Morning Walks With Kasey

The last few days I’ve been responsible for walking Kasey in the morning.  We’ve got a routine going:  she sleeps in while I take my lap around Schiller Park, she barks angrily when I return, she waits impatiently while I shower and dress, and then we set out toward Frank Fetch Park.  On the walk, Kasey smells everything there is for a dog to smell — namely, everything — and along the way she answers the call of nature multiple times, leaving it for her trusted aide to clean up after her.

Some might argue that picking up after your dog helps prepare a lawyer for the work day ahead.

Dumbing Down

What does it tell you when the scores American students are achieving on multiple-choice tests are declining, and hitting the lowest levels in more than 30 years?  For once, we’re not talking about primary or even secondary school education, and lamenting how Americans are lagging behind students from other countries.

25bar1No, I’m talking about how would-be American lawyers are doing on the multistate bar exam, a 200-question multiple choice test given in Ohio and most other states as part of the bar examination tests that law school graduates must pass to become licensed to practice law.  The scores of bar exam takers on the multistate are falling.  In 2015, the mean scaled score was 135, which is the lowest average result since 1983.  When the average score of more than 20,000 test-takers involves answering less than 70 percent of the 200 questions correctly, that’s pretty sad.

So, to put the question again:  what does it tell you when scores on a multiple-choice test are falling?  It tells you that either the quality of students taking the test is declining, or those students are less prepared, or the test itself is getting harder.  Although it’s possible the exam itself has unintentionally gotten tougher, most people are pointing at the first two choices as the likely suspects.  They note that the standardized test scores of students being admitted to law schools is declining, which they think indicates that the intellectual caliber of the students themselves is lower than it once was.  And there is an ongoing debate about how well law school is preparing students these days, and whether law school students are more focusing on tackling an academically rigorous curriculum or on other social justice type issues that aren’t going to prepare them to pass the bar exam.

I also think the declining trend in bar exam performance speaks to the quality of the students and the quality of the legal education they’re receiving.  It’s not that people are getting dumber, it’s that smart people who might have gone to law school years ago are self-selecting out of law school these days.  That’s why law school enrollment figures have been declining for years.  Forgoing law school is a wise decision for many people, because while the costs of going to law school continue to increase — at many schools, it’s more than $50,000 a year — the employment statistics for recent grads are horrendous.  If you were an intelligent, reasonably motivated young person, would you want to commit to a three-year course of study where you’re likely going to graduate with a six-figure student loan debt and crappy job prospects?

And law schools themselves seem to have changed and morphed from tough, intellectually demanding centers of higher learning into more politicized venues.  With professors seemingly more focused on their own political agendas than on challenging students to learn and excel at traditional forms of legal analysis, it’s no wonder that recent graduates are struggling on multiple-choice tests.

Don’t be surprised if you start to see more reports in the news about some law schools closing their doors.

GULC Storm

I graduated from the Georgetown University Law Center — known to students as GULC — in 1985.  In those days, it was a law school that taught traditional courses, like Contracts, and Property, and Civil Procedure, through the traditional Socratic method, where professors posed questions to specific students who were expected to be able to explain and analyze the rules of law set forth in particular cases.  Our professors were of different political persuasions, no doubt, and one professor advocated Critical Legal Studies, but the school was not politicized, or politically divided, in any meaningful sense.

Things apparently have changed over 30 years.  Now GULC is home to an internal political storm provoked by the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

scalia702a_1Justice Scalia was a regular visitor to the campus, most recently in November when he came to speak to first-year law students.  When he died, GULC issued a public statement describing Scalia as “a giant in the history of the law, a brilliant jurist whose opinions and scholarship profoundly transformed the law.”  The current dean, William Treanor, added that “I am deeply grateful for his remarkably generous involvement with our community, including his frequent appearances in classes and his memorable lecture to our first year students this past November,” and concluded:  “We will all miss him.”

