Friday, November 30, 2007

And the Winners for Best Law Blawg Are . .

ABA Journal announced the best 100 Law Blogs. The list of winners is worth a look.

Brother Can You Spare a Mortgage Payment?

Yesterday, Martin Gruenberg, vice chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation taught one heck of a class at the Consumer Federation of America's consumer financial services confererence. BNA reports that Gruenberg explained it all: why the subprime mortgage collapse happened, and how it got so bad so fast. The image he painted is haunting and stark. What we see now, Gruenberg explained, is exactly what we saw in the home mortgage market before the Great Depression.

Before the Big Crash, most mortgages were unstable, short term and required the borrower to pay off the principal balance at the end of the term (a balloon payment). In the wake of economic collapse, the market changed to embrace Federal Housing Administration (FHA) policy and the longer, flatter thirty year fixed rate home mortgage. The 30 year fixed dominated the market from the 1930's through the 1980's. Enter recession and sharply rising interest rates. The home mortgage market responded with the re-appearance of the adjustable rate mortgage (ARM) which accounted for 15-25% of the home mortgage market between 1980 and 2000.

Then something happened. Between 2001 and 2006, the percentage of all home mortgages that were 30 year fixed dropped from 84% to 55%. Adjustible rate mortgage products' share of the market grew from one quarter to almost one half of new mortgages. During the same period, subprime mortgages as a percentage of the home loan market grew from 5 to 20 percent. (For last year, Standard & Poors reports subprime originations were $421 billion; the Mortgage Bankers' Association reports all originations were were $2.5 trillion.) Almost all of these subprime loans had adjustable interest rates, and most featured an interest term known as "2/28," where the rate resets sharply upward by 5 or 6 points after two years and on short intervals thereafter. Gruenberg reported that the subprime loans were underwritten at the original teaser rate based on the borrower's statement of his or her current income with no documentation required as to credit history and with no expectation that the borrower could continue to make the payments at the reset rate given his or her stated income. In plain language, subprime lenders sold their mortgage products without regard to the borrower's long term ability to repay. Greunberg and others noted that subprime lenders aimed their product at minority borrowers, and the marketing worked. Between 2001 and 2006, 55% of all black home mortgage borrowers signed on for subprime mortgages, as did 47% of all Hispanics. Only 18% of all non-Hispanic white customers opted for them.

But wait, there's even more. During the same 5 year period, the home mortgage originators began "securitizing" their loans. In 2000, most home mortgage originators sold loans to government sponsored entities (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac). Only about 18 percent of all home loans were sold to private investors as of 1999. By 2006, 70% of all mortgages were sold to private investors who in turn sold securities backed by the payment streams to yet another set of private investors, all explained for you in an earlier RLR post, Tranche Warfare.

Subprime mortgages originated in the boom years of 2005 and 2006 will reset in the fourth quarter of 2007 and the first quarter of 2008. 2 million adjustable rate subprimes will reset during 2008.

Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.

[The photo of Florence Owens Thompson and her children is by Farm Security Administration photographer Dorothea Lange and was taken in Nipomo, California, in March of 1936. ]

Rising to Fall to the Bottom of the List

Paul Caron on TaxProf published a list of law schools ranked lower than their respective universities. PSULaw is 5th from the top of law schools in order of the size of the positive difference between university ranking and law school ranking. Edging out PSULaw are Tulsa, Datyon, Syracuse and Michigan State. PSULaw's collective goal is to plummet through the bottom of this list and then to rise on Caron's other list of law schools with a negative difference between university and law school ranking. So let's get going.

Prayers for Students at Exam Time

Over at MoneyLaw, Jim Chen has posted a benediction for law students who are bending to the work of preparing for exams. The sentiment comes from Hands, a song by Jewel:

If I could tell the class just one thing
It would be that you're all okay
And not to worry because worry is wasteful
and useless in times like these
You won't be made useless
Don't be idled with despair
You should gather yourself around your mind
for light does the darkness most fear

In the end, only kindness matters.

Thanks, Jim.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Making the Most of the Middle

Recently I heard a lawyer speak about the great need for affordable legal services to the middle class. He set in opposition to the middle class the following: (1) the high cost of law school which drives up the price tag for legal services; (2) the flood of lawyers to large firms that the middle class can't afford (suggesting that BigLaw doesn't help the middle class); and (3) the focus on providing free legal services to the indigent. His basic conclusion was that if you are rich or poor in America you get legal services, but if you are in the middle you lose out because there's nobody out there doing anything for you.

