What They Don’t Teach You in Law School

Posted in Uncategorized on October 19th, 2010 by bl1y

Yesterday I received an e-mail from LPM Publications, which is the Law Practice Management Section of the American Bar Association.  It was an advertisement for a new book Introduction to Law Firm Practice, which covers topics such as what on earth non-equity partners and of counsel are, law firm profit structures, and how to not just bring in new clients, but actually handle engagement letters, conflicts, and the like.

Sounds like something that would actually be useful for young attorneys so they can understand the business that they’re getting in to.  Even though they won’t be meeting with their big corporate clients any time soon, it is good to have a better understanding of the relationship between the client and the firm so that you can avoid making some dumb rookie mistakes.

And, unless you leave legal practice, this is something every lawyer will eventually need to know, unlike civil procedure, which only litigators will need, or the RAP and fee tail, which it turns out no one will ever need to know.

Now, remember that this is published by the same organization that sets law school accreditation standards, including what classes law schools must offer.  Repeat after me:

Conflict of interests.

Could the conflict here be any more clear?  This is information virtually every graduate will need, but very few law schools offer classes on law firm management.  It seems like precisely the type of thing law schools should then be required to teach.  But, why require schools to give basic information to students when you can give it to them for $79.95 a pop?

Just in case you think there’s a doubt as to whether a conflict really exists, here’s the title of the e-mail I got:

What They Don’t Teach You in Law School

You choose what they teach us in law school! You choose what they teach us in law school! You choose what they fucking teach us in fucking law fucking school!!!

Surely someone over there at the ABA has taken a class on professional responsibility and ethics, right?  I mean, that is a required class (as it should be), and I’m pretty sure the people running the ABA have been to law school, so they must have learned about conflicts of interests and seen this one a mile away.

But wait.  While the ABA requires law schools to not only offer professional responsibility, but to make it a required class, they don’t actually regulate the content of these classes.  The ABA merely requires that you have a class with the right words in the name, and which causes the registrar to check a certain box in your file.  Actually teaching professional responsibility and ethics is not required, as there is no monitoring or enforcement.

That’s okay though, the ABA publishes seven books on ethics and professional responsibility.

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Reason Not to Go to Law School #28

Posted in Reasons Not to Go to Law School on February 4th, 2010 by bl1y

Weird professors.

In addition to being lazy, ignorant, boring, and ripping you off, your law professors are downright weird sometimes.  I was digging around my old law school e-mail account looking for something else and stumbled upon these two messages I’d completely forgotten about.  I’ve edited some of the identifying information, but here’s the messages:

Subject: Urgent research request

Hi BL1Y,

Can you do a small research project this afternoon or tonite?
It involves finding ethical rules on 3 discrete topics.
If you can, please call my colleague Phil Goldman ASAP and leave him a message.
xxx-xxx-xxxx.
Leave him a number to reach you, I don’t have one.

Thank you.

Becky

Nevermind that Becky was my lawyering professor and had contact information from the entire class, so she did indeed have my cell phone number.  A few minutes later I got an e-mail from Phil, giving his cell phone number.  I guess he really needed me to get ahold of him right away and wasn’t going to be in his office.

Subject: Re: Urgent research request

Better yet.  Call me at xxx-xxx-xxxx

Phil Goldman

Anyone who’s worked in a law firm knows that lawyers have a pretty liberal understanding of what “urgent” means.  Law firm urgent usually deals with a partner having forgotten to give you an assignment with a deadline that’s fast approaching, or a client giving the partner an unreasonable demand and instead of the partner talking sense into the client, he just passes the buck to you.

But what the hell is urgent for a law professor?  Their biggest responsibility is grading exams, and I had two professors get their grades out late, so they don’t take it that seriously.  And Goldman was an assistant professor teaching Lawyering, so he didn’t have anything to grade, and didn’t have the publication duties of the regular, full time professors.

Perhaps he went above and beyond the responsibilities of his job (ha) and wrote a paper anyways, hoping to gain a better reputation and move up the academic ladder, and he needed some last minute research for a paper that was about to be published.  But, his current faculty profile doesn’t list any published work, and he specializes in immigration law, not ethics.

