Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The bankruptcy lawyer: job shadow Part I

Work may be scarce in some parts of the legal industry, but that’s not the case for Marc Levy. Partly due to the recession, people are streaming into Levy’s office at 440 S. Seventh St. in downtown Louisville. They’re seeking relief from credit card debts, mortgage foreclosures, and past-due medical bills. Levy, a 1980 graduate of our law school, allowed me to spend an afternoon with him as part of a series of job shadows that I hope to complete over the winter break. He also agreed to let me write about the experience.

Levy and I first met about a year ago when I was writing a feature story for The C-J about the sharp growth in personal bankruptcy filings in the metro area. His schedule was packed then, and it’s still packed now. Levy tells clients that they shouldn’t be embarrassed to file. Those “creative” home loans that got us into this economic mess are still a problem for many people, and credit card companies are slapping 20 percent APRs on loyal customers to make up for the industry’s new regulations. Levy has practiced bankruptcy law almost exclusively for the past 10 years. He takes cases that other lawyers turn down because they’re too complicated.

I sit through two initial consultations with new clients, and get a quick feel for how satisfying it can be to help people who are in serious financial trouble. For the most part, the process is fairly routine. Levy asks a series of questions: How long have you lived in Kentucky? Do you own any real estate? Have you previously filed for bankruptcy? He scribbles down answers on a yellow legal pad, then describes the two most common options: Chapter 7, usually for those with less income and fewer assets, and Chapter 13, which takes longer but allows the client to keep more property. The initial meeting takes less than an hour, and by the end of each consultation I can see the relief spreading across the faces of the people sitting at Levy’s desk. It’s not always this easy, he tells me later. Some people wait too long before they seek help. Others struggle to accept the realities of bankruptcy, such as being forced to lower donations to their church. But for the most part, Levy likes bankruptcy law. He’s settled there after also practicing in real estate, divorce, and criminal law.

I sit in Levy’s office for three hours, listening to him talk to clients, and fiddling with the buttons on the new suit coat that I bought the night before. When I picked it up the next morning, Gary, my “wardrobe consultant” at Men’s Wearhouse on Shelbyville Road, said I looked like a million-dollar bill waiting for change. It was my first new suit in nine years. I left Levy’s office with a very positive impression. I’m sure bankruptcy law isn’t for everyone, but the experience to me was fascinating. Clients open a window into their troubled finances, and the help you provide gives them a way to get back on their feet. Levy is waging a one-man sword fight against giant credit-card companies and mortgage lenders, and he seems to win most of the time. It’s also hard to argue about a job that gets nice and busy when the rest of the economy is in the toilet. Stay tuned for more job shadow reports in the next 10 days. My next assignment: the personal injury lawyer.

Monday, December 14, 2009

I know when you will get your grades

I will never forget the agony of waiting for my LSAT score (well, OK, both of my scores). Over the next few weeks, I imagine that many of us 1Ls will endure a similar experience as we wait for our first-semester grades. For some of us, these grades will play a big role in deciding whether we are able to find a summer job. They also will be the source of endless grumbling, speculation, rumors, and, for a few of us, excitement.

I happened to be in the law library today, and was thinking about when we would receive our scores. So I went straight to the source: Barbara Thompson, director of student records, who told me (much to my surprise) pretty much exactly when we would get the goods. For those of you who don't want to know, you might want to stop reading. For the rest of us, here's the deal: check ULINK in the late afternoon of Dec. 18, say around 4:30 p.m. Grades for each of our five finals, including Legal Research, will show up one by one. You also should receive an email informing you about the grades being posted. If they aren't there Friday afternoon, Thompson says check ULINK the morning of Monday, Dec. 21. There's a slight chance that the grades still won't be posted, but only if there's a problem with a particular course, a computer issue, a giant flood, etc.

Friday, December 11, 2009

One semester down, five to go

We have officially completed our first semester of law school. Not counting the bar exam and the fact that few law firms are hiring, we're one-sixth of the way to becoming attorneys. Today, I am promising myself that I won't think about the future. I just finished four gigantic final exams in twelve days, and I'm going to enjoy living in the moment. I'm going to walk my dog, Zola, get a haircut at a barbershop on Bardstown Road, and begin reading The Rainmaker by John Grisham. There will be no cases to brief, no open memos, no outlines.

