Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Betting Or Bonding?

Today I ran across a Legal Zoom article that posed the question: Is Your March Madness Office Pool Legal? Wow, what a bummer! I honestly never thought about that. It's also true that I haven't had occasion to because I've never participated in a March Madness Pool for fun, let alone for money.

It doesn't surprise me that people do it though. According to the article, "2008 March Madness office pools were worth more than $2.5 billion with 27% of American employees participating." Pools are also cited as a way to foster a sense of community around the water cooler. Truth be told, the majority of office pools are illegal gambling activity because betting on sports is only legal in Nevada.

What I find most interesting is that Legal Zoom goes on to advise gamblers on how to avoid detection: keep your pool small, bracket on paper rather than online, encourage game watching after-hours rather than on the internet at work, etc. WHAT?! A website devoted to helping people accomplish things legally is advising them on how to behave illegally? Something about that just did not sit right with me.

I realize that this situation is unfortunate for those who enjoy the camaraderie of March Madness Pools. However, shouldn't lawyers respond by lobbying for an exception to the law rather than by advising clients to break the law?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Apologia pro Grammatica (I think this is right)

I have been on Facebook for most of the last two years. I was initially dragooned into it by a friend who was concerned about my lack of a social life and who confided that concern to Facebook. Facebook in turn- and spookily- sent me an introductory email to sign up. And so I did.

From that time until over Christmas break, I was that androgynous white head that shows up in people’s friend portfolios, and my own portfolio of friends was limited to folks who sought me out. As part of a New Year’s resolution to surrender to the zeitgeist, and in so doing avoid being presumed dead, I became an active member of Facebook in January of this year.

Now that I am an active member of Facebook, I not only know too much about a whole bunch of people, but have discovered besides, in the messages sent between users, some persistent grammar problems. The most common one is the use of ‘your’ when what is meant is ‘you’re.’ Then there is the tendency, understandable at least from a logical standpoint, to use ‘it’s’ when what is meant is ‘its’. And, alas, there is the conscious and widespread non-use of punctuation and capital letters, and the ingenious abbreviation of one syllable words (e.g. thnx instead of thanks). It is unattractive to go on about these things too long or too stridently, because nearly everyone makes mistakes in English grammar and because pedantry is boorish; although the dedicated pedant may actually round the bend, as it were, and become endearing.

Consider the case of French grammarian Dominique Bonhours, best told by Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue (read Bill Bryson, by the way). Bonhours, just before shuffling off the mortal coil, and exemplifying what is meant by dying in the saddle, is reported to have said, “I am going to- or I am about to- die, either expression is used.” And too there is the asserted and sometimes actual utility of excluding certain grammatical formalities from a functional writing. A few people I know steadfastly refuse to use capital letters or consistent punctuation in electronic messages. They assert the utility principle (and then make fun of my lack of a social life, going so far as to suggest a connection between that fact and my inclination to write things like this post).

But if the time saved by the writer is then wasted by the reader in divining the message sent, there is no net time saved. There is but a shifting of the burden, and an announced disrespect for the reader. And the use of a construction that means something very different from what is intended seems an unmitigated error. Finally, someone has to object to ‘thnx’, or else it will become the new ‘thanks’, the new proper thing to be transgressed against (perhaps with ‘tx’), and so on until we climb back into the trees.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Hot Cup of Joe in Hand

As the mercury stays low outside, and job seekers try to secure post-graduation employment, recent research suggests a person's first impression may be more influenced by random physical comforts, like holding a hot cup of coffee, than once believed. The study, conducted at Yale, concludes there may be a link between environmental stimuli and behavior and feelings. Specifically, feelings of trust and empathy are linked to physical feelings of warmth.

The scientists recruited college students to participate in what they thought was a personality study. As the students were brought into the lab, they were asked to hold a cup of coffee (either hot or cold). They were then asked to evaluate presumed personality traits based on a neutral description of a fictitious person (industrious, cautious, and determined). The students who held the hot cup perceived the person as "more generous, sociable and good-natured" than those who held the cold cup. A second test group of students was given either a heating pad or cooling pack to hold for "product-testing." At the end of the "test," the students could choose a gift either for themselves or for a friend. The students who held the cold pack were more likely to choose the gift for themselves.

