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Opinion How law students should address professors

Eugene posted yesterday about whether law students should call their professors using first names or using the title “Professor.” I don’t know how many readers find this interesting, and it’s clearly not the most important question in the world. But my view is different from Eugene’s, and I thought I would explain why.

In Eugene’s view, first names are better:

I think the first name custom is best, because I think that law school is fundamentally the first step toward life in the professional world, and in the professional world title-and-last-name is, in my experience, very rarely used for people who interact repeatedly with each other. Someone may well be “Ms. Smith” when you first meet her, but if you talk to her on more than a few occasions, she’ll be “Jane.”
. . . Maybe it’s just L.A., and the custom is different in (say) New York, but I doubt it. Again, things are different with judges, some other government officials, and religious figures; I still refer to Judge Kozinski, for whom I clerked over 20 years ago, and with whom I’ve remained good friends, as “Judge Kozinski” (or, when speaking to him, just “Judge”). But that is the exception, and not one that carries over to partners; I don’t think it should carry over to professors, either.

Eugene continues:

I don’t see any particular value to adding hierarchical signals to the way people address each other, at least when they are adults, and are unlikely to need hierarchical reminders to (say) keep quiet in class or listen to what the teacher is saying. Indeed, having the same address up and down the hierarchy (whether it’s formal both ways or, as is more common in American today, informal both ways) is, I think, the right kind of egalitarianism: As human beings, we are of the same status, and ought to be address the same way, even if our knowledge and accomplishments have placed one of us in a position of control over the other.

I have a different take. I don’t think there’s a right answer to the question. What to call someone is just a social convention with meaning defined by norms of a particular group. And I think either social convention is fine. If your class dynamic works best when students call you Professor, that’s great. If your class dynamic works best when students call you by your first name, that’s great, too. It just depends on what works best for your students. Sometimes a little extra formality is a good thing in a class. At the margins, it can instill a sense of seriousness that can focus attention and inspire hard work. On the other hand, sometimes a little extra formality is a bad thing. At the margins, it can make some students feel less comfortable and less engaged.

Assuming it makes a difference, it’s hard to say in the abstract whether the good of more formality implied by a title outweighs the bad. It just depends on factors such as the professor’s personality, the culture of the school, the size of the class, and the like. The question of how professors should dress for class raises a similar dynamic. Some professors wear courtroom attire when they teach. Some wear T-shirts and shorts. There’s no right answer. Each choice sends a vibe on the formality scale. To the extent it actually matters, each vibe probably works better for some professors and less well for others.

Eugene argues that first names are best because practicing lawyers generally use first names. But as he notes, there are actually two different conventions in practice: Lawyer-to-lawyer, which uses first names; and lawyer-to-judge, which uses titles and last names. Both strike me as fair models to follow. Some professors teach like partners working with a group of associates. They’re all on the same team together working through some hard problems. Other professors teach like lawyers examining witnesses or like judges presiding over a case in court. They’re directing the parties through the issues and running the courtroom. It makes sense to me that professors who follow the first model prefer first names while those who follow the second model prefer titles.

Eugene mentioned his own preferences, so I will add mine. Although there’s no right answer, I prefer to be called Professor by students enrolled at my school, but my first name when interacting with students from other schools. The issue doesn’t really come up at my own school, to be clear. I don’t tell my students what to call me, but I don’t recall any student ever calling me by my first name. I would think it odd if a GW student did so. That partially reflects where I teach. GW Law is pretty traditional. My sense is that calling professors by titles and last names is the norm, and that using a first name would be really unusual. My preference also reflects the way I teach. My mental model is more lawyer-in-court or judge-presiding-in-court than partner-working-with-associates. I usually teach large classes, often with more than 100 students, and I wear a suit and tie. In that relatively traditional environment, the professor title seems to fit better than a first name.

It’s different when I’m interacting with students from other schools. This comes up most often with law review editors. In that context, I prefer to be called by my first name. Students almost always start by addressing me as Professor Kerr, and I always ask to be called Orin. The partner-working-with-associates model seems a good fit in that context. When student editors help me a law review article, we are working together to try to improve the article something like a team of lawyers working on a brief. Using a title seems weirdly formal. So I prefer to be called my first name then, even though I prefer a title when addressed by my students.

Is that an arbitrary line? Maybe. But that’s what feels natural to me.