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July 25, 2012


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Patrick S. O'Donnell

I would say, based on my experience, that your characterization of this difference between some (too many) of today's law students and those of an earlier era holds true for students generally. One sees hyperbolic discounting, myopia, a preference for common types of consumption over self-realization, wishful thinking, sour grapes, self-deception, states of denial, borderline if not pathological narcissism, solipsistic egoism...all of course related to this inability or unwillingness to practice self-denial or self-discipline. Mind you, I don't blame the students in the main: it's in large measure due to the way they were raised, larger societal conditions, a certain ethos in the culture itself, all of which fail to communicate the value of self-discipline and techniques for overcoming these and other psychological obstacles. And they not only interfere with prospects for professional success, they diminish the (already precarious) chances for basic well-being or eudaimonia in their lives as a whole.


How could you expect them to act differently if there have never been consequences for their lack of judgment? In my opinion, they never have their feet held to the fire, and act accordingly.

Michelle Meyer

Interesting post. It strikes me that there are (at least) two plausible interpretations of the behavior you describe. First, it could be, as you say, that the students whom you've observed resist the idea that they may need to personally inconvenience themselves in order to succeed (or simply behave) professionally. If so, then as you note this bodes poorly for their futures as professionals.

But I wonder whether these students aren't largely interpreting their legal education not as their first professional experience but rather -- rightly or wrongly -- as their last major self-centered (which I mean non-pejoratively) experience before (hopefully) entering the profession. That is, like undergrads, perhaps they view themselves as having essentially purchased a product; faculty work for them, not the other way around. And so they may see educational shortcuts as hurting only themselves, if anyone, and emailing the prof about a question that's clearly answered on the syllabus as simply making good use of the customer service line.

We may think that the student-as-consumer model of education is problematic. But, leaving any such problems aside, if this is closer to the attitude that you're observing in students, then turning in law school papers late may not predict a tendency to file briefs late, blowing off an RA gig may not predict a tendency to blow off a client, and so on. That is, these students may view legal practice as substantively different than legal education, and behave accordingly. (Some of your examples concern cheating and plagiarism, neither of which, of course, has any place in education or elsewhere.)

Bernie Burk

Thanks for this extremely interesting perspective. I wonder if you could do a little more to explain the differences you perceive between this generation of students and prior ones. If the errors and omissions you describe are more characteristic of today's students, is the difference you perceive that there are more of them now than before? That the justifications offered are different in elaboration or in kind? Was there a kind of misstep resulting in administrative intervention in prior generations that was different or more prevalent than now?

I'm also curious if you agree with Michelle's intriguing insight, and if so whether you have any thoughts about why law school had become more adolescence's last gasp than adulthood's first breath.

I'm new to the academy, having spent 25 years in practice at a fancy firm on the West Coast. We also noticed differences in recent years in the lawyers we were recruiting from law schools. All our recruits were very successful law students in the conventional sense, with resumes that bespoke a serious work ethic. Nevertheless, we found that fewer of them were willing to make the sacrifices necessary to sustain commitment to a high-end practice. Some had an odd sense of entitlement to refuse work or disappoint their supervisors if it seemed inconsistent with other desires; some were very matter of fact that this was not the life for them, and voluntarily moved on. The latter is a perfectly legitimate choice (though sometimes the lack of ex ante appreciation of the demands they were undertaking was a little puzzling); the former I found baffling.


Orin Kerr

Jim, are you sure that the difference is generational, and not just the difference in your perception based on your different role today and your role in a prior generation? Cutting corners and being lazy is human nature, and I'm a little skeptical that such things have changed so much so quickly.

Jim Gardner

Michele: I am not a big believer in what I think of as the Prince Hal Scenario, in which a seemingly immature and irresponsible young person turns out to have been deliberately postponing adulthood until he one day turns into Henry V. I tend to believe that the habits people have developed by age 24 or 25 are the ones they will take into their professional lives, at least initially. Bernie’s experience echoes what many others have told me about the way very recent law school graduates sometimes behave on their first jobs.

Bernie, these are very good questions. I understand you to ask primarily whether what I am responding to is an increase in the prevalence of certain kinds of behaviors that aren’t new, but previously were rare, or whether there is a shift to altogether new forms of behavior. My subjective experience is certainly one of qualitative change (which also addresses Orin’s question), but that does not rule out the possibility that what is really happening is only a change in the distributional patterns. I guess I’m inclined to say that it’s both. Sure, when I started teaching 24 years ago, some students behaved in these ways. But when the modal form of behavior changes, surely that has potentially significant ramifications for the dominant culture, so that it can be accurate to say that there has been a significant cultural shift.

Jacqueline Lipton

This is a really interesting post, Jim. I've certainly seen the kinds of behaviors you describe more prominently in recent years and I think a lot of it has to do with use of computers - people are used to getting and disseminating information easily and quickly (and often sloppily).

I'm also wondering if there might be cultural differences as I didn't notice the same kinds of problems years ago in Australia - but computers also weren't as prevalent then.

And (gasp!), did you notice any gender differences as academic dean in respect of the issues you raise?

Michelle Meyer

To clarify, I hadn't meant to suggest that law students are deliberately postponing adulthood. Instead, I was thinking of how behavior can be influenced by the way things are framed. Take, for instance, the well-known Israeli study in which a daycare center attempted to curb late pickups by charging parents a small fee each time they arrived late. Instead of subsiding, the lateness increased, and the authors speculated that this was because parents now viewed the center as having made them an offer to arrive late for a price, rather than as setting a fee to penalize bad behavior. Presumably, the parents didn't become less mature or willing to sacrifice their convenience for the sake of appropriate behavior after the fee was imposed; some significant number of them simply saw the situation of late arrival differently than before and adjusted their behavior accordingly. As long as students view legal education and legal practice as substantially different realms, then their behavior in one may not spill over into the other.

That said, there's certainly a lot of anecdotal evidence about millennials that suggests a similar shift in values or attitudes, and if people are seeing a decrease in self-denial among both law students and junior associates, as both you and Bernie suggest, then perhaps there really is something generational afoot, though I wonder about the "kids these days" effect of older generations at one stage of life assessing younger ones at another stage. It would be interesting to see if anyone has tried to test the various hypotheses about millennials.


Prof. Gardner,

This will come as a surprise to you, because I aced your class, and you sent me a (much-appreciated) handwritten note lauding my efforts: Prior to law school, I was a complete screw-up, academically. I flunked out of my first attempt at college, and spent 4 years basically screwing around, bouncing from one dead-end job to another.

I say that to make it known that I understand the attitudes of those "in trouble" students you faced.

I was recently confronted with some of these memories in another setting. I realized that I might never have fixed the problems that led to my failure; perhaps I simply found a profession that allows me to use them to my advantage.

I see these attitudes not as laziness, but as an effort to avoid confrontation, and even an effort to deny having "bad feelings." Procrastination is a powerful feeling, and the need to avoid trouble while trouble brews - burying one's head in the sand - is a common affliction.

But where did these attitudes come from? Look around. People my parents' age (the "Baby Boomers") deny that Social Security and Medicare are bankrupt Ponzi schemes in which they quite literally steal from their grandchildren. They pretend that continued reliance on oil from terrorist hotbeds is not a problem. They continue to deny that the "Wars" on drugs and victimless crimes are lost and need to end. They vote for the same two political parties, over and over again, denying that these two parties have sold us out to protect their entrenched interests. They pretend that voting against legalization of same-sex marriage protects the "sanctity" of their own broken relationships.

I think by pointing the finger at younger people you unfairly single them out for being, essentially, students of the culture in which they were raised.

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