Monday, April 21, 2008


A 3L friend of mine, who will graduate from this place in less than a month, has appropriately begun to reflect on his time here — why he came to law school, what he accomplished here, what he hopes to accomplish upon leaving. These are not frivolous questions; for those of us at law school, they deserve much thought. Not during finals week, perhaps ... oh, I'm so easily distracted.

Back in January, my friend R.J., who works for our alma mater, Cornell College, asked for my reflections on life as a first-year law student. I submitted my essay in early February, and he published it in the Midwest Association of Pre-Law Advisors newsletter, the MAPLA Briefs, for consumption by perspective law students and their mentors. Here it is, in full. I'd write more, but I really should be studying.

Contrary to stereotypes perpetrated by movies like The Paper Chase, the first year of law school will not eat you alive. Other students will probably not raid your locker for study guides, tear important pages from your textbooks or force you to produce notes for them before final exams. While it’s certainly true that law school is more competitive than most colleges, rest assured that it is not life-threatening, and can be quite enjoyable.

Your law school experience will depend a great deal on which school you choose — not only the type of education you will get, but also your job prospects after graduation. After applying to 11 schools and visiting three, I chose to attend the William & Mary School of Law in Williamsburg, Virginia. I could not be happier with my choice.

One of the first things I noticed about law school is that unlike high school or college, everyone wants to be here. Law students tend to be more focused, more ambitious and, yes, more competitive than most everyone I encountered as an undergraduate at Cornell College. Because most law school classes are graded on a curve and because so much material is covered each day, missing a day of class is rarely, if ever, a good idea. It’s more likely for a law student to miss class for the death of a parent or the birth of a child than to skip class because of a hangover.

Second, it is critically important to know why you are attending law school because shortly after Thanksgiving of your first year, while studying for your first round of final exams, you will wonder what you have gotten yourself into. At most law schools, including this one, final exams are worth 100 percent of your semester grade — there are no points for class participation, no papers to write and midterms, if you have them, are only for practice. I have taken hundreds of tests in my academic career, including tough college finals, the GRE and the LSAT. Yet I spent more time and effort preparing for each of my three first-semester law school exams than I spent on any previous test I had ever taken.

I quit a comfortable job, gave up my cat and moved 1,000 miles from family and friends in Iowa to attend William & Mary. I did it because I believe that our federal government has lost sight of the rule of law and because I want to play a role, however small, in fixing the government. In stark contrast, many of my friends came here to get jobs at big law firms, where they will have starting annual salaries of $150,000 or more. While that path has obvious perks, it is not the path for me. Like many others, I made sacrifices to come here and I owe it to myself to stick to my goal. Being away from family for months at a time is difficult, but my goal is what keeps me motivated. Know your goal and stay true to it. If you do not know why you are attending law school, I urge you to think long and hard before sending your first application.

Here are a few things that have surprised me about law school, and that might surprise you, too.

If you attended a small liberal arts college and enjoyed lively class discussions, law school classes will be different and not nearly as fun. Class sizes are larger and professors call on students mostly at random. Students who frequently raise their hands in class are called “gunners,” and are almost universally despised by other students. It is in your best interest, most of the time, to shut up — unless, of course, the professor calls on you, in which case it is in your best interest to know everything.

Once you get to law school, you will be inundated with incredible amounts of work. After working for four years in the newspaper business, I can honestly say that law school is the equivalent of a full-time job and another half-time job on top of that. On a typical day, I spend six to eight hours reading and typing notes, two or three hours in class, two hours working for my fellowship supervisor, an hour or two at student group meetings and another hour or two working on my future plans, such as finding a summer job. That is 12 to 16 hours of day of strictly law school-related activities. If I am lucky, I can find an hour to get to the gym or an hour to cook myself a decent meal. Maybe once a week, I find an hour or two to call family and friends.

Still, every law student endures this same rigorous pace, and most live to tell about it. If able to put it all aside for half a day, I can do wonderful, meaningful things like attend a lecture by a visiting Supreme Court justice, engage in volunteer work at a legal aid clinic or spend a glorious night drinking wine, watching movies and laughing with a dozen magnificent friends.

In at least one respect, law school is more like high school than college: relationships. Far from being immune to personal drama, law students show a particular flair for it. Gossip runs rampant; I suppose we have to keep ourselves entertained somehow. On the serious side, statistics show that while about 10 percent of students enter law school clinically depressed, the number increases to 40 percent after completion of the first year. As I’ve said, the first year of law school is hard and unless you’re superhuman — I most certainly am not — it will be hard on you.

Two pieces of parting advice: first, read the book Law School Confidential. Second, know who you are and what you want to achieve. If you know that, you will not disappoint anyone — including, most importantly, yourself. And law school will not eat you alive.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Soured on 'Bitter'

Hillary Clinton and John McCain are both up in arms about Obama's use of the word "bitter" during a speech in Pennsylvania. Just so we're not confused, here are Obama's comments in context:

"You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not.

"And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

Some of my Republican friends at school have asked me what the heck Obama was thinking when he said that last paragraph, and many in the media have said that Obama is "out of touch" with working-class people.

But in reality, a lot of people are bitter.

bitter |ˈbitər| adjective
2 (of people or their feelings or behavior) angry, hurt, or resentful because of one's bad experiences or a sense of unjust treatment. (New Oxford American Dictionary)

Take the 260 workers about to lose their jobs at a Hershey's plant in Reading, Pa. Hershey's is shutting down the plant, which makes 5th Avenue bars and York Peppermint Patties, and moving it to Monterrey, Mexico. Hershey's isn't going to stop there; they plant to close more plants, cutting 1,500 American jobs in the next three years.

