Things I’ve learned in law school, part 1 of…well, a lot

Some things I’ve learned in a week or so in law school:

  • We (the whole culture, not just lawyers) badly need to figure out a laptop etiquette. One of my professors is strongly anti-laptop, but won’t quite ban them, and another outright bans them. The inconsistency is irritating, and I think it is regressive and damaging, but you know what? It is hard to blame them. Laptops are useful tools that we’ll be using for the rest of our lives, and there are times (like when your prof uses ‘Procrustean’ multiple times) where wireless is a very useful classroom tool. But the downside is pretty big: students IM each other answers to questions (something basically impossible to prevent, short of turning off the network) and they surf the web (even during interactive discussions with really quite excellent lecturers who you’re paying ~$125/hour to hear), both of which are pretty destructive to ‘actual learning’. And it is difficult to hold a conversation with someone when a monitor is between you and them- it is pretty demoralizing as a speaker, in any context, to sit and look at an audience of laptop monitors instead of faces. I think tablets will eventually solve that last problem, but the others will still be there, and we haven’t figured out what the etiquette about them is.
  • Fear is a wonderful motivator. I thought tests were bad as an undergrad, but in law school in the US (for those who don’t know) the instruction is ‘Socratic’, which is to say that the professor can ask anyone any question about prior reading at any time, and they expect an answer. So maybe less ‘socratic’ and more ‘interrogation’. It does make just about everyone do the reading every night, which I guess is good, but it also crushes the life out of anyone who learns for the sake of learning. There just isn’t time for that wishy-washy stuff. (In my section, where you’re expected to volunteer to answer questions, no one does- everyone just sits and waits to be called on.)
  • I read an opinion by Clarence Thomas yesterday… and I liked it. That was the tremor in the force you may have felt. I’m clearly going to feel an ongoing tension between strict constructionism, textualism, and more activist constructions. A lot of this stems from my practical experience in software. Clearly defined procedures and standards help everyone, and the legal system doesn’t have them. In terms of code compilation (sort of a strained analogy, but bear with me): At what point in the compilation process is it most efficient to check for and fix bugs? Arguably, the US legal system (for a long list of historical reasons) chooses the least efficient step in the legislature->real world process to check for and fix bugs. We often make judges interpret the law, and even in some cases make new law. It is a lot like making your QA or UI people fix problems, not just identify them. (An alternate analogy is that it is like making your compiler not just spit out errors, but also making it fix them, having to guess your intent from the code you’ve written.) That said, the other option is for the legislature to write gigantic, sprawling, human-unreadable law- which may be just as bad a problem if not worse. (Please don’t jump on me in comments for the sweeping generalizations I’ve just made… I know they’re generalizations, on both the law and code side. Constructive comments, or honest questions, totally welcome thought, while I flesh out this analogy of code-checking and testing.)
  • Relatedly, I realize that the questions I’m asking in class make me sound like the worst kind of troglodyte conservative. (This morning I asked about cost-benefit analysis in a law which was trying to prevent people from drowning- ‘but the law says only boats with more than 50 people in them have to be seaworthy!’) Maybe I’ll be the founder of the politically liberal school of strict constructionists.  :)
  • As the son of a doctor, I’ve been raised on the idea that we’re in an over-litigious society, where people too often refuse to take responsibility for their own actions. While I still think that is to a great extent true, it is hard to read any substantial amount of product liability law cases before realizing that increased litigiousness has done a great deal for our society. Had a case today where a woman had stones in her bean soup, and then another where a woman had tacks in her blueberry pie. And then you realize the two cases were against the same restaurant- and in fact they had gone to dinner together! Threatening to sue the hell out of people has made a lot of irresponsible organizations more responsible, and in the process saved a lot of lives and a lot of pain. That is very easy to forget when we live in the safe, coddled society which that litigation has created. Is the current balance correct? Almost definitely not. But it would be very easy to swing the pendulum too far in the other direction as well. (Beware, I may come out of this advocating liability for software.)
  • It turns out that just like there are beautiful or elegant hacks, so there are also beautiful and elegant rulings. I just got the privilege of reading my first one (MacPherson v. Buick) and the feeling was distinctly similar to the feeling of hearing about a great hack- if you understand the context, you can appreciate all the work and twists and turns that go into each of them, and just sit in awe at the beauty of it for a little while. Then you try to figure out how to do it yourself :) Pirsig’s Quality is everywhere, if you know how to look for it, it turns out.
  • Lawyers proudly have their own language- a lot like English, but not quite. (Geeks are no better, of course, but our language can be safely ignored by most people.) Of course, every profession does, because you have to balance the tension between higher efficiency in information transmission and incomprehensibility to the rest of the world. My sense so far is that the legal language is tradition-bound and crufty, and kept with unreasonably tenacity. But I’m not sure how one really changes such things- any linguists care to point me at good resources on the evolution of professional language, and how to kick-start fixing it? :)
  • If you’ve met bitter lawyers, bitterness is to be expected :) The entire legal educational process is designed to break you. This course is pass-fail, it is with a very nice prof, and it is still one of the most brutal educational experiences I’ve ever had. I am terrified of A-F grading in a class with a non-forgiving prof.
  • On the first day of orientation, they tell you all about how the legal profession is very, very team-oriented and sociable, and that you’ll have to learn how to work with others. TAfter orientation, they grade you on nothing but individual achievements under incredibly bizarre circumstances, with all preparation under strict instructions not to copy even case outlines from each other, and then they hire you based on nothing but those grades. So no surprise that despite all the talk about it being a sociable field, it is full of psychopaths :) Not that I see an easy way to grade group work in this context- but it seems like something every law school should be pushing for and experimenting with. I wonder if change-tracking in collaboratively written documents could be one way to tackle that.
  • I potentially have a lot to learn, even about blogging, now that I’m (apparently) a blawger. (I’m not kidding, that is what the blogging lawyers call themselves.) Three Years of Hell (a just-graduated Columbia student) blogs about blogging as a first-year- look forward to his second entry on it.