When our class finished yesterday's Contracts final, members of both sections made a dash for The Granville on S. Third Street to consume large quantities of cold beer (and a few mid-day shots of tequila). It was a well-deserved session, Now we have three weeks of freedom before the spring semester begins. I'm going to worship every one of them.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Hip hop lesson in Civil Procedure

Just walked out of our final exam in Civil Procedure, and I can honestly say that it was the most grueling and difficult of our exams so far. Basically, it amounted to a three and a half hour mental beat-down. By the time I finished, my brain felt like total mush. But if there's anyone out there who wants an encore, check out this rap by a bunch of law students at UC Berkeley. Now, it's on to Contracts, our fourth and final exam. I don't know how I am going to muster the energy for another test. I guess I will start with lunch, and a lot of deep breaths.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

My 7-year-old kid may be a torts genius

I had one of those golden parenting moments this morning. I'm driving my 7-year-old son to school, and we get into a conversation about car wrecks - who is responsible, what are the penalties, etc. Then, almost out of nowhere, he turns to me and says this: "Does the driver have to pay if he doesn't mean to crash into the other car, and the judge decides it's a mistake?" For the love of law school, I almost jumped through the windshield. What a terrific question, I told him. Too bad we only had five more minutes to get to school.

This is the type of issue that we've just spent the entire semester examining in our Torts class. And in another two days, it'll be one of the central issues on our 1L Torts final - the second of four final exams that will end Dec. 10. The study of torts is a maddening process, but it has great application to everyday life. Liability in the car wreck scenario, for example, may turn on whether the driver could reasonably foresee the result of his actions, whether the injured driver did something to contribute to the crash, and other factors such as the weather, local traffic statutes, and whether the driver was behind the wheel of an ambulance or police cruiser. Here are a few other torts tidbits, gathered from our casebook and various study aids.

  • A driver who has a sudden heart attack behind the wheel may not be negligent in causing a wreck, as long as he doesn't know he is susceptible to a heart attack.
  • A child under the age of 18 is treated like an adult in a negligence case, as long as the child is engaging in an activity normally reserved for adults. Otherwise, the kid is treated like a kid. But courts differ widely on what is an adult activity. Some say golf is adult-like, but deer hunting is not. What about a snowmobile? A go-kart?
  • There is generally no duty to come to the aid of a person in peril in a public setting. But, a person who puts another in peril due to his negligent acts is also liable to anyone who tries to rescuer that person and is in turn injured. And the rescuer herself may be negligent if she acts rashly in conducting the rescue. And on and on and on...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Law students are like squirrels during finals

One of my primary motivations in going to law school is the meritocracy of the legal industry. In my former career, it drove me absolutely nuts that I could work like a donkey for 12 months, and receive a 3 percent raise, while the guy four desks over could come in late every day, take a two-hour lunch and collect 2.5 percent at the end of the year. But as we bear down on our first set of final exams in law school, I'm starting to learn about the reality of my new meritocracy. Most of the biggest law firms in Louisville, for example, will only take a look at the top 20 percent of students in a given class. And due to the ragged economy, very few of them are taking a look at 1Ls, no matter how good their grades are. Then you factor in the background of most students here, including me, who cruised through college at the top of their classes. That's not going to happen ten days from now when the first wave of finals hits the beach.

The median 1L grade-point average at U of L, I am told, is somewhere around 3.0. Louisville is not known for its grade inflation. Either way, it's been amazing to watch the students in our 1L class change from normal human beings into frightened animals, scurrying about the library like crazed squirrels hunting for the last few acorns before the first snow storm of winter. Many of us are in the library eight or nine hours a day. A guy told me yesterday that he had a dream about vested remainders in life estates. The good thing about Louisville, at least so far, is that our professors are incredibly accessible for questions and review sessions. Our civil procedure professor invites students to go out to lunch with him, and our property professor is in her office with the door open almost eight hours a day. The instructors in all four of my core classes have practice exams posted online, many of them with answer keys. The expectations are ridiculously high, and several professors have been candid about their reputations for tough grading. They also are quick to remind us that grades won't matter 30 years from now, and that there are plenty of great lawyers out there who got Cs in law school. That may be the case, but from where I'm sitting it doesn't make me feel any more comfortable. Back to the books.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Happy Birthday Brandeis