I feel for the middle class. I came from and am currently a member of the middle class. However, the idea that people in the middle class are somehow victims of the system is just not true. The middle class is an intelligent, resourceful group of people that are not suffering at the hands of Corporate America. They are people who shine their brightest when they embrace personal responsibility.

First, lawyers who serve corporations in "BigLaw" firms DO indirectly serve the middle class. Many people in the middle class work for corporations and benefit from lawyers’ efforts on behalf of those corporations. Lawyers in large law firms, doing their best work, save corporations countless dollars which helps job retention for the middle class. Just because a lawyer serves the corporate world directly does not mean that lawyer is not indirectly doing a great deal of good for the middle class.

Second, one reason the middle class can’t afford legal services is that many are deep in debt and live above their means. This is actually true for more than just the middle class, but here I address the middle class in particular. If middle class people lived below their means and saved for rainy days, they would be able to afford legal services. There are lawyers who directly serve the middle class, but the middle class has to be able to pay them. People in the middle class are stuck in the middle, hence, their moniker. They don’t have money to burn, but they aren’t in such great financial need that people give them a break. Okay, so that’s life. They still have to live responsibly and save for rainy days because rainy days do happen and they often involve lawyers.

I am sure there are many more angles to this issue, Here are just two observations:1) We should quit demonizing corporations and the lawyers who serve them. Both do a lot of good for a lot of Americans. Anyone who preserves jobs provides a much-needed service to the middle class. (2) We should quit excusing the middle class for their consumptive lifestyle. You may have read The Millionaire Next Door and know that many millionaires drive beat-up Fords, not the latest SUVs on lease. If I were a betting woman, I would wager that the average millionaire next door can afford legal services in their times of need. A person in the middle class who confronts a legal problem may not be rich afterwards, but they're not going to be broke either. They survive financially to see another day and save another dollar, just in case there's another rainy day.

The Tenacity and Captivating Power of Books

There are hundreds of reasons not to pick up a book for recreational reading. Despite distractions like YouTube, America's Next Top Model and even lowly RedLion Reports, we keep on buying and reading books. In last Sunday's New York Times Week in Review, Motoko Rich wrote about why we keep on reading books. The National Endowment for the Arts recently noted that Americans are reading less. The decline is greatest among teenagers and young adults. At the same time, reading scores among those who do read are dropping, and employers complain that workers lack basic reading comprehension skills. In a competitive market for leisure activity, as seductive alternatives to reading expand, reading loses ground. The good news, amazing really, is that readers persist in reading. Book sales are growing slightly. Book Industry Study Group, a publishing trade association, reports that the book trade sold 3.1 billion books last year, up 0.5 percent from last year. Compare Apple's investment in marketing the IPod and its supporting services, accessories and progeny with the marketing budgets of book publishers. Goliath has not succeeded in snuffing David.

In the New York Times story, Rich wonders why some people turn to reading and stay with it. A leading theory is that the right book at the right time is catalytic -- sets off a chain reaction of lifelong reading. Sherman Alexie won the National Book Award for young people's literature a few weeks ago for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. In his acceptance remarks, he thanked Ezra Jack Keats for the picture book, The Snowy Day. The main character, Alexie noted, "resembled me physically and resembled me spiritually, in all his gorgeous loneliness and splendid isolation." Azar Nafisi, writer of Reading Lolita in Tehran thought that people read for the "excitement of trying to discover that unknown world." Some books are like potato chips, the first one is delicious and you can't stop after just one. For some, the chip of choice is Harry Potter or the Hobbit. For me, it was Nancy Drew, the Brontes and Jane Austen.

What about you? Why do you read? What book or books got you started?

Friday, November 16, 2007

Define "Quality" Teaching

Ted Seto, a tax law professor at Loyola University New Orleans, and a fellow contributor on MoneyLaw recently published Understanding the US News Law School Rankings ,60 SMU L. Rev. 493 (2007). Seto criticizes the USNews law school rankings, among other reasons, because they undervalue or do not take into account at all some attributes law students deem most important in evaluating law school performance. The November 2007 issue of National Jurist revealed the results of its survey of law students on what matters most to them. Over half the student respondents, 66%, said that quality teaching was the most important attribute in law school quality, outweighing all twelve of the factors the USNews rankings track. Indeed, USNews does not collect data on teaching quality and does not factor it in the rankings. Runners up according to students: bar passage rates, job placement rates nine months after graduation, and practical skills training (also not a factor in the USNews rankings).