Some GULC professors objected to the release.  One professor wrote to the entire campus community, and said: “I am not suggesting that J. Scalia should have been criticized on the day of his death, nor that the ‘community’  should not be thankful for his willingness to meet with our students. But he was not a legal figure to be lionized or emulated by our students. He bullied lawyers, trafficked in personal humiliation of advocates, and openly sided with the party of intolerance in the ‘culture wars’ he often invoked. In my mind, he was not a giant in any good sense.”  That professor also said:  “I imagine many other faculty, students and staff, particularly people of color, women and sexual minorities, cringed at headline and at the unmitigated praise with which the press release described a jurist that many of us believe was a defender of privilege, oppression and bigotry, one whose intellectual positions were not brilliant but simplistic and formalistic.”

These comments provoked a response from the two “conservative” professors at the law school, who said the comments of the other professors said “in effect, your hero was a stupid bigot and we are not sad that he is dead.”  The professors added:  “The problem is that the center of gravity of legal academia is so far to the left edge of the political spectrum that some have lost the ability to tell the difference.  Only on a faculty with just two identifiably right-of-center professors out of 125, could a professor harbor such vitriol for a conservative Justice that even Justice Ginsburg adored.  Only on a faculty this unbalanced could a professor willfully or knowingly choose to “hurt … those with affection for J. Scalia,” including countless students, just days after the Justice’s death.”

The dispute has been covered by the Washington Post, in the story linked above,  by the Above the Law website — which refers to the dust-up as “Scaliagate” — and by other media outlets.  It’s probably the most news coverage GULC has received in years.  It’s not exactly what I would call favorable publicity.

It’s sad, for me, on several levels.  First, I am sad that notions of civility and simple decency appear to be leaching out of our society, to the point where people feel the need to blast out their own negative views about a public servant who has died, rather than doing the proper thing and holding their tongue so that others may mourn.  Surely the professor who depicted Justice Scalia as a defender of “oppression and bigotry” whose intellectual positions were “simplistic and formalistic” knew that others would disagree with those statements and be hurt by them.  So, why say them in the first place, so soon after Justice Scalia’s death — rather than, say, writing a law review article critiquing Justice Scalia’s opinions on their merits, which is what law professors used to do?

And second, I am sad that law schools seemingly have become political hotbeds, where “liberals” and “conservatives” joust in an apparently lopsided battle.  When I went to GULC, it and other respected law schools were viewed as scholarly intellectual bastions, where cases were reviewed with analytical rigor and rules of law divined, in order to help students develop judgment and prepare them for a career in the law.  Sharp political exchanges and name-calling are antithetical to intellectual rigor — but perhaps intellectual rigor is not what law schools are looking for in their professors these days.

As I said, things apparently have changed a lot in 30 years, and not for the better.

Invasion Of The Robot Lawyers

While the rest of us are working, the “futurists” and consultants among us are out there making predictions about what the world will look like one day.  Most of these predictions are dead wrong — I haven’t seen any flying cars around, have you? — but they are entertaining nonetheless.

20150102futurama-robot-lawyerOne consultant firm has issued a dire prediction about the future of lawyers.  It says that by the year 2030, robots and artificial intelligence will dominate the legal market, likely causing a “structural collapse” of law firms.  For young lawyers looking to break into the profession, the consultants forecast, the outlook will be especially bleak, because the robots will be untiring, uncomplaining, bill-4,000-hours-a-year competitors:  “Eventually each bot would be able to do the work of a dozen low-level associates. They would not get tired. They would not seek advancement. They would not ask for pay rises. Process legal work would rapidly descend in cost.”  Yikes!

For the lucky senior partners of 2030, however, the future is rosier, because the report envisions that while legal clients in the AI world will want the cheap labor the robots will bring, they will also crave the knowledgeable advice of experienced lawyers:  “Clients would instead greatly value the human input of the firm’s top partners, especially those that could empathise with the client’s needs and show real understanding and human insight into their problems.”

