About that Chemerinsky editorial… [UPDATED]

Erwin Chemerinsky, the Dean of UC-Irvine School of Law, and Carrie Menkel-Meadow, a professor at Irvine and Georgetown, wrote an editorial headlined “Don’t Skimp on Legal Training” in yesterday’s New York Times.  The editorial is so horrible, so misleading, so full of complete bullshit, that it could only have been written by two people who draw their paychecks from American law schools.  It’s hard to know where to start, but let me try to rebut some of their nonsense with actual facts/truth:

1.  C and MM write that 84.7 percent of law school graduates reported being employed in a paid, full-time position nine months after graduation.  Sounds pretty good, right?  Unfortunately, as pointed out time and time again by basically everyone in the world who writes about this stuff, that figure includes anyone who is “employed” doing anything.  Working at Starbucks?  Congrats, you’re one of the lucky 84.7!  A more informative number is the percentage of students employed in positions requiring bar passage, which was 64.4% in 2012.

2.  “The number of graduates who are employed is higher if the measure is over a longer interval than just the nine months after graduation.”  Well, yes, if you ask someone who has been out of law school for ten years if he/she is employed, the answer will most likely be yes.  People need to eat, and so eventually they will find some kind of job, legal or otherwise.  What this most certainly does not mean is that if you’re unemployed nine months after graduation, you just need to wait a few more months/years and that high-paying job you went to law school to get will come your way.

3.  “And with the economy improving and law-school enrollments shrinking, there will be more jobs available for new law graduates.”  I’m going to take a cheap shot here, because I understand what they really mean.  But technically, there will not be more jobs available for new graduates as a result of shrinking law-school enrollments.  There will be the same number of jobs available; there will just be fewer new graduates competing for those jobs.  There may even be fewer jobs available:  a few paragraphs later, C and MM report that “major law firms continue to hire many fewer new graduates than they used to.”

4.  “As with any other field of study, the ability to get a job out of law school obviously depends on where a person went to school and how he or she performed.”  This is not true–or it is at least much less true–of other fields of study.  If you complete medical school, you are extremely likely to find a job as a practicing physician.  That is because there are only around 141 medical schools in the country and, according to my friends who are doctors, there aren’t really any bad ones.  Similarly, my wife is a dietitian.  If you get a master’s in dietetics, you get a job as a dietitian.  There are only about 40 programs in the country for this.  See also (and go into) pharmacy, dentistry, and a bunch of other stuff.

5.  “A recent conversation between the deans of various public policy and international affairs schools in Foreign Policy suggested that law degree graduates were faring much better than both doctoral and master’s students in specialty programs such as international studies.”  NEWSFLASH:  Going to law school is better than getting a master’s in international studies!  I predict that this revelation alone will lead to a 20% spike in law school applications.

6.  “Law schools specifically should do more to provide need-based financial aid to students — rather than what most law schools have been doing in recent years, which is to shift toward financial aid based primarily on merit in order to influence their rankings.”  Great idea!  Perhaps UC-Irvine could set an example by announcing that it will no longer award merit-based financial aid.

7.  “[T]he increased costs can be attributed to a variety of factors: significant decreases in state funding at public law schools, increased faculty salaries, the growth in clinical education that requires smaller classes, and providing more services to students.”  They mention these four factors as if they contribute roughly equally to the increased costs.  I seriously doubt that that is the case.  For one thing, public law schools tend to be a lot cheaper than private ones, so the idea that decreases in state funding at public schools explain the increased costs is crazy.  This is the first time I’ve heard clinics blamed for increased costs; I don’t know what the numbers are, but I doubt that clinics are a significant factor in the increased costs.  As for the last point, law schools probably are providing more services to students than in the past, but I suspect that those services amount to a small fraction of most schools’ budgets.  That leaves “increased faculty salaries.”  (Ding ding ding, we have a winner!)  According to the Sacramento Bee’s State Worker Salary Search website, Erwin Chemerinsky made $361,000 in 2012.  Nowhere in the editorial do Chemerinsky and Menkel-Meadow propose a solution to the increased costs, which even they seem to acknowledge is a problem.  Can you think of one?

