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How to Build Genuine Relationships with Your Law Professors
New England Law Professor David Siegel

It was only his first year of law school, and Fady Samaan ’19 couldn’t believe what was happening.

His Constitutional Law professor, Dina Haynes, was pulling him aside after class, asking if he was interested in an internship...at The Hague. (He was, indeed.)

Samaan had mentioned to Professor Haynes that he wanted to get into international law earlier in the semester, and she kept him in mind for related opportunities. Fast-forward a few weeks, and Samaan was ultimately chosen for a six-month internship with the International Criminal Court’s Trust Fund for Victims.

“The most gratifying part of teaching is seeing my students go out and do good in the world,” Professor Haynes says. “I will always try to help connect a qualified student to his or her dream job. I know that my colleagues feel the same way.”

Your professors can be your biggest and best mentors, resources, and champions in law school and even after you graduate. The opportunities to learn from them extend far beyond the classroom too. You might work side-by-side on a research project, join them for a press conference, or just turn to them for advice when you’re not sure where to intern over the summer.

Of course, these relationships don’t happen overnight. But if you follow this advice, you’ll be prepared to cultivate meaningful connections with your law professors—and be the kind of student they want to see.

Related: Meet the professors at New England Law | Boston.

Do the Work

It may go without saying, but if you want to impress your law school professors, you need to start by putting your best foot forward in their classes. After all, if you’re not investing in your future, why should they?

Be prepared for every class: stay on top of the reading, try to absorb the material, and have rock-solid outlines. Prepare for meetings and office hours visits too: come up with thoughtful questions, do your own research, and think about your goals for the session in advance. 

Get Ready to Be Challenged

Type in “Why are law professors…” and Google is quick to suggest “mean?”

But law school professors are seemingly hard on their students because they’re training them for a demanding profession. Holding you to high standards in and out of the classroom is essential to gaining the skills you need to thrive in the legal world. It is your professors’ job—and, as many feel, their calling—to prepare you for the realities of that world.

Just try to be open: open to learning, open to challenge, open to failing. And know that you will leave law school better for it.

Your professors can be your biggest and best mentors, resources, and champions. The opportunities to learn from them extend far beyond the classroom too. 

Embrace Class Participation

Class participation is paramount in law school. In fact, you typically don’t have much of a choice in the matter. Many law professors use the Socratic Method, meaning they cold-call students, asking lots of questions—and no one is spared.

Sure, it’s intimidating. But you can try to reframe the experience as a positive to make it less stressful. After all, the Socratic Method has been used for millennia for a reason: it works. It will challenge you and help you think on your feet.

Even if a professor doesn’t use the Socratic Method, they will expect you to participate. And you should. So get out of your comfort zone—and remember you can take a moment to collect your thoughts before answering!

Related: The Ultimate Guide to Undergrad vs. Law School: All the Differences You Need to Know

Identify the Professors You Want to Connect With

If you have the chance to learn from someone who’s had your dream job or has a professional background you want to emulate, do your best to connect with them in law school. Maybe it’s the former UN lawyer or IP law partner or public interest law trailblazer. Peruse the school's faculty rosters to find folks who share your legal interests.

Don’t Be Nervous

Given the impressive accomplishments of so many law school professors, it’s easy to be intimidated by them. But try to remember that most law professors took the job because they like helping students achieve their goals.

In fact, you might be surprised by how approachable your law school professors are. Russell Engler, for example, directs the clinical programs at New England Law and is a nationally recognized expert in access to justice. He’s got a lot on his plate. But he still provides personalized clinic and externship recommendations for practically every clinic student—and that’s upwards of 75% of the school.

You survived getting into law school. You can survive meeting with that fancy professor.

Take Seminars and Smaller Classes

Smaller classes mean deep academic dives and more face time with your law professors (and classmates, for that matter). So keep an eye out for upper-level courses and seminars that fit you—then get ready to pounce on them as soon as registration periods open.

Join Student Groups

Faculty often advise student organizations, and these affinity groups can be a great way to spend a little more time with law professors who share your interests, not to mention like-minded peers. Students in New England Law’s First Generation Students Program, for instance, get to work with Professor Monica Teixeira de Sousa, who brings a personal connection to the group as the first person in her immediate family to go to college.

Pro bono/volunteer projects also provide meaningful opportunities to help others and work closely with faculty advisors. And perhaps best of all, student organizations and pro bono projects are typically open to students as soon as they enter law school, which means you get to spend that much more quality time with faculty.

Participate in a Research Project

Law professors have their own academic passions and pet projects, and they often have law students serve as research assistants. Not only does this mean more chances to connect with that professor, but you can explore subjects that interest you while growing your research skills and résumé.

