Student “Nastygrams” and the “Whole Building” Approach to Professional Identity Formation – Holloran Center Professional Identity Implementation Blog
Jerome Organ

Student “Nastygrams” and the “Whole Building” Approach to Professional Identity Formation

By: Jerome Organ, Bakken Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions, University of St. Thomas School of Law

A few weeks ago, there was a conversation on the NALSAP (National Association of Law Student Affairs Professionals) listserv regarding “nastygrams” – emails from students to administrators that reflect a very unprofessional tone.

I mention this to highlight one of the key foundational concepts surrounding professional identity formation of law students – the reality that it is a “whole building” effort.  This set of messages highlights the important role that law school administrators and staff play in identifying and addressing opportunities for professional identity formation.

One of the contributors offered a very helpful framework for engaging with the student both about the substance of the email and about the tone of the email:

“Dear ________,

I want to thank you for raising the issues regarding _______ to my attention. It is helpful to have your perspective.  In order to address the issues you raised, I propose the following steps. . . . Please let me know if you have any questions, concerns, or other suggestions on how to proceed.

I feel like I would be remiss if I did not also share that the tone and tenor of your communication felt unnecessarily harsh/hostile/accusatory, given that we are part of an educational/work community committed to a shared purpose and a shared expectation of collegiality.  The issue you raised is important; however, the way in which you raised it does not serve to support your cause.  If anything, it could possibly undermine it.  I share this in my role of supporting you in your professional development, and I hope you can receive it in that spirit.  I am happy to discuss this feedback further if you want to schedule time to talk.” (Edited slightly)

I was reminded of a “nastygram” I received when I was serving as Associate Dean for Academic Affairs many years ago.  We had a policy that required even distribution across semesters for an upper level required course but had not put a “cap” on enrollment for the fall semester during registration in the spring.  That meant that during the summer I had to “move” some set of students (approximately 15) from the fall to the following spring to “balance” enrollment.

I sent out an email on a Friday informing the students who had registered that we would be randomly selecting some students to shift to the spring to conform with the policy but would provide exceptions for those who had a particular reason for needing to take the fall course.  I asked students to send me an email explaining their situation and indicated that I would consider their circumstances in identifying students for the shift to the spring.

One student replied on Saturday with an email that started “I am so angry . . .” followed by other inflammatory language about what an outrage it was to have to submit a request to remain in the fall course.  The email proceeded to provide one reason it was necessary for that student to be in the fall course.  The student followed up with two additional emails – one later on Saturday and one on Sunday explaining additional reasons for needing/wanting to remain in the fall course.

I wrote to the student late on Sunday indicating that I did not understand why the student was so angry when all I had asked the student to do was to send me an email explaining their circumstances.  I also advised the student that as an advocate, one doesn’t generally benefit from attacking the decision-maker.  In addition, I noted that in the appeals process, one normally gets only one opportunity to raise issues.  I then asked the student to redraft the email, with an appropriate tone and with all reasons incorporated into that one email, noting that I would consider the student’s request following receipt of a new, measured, complete email request.  I also offered to meet with the student to better understand the circumstances that had made the student so angry.  That “learning moment” was meaningful for the student – who apologized and submitted an email with an appropriate tone and with all factors included (and the student was allowed to remain in the fall course).

One of the things we are (or should be) teaching our students – or trying to help our students learn – is how to conduct themselves as professionals so that they can be the most effective advocates for their clients.  That rarely involves ad hominem attacks or a snarky tone.  When our students manifest a lack of awareness of the importance of carrying themselves as a professional and communicating as a professional, they offer us “learning moments” – moments in which we can intervene to help them learn important lessons about who they want to be as a lawyer and how they should conduct themselves as lawyers and as officers of the court.

These conversations with obstreperous students are not always easy – as the students are not always receptive to the idea that this should be a “learning moment” for them.  But I think we have a responsibility to our students, to the profession, and to those we serve to guide our students to avoid cantankerous behaviors as they develop their voice as an advocate for themselves and for others.

While some of these misguided communications may be directed to faculty – providing faculty members the opportunity to facilitate a “learning moment” for the student – many of them are going to be directed to administrators and to staff – members of the law school community who also share a responsibility to help students through “learning moments” as they transition from the identity of student to the identity of lawyer.  It takes the whole building.  We are all in this together.

Please feel free to contact me at should you have any comments or questions.

Jerome Organ is the Bakken Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions at the University of St. Thomas School of Law

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