This is a quintessential example of the problems with the 1993 North America Free Trade Agreement, passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by a Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Mexico has a cheaper labor market, so when Mexican imports aren't taxed in the U.S., it makes perfect (economic) sense for American companies to move there. Unfortunately, it wreaks havoc on the lives and families of American workers who, in the case of Hershey's, have relied on those good-paying jobs for more than 100 years.

So here's the problem for the Hershey's worker. If NAFTA hadn't been signed on Bill Clinton's watch, it most certainly would have been signed on George W. Bush's watch, with a Republican Congress at his disposal. Both the Democrats and the Republicans believe in free trade. The reality is that these trade deals aren't going to stop. Jobs are going to keep disappearing. The question is, what can we do for the workers who are losing the jobs?

The answer for the last 15 years has been, "Not much of anything." And so, the American worker has stopped voting based on his/her pocketbook. We vote on things like Personality (see 2000), National Security (see 2002, 2004) and National Security Gone Terribly Wrong (2006). The American worker has given up on the government when it comes to economic issues. People are suffering — and yes, they're bitter — but they know that the government no longer cares.

And so, they turn to social issues. Conservative commentators beat them over the head with issues like abortion, gun control and the Pledge of Allegiance. Thomas Frank sums up the phenomenon perfectly in a wonderful book I read a few years ago, called "What's the Matter with Kansas?" The book explores Frank's populist home state, which was once an anti-slavery bastion of liberalism. Now, it's one of the most reliably Republican states in the country. Have economic conditions improved there? No. If anything, they're worse. But the working class is focused on God, Guns & Gays.

Since Bill Clinton left office, the Democratic party has moved in a different direction on trade. The conservative solution, of course, is still summed up by the YOYO approach: "You're On Your Own." Pick yourself up by your $25/hour chocolate-making bootstraps and go get a $9/hour job at Taco Bell. Better yet, put your life on hold for a few years, hope your kids can pay for their own college educations and go back to school yourself on that dependable pension money you used to have.

The liberal/progressive/Democratic solution, on the other hand, is "Government can help." Instead of giving huge tax breaks to oil companies and the corporations that ship jobs overseas, spend that money on job training programs so that people can actually afford to learn a new trade.

Many conservatives accuse the liberals of enabling the welfare state, but that's a mischaracterization of the position. More accurately, the Democratic position aims for a safety net. Remember, it was Bill Clinton who signed Welfare Reform (aka The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act) into law. It's a misnomer, an easily debunked talk-show soundbite, that Democrats would prefer a welfare state. Look no further than Obama's 2004 keynote address at the Democratic convention:

"Now, don't get me wrong, the people I meet in small towns and big cities and diners and office parks, they don't expect government to solve all of their problems. They know they have to work hard to get ahead. And they want to."

He has often repeated this message on the campaign trail.

People are bitter. They have a right to be. They deserve a government that cares — not simply about God, Guns, Gays and the Pledge — but about the economy, too.

UPDATE: After I wrote this post, I found an interview with author Thomas Frank about Obama's "bitter" comment. Not surprisingly, Frank says, "People are bitter everywhere. ... It doesn't strike me as a very controversial statement."

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The End is Near

Crunch time has arrived once again, only this time complicated by the allure of a Virginia spring. My ability to study for finals is frequently frustrated by the sights and sounds of the magnificent outdoors, where temperatures hover in the 70s and sunshine reigns.

One week of classes remains then, for the 1L class: Property exam on Thursday, April 24; Contracts exam on Monday, April 28; and Constitutional Law exam on Thursday, May 1. The following day, May 2, marks the official start of the Joint Journal Competition, or "Write-On," a week-long effort to show the editors of W&M's four journals that we deserve to join their staffs. Three of the journals have specialties: Environmental Law & Policy Review, Women and the Law, and the Bill of Rights Journal. The fourth, and most prestigious, is the William & Mary Law Review. Each of us will rank our preferences, 1-4, and most people I've talked to have said that Law Review will be at the top. It is the most demanding of the four, requiring the greatest time commitment next year. It is also the journal most recognized by employers.

And so, four weeks from now — a week of class, two weeks of finals and a week of write-on — 1L year will come to an end. This doesn't seem possible, but I think the idea brings a smile to most of our faces. Summer can't get here soon enough.

Monday, April 7, 2008

I Figured Out Life

This weekend has proved to be one of those amazing, ultra-productive weekends, when everything seems to fall into place and motivation is at its peak. On Saturday morning, I got full public service funding for my summer (unpaid) internship. Later in the morning, our new W&M Law chapter of the ACLU began a Voting Rights Restoration project. There are more than 300,000 disenfranchised voters in the Commonwealth of Virginia — felons who have done their time in prison and must file petitions subject to the governor's approval (if they get that far). Many of us came away from the meeting inspired, ready to act. Then I headed to northern Virginia, where I'll be working this summer, and found a place to live in Fairfax. My summer job at the Capital Defender's Office starts on May 27. I met the lead attorney in the office on Saturday; I'm stoked to work for him on some incredible cases this summer.

Friends are getting jobs, trees are turning beautiful shades of green and finals will be over soon. I'm looking forward to a two-week trip home in May. Life has seldom looked better.

P.S. The Daily Press, the local newspaper of Williamsburg, published an article on Sunday about W&M Law's efforts along the Gulf Coast, and the reporter interviewed me for the story. Here's the link.