It's no surprise that consumers of legal education value most highly the product they consume -- legal education. A quick look at the USNews graduate schools ranking website is all it takes to see that USNews produces the rankings to help students comparison shop for legal education. Why isn't USNews responding to market demand and accounting for what students value most?

USNews doesn't consider qualilty of law school teaching because there is no accepted metric for it. What makes a law teacher great? Teaching and learning are intensely personal and idiosyncratic activities. Students in the same class perceive the professor differently, sometimes radically so. Moreover, evaluating relative quality of teaching takes perspective and comparative experience that law students lack. My story, I suspect, is typical. The quality of my law teachers appeared most clearly in the rear view mirror after I graduated and had occasion to hear their words in my head: "Consider the impact of procedural posture." Or, "You'll just have to come up with something better than that." We could correct somewhat for the temporal problem of judging teaching quality by asking alumni for their retrospective assessments. But, we return to the fundamental and inescapable truth. Teaching quality is in the eye of the beholder and thus controversial.

We law professors know that student evaluations are fickle measures of teacher effectiveness. We review them for "warning signs" not so much of quality but of social deviance: drunkeness, distracting bigotry, sexual predation, and the like. We tend to discount glowing recommendations by attributing some of the glow to a teacher's decision to lower the performance bar for students in order to raise their short term satisfaction. We are uncomfortable passing on the quality of our colleagues' teaching. This is puzzling. We justify our collective abdication of a meaningful quality control role as a noble exercise of respect for academic freedom. While academic freedom surely protects external intrusion into the substance of what we profess in the classroom, I see a kind of double standard. We tend to be far less reticent in passing on the "quality" of a colleague's scholarship (although we are much happier to simply count the number of articles than actually read them). This is so, even though most of the time our evaluation of scholarship is more about presentation than substance, and presentation is a written manifestation of communication skills rendered live in the classroom.

Given the difficulty, expense and controversy inherent in evaluating quality in teaching, it is no surprise both that law schools don't invest much in evaluating it, and USNews doesn't try to account for it directly in the rankings. Ted Seto's observations about the rankings are powerful. I can't help but try to defend the market though. A law student buys a portfolio of law teachers. In any year, at any school, some teachers will pay off and others will not. A quality teaching faculty, like a quality mutual fund, is one that outperforms its competitors over time as a group. Some of the factors USNews does measure may be the best we can do under the circumstances to find quantifiable surrogates for the overall performance of a law school's teacher portfolio.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

It's Not You, It's Me

Ken Adams on AdamsDrafting heard lawyers at a conference for corporate counsel using the phrase "termination for convenience." He checked the SEC's EDGAR site and discovered that the phrase appaears in a variety of contracts calling for performance over time. Here's an example from a T-Mobile services agreement:

6.2 Termination by T-Mobile for Convenience. T-Mobile may terminate this Agreement, the Services performed at any Site or any one or more Statements of Work hereunder for convenience by giving at least ninety (90) days’ prior written notice to the Provider. However, unless otherwise provided under this Agreement, T-Mobile will not exercise its termination for convenience rights for the Agreement during the first year following the Effective Date.

Adams eschews use of the phrase. He suspects that drafters use it "simply because it sounds less threatening than termination for any reason and rolls off the tongue more readily." He suggests tightening the language to something like: "Acme can terminate for any reason. " Ok, that's more direct than "for convenience." The problem, as Adams concedes, is that it's a little "in-your-face" for the taste of some drafters.

The task of reserving explicitly the right to dump your contract partner on a whim is a snarly practice issue for the same reason that negotiating express escape terms is tricky in personal relationships. Marriage, as a legal matter, features mutual termination for convenience rights. But, most people think of termination rights in marriage as limited, perhaps by usage of the trade, to something short of "for any reason." How to negotiate through that is a topic for another day.

Adams concludes with a suggestion for the careful contract drafter: "Unrestricted Termination.” Nice try, but that's not much better. No matter how you phrase it, the fallout from unilateral exercise of unfettered walk off rights is a broken heart.

