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Author: Dave Hoffman


Sally can’t argue that (on law school exams)

PrintAt most law schools, first year students get back their fall semester grades this week.  This can be a difficult time for students who – often for the first time – are on the bottom half of steep curves.  If you are in that situation, I thought I’d offer one tip that might help you diagnosis a correctable problem with exam-taking technique.  When you get back your exam, and before you look at the model answer, I’d urge you to scan your exam for the following phrases:

  • could argue that; or
  • might argue that; or
  • has an argument…

Every time you see this phrase, highlight it in red ink.  It’s almost certainly leading you down a dark path.

Why is this phrase pernicious?  Because, very often, it signals that you are about to fail to actually evaluate the noted argument. Rather, you will simply list the possibility (in contracts, for example, “A could argue that the correspondence of May 1 was an offer”) and not tell the reader whether or not that claim is a plausible or winning one in court.  Though sometimes professors truly want to see a kitchen sink answer listing every possible claim, most, instead, are testing judgment. Judgment requires one to actually evaluate legal claims, not to list them.  The problem with “argue that” is that it leads you to think that you are actually saying something — implicitly, that the argument raised is plausible? — without articulating the predicate rationale and limiting conditions. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat with students in exam reviews, pointed out this phrase, only to have the student tell me that they knew that the argument was a good or bad one, but they failed to put that judgment on the page.  “Argue that” blinds you to your own failure to exercise your situation sense.

The great thing about this tic is that it’s a useful, concrete, red flag for conclusory exam writing, which typically distinguishes average exams from great ones.  If you are working on your computer, you can simply use the find function before handing in the exam to make sure that you haven’t fallen into the trap.  Other tics, like “obviously,” “clearly,” and “certainly,” are similar but aren’t as prevalent on law school exam answers. Eliminating “could argue that” also helps to omit needless words: instead of introducing issues before disposing of them, you can simply fold the analysis into the introductory sentence. Thus: “While the May 1 letter has some of the markings of an offer (it identifies price & amount), it fails to state the timing of delivery and most courts will follow Nebraska Seed in denying formation.”

Now, you could argue that this is all needlessly pedantic mutterings over style points, when the real skills that ought to separate good from bad exams concern doctrine.  But, if you did make that argument, you’d be wrong. Being conclusory – that is, assuming the conclusion in question and failing to analyze why the answer follows from the facts – is the key sin on most issue-spotter exams.  You can learn to be less conclusory over time by training yourself to see it in your writing.  And, if you got bad news this week, spotting conclusory writing before it’s graded will go a long way toward better news in May.


First Day of Civil Procedure

Today’s the first day of  Civil Procedure I at Temple. I like teaching the course: the material is complicated enough to make class time worthwhile; student expectations are very low and exceeding them is  a cinch; some deep problems of institutional design arise which offer rich material for good discussion.  Plus, it’s now on the Multistate Bar!  That said, I’ve some concerns about the course — you might call them existential, or (if you are disposed to be less charitable) “unduly repetitive.”

First, almost every civil procedure course taught to 1Ls in this country focuses on federal procedure.  I’ve argued before (using the image heading this post) that this is an odd choice. Why do the FRCP dominate over state rules? The best argument is that they prepare student for multi-jurisdictional practice. The second best argument is that many state procedural regimes ape federal law – a story of the latent triumph of the Swift regime that I might write about someday soon. But, honestly, I’ve a sneaking suspicion that most law professors teach federal procedure because they simply don’t know the current  state procedural practice at the school where they teach.  Note: practice, not rules – that is, it’s difficult to keep up with changes in the on-the-ground practice of procedural change in state court when you have another full-time job and aren’t regularly jousting in court. For example, in Philadelphia, there’s a Discovery Court.  That Court has some rules.  But those rules’ application varies so widely between judges, and changes yearly as judges rotate, that teaching the rules themselves would be insanity.  By contrast, the federal system is relatively uniform, transparent and stable.  A full-time law professor can teach the federal rules & federal cases and provide students a fair approximation of the lay of the land.  Thus, for all of the plausible reasons in the world, we teach procedural rules which are often irrelevant to the work of most graduates.

