Category: Law Student Discussions

pedantic446
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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.

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Contracts Casebook Survey Results

The frightful stress gripping legal education is one reason why all law professors may be interested in the newly-released results of the Washington Law Review survey of law teachers of Contracts conducted in mid-2013.

Available here, the results from 138 respondents consist of numerical summaries of multiple choice questions and synthesis of their written comments that I culled.  A sampling from the latter appears below.

The results are of inherent interest to those teaching Contracts and speak to broader questions of legal pedagogy of value to others, including the allocation of time in the first year, the utility of the case method of instruction, and desire for change versus the tug of tradition.

(The survey was done in connection with a symposium inspired by my recent book, Contracts in the Real World, which has also just been published, here, featuring contributions from Aditi Bagchi, Brian Bix, Larry DiMatteo, Erik Gerding, Charles Knapp, Jake Linford, and Jennifer Taub.)

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Welcoming All 1Ls Across America!

Welcome all first-year law students to the wonderful world of law!  I teach Contracts at George Washington University (though I’m visiting at Fordham University this fall).  My students find it useful to begin our journey into that subject–which many find can be difficult–with a step back to look at the shape of the first-year law school curriculum.

It has not changed much in a century and does not vary widely among law schools today, from Cooley to Columbia.  I also try to be sure to connect the topics and examples appearing in today’s casesbooks (which have also not changed much over time and do not vary from school to school) to current topics in the news.  Students at other schools can share in these stories by obtaining a copy of my book, a fun supplement to the Contracts course,  Contracts in the Real World: Stories of Popular Contracts and Why They Matter.

Some thoughts about the shape of today’s 1L curriculum appear in the beginning of the book, including the following excerpt.  I summarize this for my students on our first day of class to give a sense of why today’s curriculum looks as it does and where contract law fits within it.

The curriculum dates to a legendary figure of nearly a century and a half ago.  In the 1870s, C. C. Langdell, as Dean of Harvard Law School, designed a simple way to organize the vast field of law still used to this day. He thought that underlying law’s complexity were a handful of basic ideas. Examining leading cases organized around these ideas would reveal law’s elements and rhythms.

Common law actions, meaning those courts resolve one by one, were of greatest interest to Langdell and dominate many 1L courses, including Contracts.  In the United States, following English traditions, common law is developed by state courts as disputes arise. Originally referring to law “common” to all citizens, today this system yields some variation among states, but general principles tend to prevail. Though the common law evolves as society and the economy change, judges draw on precedents when evaluating new cases—under the principle of stare decisis.

Langdell organized the welter of cases on numerous topics according to basic questions: how, what, and why. The question of how isolates the procedures private parties follow when resolving disputes using civil litigation. This is the practice of the lawsuit, arranged into the sub-field of study called civil procedure. Read More

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Of Law and Self-Loathing

“I’m a self-loathing law student,” confessed one of the students in my Critical Race Theory seminar this week. Several others immediately owned up to the same affliction. I will stipulate that self-loathing is probably not an affect we all should strive to achieve. But I was heartened anyway.

Twenty-five years ago when I began teaching law, my social-justice-minded students regularly veered from rage and tears at moral wrongs to a defiant hope. They sustained themselves and one another with a faith that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice, as Dr. King is thought to have said. And they ultimately placed their trust in law and especially the courts.

My students were not alone. Even by the mid-1980s, many of us lawyers and law professors were still recovering from the collective daze of delight induced by the Second Reconstruction and the Warren and Burger Court eras. Of course, we were already in the throes of affirmative-action backlash and judicial retrenchment; colorblind constitutionalism was shaped before our very eyes; and even as a law student I had studied Harris v. McRae in my equal protection class and learned that the formal declaration of a constitutional right is not the same as the economic security needed to exercise it. Yet the romance, the belief that getting the courts to pronounce a legal right was a mighty blow for justice, lingered on.

Maybe it was the continued influence of the post-war “idea of America as a normative concept,” as Edward Purcell  put it in 1973: the incorporation throughout social and political debate of “terms that were analytically confused but morally coercive – patriotism, Americanism, free enterprise system, mission, and, most grossly, ‘we’re number one.’” In the culture of legal academia, this logic translated into a faith in the jurisprudence of legal process. In my little corner of the world we were all reading Democracy and Distrust and trying to locate neutral principles. The faith that procedural fairness, at least, could be achieved despite a lack of consensus about the good life reinforced a belief in the American rule of law as an unshakable bulwark of democratic fairness. That sentiment was entwined with a professional loyalty to the law: to have gone to law school was in itself a statement about one’s commitment to the law as the royal (I mean “democratic”) road to justice.