Coffee and the Law

Coffee has a surprising and so far unexplored social history. About one thousand years ago, coffee from Africa crossed the Red Sea into Arabia where Muslim monks brewed it into a kind of wine used for spiritual rituals. During the 16th century, Muslim religious leaders prohibited coffee drinking as forbidden by God. But, coffee caught on and became so popular and so troubling to Muslim religious and political leaders that in the 17th century, a Turkish sultan prohibited it again for the Ottoman Empire. In 18th century Germany, the government took up regulation of the demon drink and proposed prohibition, but only for women. J.S. Bach, a noted coffee house hound, was so outraged (too much coffee?) that in 1732 he composed an operatic political screed. The Coffee Cantata , one of Bach's most famous secular compositions, features a libretto by Christian Freidrich Henrici. It recounts a father's poignant struggle to free his daughter from her coffee habit. (For more detail on the story and the music click here).

The daughter, plainly buzzing, sings:

"Oh, How sweet coffee tastes
Lovelier than a thousand kisses
Smoother than Muscatel wine
Coffee, coffee... I must have
And if someone wants to delight me
Let him pour me coffee!"

– J.S. Bach, The Coffee Cantata
(Bach may have had more invested in women's unregulated access to coffee than just a burning sense of gender equity).

I'm thinking that we lawyers need to scrutinize the history of regulation of coffee and its implications for religious liberty and sexual equality. Seminar anyone?

My Drug of Choice

A nutritionist I saw a few years back asked me, “what’s your drug of choice?” The question seemed slightly offensive to me, as I did not want to consider myself as using (let alone abusing) any “drug.” As she went on to explain, her point became clearer: we all utilize something to relieve stress and to cope with our realities, a drug can be any substance used to enhance our mental well-being. For me, the answer was simple, caffeine – in the form of coffee – and I am not alone. Between eighty and ninety percent of Americans (depending on who is doing the math) consume caffeine on a daily basis, and the average consumption is three cups of coffee per day. We are a nation fueled by caffeine. (There are over 10,000 Starbucks stores in the United States.)

Is this a bad thing? I will be the first to say that I derive a great deal of pleasure from coffee. The smell in the morning is synonymous with waking up, and the ritual of coffee drinking makes me feel focused and ready to work. But much can be said about the negative side-effects of caffeine. Chinese medicine calls caffeine “false energy,” and caffeine dependency is even listed in the DSM-IV as a psychological disorder. Whatever the downsides, caffeine has been consumed by humanity for roughly 4,700 years, making it so commonplace that to think of it as a drug seems antithetical. In fact, it is notable that coffee consumption seems to be the highest in first world economies. Does a capitalist economy encourage this form of self-medication? Perhaps it could be argued, caffeine is undoubtedly good for the economy.

Personally, I wish there were more days when the pleasure of coffee outweighed its utility, but lately that has not been the case. I rely on coffee to help me to stay focused and get through an appreciable amount of work when I would rather curl up and read a book (one without Blue Book citation). Sometimes, false energy is better than no energy, but the point is that caffeine should be used – and enjoyed – in moderation.

In State College, there are a few wonderful places to enjoy a great espresso or regular cup of coffee, here are some of my favorites.

Saint’s Café on Beaver: Pros – everything they do is great and they offer free wireless access. Cons – they close early (6pm on weekdays).
Webster’s Bookstore Café on Allen: Pros: great food, coffee and tea; used bookstore provides great ambience; free wireless. Cons – it can get crowded.
Peet’s Coffee and Tea in the Smeal College of Business: This isn’t the traditional Peet’s store, but the coffee and teas are and it is great proximity to the law school.
Wegman’s Café: Pros – lattes and sweet drinks, free wireless. Cons: cappuccinos and espresso.
Panera Bread on Beaver: Pros – wonderful sweet drinks and great bagels and pastries. Cons – the hearty espresso drinker would prefer to go next-door to Saint’s.
Starbucks, of course, is great for consistency. The Starbucks on College Ave. is close enough the University to get the PSU wireless signal, but it is often packed and the lines are long. The Starbucks on N. Atherton has a drive-through. A new location is opening up soon on Garner at Beaver.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Motherly Love

