Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Obama speaks to Virginia

Tonight I travelled with three fellow Democrats from William & Mary to Charlottesville, Va., near the University of Virginia campus, to see Barack Obama. Governor Tim Kaine, who endorsed Obama many months ago, led off the event. Unbeknownst to me, they both went to Harvard Law School, both married women they met at Harvard Law, and their mothers come from the same small town, El Dorado, in western Kansas. 

Obama's stump speech, unsurprisingly, is the same in Virginia as it was when I saw him in Iowa, with a few tweaks that I'll discuss later. The speech is great because he hits all the major issues most Americans are concerned about — health care, energy and the environment, poverty, and of course, the dumb war in Iraq (taking his word from his excellent 2002 speech). He has incorporated a couple of personal experiences from the campaign trail, including a day he spent working with a social worker in Oakland, and he ends the speech with a story about a trip to a tiny town in South Carolina. In order to get the endorsement of a S.C. state legislator, the story goes, he promised to visit her hometown. He gets up at 6 a.m. on a rainy day, opens the NY Times to find a bad story about himself on the front page, then goes outside and gets soaked when his umbrella opens in the wrong direction. He rides an hour and a half to this puny out-of-the-way place, where only 20 people are gathered. He meets all of them but notices that the rain has affected their moods, too. He starts talking when he's interrupted by a short, elderly woman with a powerful voice. "FIRED UP!" she says, and the crowd answers. He turns his head and sees her standing on stage, behind him. "READY TO GO!" she continues. The crowd answers again. She repeats, and soon he finds himself joining in. This is how Obama ends his own stump speech — "Fired up!" "Ready to go!" with the crowd answering. After a few of these, he concludes, "Let's go change the world." However many times I hear it, I still get chills.

The tweaks to his speech include a couple of jabs at Hillary. He never names her specifically, but he talks about opponents who say they know how to work the system. Obama says it's the system that needs changing because it's not working for Americans. The other jab goes to Hillary's political calculations. Obama says that as president, he'll tell Americans what they need to hear — the truth — not what he thinks they want to hear. That's a shot at both Bill and Hillary, who've made their livings telling people what they want to hear — whatever statements the polling data support.

The Daily Progress reports that more than 4,250 people turned out in Charlottesville to see Obama, which is 1,250 more than Clinton drew a few weeks ago in the same city. (It's also pretty good, considering that most of us paid $15 per ticket.) Many of the attendees were UVA students, which was evident because some of the largest cheers came when Obama said he would address the problem of HIV/AIDS and the crisis in Darfur. Few presidential candidates would mention those issues in rural areas but college students clearly care about them. 

After the event, I ran into Dahlia Lithwick, a senior editor for Slate.com, whom I'd met at the Supreme Court Preview at William & Mary last month. We talked briefly about Obama's speech, its length (50 minutes tonight) and the huge number of people who attended the rally. All Supreme Court reporters are cool, but Dahlia especially so.

If you haven't heard Obama's stump speech yourself, go see him. His demeanor, intelligence, biography and his experiences as a community organizer, constitutional law professor, civil rights attorney, state legislator and U.S. Senator make him uniquely qualified to be our next president. He wants to bring hope back. He can write books worth reading. I can't wait to caucus for him on January 3.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Broken leg, by the numbers

This morning I went to my penultimate doctor's appointment — one last check-up before I get the screw removed in early December. My strength is probably about 75 percent. My surgeon, Dr. Carr, said that I should be back to normal by about the first of the year.

So, one final assessment. Here's my broken leg, by the numbers:

Approximately $7,000 — total cost of a tibial plateau fracture.

$3,000 — roughly the amount I'll have paid out of pocket. 

1,067 — miles on the road from West Branch to Williamsburg with a broken leg. Way to go, Honda Accord.

56 — days without walking or driving. 

23 — different people who gave me a ride. This includes 6 in Iowa and 18 in Virginia; Dad is the only one who drove both places. 

15 — boxes Rebecca packed into my car for the trip. I'm guessing on this one, but the point is that she did a masterful job, getting in way more stuff than I ever thought possible. I could barely stand on my crutches at that point, so she did it all herself. Outstanding.

12 — X-rays so far, with at least two more to go.

11 — physical therapy sessions, all in Williamsburg.

10 — minutes inside a CT scan 

7 — different medical doctors. This includes the PA in Dubuque, an orthopedist and an orthopedic surgeon in Iowa City, the doctor who OK'd my CT scan in Iowa City, the initial orthopedic surgeon in Williamsburg, the orthopedic surgeon who actually performed the procedure (I saw him in both Williamsburg and Newport News), and the doctor at the William & Mary Health Center who signed off so that my new insurance company would continue to cover my preexisting condition. Phew. Of course, this does not include the numerous X-ray techs, nurses, physical therapy techs or Joe, my physical therapist. All wonderful people.