Of course, some might question the notion that senior partners at large law firms can properly be associated with characteristics such as “human input,” “human insight,” understanding, and empathy, but let’s not focus on that objection for now.

I’m skeptical that law firms and lawyers will be replaced by AI and robots, because I think a huge element of lawyering involves the exercise of judgment, shrewd assessment of the motivations and goals of the people and entities involved in a transaction or dispute, and other qualities that just aren’t well suited to robotic applications.  Of course, you never know.  In the time I’ve been practicing there has been a significant change in how lawyers work due to the development of legal search engines, law databases, email communications, and other technological developments.  Perhaps lawyers only kid themselves in thinking that they are different from assembly line workers and can’t be replaced by our metal friends.

So we’ll just have to wait until 2030 to see if robots invade law firms.  If it happens, at least we’ve got one thing to look forward to:  robot lawyer jokes.

Love Your Lawyer (Joke) Day

Hooray!  Today is Love Your Lawyer Day!

What’s that, you say?  It doesn’t show up on your calendar app?  That’s weird.  After all, it’s been officially recognized as such by the American Bar Association Law Practice Council, which passed a resolution to that effect.  In case you didn’t know, you’re supposed to post stories and pictures with the hashtag #LoveYourLawyerDay to help celebrate your special affection for your lawyer.

Uh, yeah.  Look, I’m a lawyer, and this all seems pretty lame to me, too.  I’m not familiar with any other profession that whines about being vilified by negative stereotypes — like, say, Saul in Breaking Bad — and then passes a resolution that tries to guilt trip the American public into finally saying something positive.  To my knowledge, at least, there’s no Love Your Banker Day or Love Your Accountant Day or even Love Your IRS Agent Day.  Among all of the professions that might feel dissed by popular cultural depictions from time to time, only lawyers apparently are so needy and desperate for public approval that they pass a resolution in the vain hope of reversing prevailing views of their profession.

So you don’t have warm and fuzzy feelings about lawyers, you say?  Fair enough.  How about we celebrate Love Your Lawyer Joke Day instead?  Everyone has a favorite lawyer joke, and we should at least be thankful to the legal profession for spurring the creation of some nifty chestnuts.  Here are some which do nothing but feed those awful stereotypes:

Q: What’s the difference between a lawyer and a liar?
A: The pronunciation.

Q: What do you call a lawyer gone bad?
A: Senator.

Q: Why did New Jersey get all the toxic waste and California all the lawyers?
A: New Jersey got to pick first.

Q: What do lawyers and sperm have in common?
A: One in 3,000,000 has a chance of becoming a human being.

Any profession that has contributed that mightily to American humor can’t be all bad.

In The Nick Of Timing

Every job has its own rhythms, peaks and valleys.  In the retail industry, the holiday season is the crunch time.  Lifeguards are swamped between Memorial Day and Labor Day, accountants get killed in the weeks leading up to April 15, and ski instructors are snowed under when January and February roll around.

In the law business, too, different practices have different busy and slack periods.  The fine folks in the transactional and tax areas get crushed at the end of the year, as clients rush to complete deals or restructurings before their accounting period closes.  For litigators, there seems to be no set peaks and valleys during the practice year.  It’s more of a crap shoot. Sometimes the new year starts with a rush, sometimes the spring is when all of the work forces seem to come together, and sometimes judges will schedule things between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve in hopes of strongly encouraging parties to voluntarily resolve their disputes.

Whatever your job, when you are really busting it you look forward to the next three-day weekend as if it were your own personal road to salvation.  And if the Fourth of July is the holiday that might break up that period where you are buried, you hope like hell that this isn’t one of those years when Independence Day falls on a freaking Wednesday.  Because while there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a day off in the middle of the work week, we know that a sterile, non-working Wednesday just doesn’t play the same sweet personal music as the full, complete, party-Thursday-night/sleep-in-on-Friday three-day weekend.