The last post was a bit of tough love. This one is something different. Who loves you? Your momma loves you. If your mom is your lifeline through law school, you're not alone. In a 2005 Pew Research Center Study 61% of adults with both parents still alive said they had the most contact with their mother compared to only 18% who said they had the most contact with their father. In the same survey, 17% of respondents identified Mom as the go-to parent in times of crisis. Less than half, 6%, named Dad. In terms of closeness with adult children, Dad ranks below the family pet. On average, dog and cat owners feel closer to their pets than adult children feel to their fathers. Don't feel too bad for dads. Pew survey research shows that for dads, their relationship with their kids is less important than their relationship with their wives. For moms, the reverse is true. Based on the survey, moms place a higher value on their relationships with their children than on their relationships with their husbands.

If you are missing your mom and wondering if it's normal, check out this post on Motherly Love by Diana Winston on a blog I like: Killing the Buddha. Diana didn't just go to law school. She joined a Buddhist convent in Burma. And you thought your wireless bill was big.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Tao of Studying Law

It is the second week of November. Tension is in the air. Law students have donned the full body clench of anxiety, self doubt, and despair. The time for reckoning is approaching. Law professors can sense the rising tide of anxiety. A student raises a hand in what appears to be a question about the current discussion. Instead she asks: "Will this be on the exam?" A subtle wave of nervous laughter ensues. The professor takes note. The game is on.

These days, law students are not thinking about law. To the contrary, they are becoming hostile to new information of any kind. These days, law students are focused on how to study law for the exams. Ok, let's talk about that.

I offer to you advice I received from an extraordinary man, Bill Irwin. I met Bill ten years ago in Columbia, South Carolina at the University of South Carolina Solomon Blatt Natatorium. Bill is a former swim coach at Adelphia University, a collegiate All-American at Rutgers, and a Masters All-American in 2000 in the 70-74 age group. I went to the pool to get my laps in, to blow off stress, and fight off middle age. Bill came to the pool to coach. He is a swim coach and he coached all of us who were open to it. In the years that have passed since I first met Bill in the deep end of the water, I have discovered that what he taught me about swimming is good advice for the study of law.

1. Studying Law (Swimming) is a Mind/Body Practice, Like Tai Chi.

Bill said to me, "Reilly, you are a much better swimmer than you think you are." Nobody had ever said that to me before. I was a functional swimmer. I filled the lane. I finished. I was never fast. At my age, I had no thought of swimming fast. I had no thought at all about swimming other than to get it over with. I left my mind on the side of the pool.

I learned that the point of swimming -- like studying -- is to swim better. Swimming better requires a conscious connection between mind and body. By focusing both mind and body on swimming more efficiently (more like a fish), speed comes. This concept is known as "Total Immersion" -- a practice of swimming that focuses on grace, balance and efficiency of movement in the water. Think about what you are doing with every inch of your body every moment in the water, and speed will come.

As you study, think not only about what you are to learn, but also how you are learning it. Like a swimmer makes subtle adjustments in stroke and breath to correct for wake, drag and fatigue, watch for and correct the little things that hold you back in your study. Do not leave your mind by the side of the pool.

2. The Shape of the Vessel is As Important As the Size of the Engine.

As you study for exams, consider the mistake many people make when learning to swim. They believe that swimming faster is simply a matter of more effort and power. Sure, swimming fast takes physical strength and stamina. But, speed through the water, as a scientific matter, is a product of a balance between the shape of the vessel and the size of the engine. Bill told me to stop thinking about my arms (puny), and lungs (wimpy) -- aspects of the big engine I lacked. "Reilly," he said, "You are a long canoe." A canoe does not need a big motor to slip over the water. A canoe moves fast and a long way with a single stroke of a paddle, thoughtfully placed.

Rid your mind of its fixation on what you are not. Focus on the attributes you have. Use them, all of them, to their maximum advantage. Consider what activity you consider "studying." Perhaps you have made the mistake beginning swimmers make in emphasizing drill, drudgery and exhaustion as the key to success. In swimming, after each wall there is a "push off"-- a long glide in which a swimmer rests and focuses on the lap ahead. During the push off, a swimmer seems to be doing nothing. But the glide off the wall before the swimmer turns on the big engine are typically the swimmer's fastest yards. Use the glide to your advantage. Consider redefining "studying" to include not just the time you are actively bent over the books, but also the time you spend reflecting, sorting, and wondering throughout your day. Sometimes the less you appear to be doing, the more you are actually doing.