5 — days between my injury and the correct diagnosis. The PA at the emergency room in Dubuque told me the X-ray was negative, but she also recommended that I see an orthopedist. Good thinking there.

4 — tiny scars. Hardly even noticeable.

3 — bottles of prescription painkillers.

2 — insurance companies. I'd rather not try to count the phone calls to the insurance companies.

2 — crutches. I'll have to dig them out one last time for that day in December, but otherwise they're taking a well-deserved break in the closet.

2 — parents who took care of me in Williamsburg. I love you, Mom and Dad.

1 1/2 — hours in surgery. Thank you, inventor of general anesthesia.

1 — 4-inch screw, due for removal on Dec. 7. A date that shall live ... oh, nevermind. I'll just be glad when it's over.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

My first legal clinic

I spent this morning with about half a dozen lawyers from the area and roughly a dozen other W&M law students, working at a legal aid clinic at Warhill High School, on the northwest side of Williamsburg. The clinics are held four times a year, to provide legal services to low-income residents of W'burg, James City County and York County.

Working with actual clients was a welcome break from outlining, writing memos and generally sitting at class. These are actual people with real problems, and someday soon I'll be in a position to help many of them. That feels good.

I've never experienced anything like this before, so I'll explain it a bit. The clinic is advertised at places like the United Way so that people who are seeking assistance in other areas can find out about it. The clinics are held on Saturdays, four times a year. 

We law students show up to do "intake," which means getting basic information about who the people are and what kind of problem they have. Once we have that, we hand them off to the lawyer who can help with that issue, whether it's bankruptcy, immigration, divorce, landlord/tenant, health care, etc. The range of issues is amazingly diverse.

I got to assist with three different clients on four different issues. Sometimes the issue isn't a legal one, but the person just needs to be pointed in the right direction. But as often as not, there's a legal remedy and the client has options. The lawyer presents the options and discusses the ramifications of choosing one or the other, then it's up to the client to make the final decision. 

If I could do this again I think I would, but it sounds like W&M wants to give all law students an opportunity to participate at least once. I was lucky enough to get involved on the very first clinic of the year. Good stuff.

Friday, October 19, 2007

How to suck at legal writing

When the assignment is an objective memo, try writing a persuasive one instead. Oops.

When the structure of the memo requires the following structure — Issue, Rule, Analysis, Conclusion — try this structure instead: Conclusion, some cases, your personal opinion and the occasional reference to the facts of the case the memo is supposed to be about. 

When thinking that you might actually be doing something right, be sure to repeat yourself by rephrasing the same argument throughout the memo. This will erase any doubt on the reader's part that you don't have a clue.

Put your name in front of each page number, as if you're still writing college papers.

Demote yourself by saying you're a junior associate when you're actually an associate in your Legal Skills firm.

Number the cover page as "Page 1."

Finally, be sure to completely miss one of the primary issues of the case. This will erase any doubt about your miserable first attempt at legal writing.

Get 'em next time, slugger.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Fall break

We've reached the halfway point of first semester, which means fall break. Baseball fans headed home to Cleveland and Boston, while football fans traveled to Lexington, Ky., Nashville and even San Diego. Plenty of people have stuck around Williamsburg, including me, and have enjoyed the time off to do laundry, read books — real ones, not law ones — and work out at the gym.

To this point, I've written very little about how my classes work. Law school functions quite differently from college, so it's worth an explanation.

The entire first year of courses is mandatory. Our schedule looks like this:

1st semester:
  • Criminal Law
  • Torts
  • Civil Procedure
  • Legal Skills
2nd semester:
  • Constitutional Law
  • Contracts
  • Property
  • Legal Skills
Many law schools put Contracts and Property before Torts, and I guess W&M used to make Con Law a year-long course because it tends to be the most difficult. Of course, that's the one I'm looking forward to the most.

Legal Skills is a two-year, pass-fail course that focuses on interviewing, legal writing, legal research and ethics. W&M's program (co-created by Fred Lederer, who happens to be my prof) has won awards for teaching these skills in such a useful way. While it's only a pass-fail course, people take it seriously and spend a lot of time on it. The writing, in particular, is extremely difficult at first. We're all getting used to it. Legal writing requires a great deal more discipline than newspaper writing or even academic writing, I think, because each word must be carefully chosen. The TAs who grade our memos are tough on us, which should help a great deal (even if it's frustrating now). 