So why would an assistant professor need “urgent” research done on legal ethics?

I never found out.  By the time I got ahold of him, the issue was, I suppose, already resolved.  I got one of those vague “don’t worry about it” responses.  So, here’s what I figure happened:

Professor Goldman had some sort of ethics SNAFU, such as trading grades for sex.  But, not your typical quid pro quo, that’s too dangerous.  What you do is find another professor who can hook you up with one of his students, and he’ll inflate her grade, while you reciprocate by sending him one of your students and you fix her grade.

Or maybe he’d just been caught plagiarizing, who knows.  The thing is, since he wanted me to call his cell phone, he wasn’t going to be in his office, which is where most professors do their academic work.  Asking me to call his cell meant that this was more likely a personal problem.

And, like any prototypical American with minimal legal knowledge, he probably thought that the best way to deal with any sort of problem was to get incredibly lawyerly, research a bunch of laws, and throw statutes at your opponent.  But, being an assistant professor, his research skills were obviously sub par.  (Four years later, he’s still a mere assistant professor, and at a less prestigious school.)  So, he turns to a research assistant hoping I can bail him out.

Then, he realizes it might be awkward asking a student to look into whether it violates school policy to hide a dead hooker in the school’s coat check room during the summer when it’s not being used.  So, he tells me there’s nothing to worry about.

Pure conjecture, but it sounds pretty reasonable to me.

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Reason Not to Go to Law School #19

Posted in Reasons Not to Go to Law School on January 21st, 2010 by bl1y

Your professors are stealing from you.

After going through undergrad, most students have caught on to the highly unethical practices that dominate the text book industry.  A few professors get together, write a text book, and then it is sold to students all over the country at a huge price.  Then, to destroy a used book market (which generates no new royalties for the professors), every 3 years or so, they change the page numbers, add another 50 words of text, and release a new edition.  You probably could get by with a used book after a new edition comes out, but book stores won’t buy them from former students because it’s not listed as being used in any classes.

In law school the situation is worse, especially if you go to a top school (because professors at prestigious universities are more likely to be writing the text books).  Law schools, taking advantage of the terrible job prospects during the summer after your first year, hire law students at an incredibly cheap rate to do the vast majority of research and editing of text books.  After the first edition, most of the work is just making sure that the cases cited are still good law and scanning the legal horizon for any major developments.  This is pretty much all done by the research assistants.

In the end, text books are little more than compilations of opinions (written by judges) and articles (written by someone other than your professor).  Only a tiny part of the text is unique to that book.  The rest can be found on WestLaw or Lexis.  And, as a law student, you get free access to these databases and (at some schools) free printing.  So, a professor could very easily just give out a syllabus with the cases and articles listed and let you go get them for free.  But, instead they decide it’d be better if you spent $100+ a pop on the books.

To make matters worse for students, the text books rarely explain the materials clearly.  This is why supplements and study guides are created.  A lot more professors write study guides than text books, and their gear them towards the material they teach in their classes.  So, you’re fairly likely to be buying a study guide written by your own professor.  Again, the better your school, the more probable this is.

I don’t have any problem with professors, acting on their own accord, publishing materials that fill in the gaps of what text books don’t explain.  What I do have a problem with is professors not providing these material to their own students for free.  The students in your class are already paying tens of thousands of dollars for you to teach them.  So why should they have to pay extra money just to buy a book that explains what you’re supposed to be teaching them in the first place?  You shouldn’t have to pay your professor twice for one class.

So, we have a system in which students are forced to buy text books containing material they could have gotten for free, then they pay a professor to teach them, but the instruction is so poorly done that they need to buy a supplement, written by that professor, to understand the class.

But there’s still one important piece of the text book rip-off puzzle.  Most students are taking out loans to pay for law school, and this includes their text book expenses.  And, most of them are planning to pay off their loans by working grueling, unsatisfying jobs as attorneys.  On the other hand, professors tend to have pretty cushy jobs.  Short hours and low stress, all they’ve given up is law firm salaries.  So, they get that money from you.  Instead of working for a firm themselves, they’ve decided to get a piece of the action by ripping off hundreds or thousands of students each year (depending on how widely distributed their books are), and letting those students get the money by working at law firms.  Awesome.

