Bleg About Questions from Law Students at Other Schools:
I occasionally receive e-mails from law students at other schools (that is, not from GW, where I teach) asking me questions about various areas of law in which I have written. In some cases, students provide the context: Perhaps they are writing a law review note and are stuck on something, or maybe they are working on an issue that came up in a clinic. Sometimes the questions are excellent and I'm happy to help, especially when a student is working on a note related to my work. But sometimes students will write and just ask a question with no context at all. For example, a student might write, "I am a law student at school X, and I am wondering if you could explain to me how the Fourth Amendment applies in the following situation" or something like that.

  Is there a best way to respond to such e-mails? On one hand, I'd like to be helpful if it's easy to be helpful. On the other hand, as much as I would like to be a resource for the entire legal world on questions in which I write, I do feel a bit odd when students aren't particularly polite about asking me to spend my time responding to their questions (especially when it becomes clear they only know my name because they googled the topic and found a paper I wrote). I also worry about the possibility students may be cheating: for all I know they are writing a take-home exam and that's the exam question. Finally, I only have so much time, and it seems to me that I should be helping students where I teach before I take the time to help students elsewhere. I suppose one answer would be not to respond at all, but that seems rude.

  Any ideas for the best way to respond? Sorry for posting what amounts to a bleg, but I'm curious if readers have any bright ideas here.
George Weiss (mail) (www):
have a form response for students who ask without context.

the form response explains the above and requests context.

get some responses (which will give you further facts)...then develop a policy based on responses to the form emails
10.20.2008 5:25pm
some nicer way of phrasing, "Why are you interested in thisn topic, and why are you asking me personally?"
10.20.2008 5:25pm
cboldt (mail):
You pretty well answered your own question.
Not in a student/teacher context, I get technical and legal/technical questions "out of the clear blue" too. If it takes context for me to be comfortable to answer (assuming I am willing to answer), I ask for context. Same if the question is hypothetical but too broad, I ask for "more facts" to sort of narrow the range of answer. Questions that come off as rude I sometimes ignore, and sometimes reply. You should never feel that somehow you are unjustified in being "rude" in a non-response, when you find the contact to be rude in the first place.
Another approach that works is some sort of "I don't know" answer. Shift the chore out of your sphere of effort, even if you are competent to answer it (i.e., you don;'t know off the top of your head, and don't have the inclination to research and analyze).
Another approach is to limit your answer to pointing them to a resource that you think will be helpful. I have a short collection of links useful for that purpose.
10.20.2008 5:30pm
The suggestion of the comment above that you develop a form response is excellent. One famous author's solution was to print up postcards that read:
"Mr. Evelyn Waugh deeply regrets that he is unable to do what is so kindly proposed."
By the way, I wouldn't be surprised if some of these requests were coming from high school debaters.
10.20.2008 5:32pm
Dear Prof. Kerr,

I am a law student at law school X, and I am wondering if you could explain to me how it is, exactly, that I'm supposed to owe you a beer when you won't even provide rudely solicited legal andwers at my beck and call.
10.20.2008 5:33pm
Michael F. Martin (mail) (www):
If people who send messages like that don't expect that they will be ignored, then they should learn.
10.20.2008 5:36pm
theobromophile (www):
If you're concerned that students are emailing you for answers to take-home exam questions (or Moot Court briefs), then you can put off answering for a day (or two or three), and assume that they would have handed in the exam by the time you get back to them.

Alternatively, y'all have your email addresses here, but why not an "About Us" page (rather than a sidebar and the "Email Policy" that is right underneath "Features,"), with short bios about each Conspirator and any restrictions/limitations on how you would like to be contacted. While there are undoubtedly some students who find your email address through other means, this may help to cut down on the number of random, context-free emails you receive.
10.20.2008 5:48pm
cboldt (mail):
-- then develop a policy based on responses to the form emails --
In the context of informal dialog, I don't and wouldn't bother with any sort of policy structure. There's no need to be consistent over time, with how each correspondent is treated.
10.20.2008 5:49pm
A Law Dawg:
If you're concerned that students are emailing you for answers to take-home exam questions (or Moot Court briefs), then you can put off answering for a day (or two or three), and assume that they would have handed in the exam by the time you get back to them.