In the three classes that are graded, final exams count for 100%. That's right — no chapter tests, no midterms, no class participation points. One test, signed with an anonymous number. Most exams are open-book, open-note, and last either four or eight hours. (Yes, eight hours of Criminal Law. Get excited.)

Open-book tests might sound great at first, but when you consider that our casebooks are anywhere from 600 to 1,200 pages long, the open-book part doesn't seem so helpful. If you don't already know what to look for, why it's relevant and how to explain it, you're screwed. The reading that we do all semester long is mostly cases. While statutes and the Constitution comprise a great deal of American law, judicial decisions can be enormously influential — and also difficult to analyze. The idea behind teaching cases in law school, as best I can figure, is that if you can understand judicial decisions, you can probably read a statute.

On a test, professors provide hypothetical fact patterns. (Joe stabs Billy. What crime should he be charged with, or What tort has Joe committed?) Though I haven't seen any exams yet, apparently the fact patterns can be long and quite detailed.

The way most law students cope with the final exams, besides alcohol (which apparently comes after the test) is to make enormous outlines. They range anywhere from 10 to 60 pages. The outlines, if they're done right, create a sort of map that shows how which cases are relevant for particular situations. Basically, the profs want to know how well we we know the law, and how well we can apply it. Sounds simple, but from what I hear about exams, "simple" doesn't mean "easy."

So, while I've been enjoying fall break, I also took the opportunity to spend all day Saturday in the library, working on my first outline — Civil Procedure. In eight hours of work, I created seven pages of an outline. One of my 3L roommates shared his outlines with me from his 1L year — he has at least 30 pages in each of the three classes. So you can see, I have quite a bit of work to do. Exams are less than two months away. Get excited.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Your job picks you

I have to promise myself not to write a post every time I attend a lecture. At least this time, I waited three days and I still couldn't resist.

On Friday a group of us listened to David Baugh, a criminal defense attorney from Richmond. He's a 60-year-old black man who's been representing accused criminals for many years, though he started practice as a prosecutor. He's semi-famous because about 10 years ago, he agreed to represent a man named Mr. Black, who just happened to be a Grand Dragon of the KKK. Mr. Black (isn't that ironic) had a habit of burning crosses on his own property. The Commonwealth of Virginia said that was offensive. David Baugh disagreed, and he took Mr. Black's case all the way to the Supreme Court, where he argued that the First Amendment protected Mr. Black's right to burn a cross on his own land so long as it didn't do actual harm to anyone else. Baugh won the case.

I can't say how dynamic this guy truly is. He spoke for an hour and a half without any notes, just going on with all sorts of anecdotes and his overarching philosophy, which is that the Bill of Rights is the most important thing about our country. If we fail to protect the free speech of others, we give up our own right to free speech. Baugh said he never became friends with Mr. Black but the more he listened to him, the more he realized how much it would help our country for people like Mr. Black to be heard — because Black's ideas are so stupid! It's kind of a funny argument, but I think it works. By constraining Black's speech, you make him and people like him martyrs for their racist cause. But by letting them burn crosses and talk freely, others are free to listen to them and decide for themselves how stupid the message is.

In his own words, Baugh's argument comes down to whether we can trust in the basic goodness of people. After representing hundreds of accused criminals, he still believes that we can. He says that our failure to uphold the Bill of Rights leads us down that horrible road to oppression, and that we should never sacrifice freedom — our own or others' — for security. He said that the Nazis made Germany extremely safe, but at what cost? Of course, they didn't make it safe for everyone. They had to exclude certain groups, like Jews, blacks and the people who sympathized with those minorities. 

If you truly believe in the rule of law, then the First Amendment is paramount to any concern about security. Now that doesn't mean that we can't prosecute criminals. Baugh was adamant that the person who hurts someone else (physically) has broken the law. So if you stand in front of me saying how much you hate a certain kind of person, and I punch you in the face, I'm the one who goes to jail. 

During the Q&A, Baugh had a great back-and-forth with this young conservative, who argued that all al-Qaeda members should be put in jail, no matter what it takes. He asked her if she were a doctor, and she knew the patient was a member of al-Qaeda, would she let him die on the operating table? She replied that she wouldn't. He said that shows that our society is hypocritical, in that it holds doctors and lawyers to different standards. If a doctor saves a person who breaks the law, he's doing his job. But if a lawyer defends someone who breaks the law, we think the lawyer agrees with that person. In fact, the lawyer is just doing his job, too.

