TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Saturday, February 15, 2014

BC Law Prof's Cell Phone Tirade

CellMary Ann Chirba (Boston College) asked me to share her cell phone policy:

A chronic issue flared yet again today. With this message, I hope to extinguish it once and for all.

Continued cell phone use in class is absolutely unacceptable for many reasons. Here is the short list:

  • 1. It is distracting to your classmates and me.
  • 2. It is completely unprofessional. Try engaging in this behavior with your supervisor at work and see how well it goes over.
  • 3. It is rude. It is simply and undeniably rude.

I am extremely frustrated because I have never had to mention this more than once in past years.  We are up to 9 times this year - and these do not include the instances that I have seen but not mentioned.

Using a smart phone in class is not smart because it is completely visible in this school's classrooms. There is nothing to block another person's view of you beyond the 2-3 inch slab of desk. Even if there were, looking down at your lap for extended periods of time is neither casual nor covert.

Here is a bright line test to determine whether phone use is acceptable and not:

Unless you are dealing with genuinely extenuating circumstances (e.g., you are waiting for a doctor to call), or you are seated in a room filled with complete strangers (e.g., a waiting room,  airport, etc.) it is not appropriate to interact with your cell if it would not be appropriate to crack open a beer.

You are in a professional program. I understand that you are "just" law students - but all of law school and LRRW in particular is about learning what it means to be a professional and how to achieve professional excellence. I try to keep things low key in class even though we are working through increasingly difficult material - but do NOT confuse calm with casual. Cell phones, like beer, are a no go in class.

As I indicated when I addressed this issue last fall through both email and in class, I work REALLY hard in this course, but I should not be working harder than you.  If you are texting, I am definitely working harder than you - and so are your classmates. I may seem to be coming down harder than other professors on this issue. I probably am because banning laptops makes cell use highly visible.  Please know, however, that using your cell is just as inappropriate in other classes.

Moreover, it hurts YOU! Beyond being rude and unprofessional, it impedes your ability to follow the discussion. Do not pretend that a quick text or email check is no big deal. You will miss information simply because your brain is not wired to process and encode these types of competing inputs. If you think this is just my subjective belief, do a quick  PubMed search and you will find more than many studies that back this up.  Or simply find a classmate who did not take a walk on the cellular side: either s/he will have better notes or be a strong auditory processor.

You need not buy into my reasons for taking this position. However, you do need to know  that further cell phone episodes will yield one of two reactions:

  1. 1. I will ask you to leave the classroom immediately, and you will miss the rest of whatever we are covering that day. Even if you put your phone away or throw it out the window, you will need to leave class for the balance of the period.
  2. 2. As you check your messages on your phone, I will do the same. Instead of helping you overcome the challenges of AM2 -  something  for which you pay very big bucks - I will check to see if my friend got back to me about dinner and peruse Zappo's end of season clearance. If this is how I spent class time, you would not be happy, and deservedly so. In this respect, I am no different than you.

Long email short:
Passive voice: Your cell phone may not be used by you in class.
Active voice:  Knock it off.

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If I was a BC student I'd be in the dean's office demanding this entitled professor be fired. The students are paying your salary. They are not distracting their fellow students, trust me. If you can't teach while a student uses their cell phone, that reflects on how poor of a professor you truly are. I'd also be filing a grievance if I was a student and kicked out of class for some non-disruptive behavior. I sit on the grievance committee at my university and I can assure you that we would uphold said grievance and she'd be removed from that course for the rest of the semester. This story is just more proof that law professors are overpaid whiners.

Posted by: John | Feb 15, 2014 5:19:51 AM

This, of course, is not a criticism of students so much as it is a criticism of other professors, who apparently do not support adoption of a university policy that is consistent for all classrooms.

Posted by: Bob Kamman | Feb 15, 2014 7:39:01 AM

John: I am a former big-firm hiring partner. If your attitude is representative of students at your university, I would drop your university from my go-to list. The last thing I or any firm needs is to hire someone who views paying attention as optional. Prof. Chirba's views reflect those of the professional world. If you hope to join and succeed in that world, you're going to have to adjust. Your protection of inattentive students in your capacity as a member of your school's grievance committee does them no long-term favors. The real world is unforgiving.

Posted by: Theodore Seto | Feb 15, 2014 12:08:48 PM

Wait. The professor ASKED you to share this?

Posted by: Eric Muller | Feb 15, 2014 2:30:34 PM


Posted by: Paul Caron | Feb 15, 2014 2:34:16 PM

It's a good thing faculty never send emails, or read the internet, or post on the Facebook, or play online poker during faculty meetings.

