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When I left the day-to-day practice of the law for a job as a law professor, I brought with me what I imagine are common expectations and anxieties. One of my great fears was that in each class that I taught I would be bombarded with hypertechnical or convoluted questions about the law that I would be unable to answer. I imagined myself standing before a classroom of expectant students, paralyzed in ignorance, as beads of sweat slowly rolled down my face. Happily, over the past five years, I’ve found that my fear wasn’t rational (or, at least, I wasn’t prescient). There has rarely been a time that I was so thrown by a student’s question that I lost my composure. Those times when students have asked questions for which I did not have an immediate answer have been far from traumatic and have generally provided an opportunity for the students and me to investigate an interesting, if somewhat insular, point of law. My challenges as a law professor have actually come, much more frequently, from those aspects of the job that I did not have enough sense to be concerned about before I started. What I hadn’t taken into account was the psychology of new law students. The first-year students I have taught are attentive, conscientious and — perhaps best of all from a professor’s perspective — just a little bit scared. Most of them are just uncertain enough about what is expected of them that they are perpetually on the edge of their seats taking in every detail. They absorb even the seemingly smallest and most insignificant of points, in the hopes that something they hear will save them from some dreaded future consequence, or provide them with some unforeseen advantage. This hyperattention has its advantages for professors. Almost all the first-year students seem to do the reading almost all the time. And with a bit of prodding, they seem more than happy to participate in class. But there are also some complications produced by teaching these hyperattentive first-years. First, you have to be really careful what you say as a professor in a first-year class, even if you say it as a throwaway comment under your breath. An example: I practiced for seven years before entering academia, two of those at Hogan & Hartson in Washington, D.C. While my experience at the firm was extremely rewarding, there were certainly a few instances involving weeks of document review in windowless offices; trips to client offices in arctic Northern states in the depths of February; and hair-pulling, nail-biting filing deadlines that produced less than purely positive memories. And perhaps, not surprisingly, some of these more vivid experiences have found their way into my classroom comments. I didn’t think too much of them until recently, when a student stopped by my office to have a serious talk about his career goals. He sat down and told me in a somewhat halting and apologetic tone about how he actually wanted to work in a law firm after school. He asked me if, given the fact that I had hated my law firm experience so much, I could force myself to serve as a reference if he applied for a firm job. Or would that be against my religion or something? I laughed and told him not to take my little comments too seriously, that I had loved my days at the firm, and thought it was a wonderful place to start a legal career. And here’s another example, one that shows how that hyperattention is also linked to creative — if sometimes misdirected — minds. I am an avid consumer of popular culture, and I often make references to popular depictions of lawyers and law enforcement on television and film in my classes. I often refer to “The Practice” or “The Sopranos,” even showing clips of some TV shows and films in class when relevant. I think that the use of such devices is an excellent way to break up the monotony of class and to make otherwise esoteric legal issues seem more real to new law students. Much to my surprise — and amused chagrin — at least one of my students found another use for these pop culture snippets. One summer, I was reviewing the text of student evaluations from my civil procedure course, when I came across a form which had no response to the first question, “Strong Points” of the professor, or the second question, “Weak Points” of the professor. But it did give a suggestion under the final heading “Other Comments.” The student had quoted a line from “The Sopranos,” where one of Tony Soprano’s colleagues, noting that Tony had let his waistline go a bit, had commented, “I think it’s time he consider salads.” I was stunned and paralyzed for a moment as I contemplated both the reference to the TV show and its relevance to some of the weaknesses and excesses that I possibly shared with the fictional crime boss. After a long chuckle, and calls to most of my friends, I resolved to be a bit more careful about how I “prepare” for getting up in front of 100 or so students four times a week. (Less pizza and, yes, more salads.) I also tacked the evaluation form up to my wall to remind me just how closely these first-years are watching — in case I am ever inclined to forget. Mark C. Niles is an associate professor at American University Washington College of Law.

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