It appears that concerns, such as the one expressed above, by the library director of a western state’s school of law, have sent ripples through the law school community and have reached the collective ear of the American Bar Association Standards Review Committee and the American Association of Law Schools, the two organizations which oversee accreditation standards for law schools. Rumor has it that in the not-so-distant future, these two revered bodies will propose a change in core curricula, one that will require students to complete a course in Office Procedures, including units on Equipment Selection, Anger Management and Civility.
Civility, of course, has been a long standing issue within the legal profession. No precise definition of “civility” exists, although almost everyone agrees that the concept encompasses politeness. To paraphrase Justice Stewart, we know civility (or, rather, incivility) when we see it. Law schools, courts and bar associations have grappled with ways to structure standards of civil conduct for lawyers. Historically, civility has referred to conduct between attorneys, or between an attorney and the court. In recent years, however, the focus has been expanded to address the behavior of attorneys when dealing with non-attorneys. Now, in an attempt to stem abuse, civility standards are being applied to the treatment of office products by law students.
Why now? During a recent online discussion, several law library directors shared their eye witness accounts of office product abuse. As with the classic question, “which came first, the chicken or the egg?”, directors pondered whether stapler abuse resulted from students’ frustration at being given inadequate equipment, or whether law schools are failing to cultivate courtesy and civility as core character traits.
Several directors recounted incidents involving students, whose under-developed spatial skills prevented them from assessing the quantity of paper that staplers could handle. Directors witnessed students standing on or beating staplers. The director of a noted southern law school library reported that his library’s “last stapler was broken by a student who stood on it in a vain attempt to force it to staple through 80 pages…It looked like someone had tried to force it through a garbage disposal.”
That same director recalled a brutal assault by a student who attempted to force feed hefty quantities of paper to an innocent stapler. “When it wouldn’t work, he took off his shoe – I kid you not – and hammered the stapler until its industrial-strength, Kevlar-like housing broke and a metal piece bent, rendering it useless…The stapler was a sorry, shattered version of its former self.”
A common question among library directors was whether anyone knew of a stapler that would survive frequent interaction with law students. A director, whose office was adjacent to a photocopier room, was horrified by what she witnessed.
“My location…meant that every day and evening I was serenaded with loud banging sounds and colorful and imaginative swearing and yelling of every description as library users abused the staplers whenever they jammed or didn’t work properly — the most common forms of abuse I observed included banging them on the counters, hammering on them with shoes, throwing them to the floor and stomping on them, etc…. I am a first-hand witness to why no stapler yet invented, even the most heavy duty industrial strength variety, lasts for very long. I think the stapler abusers would argue that they were provoked into these violent actions by unruly and uncooperative stapler performance.”
Often the abuse occurred at night or at a time when there were no professionals available to stage an intervention. As the director of a mid-western law library noted, “It seems like no stapler can survive law students! I have arrived in the morning to find staplers that have been bent and even ones that have been dismantled.” Another director observed, “I swear, the military needs to tap into the sheer destructive force of law students.”
In addition to mangled and broken office products, directors lamented their kidnapping and disappearance. Some tried to shield their staplers by concealing them in drawers and surrendering them only when students demanded it. Others attempted to tether the staplers within a protective environment by chaining them to the circulation desk or copier. However, one director bemoaned this practice, saying, “We put good staplers out on chains, and it’s like staking out a goat for a tiger.” Oh the inhumanity of it all!
Therefore, in response to concerns such as those expressed above, the ABA and AALS are reviewing syllabi that would combine elements of experiential education with an ethics/civility undertone. Students would gain the practical skills needed in order to remain competitive in the workplace while at the same time learning to temper their emotional response to “crises.”
Library directors are being encouraged to submit suggestions. Already, one director has advocated that there be a “bring your own stapler” requirement for law students. Another director urged that “naming your staplers would encourage students to be gentler with them.” As a result, it was recommended that the course include a unit modeled after “Marriage and Family” classes. During orientation, students would be assigned a stapler, rather than an egg, sack of flour or baby doll. The student would then be responsible for the stapler’s nurturing and welfare during the student’s law school career. Any accident or death would be thoroughly investigated and may result in a trial before a jury of the student’s peers. Other suggestions included projects such as tracking the migratory habits of office supplies, creating tutorials on the proper care of particular office supplies, and evaluating and selecting office products for specific environments such as libraries, law firms, courthouses, etc.
If the proposed course becomes mandatory, it’s likely that the Multistate Professional Ethics Exam will one day include questions on the proper care and handling of office supplies.
(With gratitude and apologies to the Law Library Director’s Listserv and to the director who forwarded the suggestion which was the basis on this posting. All the quotes are real, but the names have been removed to project the innocent.)