Just to show that there really is a better way to do things, here are three real life examples I experienced:

One of my law professors actually did away with the text book and gave us a list of cases and articles to print ourselves.  So, yes, it can be done.

In undergrad I took several philosophy of law classes in which we read pretty much the same things law students read.  The professor had the school book store print up course packs that were sold at about $15 each.  The price covered the printed costs and a license to a couple copyrighted works.  We paid for only what we needed and saved a ton of money.

My other philosophy professors made a point of not teaching from books they had written, because they thought it would be unethical to force us to buy their books.  Law professors could do the same; write a text book, but then teach from a book written by someone else.  Only once was there a potential issue with my undergrad classes.  Ironically, it was Honors Ethics, and the last name on the book was the last name of the professor.  The book had actually been written by his father, but he still thought there was an ethical issue in assigning it.  However, he cited two facts that overcame the problem.  First, the book only cost $20, so it wasn’t a big burden on the students.  Second, it was the most widely taught ethics book in the country at the time, so assigning it had little to do with self gain, and more to do with it being a damn good book.

So, when you find a professor has assigned his own book for a class, feel free to raise you hand and ask him, point blank, if his book the absolute best book on the market, and if not, why has he chosen to profit from assigning an inferior text.  …And then make triple sure your class is graded anonymously.

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Reason Not to Go to Law School #12

Posted in Reasons Not to Go to Law School on January 13th, 2010 by bl1y

Useless Classes.

I’m not talking about the classes that are supposed to be useful but ultimately fail, I’m talking about the ones that don’t even purport to be useful. BitterLawyer.com ran a bit on this a while ago, highlighting 11 worthless classes, and I thought I’d revisit the topic, but see just how much crap I could churn up by limiting myself to only the Spring 2010 classes at the Top 5 schools.

Yale

Book of Job and Injustice. Not a class about injustice in the job market, but a class on how to use the Biblical Book of Job to understand injustice in the world. The class is basically “Why does God allow bad things to happen?” This was one of the many topics we covered in my philosophy of religion class in undergrad, which is precisely where it belongs.

Ethics in Literature. I understand the importance of having classes in legal ethics, and why some students are interested in Law and Literature (because they’re book nerds and it looks like an easy class), but Ethics in Literature? This class would be a thousand times more effective if you just cut out the books and discussed some of the more complex or intriguing ethical dilemmas (legal or otherwise) thought have been thought up during centuries of philosophical circle jerks.

Harvard

Democracy Of, By, and For the People: Reading Group. This is a class on “(1) community life, (2) self governance, and (3) accountability to the common good,” which requires students to “prepare periodic ‘one-pagers’ on mutually agreed upon topics.” Flimsy topic? Bullshit assignments? Sign me up!

Great Books: Reading Group. “This reading group is meant to be an antidote. Nowadays, law students arrive at law school having read less and less history and literature.” So what’s Harvard’s solution to this? Reading and discussing one “great book,” Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, a book so great you’ve probably never heard of it. At least the class is only worth one credit. In my English Honors Seminar we read The Iliad, The Aeneid, Paradise Lost, Tom Jones, and Moby Dick. That’s how you make up for a lack of exposure to literature and history. Not with a class where “Soft drinks, wine, cheese and so forth will be provided.”

Jewish Law’s Response to Gentile Law: Internal Views of External Influences: Advanced Reading Group. Holy Moses, what a freaking waste of time. The class will “explore the language Jewish law uses to describe its own perception of its relation to Gentile law.” It’s not even a class on Jewish law, it’s a class on the linguistics of Jewish law. And what makes this an “advanced” reading group? You must be able to read Hebrew to attend. In other words: Only God’s chosen people are allowed.

The Past and Future of the Left. We all know universities tend to lean liberal, and law schools are no exception. But this class is quite literally about how students can get the party of “greater equality and empowerment” to overcome its current internal conflicts.