Second, most Civ Pro courses allocate time based on available case law. Hence: more days on personal jurisdiction, and fewer on discovery.  Again, this decision makes some pedagogical sense. If the first year is about learning how to read cases, jurisdiction cases certainly provide illustrative examples of doctrinal evolution. That’s true especially since the hard questions of internet jurisdiction are likely to remain largely unsettled. But how about the time spent on Erie? Though that case is iconic, I doubt that Erie issues come up very often in real cases.  It’s sort of like the Contract course’s focus on consideration and promissory estoppel instead of interpretation.

At the same time, the real billable output of procedural questions is often document review & consequent deposition practice.  Though many professors teach some variant of deposition practice as a part of a procedure course, none that I’m aware of require students to engage in the “skill” of document review of a large set of irrelevant results.  This may be changing: some schools are teaching students how to use technological solutions to review requests, though typically such experiences are divorced from the basic procedure course and instead segregated into a law & tech class. But it’s hard to imagine that you could actually shape a first year course around discovery.

Third, very few casebooks, and thus very few courses, spend significant time on the intersection of contract and procedure outside of the forum selection context.  Maybe that’s because there’s no there there.  Or maybe it’s for ideological reasons.  Regardless, it’s obviously true that civil cases are being eaten up by arbitral proceedings, whose largely-secret and evolving procedures are very difficult to study in the first year.

What’s the upshot? The course is called procedure, but it’s far more typically taught as a legal process course driven by due process concerns & the Matthews test. That’s not a terrible thing, though it does present a bit of truth-in-advertising concern, no?  Perhaps Law Schools should rename Civil Procedure as “Some Musings on the Constitutional Roots of Procedural Problems.”


Flat-Rate Law School Tuition?

Articles in Slate and  the Times make a convincing psychological and economic argument against discounting tuition, especially outside of super-elite institutions. The data suggest that schools ought to offer fixed, lower, rates which all students pay equally.  If widely adopted, no-haggle tuition pricing would be both revenue neutral and significantly more transparent than the current system. So why don’t law schools follow the model? Off the top of my head:

  1. Student scholarships are donor-magnets; and
  2. The Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Donor preferences would be a tough nut to crack.  In a world of increasingly stretched resources, schools are going to be loath to abandon a tried-and-true way of activating their alumni networks. Except for at those super-elite schools, pitches in support of faculty (scholarly) resources or curricular offerings are often tough sells.  I suppose that donors could be channeled into other kinds of student support, but there’s nothing quite as compelling as helping individuals access legal education.

The second problem is also a doozy.  Look at what happened to J.C. Penny.  However, it’s not as if every day low pricing is impossible.  For instance, if the federal government were to condition aid on granular tuition transparency, I think we’d see uniform pricing rather quickly. To see why, imagine a world where all students’ real costs were knowable. There’d be immediately and power leveling pressure from the student body.  The easiest solution would be to eliminate discounts but charge a lower real rate. However, I’ve not seen proposals on the table to change accreditation in this direction, and the current system is clearly hostile to a no-discount tuition strategy. Thus, we’re going to continue to live in a world where every student coming in the door pays something different.



Executives Say the Funniest Things

The now week-old expose of disarray in the front-office of the Seattle Mariners contains many great tidbits.  From the discussions of nitpicking the fonts in a powerpoint deck, to the puffery about sabermetrics, it suggests that baseball teams’ front-offices look very much like the rest of corporate america.  And here’s the anecdote to prove it:

“[Team manager Eric] Wedge described how, starting in 2011, [team President Chuck] Armstrong would visit his office and gravely say things like: ‘Howard [Lincoln, the Mariner's CEO] sent me down here and … we’ve got to win.’

Wedge would shrug in agreement, telling him he wanted to win every night. But he’s like, ‘No, we’ve really got to win. We’ve got to go 5-2 on this trip. We’ve got to win tonight.’”

We’ve really got to win.  Most of the time, it’s more or less optional! Needless to say, in a universe where success is determined by quarterly returns and flexible GAAP accounting, this is exactly the kind of direction that leads to cooking the books.  Sadly for the Mariners, their success was harder to manufacture.