Of course to reap the benefit of the Tao of Studying, you must actually commit to studying and follow through. For swimmers, the key to swimming better is to go to the pool and get in the water. The concept in swimming has a name: TIW (time in the water). The idea is that the more time a swimmer spends in the water, the more sensitive he or she will be to inefficiency in movement. Swimmers call this "feel" for the water. Law students who spend TOS (time on studying) in law school will experience the same effect -- feel for how they are learning. Lawyers understand TOS. What swimmers call "feel" for the water, lawyers call judgment.

3. If You Want to Swim Fast, Practice Swimming Fast.

If you want to earn A's, study like an A student. Look around. Who among your classmates is training for the Olympics? You know who they are. You may think they are weenies, gunners, kiss ups or worse. You are wrong. The best swimmers got out of bed at 4AM every morning in the dead of winter to get to swim practice. They got no glory, just goggle eyes and green hair. Most of us never noticed them, until they were champions.

Instead of ignoring those in your class with the hearts of champions, resolve to study like they do. Your actual results may vary. But this I learned from Bill and I know to be true. Results depend on commitment and consistency. Every day is a chance to train.

Friday, November 9, 2007

The Unbalance of Balancing

Check-lists, reminder pop-ups and Franklin Covey notation on my planner, are all evidence of my effort to keep my life organized. Striving for orderly living is really my attempt at maximizing my efficiency, so that I might be able to maintain a relatively healthy work-life balance. Pre-law school, it was fairly straightforward to adhere to the rigors of my scheduling proclivities, mainly because my work schedule was predictable. In law school, and in legal scholarship, time-management becomes more art than science – making a balanced life seem elusive if not impossible (or sustainable for very long). As a “non-traditional student,” I often find myself juggling competing roles – school bleeds into home life in a way that work did not, and regrettably often, it is home life which pays the price.

The law requires, actually it demands, our full attention. To be successful in the world of legal scholarship, it seems that one must be willing to jump head-long into the depths of the law – no matter where (and when) you might emerge. The process is challenging, frustrating and invigoration all at once. The ability to immerse oneself in the abyss of legal analysis can be as blissful (or terrifying) as swimming in the expanse of the ocean. To tune into the law so completely that the pieces of the puzzle begin to take a coherent shape and solutions emerge is truly a pleasure and luxury. However, as I lose myself in the law, the bustle of life goes on around me. If I am not careful, life’s tendency towards entropy will be readily felt.

Different people have offered their advice on this issue, none of which is completely satisfying. Those in favor of prioritizing home over the law will be quick to point out that it will be my husband, not my law degree, who will cuddle up to me on the couch when we are advanced in years. I hear the argument: invest in the relationship over the degree, and it is compelling, though it gives short shrift to the simple truth that a legal career will provide a lifetime of challenge, growth and fulfillment. Others have likened the work-life balance to juggling: occasionally a ball will fall, but just pick it back up and keep juggling. While I like the analogy, I feel that there are some “balls” which simply shouldn’t be dropped. I think the balancing act is something we all must come to terms with for ourselves. For me, if possible, I should avoid juggling balls that may end up on the floor. I have found that there are some times when home must come first and there are some times that the law must come first. The principle is simple: maximize collective utility, though ascertaining how best to do this is increasingly complicated.

It’s not going to get easier. Law school has yielded an unbalance for now, but it is still far more flexible than work. Once I begin a career and have children, I am sure I will yearn for the lazy days of law school. Viewed in that light, and in the interest of efficiency, if I can learn to better balance the unbalance now, the future may look more promising.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Core: Six or Four

There is a growing trend among law schools to reduce core courses such as Civil Procedure, Contracts, and Torts from 6 credits (3 fall, 3 spring) to 4 credits in one semester. Some say it's to conserve faculty resourses, others say it's to free up those credits for an elective. As someone who took four credit core courses and an elective, one I actually enjoyed (Criminal Procedure with a former SCOTUS clerk), I'm not so sure I prefer that option. It has nothing to do with the quality of the elective, mine was actually fantastic. It has everything to do with what I didn't get a chance to learn in the core courses, or had to blow through in the blink of an eye (e.g. Erie Doctrine). It has everything to do with the fact that I had only one semester to develop rapport and an intellectual connection with core course faculty.