So when critical legal studies, feminist legal theory, and then critical race theory hit the academy around this time, the crits (like the Legal Realists before them) were accused of “nihilism” and shown the door. Critical legal theory was not just a disloyalty to the civil rights movement but to the rule of law itself. It was subversive, in those mid-1980s days, to pass around The Hollow Hope  and to insist, as the crits were loudly doing, that “reification” and “legitimation” were basic functions of legal reasoning. The trust that the system works – or, at least, could work if we got it right – was now being dubbed “legal liberalism” by the crits, and being skewered in massively long and ponderous articles about fundamental contradictions. But the critics could be challenged by asking them where their “positive program” was. And they could (sometimes) be silenced by demands that they leave the law altogether.

For the crit project seemed deeply and radically anti-law. We junior professors, reading their work and sometimes contributing to it, felt like outlaws (which brought with it a sense of being dangerous and cool, along with a sense of vulnerability heightened by our lack of tenure and the material consequences of being perceived as a nihilist). At the same time, interestingly, the practice of teaching was not too different for us as it was for our older Legal Process colleagues. It was all about puncturing our students’ illusions, showing them the indeterminacy of legal reasoning and teaching them how to surf on it, questioning the use of words like “fairness.” It was just that we had no shining neutral-principles machine to lift from the bottom of Pandora’s box at the end of the day.

I don’t mean to suggest that legal liberalism and faith in the rule of law as central to the American way ever died. At a conference at Santa Clara Law School last week on race and sexuality, some of the lawyers and academics gathered there bemoaned a “politics of civil rights” that has somehow placed marriage equality at the top of the LGBT agenda. The charge was familiar: too many lawyers and non-lawyers alike believe that “gay is the new black;” that the civil rights movement brought about racial equality and “now it’s our turn;” that if we prove we are just like them, we’ll all be free. The rush to assimilate to mainstream institutions and practices throws under the bus, as usual, those most vulnerable to premature death – those without the racial, economic, and bodily privileges (and/or the desire) to get married, move to the suburbs, and blend in.

What was different was that an alternative position, the “politics of dispossession” as Marc Spindelman named it, was also on the table – not as a stance that made one’s commitment to the law suspect from the get-go, but as an accepted ground for lawyering. When thinking about sexuality we might want to begin, under this politics, not with marriage but with the kids doing sex work on International Boulevard in Oakland, as Margaret Russell pointed out. And, after decades of critical theory, it was taken as a truth in that room — if an inconvenient one — that to do this would mean instantly coming up against poverty, racism, and violence, forms of suffering law is not well positioned to ameliorate.

In this way, lawyering for social justice is a contradiction. Not in the “nihilist” sense, the law-as-a-tool-of-the-ruling-class notion that those who want justice ought to give up their bar cards and go protest in the streets. (My friend Norma Alarcón once identified this romantic position as the desire to “be out in the jungle with Che.”) Rather, the politics of dispossession begins with recognizing that the law is not designed to go to root causes; that fundamental changes in the ground rules, which is what the most vulnerable need, come from organizing;  and that lawyering isn’t useless, but that it looks different if it is prison abolition you want and not a marriage license.

More abstractly, the understanding in that room was that, as Patricia Williams said to the crits in one of the founding texts of critical race theory, law is both inadequate and indispensable in the struggle for justice. Post-legal-liberalism lawyering begins here.

What’s also new is that this commitment to living in the contradiction — accepting the tension between law and justice as a place to work rather than as a source of despair — is increasingly expressed not only by battle-scarred veterans at academic conferences but by law students. The desire to make positive social change has not gone away among my students. They still hope and expect that law can be used in the service of justice. But along with a waning of faith in the courts, they express an increasingly sophisticated awareness of the limits of the law more generally. They know, already, that justice and law are not the same. The task is no longer disillusioning them, but helping them develop the skills for finding what works and what doesn’t.

Okay, so “self-loathing” is probably not the best way to say it. But this wry recognition of the imperfection of law seems to me nevertheless an improvement over the wounded attachment to law as a portal to justice that seemed to mark so many progressive law students a generation ago. As the same student said later in the conversation that day, “That’s my contradiction, and I’m sticking to it.” There’s a wisdom there that’s heartening.

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Transactional Internships in the Summer after the First Year

A number of students have recently asked me about opportunities to work in transactional practice in the summer after their 1L year.   That kind of job search is challenging, as the typical kind of 1L practice revolves around planning for or resolving litigation (i.e., government agency litigation interns, judicial interns, public service interns).  Indeed, I imagine that a large plurality of law students who obtain a legal internship this summer (paid or not) will end up writing some kind of multi- or 50-state survey litigation memorandum.

However, there are transactional opportunities – at law firms (though these are hard to secure for 1Ls); in general counsel’s offices (same objection); in government; and, in particular, in tax and estate planning small practices.  I thought I’d open up a thread for folks to share ideas/experiences with transactional practice in the first summer.  If you had a great job, please tell us about it and what you did. If you’ve ideas for networking of job search, let’s make a public good of them.

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“Mentoring” versus “Scamming”

In law school teaching, as in dance competitions, it's important to know when to spin on a dime.