One of Louisville's most famous figures, Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, was born today in 1856. About a zillion streets, buildings, stamps, and other things are named after Brandeis, including our law school (in 1997), which was founded 10 years before Brandeis was born. Brandeis also donated his scholarly works to the law library, and his ashes are buried outside the school. A few interesting facts about Brandeis from Professor Laura Rothstein:

  • Brandeis had a special affinity for animal crackers and hot donuts.
  • While researching cases, he filed documents in a bathtub at his home.
  • After finishing high school in Europe, he was admitted to Harvard Law School at age 18, and finished at age 20 with the highest grade point average in school history.
  • Brandeis was the first Jew to join the U.S. Supreme Court (appointed 1916).
  • Famous quote: "Knowledge is essential to understanding and understanding should precede judging."

Each year, law students place coins at his grave in front of the school just before final exams. According to Rothstein, the assumption is that the coins bring good luck. For more details on Brandeis, click here.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

I used to have a life before law school

If this guy spent as much time studying as he did on the video, he would be in fantastic shape. Either way this is a good laugh.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

1L memo is a "write" of passage

We're rounding third base and heading for home in one of our core first-year classes: Basic Legal Skills. There is perhaps no other course that elicits the groans and complaints of what we call BLS. I imagine that many students would prefer to omit the "L" completely, but the class has taught me some very important lessons. Chief among them, at least for me, is that no matter how much writing I have done in the past, the process of legal writing must be learned from the ground up. Nothing in my journalism career showed me how to write in a CREAC format, for example. And in many ways, I have been forced to unlearn many of the doctrines of professional journalism. A few of my new rules: don't (I mean do not) use contractions; do repeat the same word over and over again so as not to vary the meaning of your message; and don't forget to write a conclusion over and over and over again (see CREAC link above).

Some of these principles are maddening to follow, but there is a reason for the madness. We're learning how to write like lawyers, and the technical details are no small matter. Anyway, our last BLS class for the fall finished at 2 p.m. today. Our second and final memo of the semester is due on Monday, and for many of us it's a life consuming project. But in a few more days we'll be finished, and another 1L rite of passage will be under our belts. And then, we will only have four more final exams to go before the entire first semester is over. Did I just say four more finals? Gotta go study.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Tommy Ramone plays Louisville

Since law school started in August, my social calendar has more or less evaporated. Weekly nights out with the guys have been all but forgotten, and I can't remember the last time my wife and I got a babysitter and went out for dinner. This is part of the law school syndrome. One of my third-year friends told me recently that, at the end of each year, he learns that his friends or family members had children, got married or started new jobs months earlier.
The work load makes us oblivious to our surroundings, and that's too bad in a city like Louisville, where there's always something happening. Last night, for instance, I decided to blow off studying and accompany some friends to Zanzabar, a hip club on S. Preston St. with a gritty film noire atmosphere. The lead act was a bluegrass band with Tommy Ramone(see my cell phone photo), the last surviving member of The Ramones, playing mandolin. There are scores of other great venues in Louisville. And thanks to Kentucky's generous liquor licensing laws, there are bars on almost every street corner in many of the city's urban neighborhoods. A few of my favorite watering holes:

  • Nachbar, 969 Charles St. in Germantown
  • Cumberland Brews, 1576 Bardstown Road, Highlands
  • Rudyard Kipling, 422 W. Oak St., Old Louisville
  • Frankfort Avenue Beer Depot, 3204 Frankfort Ave., Crescent Hill
  • O'Shea's Irish Pub, 956 Baxter Ave., Original Highlands

