A Word to the Wise

I’m continually amazed at how little my students know about Microsoft Word.  It’s gotten so bad that one of my colleagues has explored offering some kind of training course for the students.  I think that in any law office or organization where our students will work after graduation, there will be an expectation that everyone working there knows the basics of Word.  You should know what track changes are and how they work, what the red and green underlining means, how to indent a paragraph, how to create one-inch margins, etc.  None of this is difficult, but not knowing this stuff really affects the quality of a legal document.

Scott Walker: Winning

If you’re having trouble falling asleep tonight, this WaPo piece on Scott Walker should do the trick.  The Post went digging through Gov. Walker’s past, including talking to a bunch of people who knew him thirty years ago.  What did they learn?  Well, it seems our next President was late for French class in college.  VERY late.  And not just once, but several times.

Assuming Walker’s campaign can recover from this shocking revelation, he will eventually need to explain the central mystery explored in the article:  what kind of person running for student-body president has a campaign manager?  Seriously, is this really a thing?  Did he have a press secretary too?  A body man?  Bundlers?

Anyway, if Walker really is going to be the GOP nominee, as some of the talking heads claim to believe, the next 21 months are going to be incredibly boring.

Notes on a scandal (or eight)

Lock your doors, fellow citizens.

The National Law Journal is all over a major crime wave–an epidemic, I daresay–visited upon this great nation by its law school administrators and professors.  In just the last fifteen years, no less than eight (!) such persons have been accused of offenses ranging from child abuse to reporting inflated data about incoming students to U.S. News & World Report.  (Yes, those two things are mentioned in the same article.)

Four of the eight “scandals” mentioned in the article involved some variation of soliciting a prostitute.  (Next time somebody offers you money for sex, consider asking him what subject he teaches.)  100% of the hardened criminals profiled are male, so it appears that our female employees are behaving themselves, at least for now.

When will the next shoe drop?  If history is any guide, we won’t have to wait long.  Eight scandals in fifteen years projects to one every 1.875 years.  The SMU scandal is only a few weeks old, so by my projections, an undercover police officer posing as a prostitute will likely be solicited by a law professor sometime around December of 2016.

You’ve been warned, America.


Bossy or Brilliant?

Interesting piece in the Times today about how students evaluate professors.  Most of this is likely familiar to anyone in academia:  for example, male professors are more likely to be described as smart, brilliant, knowledgeable, etc., while females are more likely to be described as bossy or disorganized.  The most interesting thing to me is the study where male and female professors returned papers at the exact same time, and yet the students gave the male professors higher marks for “promptness.”

There is some good news in the article.  The guy who did the study was “surprised that relatively few people commented on female professors’ clothing or looks.”

I’m often struck by how much confidence my students have in me.  Based on the questions they ask in class, they really think I know everything, when the truth is I only practiced law for six years.  I haven’t practiced in nearly five years, I’ve tried one case in my life, I know next to nothing about criminal law, and my knowledge of substantive civil law is limited to the relatively few areas encountered by a BIGLAW associate.  The students’ perception that “he must know something” (or everything!) is probably partly attributable to the fact that, as an almost-middle-aged white guy in a suit, I at least look like a lawyer to them.

Correction of the day

Quite the doozy of a correction in this New York Times article on Republican Presidential candidates and vaccines:

Correction:  February 3, 2015
An earlier version of this article gave incomplete context for a quote by President Obama. When he said of autism and other disorders among children, “Some people are suspicious that it’s connected to the vaccines, this person included,” he was not referring to himself, he was pointing to a member of the crowd. An earlier version also misattributed a quote. It was Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control, who said on the ABC News program “This Week” that the science was clear and convincing. “Study after study has shown that there are no negative long-term consequences. And the more kids who are not vaccinated, the more they’re at risk and the more they put their neighbors’ kids at risk as well.” It was not Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, a possible 2016 presidential candidate who also appeared on the show. Also, because of an editing error, a previous version of the article misstated the TV show on which Mr. Obama was appearing when he urged parents to “get your kids vaccinated.” It was the “Today Show,” not “Meet the Press.”

I read the article yesterday, before all the corrections, and I was quite shocked to hear that in 2008 Barack Obama expressed “suspicion” that autism is connected to vaccines, and that Scott Walker (of all people!) gave perhaps the greatest response to a vaccination question ever given by a politician.  Well, it turns out that Obama was referring to an audience member who is “suspicious,” and the quote attributed to Walker actually came from Dr. Thomas Frieden.  Oh well.  Maybe Thomas Frieden should be President of the United States.



WSJ on UNH “Practice-Ready” Program

Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal‘s Law Blog ran an item on an honors program at the University of New Hampshre Law School.  A study by something called the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System showed that students who graduated from UNH’s program outperformed other New Hampshire attorneys on “standardized client-interview assessments.”

Not surprisingly, Elie Mystal of above the law is not impressed.  Mystal’s point basically comes down to “so what?”  These UNH grads might be a little more practice-ready, but that’s not going to help them get good jobs.  The high-paying jobs that enable deeply indebted law school graduates to pay off their loans are still going to go to top graduates from top schools, not people from some honors program at the University of New Hampshire.

I generally agree with Mystal.  However, I don’t think a program like UNH’s is a total waste of time.  Some UNH grads will get jobs practicing law, and they will probably perform better in those jobs if they have some practical training.  You also have to consider the alternative.  In my experience, a lot of law students don’t do much of anything in the second and third years.  Many of them take courses they hear are easy in an effort to increase their GPAs.  I recently met with an upper-level student who told me he chooses his classes based on the day of the week on which they are offered so he only has to commute from Palm Beach County one or two days a week.  A lot of students are just passing time–and two years is a lot of time to pass–until they can get the hell out of here.  If that’s the status quo, then getting some students to participate in a practice-ready program doesn’t seem like such a bad thing.

My other reaction to the WSJ article:  what in the world is a standardized client-interview assessment?  Is this really a thing?  A lawyer interviews a (presumably fake) client and somebody gives that lawyer a score?  And this is supposed to assess how practice-ready the lawyer is?  Good grief.  I think I did one client interview in six years practicing law.  I guess it’s an important skill, but it’s an awfully random one to use to assess someone’s practice-readiness.  I would think you would want to make the attorney write something, or research something, or analyze a legal issue.  I’ve been out of the game for a while, but I’m pretty sure lawyers still do a lot of that stuff.

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.