This is an excellent suggestion, IMO.
10.20.2008 5:50pm
Well, how about: "It depends. It would help if you could provide some context for the question. Are you looking to write an article in this area, is this a question from class, or just random curiosity?" Since 99% of all legal questions can be truthfully answered with "it depends," I think this can be used as a stock response.
10.20.2008 5:54pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
You're apologizing for blegging???
10.20.2008 5:55pm
If you do decide to answer, to conserve resources and allow access to all students, including your own, you could post your answers to a website and direct inquiries there.
10.20.2008 5:57pm
Archon (mail):
I recommend:

1. Always provide responses to inquiries from your own school.

2. Provide responses to well phrased and worded questions in your area of specialty to outside students who email with a .edu address.

3. Keep responses general enough as not to provide a detailed answer, but provide resources for students to research further. I mean they are students, they should be learning. Give them a few leads to get past the longjam and let them go from there. This also helps prevent "copy and pasting" cheating.

4. Handle all others on a case-by-case basis. Either ask to resend from .edu address with more context or send back a form response saying you don't answer this type of email.
10.20.2008 5:59pm
Just ignore them. Would you perform pro bono work whenever someone asks? If not, why would you donate your time to answering questions from students who don't even attend your school?
10.20.2008 6:04pm
Jim G (www):
We all have a finite amount of time. You publish, you blog, you teach—these all seem like pretty good ways of spreading knowledge. So if someone you don't know wants personalized advice outside those channels, I'd expect that person to (a) be one of your students, or (b) present a compelling case that her question is worth your time.

There are lots of ways to make a question worth your time (it could be an interesting question, or ask for a clarification on an article you wrote, or be for a noble cause—true love?), but the burden is on the questioner to make that case. It's no more impolite to ignore a contextless question than it is to ask the question in the first place.
10.20.2008 6:04pm
I don't know what your usual inbox fodder looks like, but I frequently email professors at other schools (I'm at GULC) when I come across something they've written that I have questions about, or when I am particularly interested in their relevant field (Professor Turley I usually just harangue on his blog, but Rick Hasen is likely sick of me by now).

If I were using that information to cheat, that would be my sin and not yours. If you don't want to engage in discussion with students outside of office hours, that's of course your choice, but some of us find such contacts with experts and professors like yourself to be invaluable educational boosts. I'd hate if the opportunity to interact with leading scholars were limited to my own campus (estimable as the faculty here may be).
10.20.2008 6:05pm
Whadonna More:
Unless the student makes clear the beg is for something greater than personal advantage (paper, exam, curiosity), I'd respond solely with a PDF engagement letter noting a $x00 hourly fee and requirement for a 4 hour retainer.
10.20.2008 6:06pm
"Dear student,

I occasionally blog at a site called the Volokh Conspiracy: There you may find occasional thoughts on the Fourth Amendment. Unfortunately, I simply don't have the time to reply to every request personally, but I hope to discuss your subject in the near future."

...or, you could cut out the last sentence and appear snarky... or cut out the first two sentences and appear a bit more genuine....
10.20.2008 6:06pm
I suggest simply putting as much effort as you deem the question deserves. The example you gave likely deserves a 3-5 sentence summary of the main points at issue and any cases or papers you can cite off the top of your head. If that would take more than five minutes, instead simply respond "I'm sorry I don't have time right now to comment on such a complex topic, if you want my thoughts on a specific aspect of it please let me know."
10.20.2008 6:13pm
Alan Gunn (mail):
Hey, when I was teaching I often refused to answer e-mail questions from my own students, especially questions of the "please explain this area of the law to me" variety. (Face-to-face questioning was a whole 'nother thing, as that allowed return questions.) Turning down other people's students seems like a no-brainer. I did occasionally try to field questions from reporters, except for the cases in which the point of the question was plainly "can I use this to make politician so-and-so look bad?"
10.20.2008 6:14pm
Pon Raul (mail):
This probably isn't helpful, but you should always respond with YES or NO, in large red (or other loud color) letters and refer the e-mailer to an obscure paper, book, or case. Hopefully some case that you have a connection to (e.g., that you helped write for Justice Kennedy). The case need not actually be relevant to the question. For example, if you were Randy Barnett, you would always reference something written by Lysander Spooner. This is perfect for when the questions does not have a yes or no answer. The e-mailer will think that you are being nice, but also realize that you are not helpful.
10.20.2008 6:24pm
LarryA (mail) (www):
I always use the "I am not a lawyer" line, but I guess that would be of limited applicability here.