Stanford

Law and Creativity: Fiction and Nonfiction. I almost didn’t read this one, thinking it would be a class on intellectual property. But, I’m sure glad I did. This class is broken down into two components; in the first students “examine and discuss creative treatments of legal and professional issues in a variety of media (including film, fiction, and nonfiction),” and in the second they “submit their own fiction and creative nonfiction pieces for group discussion.” Basically, it’s watching A Few Good Men followed by a creative writing workshop where you’re critiqued by people with little or no creative writing background.

Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Another wonderful reading group brought to you by America’s higher education system. This is pure discussion group, no lecture. And to make sure it is extra useless to lawyers, enrollment is capped at 16 students, and only half of those may be from the law school.

Columbia

Biblical Jurisprudence. Every school seems to have these worthless Bible classes. This noe is sure to prepare you for legal practice by exploring topics such as “the meaning of wars of extermination in the biblical narrative” and “the binding of Isaac as it relates to other practices of sacrifice.” In other words, it’s a class that explores the bad stuff Jews did in the old testament. Or, as Profs. Fletcher and D-Kal call it, “the OT.”

Leadership for Lawyers: “This course examines the responsibilities and challenges of lawyers who occupy leadership roles in the public, private, and non-profit sectors.” Hint: It’s exactly the same as the responsibilities and challenges of non-lawyers who occupy leadership roles in the public, private, and non-profit sectors.

New York University

Retribution in Criminal Law Theory & Practice. The class basically centers around one question, should we use criminal sanctions for retribution, rehabilitation, or deterrence? Doesn’t sound too terribly useless until the end of the course description: “The seminar includes in its pedagogy experiments in freeing creative voice through weekly writing and theatre exercises and includes a close study of philosophy, history, psychoanalysis, novels, and plays.”

What. The. Fuck?

The Passion of the Christ: The Trial of Jesus. “For serious learners. Tons to read and plenty of hard work. Do not enroll just for curiosity.” I think that’s code for “This is a bullshit class, but I’m trying desperately to make people think I’m a serious academic.”

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Reason Not to Go to Law School #6

Posted in Reasons Not to Go to Law School on January 11th, 2010 by bl1y

Ethics.

There are three different systems of ethics in the world:

Six year old ethics: Little kids have very good instincts about what is fair and what is not. Sometimes they just need a little more information about what effects different choices will have, but they’re generally good gauges of what’s right and what’s wrong.

“Ethics:” Then there’s ethics as in “ethics.” This is the manipulation of rules to come up with the most convoluted way to rationalize their actions. If you explain it to a six year old and they give you a cross look, it’s probably not ethics, it’s “ethics.”

Lawyer ethics: Some people will confuse this with “ethics” in that it’s entirely convoluted, but instead of trying to find some weird theory to justify their actions, lawyers just create needlessly complex, stupid ethical rules. I assume law students start school with the normal six year old ethical sense most of us share. But, somewhere along the line their heads get full of weird legal rules and they lose sight of basic ethical principles. While sometimes they are trying to cheat and steal and relying on “ethics,” most of the time they’re just so far removed from basic humanity that they couldn’t find a coherent ethical principle with two hands and Hammurabi.

Case in point: David Lat (of AbovetheLaw.com fame) went to a hotel, ate a packet of Oreos from the hotel mini bar. He then replaced the packet with an identical one bought from a local store to avoid the crazy hotel charge. He submitted this scenario to Randy Cohen’s New York Times column The Ethicist, who promptly told him he was in the wrong.

Here’s what one commenter said, as reported on Above the Law:

“In a way, it’s somewhat analogous to the crime of theft (as tested on bar exams): once you take something that doesn’t belong to you with the intent of permanently depriving the owner of possession, the crime is complete. You can later change your mind and return it, but the crime remains.”

While this is a fair representation of the fictitious (yet representative) multi-state crime of theft as test on the bar exam, it’s also a fair representation of what’s wrong with law student (and lawyer) ethics. The analogy is simply irrelevant. Here’s the entire relevant inquiry regarding Lat’s dilemma:

Q: Was anyone, in the least bit, harmed by your action?

A: No.

END OF DISCUSSION.

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