Today in Contracts, I taught Vokes v. Arthur Murray212 So. 2d 906 (1968).  In Vokes, a “widow of 51 years”1 sought to be relieved from her obligation to pay for dance lessons purchased from an Arthur Murray franchise.  She claimed that the defendant had lied to her about her abilities as a dancer – and, significantly, exaggerated her improvement.  She had an account with almost 2,000 hours of unused lessons outstanding, and she owed more than $200,000 (in 2010 dollars). Surprisingly, the court permitted that argument to go to a jury, reasoning that the studio’s superior knowledge, coupled with the defendant’s bad faith as illustrated by the facts, made this the kind of exceptional misleading “opinion” which might be actionable.

It’s a good teaching case.  But it got me to wondering about an issue tangentially raised by David Segal’s embarrassingly error-ridden and ideologically charged series in the Times about legal education, and more forcefully by the equally thoughtful Paul Campos. Both argue (ironically) that law schools are contributing to the problems of the legal profession by not raising higher barriers to entry.  Those barriers might be incidentally related to other worthy goals — experiential education, a single tenure system, and a more rigorous disclosure regime are all popular reforms that are very, very expensive.2  But sometimes reformers make a more direct claim: like the Texas lawyers of the 1930s, they claim that “Our bar, already overcrowded, is held out as an asylum for the lame, and the halt, and the blind from the law schools of this country.”  Law schools are failing students by encouraging them to apply (it’s a “scam”), taking their money (it’s really a “scam!”), not preparing them to practice (“scam! scam! scam!”), and then not supporting them in getting jobs (“SCAM!”)

But how far, I mused outloud in class, does this argument run?  Let’s say a student comes to your office hours early in the Fall semester.  They are lost.  Really, desperately, lost.  They are working all the time, but they can’t see the forest, the trees, the continent, the planet.  Law’s greek to them. What to do?  One view – let’s call this the Segal/Campos view – is that the morally right thing to do at that very moment is to 1) recognize that my livelihood depends on the students; 2) this puts me, like every provider of services, in a slightly compromised position when talking to a student about whether they ought to be in school; 3) realizing this, decide pretty quickly if I think that the student is a candidate for Bar passage and employment; 4) if not, tell the student that they’d be better off leaving school and pursuing other opportunities in today’s job market, or to take the Ayes-refund offer if it comes.

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Why did you decide to go to law school?

There is an intense conversation going on about the cost of legal education as compared to its benefits. The New York Times is doing a series of articles, Paul Campos at Colorado is offering his views, and Brian Tamanaha is posting a lot on this topic over at Balkinization.  Almost all of this discussion, however, focuses on the law schools or on lenders of student debt.

I’m struck by this fact.  Applications to law school are not going down much (or at all) notwithstanding the sharp increases in tuition and the decline of the job market.  Demand for legal education seems relatively inelastic. So I’d like the students who read the blog to answer this question–why did you decide to go to law school given the current economic conditions?  The floor is open.

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Digital Law Books: II

As we all migrate to the digital world, imagine the future of the law school course book by reflecting on its history, purposes, and promulgation over the seven generations since C.C. Langdell initiated our current mode of legal education in 1870.

Some see the future of digital course books as a radical shift, akin to the original revolution of Langdell’s Contracts casebook. Others dismiss it as a simple marketing maneuver, the way post-Langdell addition of notes, questions or problems might be regarded.

In a new essay, I look back at casebook history to find it suggests that digital course books are more likely to be something in between, an incremental but meaningful evolution. The essay, a chapter in a new book on the subject, engages with great innovations in law school course books over the past century-plus, highlighting historic contributions from luminaries across the century and today.

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The Opposite of Dog Eat Dog

At a Faculty Meeting years ago, our distingished new Dean, who’d been Dean elsewhere, President of a University, and CEO in the private sector, began by saying how people often ask him: “What’s the difference between the academic world and the corporate world?” 

The Dean said he replied: “In the corporate world, it’s DOG EAT DOG, whereas in the academic world, it is exactly the other way around.”  Those assembled at the Faculty Meeting laughed knowingly.

Just as the guffaws died out, my great and wonderful friend, a learned faculty member, and former Dean,  quipped: “Do you mean, in academia, it’s GOD EAT GOD?”  Louder knowing laughter erupted and I still laugh about it today.

Academia can be a wonderful place. Yet it’s no Ivory Tower and can be viscious , especially for younger scholars, doing graduate work at elite institutions.  It usually gets better but it can be tough later too. 

There are many ways to cope. One is remembering to research and write for yourself, in the first instance, not to please or even influence others.  Of course, it can be rewarding to have those effects and, especially, to be cited favorably, but that usually comes in due course.

Keeping a sense of humor and some sobriety about also helps.  Whenever I hear about the lion cages of graduate study, or vexing insecurity during early years of untenured appointments, I share the foregoing memorable scene.