Posted by: Paul Campos | Feb 15, 2014 3:14:49 PM

This is hilarious because there is no place where people spend more time looking at their phones than biglaw. Having worked in a biglaw office, you basically see attorneys looking at their phones every second they are not at their desks. So the real "professional" problem here is not looking at a cell phone, but being able to look at one relatively subtly. Of course you have to pay attention in meetings, but everyone is subtly looking at their phones during longer meetings. That is just how things are.

Posted by: Angel Haze | Feb 15, 2014 3:24:00 PM

Now, now, Professor Campos,

We all know that faculty have no other time than at faculty meetings to turn down their innumerable offers to become Special Masters for the Supreme Court or managing partners at Cravath. Stop poking holes in their soi-disant ubermensch façade!

P.S. I had at least two adjuncts from Boston law firms who would routinely take business calls in the middle of a lecture and leave for a good 30-45 minutes. The administration's response, as it was to every student complaint, was "Do you know how lucky you are to be able to borrow money to attend this law school? Be quiet and go away; it's 2:30 on a Thursday and my weekend has started." I'm paraphrasing, of course, but you get the idea.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Feb 15, 2014 4:31:03 PM

Professor Seto,

When do you tell students with the misfortune to be enrolled at your school about the unforgiving world? Do you notify them before they send their deposit in?

Going back to your days as a hiring partner, how many offers would you make to students from your school? One or maybe even as much as two per year??

Posted by: Cent Rieker | Feb 15, 2014 5:02:47 PM

Professor Seto,

Please, your list of go-to schools would remain the exact same. Right in order of prestige.

Posted by: JM | Feb 15, 2014 8:37:17 PM

I agree that this should never happen in class. However, attending school used to be a privilege for the students. Now, it is a privilege for the teachers. They have no authority because they need to keep the customers happy. The professors still win; they get hundreds of thousands for the students, and the students get nothing.

Posted by: JM | Feb 15, 2014 8:39:49 PM

Oh the irony of a law professor breaking the law on camera when he should have just told the kid to leave.

Posted by: Victor T | Feb 16, 2014 7:49:27 AM

Victor, what law did the professor break if his syllabus or other classroom policy warned the students of the consequences of talking on the phone in class? And please IRAC your answer.

Posted by: Allen | Feb 16, 2014 2:54:29 PM

Have you ever actually practiced law? Lawyers are constantly on their smartphones in court, in depo and everywhere else. In fact, it is the very essence of being a "professional" to have the freedom not to be bound by ridiculous rules designed to punish and restrict. Finance professionals are also always on their phones.

I suspect you have never done anything besides teach law. I also feel sorry for the fools that actually pay your salary, as nobody is going to hire someone dumb enough to go to a non-T14 in this economy. Even worse, I have no idea what your school's ranking is at all or where it is even located, indicating it's likely not even in the top 100 law schools, as if that would matter.

Posted by: The Real World | Feb 16, 2014 11:20:59 PM

That may go down as the worst analogy ever regarding phone use and beer consumption. I guess when I roll to the restroom at work and take a look at the internet, I could also be cracking open a cold one. Furthermore, the role of a teacher is to teach, the role of the student is to learn. If the teacher stops teaching to check email, they are failing to do their job. If the student peruses the internet during class, it can only be assumed they are not doing their job. Whether the student upheld their end of the bargain will become clearer when the grades are released, and that ignores the myriad of factors that go into a grade. Is it rude or impolite to check the phone while someone is talking, I would say so. Is it the end of the world as this professor seems to think, I do not agree.

Posted by: Daniel Waters | Feb 17, 2014 5:23:28 AM

Are law students not supposed to crack open beers in in class? My classroom policies are *way* less strict than that.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Feb 17, 2014 9:36:01 AM

1) Professor, these students are your clients and pay your salary. Unless they are doing something completely unacceptable, such as taking their clothes off in the middle of class, your job is to continue to do what you are being paid to do, which is to teach. In the real world, where paying clients are tough to come by, we give our clients lots of leeway. If you are putting money in my trust account, you are welcome to use your cell phone anywhere in my office.

2) Another news flash from the real world: we use our cell phones everywhere. I am constantly on my cell phone while in the courtroom waiting for my case to be called, texting and checking email. I am on my cell phone when I check my calendar in front of the judge.

I want your job, where you get to tell your clients what to do and not worry about where your next meal is coming from.

Posted by: AnonymousAttorney | Feb 17, 2014 10:34:56 AM


Entitled, overpaid professor is belittles young person mortgaging their future to pay for her $6 lattes. I apologize for my redundancy. In other news, the sun came up today.

Posted by: BoredJD | Feb 17, 2014 12:57:01 PM

What a disappointing series of smug comments dripping with the sense of entitlement. It reinforces my gratitude for the hardworking and respectful young associates at my firm. My partners and I don't take these young lawyers for granted, and the comments to this story reminds us why.

Posted by: Mike Petrik | Feb 18, 2014 10:09:35 AM