UPDATE:  As Mickey Kaus would say, the editorial isn’t as bad as I initially thought.  It’s worse!  Much worse.  The great Paul Campos points out here that the NALP figures cited by C and MM do not say what C and MM say they say because those figures include part-time and unpaid jobs.

Fancy Nancy and Legal Writing

My four-year-old daughter is a big fan of the Fancy Nancy books.  Fancy Nancy likes fancy parties, fancy clothes, and fancy words.  Fancy Nancy often says things like “I was ecstatic,” and then explains to the reader/listener that “ecstatic is a fancy word for ‘happy.’”  The books are well-written, and FN always uses the “fancy” words correctly.

Like Nancy Clancy, many law students are fond of fancy words.  For example, one of my colleagues gave an assignment a few years ago in which one of the characters got food poisoning at a restaurant.  The students decided that “got” just wasn’t a fancy enough word, so they wrote things like “Jones obtained food poisoning,” “Jones acquired food poisoning,” Jones received food poisoning,” etc.  These all sound ridiculous; the only correct way to write this is, “Jones got food poisoning.”  Everything else just sounds like the writer is trying too hard to sound fancy.

I encountered this recently with a contract law problem I assigned.  One issue was whether the Western Illinois Automotive Technician Institute (WIATI) is a merchant under the Illinois Commerical Code.  Instead of stating the issue as “whether WIATI is a merchant under the I.C.C.,” students found all sorts of ways to fancy it up:  whether WIATI “falls within the defininition of merchant found in the I.C.C.,” whether WIATI “is likely to be found to qualify as a merchant for purposes of the I.C.C.,” whether WIATI “is likely to be found to be a merchant under the I.C.C.,” and so on.  This certainly isn’t the worst thing you can possibly write, but it’s an example of larger problems I see quite often in student writing:  using fifteen words when eight will do, and always trying to fancy up “boring” words like “is.”  Most of the time, I just want my students to say what they mean, and say it as succinctly as possible.

Plagiarism and Rand Paul

I’m late to the party on this, but I’d like to make a few points about Senator Paul’s responses to his plagiarism scandal.  After Rachel Maddow noticed that Paul’s summaries of the movies “Gattaca” and “Stand and Deliver” sure sounded a lot like Wikipedia’s, Paul gave a number of explanations:

1.  “I didn’t claim that I created the movie ‘Gattaca.’”  This is just a classic politician move where you answer the question you want to answer (“Did you plagiarize Gattaca?”) instead of the question asked (“Did you plagiarize Wikipedia?”).

2.  “Plagiarism is the wrongful appropriation and purloining and publication of another author’s language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions, and the representation of them as one’s own original work.”  Paul made this statement in a speech in Lexington on November 5.  I expected Paul to go on and explain why he is not guilty of plagiarism under that definition, but apparently he think’s it’s so obvious he doesn’t need to say it.  In any event, I think his definition of the word “plagiarism” is right on the money; I also think he is quite obviously guilty of plagiarism under that definition.  He wrongfully appropriated wikipedia’s language and expressions about the two films and represented them as his own original work.

3.  “I will admit sometimes we haven’t footnoted things properly.”  Paul made this statement on ABC’s “This Week” on November 3.  I think what he was trying to do is minimize the entire scandal by characterizing it as a silly little dispute over footnotes.  But footnotes are important:  If you identify the source of your words and thoughts, then you’re not a plagiarist, and footnotes are one way to do that.

4.  Finally, on Tuesday, November 5, we got the mea culpa we’d been waiting for.  Sort of.  Paul told CNN, “Ultimately, I’m the boss, and things go out under my name, so it is my fault.  I never had intentionally presented anyone’s ideas as my own.”  I think we can all agree that the “it is my fault” part is good.  The rest of the sentence–”things go out under my name”–seems to suggest that Paul himself did not actually write the speeches (and books?) in which the plagiarism occurred.  Translation:  I’m so, so sorry . . . for that thing I didn’t do.

