are firms that can provide this presentation and communication training for a fee or there are clubs and associations where members collaboratively teach each other these skills. As far as I know there are Toastmasters organizations in every major metropolitan area and they welcome students.

This presumes, of course, that this student is looking for help or can be tactfully guided to consider it.

sugar huddle

Yours is a good (and caring) question, but I agree with John above that the career services personnel are best-qualified to deal with this issue, especially as it relates to interviewing skills. If as a law student I had a problem with the way I presented myself-- whether because I was awkward, dressed too revealingly, talked like a valleygirl, or came off as a disorganized slob, I would be mortified to learn of it from a current professor (a former professor with whom I had developed a mentoring relationship could be better).

At Yale, we were given a chance to do a mock interview at career services and be videotaped, and then receive frank feedback from the staff there. I know other schools might not have the resources to give everyone individual attention, but I still think this type of feedback is best delivered and absorbed coming from CDO/career services. As for Anne Marie's comment, I can't imagine anyone would be offended to be referred to career services for interview guidance/tips given the current climate and the competitiveness of the market. All it communicates to the student is that the professor is looking out for you. (In other words, I wouldn't say "go to CDO because you're awkward," but "it sounds like the competition for [x type jobs] is really intense this year. have you visited CDO? It might be helpful to get some tips regarding your interview style that will prepare you to better present yourself.").

O.J. Salinas

Your description of the student leads me to question whether there may be some underlying condition, such as Asperger’s, that is playing a role in the difficulties the student faces with social interaction. Individuals with Asperger’s may present as socially awkward, but they have no significant cognitive developmental delay and can be very high achieving students. Alternatively, the student may have a Social Anxiety Disorder (or social phobia) that makes it difficult for the student to interact in situations where she is the center of attention (like an interview).

If there is no underlying condition for the behavior, you may just be dealing with a student who lacks appropriate interpersonal skills. Perhaps, the student is so shy that she never had the confidence to fully participate or engage in a social setting? Perhaps, she grew up in a household where the described interaction was acceptable or encouraged?

Open-ended questions can sometimes help guide a conversation with the student. You may consider asking something like, “I see that you have performed extremely well in law school, and I compliment you on the various interviews that you have been able to get. I wonder what may be the additional hurdle that you have to cross to land that job that you are seeking?” The student’s response may help guide your further inquiry: “It is interesting that you responded that way, (insert student's name). If this was a job interview, I wonder if the employer would have thought (insert comment based on the context of the situation)?” Bear in mind that as you interact with the student, she may want to model your tone of voice and behavioral patterns. So, try to display the appropriate social interaction skills that you are hoping the student picks up.

I agree that Career Services may be able to help with the student. Your school’s academic support office or Counseling and Testing Center may also help provide assistance to the student.

Lisa Bernstein

The student you describing may be one who is either on or has some features of someone on the autistic spectrum. As a consequence, in order to help them you will need to do some reading on how to communicate with those suffering from disorders of relating and communicating or get advice from someone with experience dealing with Aspergers disorder.

David S. Cohen

Thanks for all the thoughts here. Just to be clear, I wasn't trying to say that this is any particular student or that the imaginary student I'm thinking about has all of these characteristics. Rather, just that the imaginary student has something about her that is seriously socially awkward. I think it's good to think about whether there's some underlying condition, such as Asperger's. That's a very important thing to consider. But, at least from my understanding of the world, there are plenty of people who are seriously social awkward that don't have any underlying condition -- other than awkwardness. How do we help those students?

I think focusing on "soft skills" sounds really good, as does suggesting someone go to career services or Toastmasters or something like that. What I find, and I'll continue to write about, is that a lot of students are demoralized by career services given the economy so they are turning to professors more. It's that role that I find so difficult because I really want to be helpful, but it really is so far afield from my training.

Thus this post (and the ones that will follow).

Michael Lewyn

All of this sounds like a pretty good description of me in law school. Career services worked with me a little but I don't think they had any idea how to help me. I wasn't close enough to my professors to think of bothering them much; I suspect they would have just sent me to career services too.

I joined Toastmasters after law school. I'm not sure how much good it did me- it teaches public speaking, but my problem was with one-on-one interviewing which is a VERY different school. (On the other hand, it might have done some good; after 3 yrs of Toastmasters I was still not getting much success out of interviews, but 3 or 4 years later I was stronger, so maybe eventually it helped).

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