Baugh asked that same woman, the conservative, if she would want that al-Qaeda member going to jail without a trial. She asked if he was guilty. Baugh said, "I don't know, there hasn't been a trial." She at first said that she would, but she later relented. The point is, we can't deprive people of their basic constitutional rights, no matter how bad we think they are. 

At the very end, I asked Mr. Baugh what a young lawyer who believed the same things he did might do for a living, if not criminal defense. He said the following: "Son, I wasn't always a criminal defense attorney. Before this, I was a prosecutor. You may try several jobs. But sooner or later, you'll look around and you'll realize that you're doing something better than everyone else. Then you know you've found your job. Son, you don't pick your job — your job picks you."

So, Mom and Dad, if you ask me what kind of law I'm going to practice, that's the story you're going to get. I'm waiting for my job to pick me.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Chasing ... furniture?

There is now a Facebook group for all graduate students at William & Mary, which has given me the irresistible urge to write columns again. Here's my first post. We'll see how well it's received before I try another one:

OK, so this may be a law school-specific topic, but it'll give people at the other graduate schools an idea of the high level of dialogue that goes on at Marshall-Wythe. Today we were blessed with new lobby furniture, having gone without for the first five weeks of school. It has upholstery, cushions and flat surfaces on which we can place things. However, some law students — and by some I mean virtually all — have taken today to express their contempt for the new furniture. The following criticisms pervade:

1. The red chairs clash with the maroon carpet.
2. The red chairs clash with the preexisting mahogany woodwork.
3. The colors of the chairs — red and blue — have absolutely nothing to do with the school, the carpet or anything else visible in the lobby.
4. The tables are shaped like eggs.
5. The tables look like eggs.
6. The tables, unlike eggs, are not a nearly perfect food and cannot be eaten for breakfast.
7. The couches are not comfortable.
8. The chairs are not comfortable.
9. The furniture, taken as a whole, does not match the pretentiousness of a place called Marshall-Wythe, and should generally reflect a more "colonial" style.
10. There is too much furniture, which makes for clutter, and it will be difficult to move when the lobby must be cleared for social functions.

Once again, these are criticisms I heard in the first 6 hours or so that people had to react. I'm sure I'll hear more tomorrow. With the exceptions of #6 (the furniture is not edible) and #10 (the amount of furniture will make it difficult to clear the lobby), I have little sympathy for any of it. As a 1L, I am grateful to experience, for the first time, a lobby with places to sit. Despite all the criticism, my guess is that a 2L friend's hypothesis is accurate: in three years, the administration will not be able to pluck this furniture from us.

Unless, of course, they agree to sell it to us for "sentimental" value, in which case we will offer a steep, tax-deductible donation for the chance to put one of those egg-shaped tables in our $2 million condo in the City. It will be the talk of our litigating friends, and some jealous associate will offer to buy it for far more than it's worth, so that he can be the talk of the law firm.

But enough about school ...

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Plodding mediocrity

Reading judicial opinions comprises a substantial part of my waking hours these days, so I've begun to develop a few favorite Supreme Court justices — among them, Benjamin Cardozo, who served in the 1930s. In a strange coincidence, Cardozo was appointed by none other than my favorite West Branch president, Herbert Hoover.

Here's a quote from Cardozo, which gets to the root of my feelings about the first semester of law school: "In truth, I am nothing but a plodding mediocrity — please observe, a plodding mediocrity — for a mere mediocrity does not go very far, but a plodding one gets quite a distance. There is joy in that success, and a distinction can come from courage, fidelity and industry."

One of the realities of law school is that everyone is just so darned smart, and everyone wants to succeed so much, that if a person has any modesty at all, one can't help but feel mediocre at least some of the time. Especially at this school, where I like virtually everyone I meet, it would just be foolish for me to think I'm going to excel in the same way I did in high school or college. 

Fortunately, though, while we're all taking the same classes this year, we're not all headed in the same directions. Most people here want to work for big law firms, where they'll make six figures. That's not my path. I don't know yet where my path is leading, but it most likely is not headed toward a six-figure job. Government, perhaps, or a non-profit firm where I'll be working on causes that matter to me. Those seem far more likely.

After I read Cardozo's quote again, two more things struck me. First, here's a man who was nominated to a lifetime appointment on the highest court in the land, and he still believes he's mediocre. Second, he's plodding. "Plod (v.): walk doggedly and slowly with heavy steps." Sounds all too familiar to me these days. I'm off to plod some more. Perhaps I'll go quite a distance. After not plodding for two months, I've found there's quite a bit of joy in it.

(Oh, and speaking of plodding mediocrity — the Cubs start their playoff run tonight. Go Cubbies.)