(I get questions about gun/self-defense laws because I'm a Texas concealed handgun instructor and a director of the Texas Concealed Handgun Association.)
10.20.2008 6:32pm
Suggested response: "Lo siento, no hablo ingles."
10.20.2008 6:32pm
Forward each unsolicited request to the next-to-last requester, as he or she has expressed an active interest in the same subject.
10.20.2008 6:33pm
For the ones you're happy to help on, go ahead and help if you like. For the context-free and even modestly rude emails, just ignore them. For all the sender knows it went to your spam folder!
10.20.2008 6:57pm
Frerad (mail):
The answer to your very interesting and well thought-out question may be found in my upcoming book (hitting shelves soon).

On the other hand.. all rude questions may be answered with "42". Let them figure out the rest.
10.20.2008 6:58pm
Cornellian (mail):
I wonder whether profs feel a heightened obligation to respond when the email comes from an alumnus of that school, or even a former student of that prof. I sometimes feel like that's the price you pay in return for us tolerating all those fundraising letters.
10.20.2008 7:00pm
has anyone sent you an email asking a question about the initial post to this thread? I considered it, but I decided it was one of those things that would in theory be funny, but not so funny in reality.

Please confirm.
10.20.2008 7:11pm
I think you have a wide range of plausible options -- from selectively terse replies, to even a polite "auto-filter" type reply (kindly explaining that you are unfortunately unable to field such requests).

But whatever you do, do not simply blow people off with no response at all, unless they're being impolite themselves. Everybody deserves at least a "form letter" kind of recognition. I always remember people who are so rude as to advertise an email address and then arrogantly disregard some "little nobody" who took the time to politely email them...
10.20.2008 7:24pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):

A.S. says: Suggested response: "Lo siento, no hablo ingles."

Let me feel you up, I don't have nails?
10.20.2008 7:28pm
Katl L (mail):
But whatever you do, do not simply blow people off with no response at all, unless they're being impolite themselves. Everybody deserves at least a "form letter" kind of recognition. I always remember people who are so rude as to advertise an email address and then arrogantly disregard some "little nobody" who took the time to politely email them
Outside the USA that is the usual policy
10.20.2008 7:37pm
I generally ignore such emails. I don't consider it rude. If some emailer out of the blue can't spend their own time to do research on their own first, show the work they've already done, provide all necessary context, and generally ask intelligent questions, I see no reason why you should be obligated to spend your time to provide a response.

My own view is that it's laudable to try to respond to intelligent thoughtful questions where it's clear that the correspondent has put in some effort of their own and where the professor has special expertise, but even this is not an obligation -- it's done out of the kindness of the professor's heart and the professor's love for learning and public service.

(Of course, your own students are different. But I assume we're talking about a random correspondent out of the blue, who is asking what is clearly a "lazy question".)

To those who consider not responding rude, you might be surprised by how many of these emails some professors get and how shameless some of them are -- and by how many hours a week many professors work, just keeping up with other commitments.
10.20.2008 7:38pm
arbitraryaardvark (mail) (www):
I recommend perusing Neal Stephenson's "Why I am a bad correspondent". Also, Robert Heinlein's form letter for such questions was posted to slashdot awhile back. Maybe I'll post later with the links, maybe someone will beat me to it, maybe it's left as an exercise in googling. OK has always been very gracious in answering my (rare, non-homework*) emailed queries. (*well not that kind of homework; i work from home if you'd call it working.) nealstephenson/Neal_Stephensons_Site/Bad_Correspondent.html
10.20.2008 8:10pm
Cactus Jack:
Could you reply with your hourly rate for consultations?
10.20.2008 8:15pm
I agree with others there's no need (I mean from politeness considerations) to respond to an unsolicited question like this.

Assuming you don't want to (or it's impractical) to set up a special "questions" e-mail (with an automated response, large volume of questions, won't necessarily get to a question or reply, kind of like automated responses to job applications!), and assuming you want to respond because you feel better doing so, then just have a standard form response which you (or your assistant, if he/she checks your e-mail) can send along the lines of:

"This is an automated response. Thank you for your question. Unfortunately, because of demands of my GW students, family, friends, and life generally, I generally only read a fraction of the e-mail legal questions I receive and only respond to a fraction of those that I do read.