As for the last sentence, he may be telling the truth, for all we know.  But it doesn’t really matter.  Senator Paul, like my students, is responsible for everything he presents to others as his own.  My students do not have staffs to blame when things go wrong.  They are responsible for making sure the papers they submit to me are free from plagiarism, whether intentional or unintentional.

 

 

They called him safe!

This is perhaps off-topic, but below is St. Louis Cardinals broadcaster Mike Shannon’s call of the final play of Game 3 of the World Series (audio here).

And, uh, they have the base open.  Molina’s at third, uh, with Craig down at second.  The pitch coming.  They’re all in, Middlebrooks, Bogaerts, Pedroia and Ortiz.  The pitch.  Swing and a ground ball.  Second baseman makes a heckuva play!  Throws home and he’s out at home.  What a play by Pedroia!  Now they throw to third!  It’s a wild throw!  And he’s gonna try to score!  They can throw him out as he stumbles!  He’s gonna be out at the plate.  GWOOOOOOOAAAAH, they called him safe!  They called interference.  Interference down at third base with the third baseman!  And the Cardinals win this one, 5-4.  They called interference with the man down at, uh, third base. They called interference, and that’s why they called him safe at the plate.  They’re arguing at home plate, but the Cardinals are gonna walk off with a 5-4 win here in the bottom of the ninth.  And the Red Sox are hot.  But, uh, they all agree, all these umpires agree.  He kept stumbling over there, falling down, but he finally gets up and comes home, and he scores the winning run, and the redbirds win this one, 5-4.

There would have been sixteen consecutive pronouns–most with no clear antecedents–but after things calmed down a bit, Shannon actually did identify the “they” who agreed on the call:  the umpires.  Now here is the whole thing again, with the actual people involved identified so you have a fighting change of figuring out what the hell happened:

And, uh, they [the Cardinals] have the base [that would be first base] open.  Molina’s at third, uh, with Craig down at second.  The pitch coming.  They’re all in, Middlebrooks, Bogaerts, Pedroia and Ortiz [way to go, Mike!].  The pitch.  Swing and a ground ball.  Second baseman [Pedroia] makes a heckuva play!  Throws home and he’s [Yadier Molina, the runner who started the play on third base] out at home.  What a play by Pedroia!  Now they [Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the Boston catcher, and his imaginary friend?] throw to third!  It’s a wild throw!  And he’s [Allan Craig, who started the play on second base] gonna try to score!  They [the Boston Red Sox, although it might be helpful here to identify which one of them has the ball] can throw him [Craig] out as he stumbles!  He’s [Craig] gonna be out at the plate.  GWOOOOOOOAAAAH, they [the third-base umpire, Jim Joyce, who called interference, although technically home plate ump Dana DeMuth may have made the "safe" call after Joyce's interference call] called him safe!  They [Joyce or DeMuth or both] called interference.  Interference down at third base with the third baseman [that would be Middlebrooks; you knew that like ten seconds ago, Mike]!  And the Cardinals win this one, 5-4.  They [the umps] called interference with the man [Craig again] down at, uh, third base. They [umps] called interference, and that’s why they [umps] called him [Craig] safe at the plate.  They’re [Red Sox players and coaches?] arguing at home plate, but the Cardinals are gonna walk off with a 5-4 win here in the bottom of the ninth.  And the Red Sox are hot.  But, uh, they all agree, all these umpires agree.  He [Craig] kept stumbling over there, falling down, but he [Craig] finally gets up and comes home, and he [Craig] scores the winning run, and the redbirds win this one, 5-4.

Moral of the story:  if you want people to know what you’re talking about, don’t use a lot of ambiguous pronouns.

Don’t rely on spellcheck

Here is a correction from today’s NY Times:

“An earlier version of this article misspelled, on second reference, the surname of a representative. He is Charlie Dent, not Debt.”

I often remind my students not to rely on spellcheck.  Instead, you have to proofread each and every word to make sure your document says what you want it to say.

Having said all that, “Charlie Debt” could be a cool nickname, kind of like “Johnny Football.”

