Monday, March 29, 2010

1L year filled with victories, losses, and lessons

I'm sitting on a couch in the lobby of the law library, waiting to find out if I will be one of eight 1Ls selected to advance to the second round of our oral argument competition. I would be thrilled to advance, but I won't be upset if I don't. I already know that arguing before a judge, a professor, or another student is one of the things in law school that I do well. I'm confident and calm in the heat of the moment, and several attorneys have given me really great feedback about this in recent weeks. I mention this not because I intend to brag, but rather to illustrate one of the lessons that many of us are learning at U of L Law: almost everyone in our class has notched a few victories this year, and almost everyone has been humbled at some point.

For me, the victories have affirmed my decision to leave a solid job after 11 years and throw all of my poker chips into law. I earned solid grades in my first semester, recently found a summer job, and got hooked on the art of oral argument. There also have been plenty of brutally humbling experiences. My first two grades in law school -- a midterm in Torts and a writing assignment -- came back with C-minus written on them. I've also said things in class that came back to smack me in the face -- arguments that were not well-reasoned, questions that I could not field, jumbled up nonsense that somehow came spilling out of my mouth. Even last week, I received a score on a Spring Break quiz in Contracts that was laughably low, i.e., less than half of what some other students scored.

The lesson in all of this, I think, is that being a 1L requires you to try as hard as you can to keep your head above water and achieve, and at the same time to accept the fact that you will not always be at the very top (or even in the middle!). But there are enough opportunities and niches in the field of law that each of us has room to carve out our own place, and eventually turn it into a career. At least that's my argument for the moment.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Kenneth Starr extols free speech in U of L lecture

Freedom of speech and religion was the central theme in a lecture at the law school yesterday by Kenneth Starr, the former independent counsel from the Bill Clinton era. About 100 students, faculty members, and local attorneys attended the inaugural William Marshall Bullitt Lecture in the school's Allen Courtroom. A story about the lecture also made the front of the Metro section in today's Courier-Journal. Starr is perhaps best known for his hard-nosed probe of the Monica Lewinsky affair, but he also is a former Solicitor General and U.S. Court of Appeals judge for the District of Columbia. And he made several comments yesterday that showed me he can't be easily painted into a single political corner. For example, he defended lawyers representing accused Al-Quada terrorists, and said a few nice things about President Obama. He also stressed the importance of civility in politics, and talked about the importance of freedom of speech for all groups, including corporations. Image, above right, from Pepperdine Law.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Buy a house, get free law books for a year

The Class of 2013 is taking shape, giving way to a new crop of 1Ls at U of L Law. For those of you who will be looking for housing for the next three years, I have a shameless promotion: buy my house in the wonderful Highlands neighborhood and I'll give you free law books and course outlines for your entire 1L year. I'll also throw in hornbooks and flash cards for each of your core classes, and exam-taking tips. If you haven't purchased a home before, you also may qualify for an $8,000 tax credit if you are under contract by April 30. The house has two large bedrooms, an office, new stainless steel appliances, and seven skylights. Check out the listing here. Lots of law students live in the Highlands, which offers an eclectic mix of local shops, bars, art galleries and restaurants. It's sort of the Haight-Ashbury of Louisville, and sits about four miles from the law school.

Not interested in buying a house? You can rent in the Highlands neighborhood for around $800 to $1,000 for a single-family home with a roommate, or $500-600 for a one-bedroom apartment. If you want to stretch your dollar further, Old Louisville is closer to campus and offers the nation's largest extant collection of Victorian homes. Another solid option is Germantown, where you can rent a shotgun-style home for around $650 a month. Have a question about housing in Louisville? Want to know more about those free law books?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Finished writing, ready to argue

The deadline for one of the year's biggest assignments came and went earlier this week, when 1L students turned in their appellate briefs for Basic Legal Skills. For the unacquainted, appellate briefs are another one of those 1L rites of passage. The finished product is about 20 pages of facts and legal analysis based on a single hypothetical case. Ours dealt with a lawyer who, allegedly, slept during his client's criminal trial. My task: argue that the client's conviction should not be overturned, because the sleeping was not well-documented, substantial, or prejudicial to the outcome of the trial. The briefs became an obsession for many students. I've heard the writing process compared to childbirth. We even had a fake Facebook page for the defendant (74 friends at last count) complete with fake photos, personal info and so forth. The brief itself went fine for most students, although it was a perfect example of how the bad habits of undergrad don't work in law school. A few students stayed up until 6 or 7 a.m. the night before the deadline. I've even heard of students dropping out of law school because they couldn't handle the project.
Now, however, we're moving on to the next thing: oral arguments. Spring break starts tomorrow, and when it ends we will begin preparing to face off in one-on-one speaking competitions in which we argue the merits of our written brief before real lawyers in a real courtroom in downtown Louisville. I'm pretty comfortable speaking in front of people, and the oral arguments are not a graded assignment. Still, they require solid preparation. A panel of lawyers will grill us in front of our peers, poking holes in our opinions and strategies. The video below, from a January session of the Kentucky Court of Appeals, gives you a sense of what the real thing is like. These arguments were held at the law school, and a similar session will be held the week of March 22. 

In addition to practicing for the oral arguments, there is a 1L oral argument competition that will be held at the end of March. Students will compete one on one, with the eventual winner taking home a small cash prize. It's sort of a tune-up for moot court, in which 2Ls and 3Ls travel to other schools to face off in much stiffer competitions. Moot court is one of U of L's strong suits, and we've recently done very well in regional and national competitions. For now, however, I'm focusing on avoiding some of the basic pitfalls of oral arguments (for example, the dreaded "fig leaf clutch" at the podium). And, of course, spring break.

Monday, March 8, 2010

U of L law class profiled in C-J

A few dozen upper-level law students are studying legal issues through the words of Shakespeare, Dante and other authors, and their class is profiled in this story in Sunday's edition of The Courier-Journal. As a first-year law student, I'm looking forward to some of these types of classes, which are only available in the second and third year of law school. For now, we're focused on core classes including torts, contracts, property and civil procedure. Check out the story at the above link while it lasts. The C-J (my former employer) usually does not make online articles available more than a week after publication.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Law firm targeted for 'trading' clients

In our Torts class this morning, our professor gave us an interesting question about damages: if you help a client recover $750,000 in a settlement, but work only two hours on the case, should you still be able to collect one-third of the damages based on a valid contingent fee agreement? His answer, essentially, was that yes, the attorney could collect the full one-third, but that no, the attorney should not try to collect the full amount because it would be bad business. Clients should always walk out of the office satisfied, he argued, and paying $250,000 for two hours of work is typically not a good way to make a customer happy.

Law school teaches us a lot about theory, and a decent amount about practice, but business is something else. Which brings to mind a fascinating story in The Courier-Journal this past Sunday about a law firm and a medical clinic that allegedly have a cozy relationship with each other. The author, Andy Wolfson, is a former colleague and a reporter who some lawyers love to hate. His byline has appeared over some of the most sensational cases of legal malpractice in Kentucky over the last few decades. His articles are required reading for someone planning to practice in Louisville. I'm eager to see how this story plays out over the coming months. Your thoughts?