You can increase the chance I will respond to a question, though there are still no guarantees, if the subject is clearly described in the subject field and the question itself is clear, concise, focused on an area of special interest to me, and is not easily answered by referring to a text, Google search, Wikipedia, or asking one of your own professors. A few good general sites to get background on a legal issue are:
[have a standard few website links in your form response e.g. a legal search engine, findlaw,, whatever]."
10.20.2008 8:16pm
LM (mail):

I'd suggest an automated response to everyone. You've probably received this type of thing from public figures. It politely explains that you get too many e-mails to answer each one personally, but the reader should be assured that you read them all. That takes the pressure off, and you can then decide which ones to follow up with a personal response.

You can also mention your office hours for the benefit of GW students. That kills two birds with one e-mail. It reassures the GW students (and anyone else who'd have reason to expect a more personal reply) that you'll be selectively following up as time allows. It also lets you off the hook with any GW students who seem like they're wasting your time. If they're serious and want another shot at your input, you're telling them how.

(Whatever you do, don't do what NotMyRealName suggests. That really is rude, not to mention terrible public relations, though I strongly doubt you need my advice to reach those conclusions.)
10.20.2008 8:18pm
arbitraryaardvark (mail) (www):
I'll try answering again with intent to be constructive.
You could do a template, facilitating terse helpful answers.
"Yes, see vita (link), publication 42, especially part II."
with a boilerplate link to your attribution and citation policy (to discourage people getting you to do their homework). [ cory: ] But some worthy questions are worth longer answers, but not always the best use of your time. You could put these in a folder and post them to a thread either on this blog or your now-orphaned other blog. That way, the open source engine of the commenters here can give their usual variety of helpful, snarky or hostile answers as fits. You accomplish the task (sometimes anyway), conserve your own resources for more highest best uses, and entertain the multitudes. [ / cory doctorow ]
10.20.2008 8:28pm
I'd be curious how many of those who think professors have an obligation to respond to every email -- how many of those who think it's rude to not respond to a "lazy question" from someone you've never heard of -- are professors.

I suspect that many of those who think the professor has an obligation to respond to all emails have never had to deal with this issue as a professor. I can't help thinking that if they saw the kind of emails some professors get, and had to deal with the number some professors receive each week, they might over time change their views somewhat. I think that views about what politeness requires carry more weight when they come from someone who has walked a few miles in the professors' shoes.
10.20.2008 8:59pm
Boris A.Kupershmidt (mail):
If the leeter with Q's does NOT contain an apology, to the effect
"sorry for this intrusion on your time", it's rude and can be safely ignored.
If it DOES contain this type of apology, proceed as your time and incklination allows.
10.20.2008 9:07pm
LM (mail):

IANA professor, but I do think it's rude not to respond to every personal e-mail received, lazy or not. Whether you're a professor, a doctor or a farmer is of no consequence. I'm not saying every e-mail requires a personal response -- a form reply may do for many -- but I believe some kind of acknowledgment is minimally required to be courteous.
10.20.2008 9:29pm
jccamp (mail):
I'm surprised no one has suggested the old "Tag! You're it." response.

"Well, gee, I don't know. What are your thoughts on the subject?"

I suppose if the questioner actually provides some evidence of self-initiated effort, describes the issue and the various arguments, and you're in the mood, you could then direct him/her to source material, or even offer a few words of your own.
10.20.2008 9:30pm
yclipse (mail):
Ultimately, the best answer for this particular dilemma might be to forward the question to a forum with many participants, who could offer comments if and when they can. Including you.

In a one-on-one e-mail exchange, the onus is on you to respond. Change the dynamic.
10.20.2008 9:37pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
I'm surprised at how many people think every message deserves a reply of some sort. I don't even get that many messages -- and in fact I generally answer the ones I get that look personalized -- but if the situation ever arose, I wouldn't feel bad about blowing off the ones from people I don't know and am not interested in being friends with if I'm not interested in answering them.
10.20.2008 9:49pm
Maybe make them agree to talk with you by phone for a few minutes. This will save the trouble of typing and allow you to ask them why they want the information before providing it. The non-serious ones will drop out.
10.20.2008 9:57pm
IANA professor, but personal reply to everyone?! Phone calls?! I mean, even responding to a post like this specifically requesting comments, or another poster a while back who requested e-mails, I do not and did not expect a response. It was nice to get one, but not expected. Even if Prof. Kerr had asked for e-mail responses instead of comments, I would not have "expected" a response.