Thursday, October 29, 2009

U of L students buy golf hat for $1,040

There are at least two things that are hard to come by for first-year law students: time and money. Nonetheless, I'm really pleased with the results of an informal project that a bunch of us organized in our very first semester here in Louisville. A few weeks back, our torts professor, David Leibson, offered to sell us one of his favorite golf hats. The offer was sort of made in jest, since he uses the hat in class as a prop to talk about various legal theories. But while law students may be starved for time and money, we have plenty of ambition. We formed a group on Facebook, held a few discussions, and decided to pool our money - $10 each - and make an offer to Leibson. A couple of weeks later, we have an accepted offer, and a deal with our professor that will send at least $1,040 to the school for future law scholarships. Check out the details below in a copy of our final contract. Also, it's not too late to participate in the effort. Send an email to for details.


On October 23, 2009, the students of Leibson’s Section 1 Torts class (“Students”), at the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law (“School”) offer Professor David J. Leibson (“Leibson”), the sum of $1,040 and 24 12-ounce cans of Dr. Brown’s Diet Cream Soda (“Soda”), in exchange for Leibson’s golf hat signed by Byron Nelson (“Hat”) and a presentation of stories from Leibson’s career.

The following terms apply to this offer.

1. Alex Davis and Nancy Vinsel are each authorized representatives of Students.

2. Students shall present the $1,040 and Soda within 30 days of acceptance of this offer by Leibson.

3. Leibson shall present Hat to Alex Davis or Nancy Vinsel no later than 10 business days after Students present the $1,040 and Soda to Leibson.

4. Students shall retain ownership of Hat, but will transfer Hat immediately to School with the express intention that Hat be displayed in a glass case outside School’s law library along with Leibson’s scholarly works. Students shall include in the display a brief explanation of the story behind Students’ gift. If this location is not amenable to Leibson or to School, Leibson and Students shall exercise good faith in selecting an alternative location in a timely manner. If Leibson and Students are not able to select an alternate location, Hat will reside in Leibson’s School office until his retirement.

5. Leibson may retrieve Hat and use it for educational purposes during future law classes at School.

6. Leibson shall participate in a one-hour lunch for Students at School during the 2009-2010 school year, on a date selected by Students.

7. At the lunch, Leibson shall regale the Students with stories from his legal and scholarly career. Food may be provided by a third party, and is not in any way a part of Leibson’s obligation.

8. Students suggest that Leibson use the full cash proceeds from the sale of Hat to support a charity of his choice. Students may write a check or checks directly to the charity as a part of this provision if Leibson so desires. This provision is a suggestion only. Leibson is not bound to do so. This suggestion does not apply to Soda.

9. Hat shall remain in glass case until Leibson is no longer employed at School, at which time possession of the hat reverts to Leibson.

10. In the event of a dispute over this Offer or the status of the Hat, Students and Leibson agree to resolve any disputes exclusively through binding arbitration. The arbitrator shall be the School’s current Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the time the dispute is to be heard and resolved.

11. Students creating this offer (“2009 Offer”) agree to sell Hat to any future class of first-year law students (“Future Students”) at School that makes a valid future offer (“Future Offer”) for Hat meeting conditions 11-18 of this Offer.

12. Future Students making a valid Future Offer must agree to allow Hat to remain at School until Leibson is no longer employed by School, at which time ownership reverts to Leibson.

13. Future Offer must be in excess of $1,040.

14. Future Offer must contain more terms than this Offer, which contains 18 terms.

15. Future Offer must be directed to Leibson, who will have sole authority to determine validity of offer and make acceptance on behalf of Future Students.

16. If Leibson accepts offer by Future Students, Future Students shall place a brief explanation of the story behind this offer with Hat.

17. At least half of the proceeds from any Future Offer made by Future Students must be reserved for a suggested charitable contribution to be made by Leibson. Any remaining proceeds will be used by Leibson in accordance with the terms set out by Future Students.

18. Future Students must agree to transfer ownership of Hat to future classes of law students at School in the event that Leibson approves a valid offer from a subsequent future class that exceeds the cash value of their offer and contains more terms than their offer.

To accept this offer, please sign on the designated line below the statement of acceptance and deliver this document in person to Mr. Alex Davis or Ms. Nancy Vinsel.