I’m happy to report that this year the Fourth of July falls on a Saturday, which means that we’ve got one of those official three-day weekends just around the corner.  It’s darned good timing in my book.

Vets End

For decades it squatted on the west bank of the Scioto River, directly across from downtown Columbus — a bland, nondescript, hunched building, instantly forgettable to all who drove past it, noteworthy only for its absolute, unflinching genericness.

The Franklin County Veterans Memorial was home to trade shows and auto shows and generic meetings of groups.  No one really cared much about it, one way or the other.  And when Franklin County Commissioners voted to demolish the building as part of a plan to add some much-needed dash and character to the west bank of the river, no one really cared much one way or the other about that, either — with one striking exception.

For one group, Veterans Memorial was a grotesque living reminder of a horrible few days — a period in their lives that was so terrible that just looking at the building and parking lot brought back soul-crushing recollections of angst and strain, panic and pressure, and the ultimate in testing nightmares.  That is because, for years and years, every new law school graduate who wanted to be licensed to practice law in Ohio had to come to Veterans Memorial in Columbus and sit in its cavernous main room to take the multi-day bar exam.

After three years of law school, your professional and financial future rode entirely on your performance on one test.  It was an all-or-nothing proposition:  pass, and you went on to become a practicing lawyer; fail, and . . . well, failure was unthinkable.  Everyone who has taken the bar exam remembers the sense of suffocating pressure, the grim expressions of their fellow test-takers, and the oppressive atmosphere in that testing room.

Some lawyers who successfully navigated the bar exam make jokes about it now, much like people who’ve been through a painful divorce attempt awkward humor about it.  But the jokes aren’t funny, and every lawyer knows it.  Deep down, every lawyer in Ohio is secretly thrilled that Vets Memorial has been reduced to rubble, and that the ugly physical reminder of their ugly rite of passage is no more.  We are free.

Good riddance!  May the rubble itself burn in hell.

Detroit’s Growth Industry?

After a quick visit to Michigan to see the Cranbrook senior art show and spend a day with Russell, I’ve concluded — based solely on billboards — that Detroit has a new growth industry.  It’s lawsuits.

IMG_2041There are lots of billboards in Detroit, because there are lots of road.  (It is the Motor City, after all.)  And I would guess that about half of the billboards are for lawyers who are ready to help you and fight on your behalf.  There are billboards for the auto accident attorney with a clever if not grammatically correct alphabetized phone number that an accident victim probably would remember even in an immediate, post-accident daze.  There are glamorous billboards for a blonde woman attorney who goes by the initials JK and whose picture is everywhere.  There are billboards for people who need legal representation for sexual harassment, billboards for people who are getting a divorce, and billboards for people who are dealing with the police.

Billboards used to advertise businesses and their products; now they advertise lawyers.  There’s a message in there somewhere.

Plumbers In Demand

A few days ago our kitchen faucet started leaking at the base when the water was turned on.  At first it was a trickle; eventually the leak became a gushing, fizzing torrent that we handled with a wadded-up towel.

IMG_4850I’m not a practical, fix-it-yourself kind of guy.  I don’t know bupkis about plumbing, I don’t have the tools, and I don’t plan on learning the trade with blundering attempts on the most-used faucet in our house.  So, Kish called the plumber we’ve used before.  He’s happy to help us, but he told us we’d have to wait three weeks.

Three weeks!  Sorry, he said, but he’s got work scheduled for the next three weeks solid before he can fit us in.  And his jam-packed work schedule mirrors what we’ve heard from other craftsmen you need from time to time around the house.  We’ve got a sliding door that is misbehaving; the handyman we called said he’ll be out to take a look in a month.  We’ve learned that if you want to book painters, or carpenters, or brick masons, you really need to plan ahead.