Stipulated Damages, Exculpatory Clauses and Unconscionability

On re-reading Discover Bank v. Superior Court (Cal. 2005) I found myself getting hung up on a conceptual problem you might be able to help me with.  The Discover Bank court considered the validity of class action arbitration waivers. Holding such waivers unconscionable as a matter of law, the court halted (that is, until Concepcion) arbitration’s inexorable conquest of consumer litigation.  The court reasoned was that such waivers presented issues of both procedural and substantive unconscionability.  Procedural, the waivers were default-forcing “bill stuffers” and consequently not meaningfully chosen.  Substantively, “they may operate effectively as exculpatory contract clauses . . . because . . . damages in consumer cases are often small . . and the class action is often the only effective way to halt and redress [wrongdoing.]“

The question I have is what distinguishes “exculpatory clauses” – typically thought to be against public policy – from ordinary “stipulated damages” clauses, which are subject to reasonableness review. I unaware of any scholarship that tries to define exactly what stipulated damages are (and are not). Consider two possibilities:

  • To the extent that stipulated clauses are broadly defined, so as, for example, to include bespoke procedure, courts’ permissive treatment of stipulated damage clauses would seem to then imply vastly more private-party control over remedies than the traditionally-narrow scope that the term stipulated damage implies.
  • But perhaps such clauses are narrowly defined – that is, the stipulation must relate only to damages flowing from the contract (i.e., a term that limited parties’ ability to seek specific performance would not count as a stipulated damages clause, nor would a waiver of damages for a tort). In that case the Discover Bank court’s categorical move is more defensible, but it’s not obvious that the line between damage and remedy makes sense analytically.

A third possibility is that stipulate damage reasonableness review is limited to scenarios where some remedies remain on the table, regardless of whether the remedy arises out of a claim related to the contract or not; the categorical public policy bar from Discover Bank applies when all remedies are precluded.  Discover Bank is, again, a bad case for that claim, since not all contract remedies were precluded, only those which would deter future harms.

Anyway, it’s a puzzle.  Thoughts?


What Should We Be Working On? Empirical Civil Procedure Post CELS

Earlier this week, I argued that civil procedure empiricists are spending too much time on the Twiqbal problem.  That’s not the same as saying that Twiqbal is an unimportant set of cases.  It probably signals an important shift in federal pleading doctrine, and, arguably, some litigants we care about are being shut out of federal court. I mean to say merely this: the amount of attention paid to Twiqbal is exceeding its importance to litigants (over state and federal court).  Our focus is being driven largely by data availability and law professor incentives. We can do better.

I’m starting to make a genre of these “people should be writing about X not Y” posts.  Boy, that could get tiresome fast!  Luckily, no one actually has to listen to me except for the poor 1Ls.  In any event, it seemed useful to start a conversation about what topics are more worth writing about than Twiqbal. Use the comment thread below to generate a list and if there’s enough interest I’ll create a poll. To qualify, the topic has to be real-data-driven (i.e., not merely doctrinal analysis, not experimental, etc.); and there must be a way, in theory, to get the data.  For example,

  • Does law influence outcomes in small claims court?
  • How well do choice of law clauses work in state court?
  • When do attorneys matter?
  • What are the determinants of summary judgment grant rates in state courts?
  • Is there a way to get a handle on which cases are being “diverted” to arbitration or “carved-[back]-in“?



CELS VII: Data is Revealing Part 2


Shouldn't it be "data are revealing?"

Shouldn’t it be “data are revealing?”

[This is part 2 of my recap of the Penn edition of CELS, promised here. For Part 1, click here.  For previous installments in the CELS recap series, see CELS IIIIVV, and VIVII.]

Where were we?  I know: throwing stink-bombs at a civil procedure panel!