Professor Lisa Laplante, for example, brings law students in to help run the Operational-level Grievance Mechanism Project, a unique way to gain experience in international human rights and business law. (It’s also the only project of its kind and used by the United Nations, so not a shabby line item on your law school résumé.)

If you have the chance to learn from a professor who’s had your dream job or has a background you want to emulate, do your best to connect with them.

Make the Most of Office Hours

Office hours are about one-on-one learning, getting pointed answers and feedback, and putting a face to your name. (Though keep in mind that a lot of law school grading is done anonymously.)

Go to each of your law professors’ office hours at least once a semester. Try to go early on too, before you hit any roadblocks in the material, but certainly do not hesitate to go if you’re struggling. And make sure you come in armed knowing what you want to take away from the experience; you’ll find some great recommendations for questions to ask your professors (and some to avoid) here.

Office hours are also a good way to start building a real connection to your law professors, especially the folks you’re excited to work with and perhaps even have mentor you. But even though you can certainly get meaningful advice from a professor during office hours, it’s important to remember that a couple 15–30 minute chats do not a mentorship make. (That's why it's important to follow the rest of the advice in this article!)

Chat After Class…to an Extent

The time in between classes can be a nice opportunity to fire off a quick clarifying question or follow up with your law professors. Just be respectful of their time and considerate if other students are waiting. And if the professor moves through a line of students quickly, don’t take it personally. 

Do a Little Online Research

If you want to develop a real relationship with your law professors, you should try to learn a bit about them. At the very least, read their bios on your law school’s website! You can also read some of their research papers, follow them on social media, or watch videos of their media appearances to see what they’re passionate about.

You can take a look at professor review sites to see what other law students say about them too—just be wary of students with an axe to grind.

Get in the Inside Scoop from Upperclassmen

If you have upperclassman friends or acquaintances who are familiar with your law professors, ask for their insights. You might glean some useful intel, like what to expect from a professor’s exams. Of course, don’t take everything you hear as gospel; rather, talk to a few people and look for patterns in what they say.

Respect Their Time

Law professors have many demands on their time: grading, lesson planning, advising student groups, conducting their own academic research, writing academic articles, helping admissions efforts, planning events, and more. And that doesn’t even include, you know, their personal life.

Whether it’s a class period, office hours, or a meeting, show up a few minutes early and leave on schedule. Make appointments and stick to them. And while there is a reasonable expectation of professor accessibility through office hours, via email, etc., don’t expect them to drop everything for you.

Speak, Act, and Dress Professionally

Though you can and should take your etiquette cues from the professor, it’s best to err on the side of formality, especially early in the semester. For example, refer to your professors as “Professor [Last Name]."

If they don’t tell you directly, ask for the professor’s preferred method of communication too. Texting, emails, direct messages, and chats in classroom software are all fair game these days, but professors’ preferences vary.

Finally, wear presentable clothing to class and meetings with your law professors. This doesn’t mean you need to wear a suit every day, but save the ripped jeans, baseball caps, graphic tees, and sweatshirts for the weekend.

Just Ask

Your law professors aren’t mind readers. Whether you want feedback on a piece of writing or are interested in starting a formal mentoring relationship, just ask—respectfully, of course. They may not be able to give you an answer or grant your request, but it rarely hurts to try.

The exception to this rule: you don’t want to ask a question the professor’s already answered. So check your syllabus, search your email, and ask your fellow students if they know the answer first.

Think of your relationships with your law school professors like any networking relationship: a genuine connection you should nurture over time.

Be Genuine

Professors know you want to do well in their classes. They know you want to get good jobs after law school. They know you need recommendation letters. They are paid to teach and advise you, so your relationship can seem transactional. But treating them like stepping stones to the next phase of your career is, frankly, rude.

Rather, think of your relationships with your law school professors like any networking relationship: a genuine connection you should nurture over time.

Remember Professors Are Human Too

The person you see at the front of the classroom is only a snapshot of who your law professors are. They have unique personalities, strengths, and flaws, just like you. The charismatic lecturer might be surprisingly shy one-on-one; the curmudgeonly professor might have a great sense of humor once you get to know him. 

Be Patient

Don’t expect a life-changing mentoring relationship to happen overnight. Your law professors might have hundreds of students on their rosters gunning for their attention. And some professors will simply be more open to mentoring and developing relationships than others. (Of course, you can set yourself up for success by attending a smaller law school with a reputation for attentive faculty!)

Do good work for the sake of it, and you just might attract the attention you seek.

There you have it: myriad ways to connect with your law professors (not to mention be an outstanding law student). All you have to do is follow this advice, take a deep breath, and open that office door…