It was so disheartening to overhear professors stand at the podium and mutter under their breath, "I used to teach this as a six credit course, I really want to teach this material, but I have to cut something . . ." Usually the statement was accompanied by a perplexed look and a hand to the head in frustration as the professor stared at the material on the chopping block. You could almost see the wheels in their heads spinning as they flipped through the pages they knew they had to eliminate. They were hoping against hope to fit it in and still stay on track to cover the rest of the material. Then came the sigh, the final look of exasperation, and the conclusion that no, it would just have to be cut. And so the material in question found itself on the cutting room floor. It was equally disheartening to sit in other classes and hear professors say to us incredulously, "You didn't learn THAT in x, y, or z course?!" followed by more looks of perplexity.

If we are distraught by the current trend, if we realize how important it is for students to learn as much as possible in their core courses, I can't help but wonder why the tide keeps turning in favor of four credit courses. Perhaps we lack a group of consumers who will push back. 1Ls entering law school don't know how to brief a case, let alone question the credit hours of their core courses. By the time they realize that six might be better than four they no longer have a dog in that fight, it's a moot issue. Future students who will have a dog in that fight down the road have a ripeness problem. They don't have a "claim" until they are students and by then it is too late.

This leads me to faculty. Professors confront this issue year after year. They are the ones who stand at the podium and scratch their heads in frustration because they can't teach all that they know their students need to learn. For all the faculty out there who yearn for six instead of four, I encourage you to push back. Just because this is the way it is doesn't mean it's the way it has to be.

So Help Us God

"We, the undersigned lawyers, deans, professors, law students, and law school administration and staff denounce in the strongest terms General Pervez Musharraf's recent assault on the rule of law in Pakistan. By suspending the Constitution; dissolving the Supreme Court and the provincial High Courts and replacing them with judges of his own choosing; engaging in arbitrary and unprovoked arrests of thousands of opposition leaders, journalists, and other law-abiding citizens; and violently suppressing protests by hundreds of lawyers who were acting in the highest tradition of our profession, General Musharraf is trampling upon the very system of law that alone can justify a ruler's power over his people. We stand in solidarity with our fellow lawyers and the democratic values that they represent, and we urge an early restoration of legality and legitimate authority in Pakistan."

Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh has circulated this letter to US law schools. To add your signature and law school affiliation, send an email to

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

New Traditions

On TaxProf, Paul Caron posted a YouTube video of the University of Virginia Law Libel Show, a show put on by the UVA law students mocking law, law school, professors, etc...

My wife, Jessica, took part in a similar event at the University of Chicago Law School when she performed in the law school musical. During her second year, they did a show spoofing Trading Places where the dean of the law school and a 1L switched places. It was extremely well done and very funny. It also provided the students a release from the stress of law school. Jessica's involvement in those productions created some of her fondest memories of law school.

Thinking about these events reminded me that part of the reason that I came to Penn State was the chance to be a part of something new (without the usual problems that a new law school has such as name recognition and money). I wanted the opportunity to create new programs and traditions that would shape the future of the law school.

I hope our students (especially those up in UP) realize that they have similar opportunities. The annual events and organizations that they create could become part of the law school environment for years. I hope that they will grab that opportunity and create their own traditions before they graduate. I know that it will hold significant meaning for them when they come back in 5, 10, 25 years and see that the events, groups and traditions that they started are still going strong after many years.

I also know that if the students start a musical tradition here (and I hope they will), they won't make fun of tax the way that the UVA students did since there is nothing funny about tax.

Monday, November 5, 2007

I Was a Stranger, and You Took Me In

Confront homelessness and hunger in our State College and Carlisle communities.

Take part in a discussion among activists, attorneys and the PSULaw community on homelessness. The dual campus event takes place on Wednesday, November 7 with speakers live in Carlisle, Advantica 148 and University Park, Beam 330.

Read more about legal and other aspects of homelessness in displays in Advantica and Beam Library from October 29 through November 9.

Contribute to the food drive organized by our SBA as part of a national effort organized by the ABA Law Student Division's Work-A-Day Project to Fight Homelessness . The SBA will collect canned food for hungry people in our towns between November 7 and November 16 . Your first opportunity to contribute will be at the panel discussion on homelessness on November 7.