At the crack of dawn saturday I stumbled into the Contracts II panel. Up first was Ian Ayres, presenting Remedies for the No Read Problem in Consumer Contracting, co-authored with Alan Schwartz.  Florencia Marotta-Wurgler provided comments.  The gist of Ayres’ paper is that consumers are optimistic about only a few hidden terms in standard-form contracts. For most terms, they guess the content right. Ayres argued that should be concerned only when consumers believe that terms are better than they actually are.  The paper  proposes that firms make such terms more salient with a disclosure box, after requiring firms to learn about consumer’s knowledge on a regular basis. Basically: Schumer’s box, psychologically-calibrated, for everyone.  Florencia M-W commented that since standard-form contracts evolve rapidly, such a calibrated disclosure duty might be much more administratively complex than Ayres/Schwartz would’ve thought.  A commentator in the crowd pointed out that since the proposal relies on individuals’ perceptions of what terms are standard, in effect it creates a one-way ratchet. The more people learn about terms through the Ayres/Schwartz box, the weaker the need for disclosure. I liked this point, though it appears to assume that contract terms react fairly predictably to market forces. Is that true?  Here are some reasons to doubt it.

Zev Eigen then presented An Experimental Test of the Effectiveness of Terms & Conditions.  Ridiculously fun experiment — the subjects were recruited to do a presidential poll. The setup technically permitted them to take the poll multiple times, getting paid each time.  Some subjects were exhorted not to cheat in this way; others told that the experimenters trusted them not to cheat; others were given terms and conditions forbidding cheating. Subjects exhorted not to cheat and trusted not to cheat both took the opportunity to game the system significantly less often than those presented with terms and conditions. Assuming external validity, this raises a bit of a puzzle: why do firms attempt to control user behavior through T&Cs? Maybe T&Cs aren’t actually intended to control behavior at all! I wondered, but didn’t ask, if T&Cs that wrapped up with different formalities (a scan of your fingerprint; a blank box requiring you to actually try to sign with your mouse) would get to a different result.  Maybe T&Cs now signal “bad terms that I don’t care to read” instead of “contract-promise.”  That is, is it possible to turn online T&Cs back into real contracts?

Next, I went to Law and Psych to see “It All Happened So Slow!”: The Impact of Action Speed on Assessments of Intentionality by Zachary C. Burns and Eugene M. Caruso. Bottom line: prosecutors should use slow motion if they want to prove intent. Second bottom line: I need to find a way to do cultural cognition experiments that involving filming friends jousting on a bike. I then hopped on over to International Law, where Adam Chilton presented an experimental paper on the effect of international law rules on public opinion. He used a mTurk sample.  I was a concern troll, and said something like “Dan Kahan would be very sad were he here.” Adam had a good set of responses, which boiled down to “mTurk is a good value proposition!”  Which it is.

After lunch it was off to a blockbuster session on Legal Education. There was a small little paper on the value of law degrees. And then,  Ghazala Azmat and Rosa Ferrer presented  Gender Gaps in Performance: Evidence from Young Lawyers. They found that holding all else equal, young women lawyers tend to bill somewhat fewer hours than men, a difference attributable to being less likely to report being highly interested in becoming partners while spending more time on child care.  What was noteworthy was the way they were able to mine the After the JD dataset. What seemed somewhat more troubling was the use of hours billed as a measure of performance, since completely controlling for selection in assignments appeared to me to be impossible given the IVs available.  Next, Dan Ho and Mark Kelman presented Does Class Size Reduce the Gender Gap? A Natural Experiment in Law. Ho and Kelman found that switching to small classes significantly increases the GPA of female law students (eliminating the gap between men and women). This is a powerful finding – obviously,it would be worth it to see if it is replicable at other schools.

The papers I regret having missed include How to Lie with Rape Statistics by Corey Yung (cities are lying with rape statistics); Employment Conditions and Judge Performance: Evidence from State Supreme Courts by Elliott Ash and W. Bentley MacLeod (judges respond to job incentives);  and Judging the Goring Ox: Retribution Directed Towards Animals by Geoffrey Goodwin and Adam Benforado.  I also feel terrible having missed Bill James, who I hear was inspirational, in his own way.

Overall, it was a tightly organized conference – kudos to Dave Abrams, Ted Ruger, and Tess Wilkinson-Ryan.  There could’ve been more law & psych, but that seems to be an evergreen complaint. Basically, it was a great two days.  I just wish there were more Twiqbal papers.




CELS VIII: Data is Revealing, Part 1.