I know people who get hundreds of e-mails a day, are they required to respond to every one? I have good friends who are "bad" about replying to e-mails, even from important people like me [grin] and they're still my friends, are strangers supposed to be treated better? If I get snail mail from someone, am I required to respond? Professors -- like many other people, including plumbers and day laborers and lawyers and doctors and farmers -- are paid or earn money, one way or another, for their time. And the time they're not paid for is their own. If someone sends me an e-mail I am no more "required" to respond by considerations of politeness than I am "required" to respond to unsolicited mail or prosletyzers at my front door or (etc.). Well, I might be "required" to respond out of personal morality or religious beliefs but not by ordinary social/relational ethics. Replying to unsolicited communications, unless one's employer pays one to do so (e.g. relations with potential students?) is something one chooses to do with one's free time.

To a limited extent, I can understand the argument that people who make their living in the public eye and because of it (actors and other celebrities) "should" be more responsive (I don't fully agree with that argument, but understand it), but being a law professor posting on a blog doesn't make one a public figure (well, it probably would for first amendment purposes and defamation re NYT "malice", but that's a different issue!).
10.20.2008 10:51pm
Send them a link to this post.
10.20.2008 10:52pm
LM (mail):

When the cost of sending at least an automated response to everyone who considers you a public enough figure to solicit your advice is basically zero, what's the excuse for not doing it?
10.20.2008 11:29pm
Curt Fischer:
I'd echo the other commenters who advise that no response is needed. Certainly caveats about questions from your school's own students, etc., apply.

But in general, if a random person emails you a question, and you don't want to answer it, I think it is more polite to reply not at all than reply with snark.

(And, I am pretty sure that quotations of your retainer fee, links to this post, or form letters may come off as snarky.)
10.20.2008 11:30pm
LM (mail):

... or maybe you weren't suggesting otherwise when you objected to the obligation of sending a "personal" reply?
10.20.2008 11:31pm
To LM:

While an automated reply is nice, if someone doesn't WANT to set up one, why should they? Maybe someone doesn't want friends (or others they genuinely want e-mailing them), to be pestered with automatic replies everytime they send an e-mail (or maybe it's set so only the first e-mail from a sender gets an automated reply, even so, no "politeness obligation").

Even assuming the cost is effectively zero (one's time is worth something, but let's say the time for setting up an automated response is de minimis), so what?

Quaere: Do you respond to every single (not obviously spam, not rude) e-mail you receive? Or do you have an automated reply set up? After all, your ID makes your Yahoo e-mail available, so you are holding yourself out as willing to receive unsolicited e-mail. I was tempted to put it to the test by sending you an e-mail, but it wouldn't be fair...
10.21.2008 12:31am
Epeeist: the issue is more one of professional/collegial courtesy than of universal obligation. Professor Kerr is under no obligations to set up an autoreply or to personally respond to all emails, but when they are emails from someone in the field (and I don't know if you've ever had to sit through a law school orientation, but these days the administration makes damn sure to impress upon new students that, upon enrolling, we become part of the profession and our conduct should reflect that fact), the courtesy of a response, even if that response is a kiss-off of some sort, is usually extended in most professions. I imagine this is the undercurrent of Prof. Kerr's question.

And to be perfectly honest, if he's really limiting the question of how to respond to students who can't ask politely and who address him rudely, then that demonstrates the emailer approached the situation with a lack of courtesy, and so none need be extended in return. But when it's students or colleagues asking for guidance on an issue where he has expertise (and, of course, time to respond without creating an unreasonable burden on himself), then I think it's probably the right thing to do.

(If nothing else, it'll help him build his cheering section for when he's a judicial nominee.)
10.21.2008 12:41am
Thales (mail) (www):
Quote them your hourly consulting rate.
10.21.2008 1:47am
LM (mail):

Do you respond to every single (not obviously spam, not rude) e-mail you receive?

Unless it's from someone who knows me well enough not to be insulted by my erratic correspondence, yes. And as some VCers have discovered, thanks to the infrequency with which I check certain e-mail accounts, that response may come months later, but it does eventually come.
10.21.2008 4:47am
I agree with Sasha. Not every e-mail requires a response. Particularly not unsolicited e-mails from out of the blue.
10.21.2008 12:09pm

Sasha writes in response to my suggestions: Let me feel you up, I don't have nails?

Any time, Sasha. But aren't you married?
10.21.2008 3:56pm
Adina (mail) (www):
I would ask the student what school he or she attends, then recommend a professor whom you believe could answer the question well. I think that this approach is helpful, wouldn't take too much of your time, and may even flatter the colleague at the student's university.
10.24.2008 3:18am