Emailing Your Professors for Help with Work-Related Projects: Proceed with Caution

Emailing Your Professors for Help with Work-Related Projects: Proceed with CautionThis week we welcome guest writer and tutor Raneta Mack to talk about getting help from professors with work projects.

You’ve just finished your first year of law school, and you’re about to embark on your first legal job: a coveted summer clerkship. You did well in your first year classes and now you’re eager to make a good impression on everyone in the office.

On your first day, shortly after getting comfortable in your new office, you’re given your first research project. You vaguely remember hearing something about the research topic in your Contracts class. Or was it your Torts class? During the meeting, you were a bit too intimidated to ask the senior attorney any questions, and if you go back now with questions, maybe she’ll think you’re not up to the task.

Now you’ve got an end-of-the-week deadline on a research project staring you in the face and you have no idea where to start. After anxiously reviewing your notes again, you see the word “negligence.” Ahh, this must be a Torts issue.

You vaguely remember discussing this issue in your Torts class or maybe it was in a note case in your Torts casebook. In any event, your Torts professor probably knows everything there is to know about this issue. Your anxiety eases a bit as you realize help could be just on the other end of a simple email to your professor.

You compose an email explaining the issue and end it with a plea for help asking how to get started with your research or perhaps asking for your professor’s “insight” on the issue. Before you hit “send” on that email, here are seven reasons why you should think twice before emailing your professors for help with work-related projects:

  1. Senior attorneys in the office are usually there to help. Senior attorneys know and expect that new law clerks will have questions. They also generally expect that you will use office personnel and resources instead of going outside the office for help. If the senior attorney is busy, consider asking around the office to see if others have encountered a similar issue. You might be surprised to find a junior attorney who says, “I had an issue like that a year ago.” This is also a great opportunity to get to know other attorneys in the office.
  2. Client confidentiality. You’ve probably heard the phrase, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” The same idea applies to client issues and research projects related to those issues. Research projects that arise in the office should be discussed only in the office unless you are given direction to do otherwise. Although you may not use the client’s name and you may speak in generalities when discussing the issue with your professor, there is always the risk that some aspect of what you share could reveal the client’s identity.
  3. You could be short-circuiting your own learning process. Yes, this project may seem complex and you may not know where to begin immediately. However, the senior attorney gave you the project, and she is expecting you to use your research skills and judgment. By trying to skip to the end to get a quick result from your professor, you lose the opportunity to further develop important research and writing skills that you can use in this clerkship and throughout your legal career.
  4. You may need arguments, not answers. Chances are, when you send that email, you will be asking your law professor for an “answer” to an issue that seems perplexing. However, the practice of law isn’t always about answers. It’s often about making arguments. Therefore, the senior attorney most likely isn’t expecting you to come back with an answer. She is looking for a persuasive argument to support the client’s case. So, get comfortable with ambiguity and arguments. The senior attorney will not be disappointed if you come back with, “I didn’t find a case exactly on point, but I think I found a great argument to help our client.”
  5. You could be overstepping the boundaries of the professor/student relationship. Your professors are there to teach and guide you on your law school journey. In some instances, they may even help you with personal issues that might be interfering with your success in law school. However, unless you are invited to do so, do not assume that the professor/student relationship also involves making your professor your unpaid research assistant.
  6. Your law professors are busy with their own projects. During the semester, your professors have probably been available to you after class and during office hours. Perhaps you took advantage of these opportunities and your professors were readily available and responded promptly to your class-related questions. However, outside of class, professors are often working on their own research and writing projects. Do not presume that your professors want to take time away from their own work and prioritize your work-related research projects.
  7. Your law professor may not be familiar with the area of law. While the research project you’ve been given may touch on an area that you discussed in your Torts class, do not expect your professor to be an expert in all things Torts. Your professor’s scholarly interest may be in the area of medical malpractice. That doesn’t mean he can necessarily help you with a question related to a complex class action products liability lawsuit.

Of course, there will be instances in which a professor invites students to email about anything and everything. Or, perhaps your professor is a well-known subject matter expert on the very issue you’re researching. In that instance, using your professor as a resource might be one of your first options (with permission from your employer). In all other instances, proceed with caution before emailing your professors and know that working through challenging issues with the assistance of other attorneys in your office is all part of your growth as a law clerk and eventually as an attorney.


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About Raneta Mack

Raneta Mack received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science, cum laude, and her Juris Doctor degree, cum laude, from the University of Toledo.

Raneta joined the faculty at Creighton University School of Law in 1991, after serving as an associate with the law firm of Davis, Graham & Stubbs in Denver, Colorado, where her practice focused primarily on litigation and bankruptcy law.

At Creighton Law School, Raneta teaches Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, White Collar Crime, Comparative Criminal Procedure, and Remedies. In 2006, she was the recipient of a Fulbright Grant, which gave her the opportunity to travel to Vilnius, Lithuania to deliver lectures on money laundering and its role in global terrorism.

Raneta has published articles on several criminal law related issues including concealed weapons laws, money laundering, bias in the criminal justice system, problems with the Federal Witness Protection Program, and several Miranda related issues. She has also published articles on a variety of computer technology issues including the legal implications of adopting digital signatures, the use of technology to promote alternative dispute resolution, and computer crime statutes in the United States.

Raneta is the author of five books, “A Layperson’s Guide to Criminal Law” (1999), “The Digital Divide: Standing at the Intersection of Race and Technology” (2001), “Equal Justice in the Balance: America’s Legal Responses to the Emerging Terrorist Threat” (with co-author Michael J. Kelly) (2004), “Comparative Criminal Procedure: History, Processes and Case Studies, 2nd edition (2017) and “Criminal Procedure: Cases, Readings and Comparative Perspectives, 3rd edition (2021).

Raneta also provides expert commentary to the local and national media on criminal law, white collar crime and computer technology related issues.

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