TEACHING LAW STUDENTS TO HAVE A GOOD “BENCH-SIDE” MANNER

Written by Albany Law School Professor of Law Melissa Breger 

My colleagues Professors Gina Calabrese and Theresa Hughes and I wrote a law review article almost 15 years ago that still holds true today. The South Carolina Law Review 2004 article was entitled Teaching Professionalism in Context:  Insights from Students, Clients, Adversaries and Judges.

In the article’s introduction, we acknowledge, “professionalism holds various meanings and the contextual nature of professionalism requires a definitional reshaping as circumstances and players change.  In writing the piece, we note that one of our goals is ascertaining a myriad of ways to teach law students about the concept of professionalism.  At the time, we were all three clinical law professors drawing from our years of teaching in a clinical setting, as well as our earlier years of law practice in New York City.

As one of many examples, we assert that in the same way patients respond to a physician’s bedside manner, lawyers and law students should work on what we termed their “bench-side” manner.  We drew our inspiration from a 1997 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and written by Dr. Wendy Levinson et al. – which studied scores of doctors and their patients and tracked which doctors had never been sued for malpractice.  In addressing Levinson et al.’s work, we noted:  

Physicians who had never been subject to malpractice litigation were found to have engaged in significantly longer visits with their patients. Patients and families medical treatment resulted in a negative outcome were more likely to sue their doctor if they felt the physician was not caring and compassionate. Although the purpose of this study was primarily to guide malpractice risk prevention, it also serves as a tool for educating the physician by providing an apparatus for producing greater patient satisfaction. The Levinson Study identified the specific and teachable communication behaviors associated with fewer malpractice claims, including facilitating comments, using emotional tone, interest in patient opinions, and utilizing humor, warmth, and friendliness. The physician’s bedside manner is analogous to what we label the lawyer’s benchside manner.”

While we caution against borrowing the medical analogy wholesale, we note that there are certainly parallels that could provide useful in a legal education setting.  Law students should be regularly assessing communication skills and client expectations when representing clients, particularly those clients who are in crisis.  

As we approach that time in the summer, when we start to think about fall and teaching aspiring lawyers for a new semester, we should keep in mind the thought that lawyering reaches beyond just knowing the law.

You can read the article here 

Breger, Melissa L. and Calabrese, Gina M. and Hughes, Theresa A., Teaching Professionalism in Context: Insights from Students, Clients, Adversaries and Judges. South Carolina Law Review, Vol. 55, pp. 303-347, January 2004. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=566061

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