Law in Contemporary Society

Breaking the Rules: Etiquette’s Place in Law School

-- By CarolineElkin - 18 May 2009

The Indoctrination

When I was young, certainly no more than 10 years old, my grandmother gave me a book: Tiffany’s Table Manners for Teenagers. My parents had already taught me the proper way to hold a fork, that the napkin goes on the lap, etc. I thought it was a joke – but Grandma wasn’t joking. I was to memorize it from cover to cover. There are rules, and it’s important not to offend anyone by violating them.

But etiquette is broader than table manners. In The Behavior of Law, Black says it is a means of maintaining social control, and deviant behavior reinforces its strength. There are many spoken and unspoken rules governing a classroom environment, imposed by both students and teachers, and classroom etiquette hasn’t changed much since kindergarten. Raise your hand before you speak. Don’t talk to your neighbors. Pay attention to the teacher. Law school imposes new rules as well. Do your reading and brief your cases every night to be adequately prepared for class. Outline for finals. The person next to you is no longer Jane – she is Ms. Doe. Formalism is everywhere. But why does it matter if we obey these rules?

Breaking the Rules, Then

Certainly rules such as “no talking” and “raise your hand to speak” allow the teacher to maintain control over the class. In theory if we follow these rules the class retains decorum, the teacher can clearly communicate material, and we will learn. Hence it is important to the other students that everyone obeys the rules, so everyone can learn.

I’ve heard my friends who are now teachers talk about their “bad” kids. These are the kids who talk to their neighbors in class. They interrupt when the teacher is teaching. They’re sent to the principal’s office for their “bad” behavior. But is their behavior "bad," and does it make the kids "bad"? Probably not – some just don’t buy into the rules, some might be acting out for attention, and some don’t care either way. The issue is bigger than one or two teachers making a judgment call, though – it’s that kids may be deemed “bad” by the fact that they break rules of social control. Why does the fact that they break the teacher-imposed classroom rules of etiquette make them worthy of being called “bad”?

Likely it depends on which rules they break, and if they’re able to make sound decisions for themselves about the purposes the rules serve before they break them. Talking out of turn in class might interrupt the teacher’s line of thought, impacting the quality of education for other students. But it’s hard to know why I made sure to keep my uniform shirt tucked in during high school. The micro-level reason is that the punishment was a demerit slip and two hours of detention. But on a macro-level, I regret that I never questioned the policy, because really, how could that possibly impact the level of my education? Insofar as my teachers didn’t label me “bad” for (negligently or not) breaking a rule? Maybe it would have affected the quality of my recommendations for college, but if so, that would be a shame.

Breaking the Rules, Now

Fast-forward to law school, where you still raise your hand if you want to speak in class (unless it’s to socialize via silent G-chat, rather than writing a note as was the accepted practice ten years ago). However, there’s a student in my section who makes comments and jokes during class without raising his hand. While it hasn’t seemed to bother the professors, many students in the class (myself included) have found it irksome. He’s not a "gunner," but by speaking out of turn he plays a different role that annoys students. But I at least shouldn’t care: evaluating it, I can only find harm in that he’s breaking a social norm.

The people who break the mold have always fascinated me, because that’s never been me. We all outline for finals now. But what if we didn’t? I know one student who didn’t outline all year. People felt the need both to discuss his habits and to judge him for them. But as far as I know we all outline because we’ve been told that’s what we’re supposed to do, and as far as I know that outlier is not in any danger of failing out of CLS (though he may be – the student-imposed rule of secrecy regarding performance prohibits any conversation of whether our adopted habits were useful preparation or not). Admittedly, I too outlined this semester without considering alternative preparation methods.

Using the Rules

Nonetheless, my aversion from breaking rules, instinctual within me since at least my Tiffany’s Table Manners days, has been weakening. After nearly a year of studying rule ambiguities, and a semester of thinking about legal ideas creatively, I find my thoughts focus on the purposes laws serve. Why do we need the formalism of bright line rules of etiquette? We’ve challenged the formal classroom style in Eben’s class in listening to music, being on a first name basis with each other and Eben, using wiki threads to continue class discussions, abandoning the blind grading policy, etc. But many of the ways we broke the rules with Eben were conscious decisions on his or both our parts to run class differently. So then we naturally created new rules when breaking old ones. Still I think there was great benefit to this approach, because we valued the function of rules instead of blindly following them. The rules we created from a default starting point became useful, as thoughtfully-adopted choices of behavior facilitating a common goal.

  • I think this is a very valuable essay and I'm glad you wrote it.

  • It seems to me there's an important distinction between not belching or making noise with the cutlery at table, on the one hand, and outlining courses on the other. To say that they are both matters of social convention might be possible (although I think that's still a metaphorical use concerning the outlining), but it seems to me to be hard to refer to outlining as etiquette. That's a word we use to mean the ritual aspects of politeness, including some rudimentary forms of social tact, designed to prevent sudden violations of script that may be distressing to or harmful to the dignity of others.

  • Of course all of this comes to be about the relationships between different forms of rules. Though you are personally concerned with the inner process by which people who don't even think of themselves as "good girls" but are a little taken aback to believe that they're no longer sure of the existence of "bad boys" approach the first tentative conception of rule-breaking, you're still quite aware that there are different sorts of rules and that breaking them is different sorts of social activity. I think some additional attention to that would strengthen what is already a very substantial improvement over the first essay.


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r4 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:46:23 - IanSullivan
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