"If you are going to mine my data, at least have the courtesy of displaying predictive probabilities!"

“If you are going to mine my data, at least have the courtesy of displaying predictive probabilities!”

[This is part 1 of my recap of the Penn edition of CELS, promised here.  For previous installments in the CELS recap series, see CELS III, IV, V, and VI, VII.]

Barry Schwartz might’ve designed the choice set facing me at the opening of CELS. Should I go to Civil Procedure I (highlighted by a Dan Klerman paper discussing the limits of Priest-Klein selection), Contracts I (where Yuval Feldman et al. would present on the relationship between contract clause specificity and compliance), on Judicial Decisionmaking and Settlement (another amazing Kuo-Chang Huang paper). [I am aware, incidentally, that for some people this choice would be Morton's. But those people probably weren't the audience for this post, were they.] I bit the bullet and went to Civ Pro, on the theory that it’d be a highly contentious slugfest between heavyweights in the field, throwing around words like “naive” and “embarrassing.”  Or, actually, I went hoping to learn something from Klerman, which I did. The slugfest happened after he finished.

In response to a new FJC paper on pleading practices, a discussant and a subsequent presenter criticized the FJC’s work on Twiqbal. The discussant argued that the FJC’s focus on the realities of lawyers’ practice was irrelevant to the Court’s power-grab in Twombly, and that pleading standards mattered infinitely more than pleading practice.  The presenter argued that the FJC committed methodological error in their important 2011 survey, and that their result (little effect) was misleading. The ensuing commentary was not restrained. Indeed, it felt a great deal like the infamous CELS death penalty debate from 2008. One constructive thing did come out of the fire-fight: the FJC’s estimable Joe Cecil announced that he would be making the FJC’s Twombly dataset available to all researchers through Vandy’s Branstetter program. We’ll all then be able to replicate the work done, and compare it to competing coding enterprises. Way to go, Joe!

But still, it was a tense session.  As it was wrapping up, an economically-trained empiricist in the room commented how fun he had found it & how he hoped to see more papers on the topic of Twombly in the future. I’d been silent to that point, but it was time to say something.  Last year in this space I tried being nice: “My own view would go further: is Twiqbal’s effect as important a problem as the distribution of CELS papers would imply?” This year I was, perhaps impolitically, more direct.

I conceded that analyzing the effect of Twombly/Iqbal wasn’t a trivial problem. But if you had to make a list of the top five most important issues in civil procedure that data can shed light on, it wouldn’t rank.* I’m not sure it would crack the top ten.  Why then have Twiqbal papers eaten market share at CELS and elsewhere since 2011? Some hypotheses (testable!) include: (1) civil procedure’s federal court bias; (2) giant-killing causes publication, and the colossi generally write normative articles praising transsubstantive procedure and consequently hate Twombly; (3) network effects; and (4) it’s where the data are. But these are bad reasons. Everyone knows that there is too much work on Twombly. We should stop spending so much energy on this question. It is quickly becoming a dead end.

So I said much of that and got several responses. One person seemed to suggest that a good defense of Twiqbal fixation was that it provided a focal point to organize our research and thus build an empirical community. Another suggested that even if law professors were Twiqbal focused, the larger empirical community was not (yet) aware of the importance of pleadings, so more attention was beneficent. And the rest of folks seemed to give me the kind of dirty look you give the person who blocks your view at a concert. Sit down! Don’t you see the show is just getting started?

Anyway, after that bit of theatre, I was off to a panel on Disclosure. I commented (PPT deck) on Sah/Lowenstein, Nothing to Declare: Mandatory and Voluntary Disclosure leads advisors to avoid conflicts of interestThis was a very, very good paper, in the line of disclosure papers I’ve previously blogged here. The innovation was that advisors were permitted to walk away from conflicts instead of being assigned to them immutably. This one small change cured disclosure’s perverse effect. Rather than being morally licensed by disclosure to lie, cheat and steal, advisors free to avoid conflicts were chastened by disclosure just as plain-vanilla Brandeisian theory would’ve predicted.   In my comments, I encouraged Prof. Sah to think about what happened if advisors’ rewards in the COI were returned to a third party instead of to them personally, since I think that’s the more legally-relevant policy problem. Anyway, definitely worth your time to read the paper.

