More Thoughts on the Post-Millenial Generation of Students Arriving in Law School

In two thoughtful posts from last month, here and here, Shailini Jandial George and then Andi Curcio and Sara Berman offered specific and practical suggestions of ways that we as legal educators can reach the post-millenial generation of students through our teaching. These posts bring to mind Professor Jean M. Twenge’s recently published book iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.  Twenge is probably the pre-eminent generational researcher in this country, and her empirical findings reported in the book have profound implications for legal education. What’s more, those implications are here now. Twenge defines the post-millenial “iGen” (sometimes referred to as Generation Z) as those born between 1995 and 2012, meaning the oldest among them are approaching their mid 20s—the average student age at most American law schools. In Twenge’s words, “[t]hey grew up with cell phones, had an Instagram page before they started high school, and do not remember a time before the internet. They are different from any generation that came before them.”

One concerning and challenging implication for legal education relates to the role law schools should play in inculcating basic norms of professional behavior, especially those of importance to interpersonal interaction. Given that they have spent an enormous percentage of time during their formative years on social media and elsewhere in the virtual world, most of today’s law students (those in their early to mid 20s, at least) have far less interpersonal experience than previous generations had at the same age. Speaking more broadly, as Twenge’s research reveals, they have largely avoided or deferred grown-up responsibilities that previous generations were tackling often in their teens. Much of Twenge’s research focused on high school and college students, considering such responsibilities as learning to drive, moving out of the house, and gaining financial independence. Still, as we teach and mentor law students in their early to mid 20s, we must consider what other grown up responsibilities and behaviors that we expect of legal professionals can no longer be taken for granted.

In a recent survey conducted by the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS), a wide array of legal employers ranked the legal skills and professional competencies and characteristics that they believe new lawyers most need to succeed. (The study’s results are reported here. There is also a detailed accounting of the results and an explanation of the study’s role within IAALS’s broader project in the summer 2018 edition of The Bar Examiner, pp. 17-26.) The results revealed that legal employers value foundational characteristics and competencies much more than they do foundational legal skills. Among the top 20: Arrive on time for meetings, appointments, and hearings; Treat others with courtesy and respect; Listen attentively and respectfully; Promptly respond to inquiries and requests; and Exhibit tact and diplomacy. The only specific legal skill that reached the top 20 was legal research.

If we in legal education have been presuming that our arriving 1Ls possess these basic types of competencies, or at least understand their importance, I am not at all sure that we can do so any longer. The visceral reaction for so many of us, no doubt, is that it is not the job of a law school to teach students these and other very basic norms of interpersonal relations for professionals. Imagine some variation of “they should have learned that in college or high school or from their parents” or “they’ll learn the hard way in their first summer legal job.” Given legal education’s obligation to the profession that it serves, we ought to move past those mindsets. I recognize that many in legal education have done so, and I recognize that many law schools have developed programming or courses on different aspects of developing a professional identity. But professional identity, at least as it was discussed in the Carnegie Foundation’s Educating Lawyers, relates more to appreciating one’s role as a legal professional in society more broadly. It takes on a moral component. That remains important. What I raise here, however, is more behavioral and foundational: Meet deadlines, arrive on time, respond to inquiries promptly, be tactful and diplomatic with others, etc., etc.

In my 1L Legal Analysis & Writing course, I seek to instill professional behavioral norms through various course policies, all explicitly stated in my syllabus, concerning compliance with deadlines, punctual attendance at class and scheduled meetings, civil and respectful interaction with classmates and me, timely and good faith completion of ungraded exercises, etc.  A percentage of each student’s grade depends on how well he or she meets these professional standards. Two of my students missed their first deadline for an ungraded exercise last week; neither had any kind of explanation. Consistent with the underlying professionalism theme of my course, I informed these students that such behavior, if repeated, would fail to meet my professional standards, just as it would fail to meet the professional standards of any legal employer.

It will be interesting to see if and how Twenge’s findings manifest themselves in the current and future 1L classes. I strongly recommend the book; it provides an excellent foundation for putting a variety of possible student behaviors into context.

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One Response

  1. 1. Suppose that a chemical refinery found that products no longer met customer requirements because the feedstocks it was getting from its suppliers were no longer of the required quality. Now suppose that the refinery’s only response to customer complaints was to huff, “it’s not our fault if the feedstocks are flawed.” That refinery would soon find itself losing business — and maybe even going out of business entirely.

    2. Between college and law school, I did my ROTC-scholarship payback time as a Navy officer. I imagine that if the Navy’s training pipeline had sent too many new sailors out to the fleet without the basic skills needed for sea duty, then A) the fleet’s deckplate leaders would have complained up the chain of command, and B) the training pipeline’s leaders would have imperiled their careers if they didn’t promptly correct the problem — “that’s not my job, dude” would not have been an acceptable answer.

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