By ______________________________________
Alexander C. Davis
Class Representative

Nancy J. Vinsel
Class Representative


I, David J. Leibson, accept the above offer.


David J. Leibson

Date: ________________________

Monday, October 19, 2009

First exams over, but push continues

If law school is like a marathon, we've just rounded the first corner of the race. We are officially one-twelfth of the way through. The upshot at this point is that I still have lots of energy and excitement, having finished our legal research final, our Torts mid-term and our first memo. At the same time, there are days when I feel beaten down, defeated, and downright scared. The mountain looms, and it's only getting bigger.

I know I'm not alone in this feeling, and that's perhaps the most comforting aspect of law school. Here at U of L, faculty and other students are really supportive, perhaps more so than at other schools. For example, there is little sense of direct cut-throat competition between students so far, and our professors are careful to slack up a bit in certain courses when the going is rough in others. But this doesn't make like easier. Some upper-level students have told me in recent weeks that they wish they didn't work so hard during their first year, or that they wish they didn't let the pressure get to them so easily. I now have a sense of the meaning behind the maxim we were given in orientation: "Don't let them mess with your head."

The only remedy to the pressure (at least for me) is to keep working. Even with two children at home and a small business to run, I find that I am able to stay on top of the brutal demands of reading, briefing, and outlining. My case books go with me pretty much everywhere. In the last couple of weeks, I have read Civil Procedure in the parking lot outside a children's birthday party, and Contracts in the middle of my son's Cub Scouts meeting. I even finished off half of a Torts case in the middle of a Chuck E. Cheese play room. And yes, that was no small feat. For better or worse, these are the tactics that seem necessary to survive and continue. So if you see me with a glazed look in my eyes, or holding a book up to my face in the middle of an intersection during rush hour, please forgive me. I'm in law school.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Law school offers bounty of free food, trinkets

The spectre of final exams is starting to consume my life, but there's one thing I don't have to worry about: lunch. At least once a week there is a free pizza lunch for students as an enticement to attend a meeting for a student organization, or a symposium on a specialized area of the law. And there are some weeks when my brown bag lunch from home sits in the refrigerator at school for two or three days in a row before I get a chance to eat it.

Just this week, for example, I noshed on a free lunch provided for an event about transgender identity and the law. Before that, there was free pizza for events hosted by the Federalist Society, the corporate law student group, and a symposium on professionalism. I'm hoping that the flow of free food doesn't slow down after the first semester, but even if it does there are many other sources of free stuff that a poor law student would be loath to overlook.Lexis and Westlaw pepper us with free pens, flash drives and water bottles, and the University of Louisville conducts prize drawings for students who turn in course evaluations and such. There also are a bunch of cool events hosted by the school and by student groups, such as this week's Lawlapalooza, a battle of the bands for musician law students and attorneys at Phoenix Hill Tavern. Law school does have its price, both in terms of tuition and the demands on my home and family life. But it's good to know that, at least in some cases, there is a free lunch.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Core classes are stretching my brain

As a first-year student, the classes I'm taking here in Louisville are very similar to the introductory classes at almost every law school in the nation. I have essentially no choice but to accept the four pillars of being a 1L: Torts, Contracts, Civil Procedure and Property. Added to this mix is Basic Legal Skills, and Legal Research. But while the schedule is set in stone, the instruction in the four core classes so far has been nothing less than stellar. Here's a breakdown of my instructors and the classes they teach:

  • Property: the ins and outs of real estate, including landlord/tenant law, adverse possession and estates. Laura Rothstein is a 30-year veteran of legal scholarship, and the class has been great so far (As a landlord, perhaps I'm biased)
  • Torts: this may be my favorite class so far. Professor David Leibson has been at our law school since 1971 and has an LLM from Harvard. His cryptic drawings on the whiteboard are a source of much amusement for the class, and he offers fantastic real-life stories to teach us about assault, battery, false imprisonment, conversion and more.
  • Contracts: this can be an incredibly detailed subject. Professor Grace Giesel, a graduate of Yale and Emory, helps to untangle it, sometimes using analogies from movies. She recently has pointed out contract issues in current events, such as the dispute involving former University of Kentucky basketball coach Billy Gillispie.
  • Civil Procedure: every week we are introduced to dozens of new rules that govern where, when and how a lawsuit can be filed. Professor Leslie Abramson keeps us on our toes with the Socratic method (also used in the other three core classes) and a quirky sense of humor that challenges us to constantly question the material and how we perceive it.