The little lesson in all of this is that there is always going to be paying work for people who are good at skilled trades.  We’re always going to need plumbers, electricians, painters, and the other jack-of-all-trades fix-it guys.  Because our national policy for decades has been to try to push everyone toward getting a college degree, the influx of new tradesmen has dwindled, and now there’s apparently a shortage — which means you wait three weeks for a plumber.

I’m guessing that the plumber who can’t come out to take a look at our faucet for three weeks is doing pretty well in his business.  I wonder if the gaggle of unemployed law school graduates who are loaded down with student loan debt ever regret that they didn’t learn how to use a wrench?

No Teacher Left Behind

President Obama was in Columbus recently to tout his “jobs bill,” which would spend large amounts of federal money for teacher jobs and school building repairs.  According to the United Federation of Teachers — which, not surprisingly, supports the idea — the President’s proposal would spend $35 billion to preserve teacher jobs and another $25 billion fixing schools.

Why is it always teachers who benefit from these bills?  A lot of lawyers have lost their jobs recently — how about a costly federal program to spur the hiring of more briefcase-totin’, lawbook-quotin’ attorneys, so they can realize the American Dream?  Journalists also could use a hand.  Many newspapers have gone under or radically cut their staffs because nobody reads news the old-fashioned way anymore.  Or what about accountants?  Sure, they’re boring, and perhaps the recession just served as an excuse for companies to unload deadly dull bean-counters because nobody could stand to share a table with them in the cafeteria, but they could use our help, too.  So could insurance salesmen, and tugboat operators, and lumberjacks, and milkmen.

Perhaps President Obama justs walks into the West Wing every morning whistling Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Teach Your Children.  Or maybe he’s heard the taunt about teachers that goes “those who can’t do, teach” and believes that our erstwhile educators won’t be able to find work if they lose their teaching gig.

Don’t get me wrong.  I like teachers — but there’s no reason why they should be favored over everybody else.  What about stimulus spending and jobs bills for every profession, craft, and trade?  It’s become the American Way!

The Feds, Below The Mendoza Line

Cristobal Rigoberto (“Minnie”) Mendoza played for the Minnesota Twins in 1970 and hit .188 for the year.  That threshold of futility has come to be known in baseball as the “Mendoza Line.”  If you start the season in a slump and begin to pull out of it, crossing the Mendoza Line and getting above .200 is the first step back to respectability.  If it’s mid-season and you cross the Mendoza Line going in the opposite direction, expect to find a ticket to the minors in your locker.

When it comes to public perception of business and industry segments, lawyers probably set the Mendoza Line.  For whatever reason, most people don’t like lawyers.  In the media, lawyers are often depicted as conniving, duplicitous, arrogant, money-grubbing, and unscrupulous, which are not exactly endearing characteristics.  As a lawyer myself, I think the common characterizations of lawyers are profoundly inaccurate, and I regret that the general reaction to my profession is so negative — but there is no denying the statistics.

I therefore found it interesting that, in a recent Gallup Poll, the federal government crossed the lawyer Mendoza Line and ranked the worst in terms of public perception of 25 different business and industry sectors.  Lawyers were viewed positively by 29 percent of respondents and negatively by 45 percent, for a net score of -16.  The federal government, in contrast, was ranked positively by only 17 percent and negatively by 63 percent, for a net score of -46.

If I were in the federal government right now, I’d be looking for that ticket to the minors.

 

The Bar Exam

Later this week hundreds of would-be lawyers will take the Ohio bar exam at the Veterans Memorial building in Columbus.  Our nephew Matt will be among them.

In Ohio, you cannot become a licensed lawyer unless you pass the bar exam (among other requirements).  Twice a year, in February and July, applicants sit in a large common room and take a three-day test that addresses various areas of the law.