Let us count the problems with this sentence

My students are currently using the case of Vanevery v. State, 980 So. 2d 1105 (Fla. 4th DCA 2008), among others, to write a memo about second-degree murder.  Vanevery includes the following train wreck of a sentence:

“The truck which appeared to have struck, him was found abandoned near the scene of the accident.”

It’s clear from the previous sentence that “him” refers to “the victim,” so no problem there.  The comma after “struck” is incorrect.  Let’s be generous and call that a typo.  I tell my students that you’ll get most of your comma decisions right if you just read the sentence out loud and put commas in wherever you pause.  Nobody would pause after “struck.”

There is also a passive voice problem, although I would probably leave that as is.  Presumably police officers investigating the accident found the truck, but the identity of the truck-finders is not important.

“Which” is used incorrectly.  “Appeared to have struck the victim” is a restrictive clause, so “that” should be used instead of “which.”  I’m not a huge stickler on this rule, and this sentence doesn’t sound too bad with “which.”

Finally, I don’t know why we need the words “appeared to have.”  Appeared to whom?  Were there a lot of other abandoned trucks found near the scene of the accident?

Here is how I would rewrite the sentence:  “The truck that struck him was found abandoned near the scene of the accident.”

The Bell Tolls for “Whom”

I recently stumbled upon this article from the Atlantic about the death of the word “whom.”  I can’t disagree with the author’s thesis:  the word “whom” is dying a slow death, and this is mostly a good thing.  I’ve been teaching my students to use “whom” for objects and “who” for subjects, but I think I’m going to reevaluate this.  It would sound awfully strange if I asked a student, “Whom do you have for Torts?”

The New York Times seems to be on board with abandoning whom:  the headline on a recent Maureen Dowd column was “Who Do You Trust?”

 

New York Times: son of Syrian President may have written Facebook post about Obama, but we’re really, really not sure

NOTE:  This was originally posted on the old version of this website on Friday, August 30, 2013.

This article is remarkable in several ways, including its generous use of qualifiers and disclaimers. The first sentence alone has three:

A Facebook post said to be written by the 11-year-old son of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, and “liked” or commented on by several people who appear to be the children and grandchildren of other senior members of Mr. Assad’s government, may offer a glimpse into the mindset of Syria’s ruling elite as the country braces for a potential Western strike in response to a chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21.

It gets worse from there:

Perhaps most significantly, the Facebook post said to have been written by Hafez al-Assad has been “liked” or commented on by several accounts that appear to belong to the children or grandchildren of other senior figures in the Assad administration. Among them are accounts that seemingly belong to two children of Deputy Vice President Mohammed Nassif Khierbek, Ali and Sally, and to three children of a former deputy defense minister, Assef Shawkat, who was killed in a bombing in July 2012.

The accounts said to belong to the children of Mr. Shawkat — one of his sons, Bassel, and two of his daughters, Anisseh and Boushra — appeared to be authentic, according to a Syrian journalist from Damascus who has extensive knowledge of the country’s ruling elite and spoke on condition of anonymity, citing safety concerns. Mr. Shawkat was married to the sister of Bashar al-Assad, making these three children cousins of Mr. Assad’s son Hafez, who is believed to be the author of the Facebook post.

If I’m reading this right, the Times thinks this Facebook post was written by the Syran president’s 11-year-old son, but the Times really, really, really isn’t sure. Finally, we get this “aw, screw it, it doesn’t really matter anyway” sentence:

Regardless of its provenance, the post appears to illustrate the mindset of Mr. Assad’s core supporters, who have stood by him through more than two years of a grinding war that has killed more than 100,000 Syrians and caused millions more to flee their homes.

Well, thanks for the knowledge, NY Times.

 

Welcome/Introduction

This is a blog about writing, with a particular focus on legal writing.

My name is Pete Nemerovski.  I teach Legal Communication and Research Skills at the University of Miami School of Law.  You can read my bio here.

I will post podcasts here from time to time.  I will also comment on writing-related topics and link to articles I find interesting.

I welcome your questions and comments.  You can use the comments section of the blog, or you can email me at pnemerovski@law.miami.edu.

Thanks for visiting.