Not all of us have the same instructors, but these four professors are giving me a fantastic introduction to the law, and in my opinion, they're worth every penny that they make.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Telling mom about law school

Want to know what law school is like at the University of Louisville? Here's the way I described the first few weeks to my parents in a recent email. I'm tempted to post a photo of my mom at the bottom, but it seems that discretion is the better part of blogging, at least when parents are involved.

Mom, please forward to dad.....

I'm taking a 5-minute break from studying, and thought I would send you a few thoughts as I make my way through the third week of law school. The schedule is hectic. Generally, I wake up around 6:30 or 6:45 and have breakfast with the family, drive one kid to school, and head to campus. I study for an hour, then attend classes until just before noon, eat lunch (sometimes free pizza for a Lexis promo session or some student group meeting) and then have at least one more class in the early afternoon. I then study until 5:30 or so, go home, have dinner with the family, and study from 8 until 10:30 or so. I think I've had one or two beers since school started. There simply isn't enough time. Even so, I am tremendously happy, more so than I was at any point in my last two years in journalism. The materials and ideas are all new and exciting, and class discussion is like a roller coaster of emotions. Most of my six classes are conducted using the Socratic method, so at any given time a student would have perhaps 10 seconds to regurgitate everything they know about three to four pages of dense material from a particular legal case, which could be one of seven or eight cases studied for that class session. Some students are terrified by this. I haven't always had perfect answers, but I like speaking in public and I enjoy the thrill of being put on the spot.

So far, here are a few things I've learned...

1. How to dig up a dusty 85-year-old book from the library (South Western Reporter, Federal Digest, etc.) and track down the particulars of a lawsuit.
2. Tell the difference between a battery and an assault (among other things, the former requires contact, the latter doesn't)
3. Find the "holding" in a lawsuit where the jury or judge determines the outcome of the issue. We have now read dozens of cases, so finding the various parts and briefing them on a laptop is starting to become second nature.

Five of my six classes are really good, and the sixth is still decent. I particularly enjoy Torts, because the professor makes things interesting by offering real-life cases from Kentucky where it's very difficult to decide if a wrong has been committed. Today, for example, he asked if a hospital nurse should be found liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress for telling a woman in a hospital to shut up after she had just given birth to a stillborn baby. That was just after another case in which we discussed liability for a marriage counselor who had an affair with the wife of a client. The answers are often just as muddy as the cases are complicated. It's a little unsettling, but I find this part of the law to be really fascinating.

Hope you guys are doing well. I will try to find time to do another letter before too long. Hope you have a great holiday weekend, and please forward this to dad as well.



Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Chapter 1: law school and possums

It is said that law school changes the way we think. After just a few weeks here at the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law, it's already happening to me. Case in point: I'm driving home from an indoor soccer game the other night along Mellwood Avenue when I spot something on the pavement in front of me. It's a possum, dazed and bleeding, but still alive.

Some people are repulsed by these cat-sized nocturnal creatures, but they've always been strangely fascinating to me. I decide to help. Using a long stick, I carefully move the injured critter to the side of the road, while a friend directs traffic and cars back up in both directions.

The task only takes a few minutes, but in the meantime all I can think about are the legal repercussions. What if a car runs me over before I can complete my marsupial rescue? Does the driver owe me a duty of care? Would a jury view the situation differently if I were helping an injured human lying in the middle of the road? Does it matter that I'm riding an unlicensed scooter instead of my pickup truck? That it's pitch black at night instead of daytime? That we're on Mellwood instead of the much busier Zorn Avenue nearby?

In his book "1L" about Harvard Law School, Scott Turow writes that buying a hamburger makes him ponder the contractual relationship that he has forged with a fast-food worker over his sandwich. Now I know what he means.