Because the bar exam is an all-or-nothing proposition — you either pass, or you are unable to practice law despite the three years of law school you’ve just completed — stress levels are absurdly high.  For many people, the bar exam is the single most stressful thing they’ve ever done.  Those who have passed always remember what it was like to take the exam, to sit in that big room with hundreds of other people, all charged with adrenalin and worry and regret that they didn’t study harder, and then to read the initial questions and hope you knew how to answer them.  At breaks between testing sessions, law school friends frantically discuss how they answered the questions in the prior session, becoming more agitated in the process.  Although my bar exam memories are more than 25 years old, these scenes remain fresh and distinct — and painful.

If anyone taking the exam this week happens to be reading this, my advice is simple:  by now, you’re either prepared or you aren’t.  Knock off your studies the afternoon before the first day of the exam, have a good dinner, go see a movie, and get a good’s night sleep.  Being well-rested is a lot more important than obsessive last-second cramming.  Take a book to read during the breaks; revisiting questions with others isn’t going to do anything except increase your stress level.  And get to Vets Memorial early!  Don’t take a chance on a mechanical breakdown or traffic jam.

Good luck, Matt!  I know you’ll do well.

 

Grave Thoughts About The Estate Tax

Today President Obama signed the tax deal into law.  Among its provisions are revisions to the federal estate tax, which applies to the assets of the dead.  The law provides that wealthy couples with vast estates may pass the first $10 million to their heirs without any tax, with amounts over $10 million then being taxed at a 35 percent rate.

The estate tax is controversial.  Many Democrats love it because it clearly taxes the rich.  Those Democrats were appalled at estate tax deal because they believe that a $10 million exemption is too high and a 35 percent tax rate is too low.  Many Republicans hate the estate tax.  They feel it punishes farm families, small business owners, and productive Americans who already have paid taxes on the income that was used to accumulate their estates.  Still others point out that arguing about the estate tax doesn’t make much sense, because it produces only a very small fraction of federal government revenue.

Notably, the estate tax gives wealthy people incentives to engage in abnormal economic activity.  Most wealthy people who are subject to the estate tax don’t want the federal government taking a 35 or 45 percent chunk of any of their money — even if it is only the part above $10 million — away from their kids and grandkids, so they hire lawyers to devise methods of evading the taxes.  Maybe they will establish a trust or two that will hold parts of their assets until they die while still paying them a comfortable stipend.  Maybe they will move parts of their money offshore.  Maybe they will establish a foundation with a goal of sponsoring NPR programming and bringing about a more humane and agreeable world, and then make sure that their kids and grandkids are paid to run it.  The methods are limited only by the imagination and creativity of wily lawyers.  Whatever approach the lawyers devise, it will be different from what the individual would have done with the money otherwise — which might have included investing the money in the United States and producing still more assets eventual estate.

What’s the ultimate lesson in all of this?  Tinkering with the federal estate tax is good for lawyers, regardless of their political persuasions.

 

 

To Kill A Mockingbird At 50

Harper Lee published her classic novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, 50 years ago this summer.  It is a timeless story that has had a huge impact on readers ever since.  Interestingly, although the novel tells a story that focuses on the unique culture of racism in the American South of the mid-20th century, it is enormously popular outside of America.  The BBC has a story about the book that notes that it is consistently ranked as one of the most beloved books in England, and the comments to the BBC piece bear that out.

Like many other people, I loved the book and loved the movie.  I think it would be hard not to like Jem and Scout, to be curious about the mysterious Boo Radley, to be awed by Atticus Finch and his battle against an ugly entrenched culture, and to be deeply saddened and angered by the racism and unfairness of the Jim Crow South.  I have no doubt that the powerful message of To Kill A Mockingbird contributed to the changing cultural and social conditions that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the end of government-supported segregation and discrimination in America.

I also am sure that the character of Atticus Finch caused many people to want to become a lawyer.  In a society where lawyers increasingly are presented as money-grubbing charlatans, the decency, dignity, and ethical compass of Atticus Finch stand out.  Those of us who are lawyers should be grateful to Harper Lee for creating a character who represents the good that lawyers can do and demonstrates the respect they can command.