Then it was off to the reception. Now, as our regular readers know, the cocktail party/poster session is a source of no small amount of stress. On the one hand, it’s a concern for the organizers. Will the food be as good as the legendary CELS@Yale? The answer, surprisingly, was “close to it”, headlined by some grapes at a cheese board which were the size of small apples and tasted great.  Also, very little messy finger food, which is good because the room is full of the maladroit.  But generally, poster sessions are terribly scary for those socially awkward introverts in the crowd. Which is to say, the crowd. In any event, I couldn’t socialize because I had to circle the crowd for you. Thanks for the excuse!

How about those posters?  I’ll highlight two. The first was a product of Ryan Copus and Cait Unkovic of Bolt’s JSP program. They automated text processing of appellate opinions and find significant judge-level effects on whether the panel reverses the district court’s opinion, as well as strong effects for the decision to designate an opinion for publication in the first instance. That was neat. But what was neater was the set of judicial base cards, complete with bubble-gum and a judge-specific stat pack, that they handed out.  My pack included Andrew Kleinfeld, a 9th circuit judge who inspired me to go to law school.  The second was a poster on the state appellate courts by Thomas Cohen of the AO. The noteworthy findings were: (1) a very low appeal-to-merits rate; and (2) a higher reversal rates for plaintiff than defendant wins at trial. Overall, the only complaint I’d make about the posters was that they weren’t clearly organized in the room by topic area, which would have made it easier to know where to spend time.  Also, the average age of poster presenters was younger than the average age of presenters of papers, while the average quality appeared as high or higher. What hypotheses might we formulate to explain that distribution?

That was all for Day 1. I’ll write about Day 2, which included a contracts, international law, and legal education sessions,  in a second post.


*At some point, I’ll provide a top ten list.  I’m taking nominations.  If it has federal court in the title, you are going to have to convince me.


Your Daily Provocation

From Daniel McCarthy:

“As a guideline, originalism clearly has merits: it leaves most politics to the political branches, even if it might not succeed in leaving all politics to them; and it may encourage, at least up to the point, a degree of modesty on the part of the judge—relative, that is, to theories that loudly assert the scope that judges actually have in rendering opinions. In some ways, originalism and the broader backlash against the activism of the pre-Rehnquist court may have disguised just how bad the alternatives could be: the Supreme Court has been less adventurous in the last 30 years, and conservatives who remember how adventurous it was earlier in the 20th century may be frustrated that the danger they perceive isn’t felt as strongly by someone like me.

But I remain skeptical. Jurisprudence is an area where I find very little conservative self-examination as searching as that on display in various schools of economics and foreign policy. Indeed, traditionalists and libertarians who reject conservative-movement talking points on economics or foreign policy sometimes sound like just like Rush Limbaugh or Bill Kristol when it comes to the courts. This consensus may exist for a good reason—because it’s formed around a correct doctrine—but it may just mean that the best minds of the right have yet to turn sufficient attention to this area.”

McCarthy doesn’t add the more cynical supposition that criticism of originalism on the right is a sure way off the greased (federalist) career path that the last thirty years has carved out. But the buried argument in this paragraph is worth excavating: the success of the counterrevolution has blinded those who came after to how adventurous – and wrong – the original Warren-court’s premises about judicial and national power and competency turned out to be. A version of this argument is now the CW, at least in some circles.  And so I wonder…how many lawyers born after 1970 would actually want to live in a world governed by Earl Warren and his band again? Could it possibly be more than 20%?


CELS 2013: Up Close and Personal.

This weekend is CELS VIII, to be held at Penn Law.  As our readers know, it’s my practice to provide a summary of the conference – or at least those bits I attend. (See here for CELS VII and links to 3-6). This year is no different. You can find the program and papers up on a very, very cool looking webpage here. I intend to go to everything, including the talk by Bill James.  Who I hope will spend his time talking about my extensive writings on the interaction of sabermetrics and ELS.  But who likely will talk about how the Red Sox are awesome and the Phillies are not.