So what is the moral of the story for those seeking to make a positive first-impression? The study stopped short of concluding individuals should hand out warm drinks before an interview, but rather made the observation that perhaps our environment influences our feelings more than we could have imagined. True, but maybe holding onto that hot cup of coffee before a big interview isn't such a bad idea.

The AP story can be found here.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Lincoln the Lawyer

Today marks 200 years since Abraham Lincoln's birth.

Two days before Lincoln's 198th birthday, President Obama opened his presidential campaign on the steps of the Old Capitol in Springfield where Lincoln gave his "house divided" address. In his speech, Obama invoked Lincoln's spirit: "Through his will and his words, he moved a nation and helped free a people.”

In his speech on the Old Capitol steps in June 1858, Lincoln said about the political struggle over slavery:

"Our cause, then, must be intrusted to, and conducted by, its own undoubted friends -- those whose hands are free, whose hearts are in the work -- who do care for the result. Two years ago the Republicans of the nation mustered over thirteen hundred thousand strong. We did this under the single impulse of resistance to a common danger, with every external circumstance against us. Of strange, discordant, and even hostile elements, we gathered from the four winds, and formed and fought the battle through, under the constant hot fire of a disciplined, proud and pampered enemy. Did we brave all then, to falter now? --now, when that same enemy is wavering, dissevered and belligerent? The result is not doubtful. We shall not fail -- if we stand firm, we shall not fail. Wise counsels may accelerate, or mistakes delay it, but, sooner or later, the victory is sure to come."

Historian David Ward is curator of One Life: The Mask of Lincoln at the National Portrait Gallery. When asked for a story how Lincoln might have felt about the presidential election, Ward said: "I think the fact that a person of color is now president would hearten Lincoln immensely."

Monday, February 9, 2009

Willing To Live Worse

If this generation were willing to be the first generation to not live more prosperous than our parents, willing to quit putting bandaids on the problem and instead spend the next 40-60 years (2-3 generations) digging out of the national debt and financial folly, we could be the second greatest generation.

Will we sacrifice our present-day prosperity for the long-term solvency and prosperity of our nation for our children and our children's children? We must reject fear, embrace sacrifice, and have vision outside of ourselves.

We can survive this crisis without a stimulus that will save ourselves and doom those to come. What we are doing is like standing on the Titanic, pushing our kids back on the ship, and jumping into lifeboats to save ourselves.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Self-Control Rather Than State-Control

This week I heard cries from the left and the right that there should be a law passed to regulate how many eggs may be implanted during IVF treatment. While I question the judgment of a single mother with six children persisting in IVF treatment, leading to eight more children, she has a right to do so.

Do we want to live in a country that tells couples how many children they may have, or try to have, at one time? Do we want government regulation that is motivated by an outlier case? I don't think so.

Liberty is a precious thing. It allows for personal choice with a few exceptions (e.g., murder is not a personal choice we accommodate, nor is assault or battery). Liberty means that people will sometimes make choices that society in general thinks are not good choices, and my sense is that society in general thinks that Nadya Suleman made a bad choice when she continued IVF treatment. But, the beauty of America is that she was FREE to do so.

Ms. Suleman may be ill, as some have suggested, and the clinic that administered her treatment should take a hard look at their screening process to see if perhaps their desire for a sale did not trump their concern for her best interest and that of her children. As the Hippocratic oath instructs, "never do harm to anyone." The clinic could have turned her away, and perhaps should have turned her away, but I do not think that the government should mandate or regulate how many eggs may be implanted in wombs.

I recognize that preserving liberty means that we must engage in self-control, rather than state-control, and so let us rise to that challenge. As Lord Acton said, "Liberty is the prevention of control by others. This requires self-control and, therefore, religious and spiritual influences; education, knowledge, well-being."

As for Ms. Suleman, I hope that the local community and particularly the local religious community rallies to help her as she takes personal responsibility for her actions.

Friday, February 6, 2009

On Courage

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair made a powerful speech at the National Prayer Breakfast yesterday morning. He made this observation about leadership, courage and faith:

"Courage in leadership is not simply about having the nerve to take difficult decisions or even in doing the right thing since oftentimes God alone knows what the right thing is.

It is to be in our natural state – which is one of nagging doubt, imperfect knowledge, and uncertain prediction – and to be prepared nonetheless to put on the mantle of responsibility and to stand up in full view of the world, to step out when others step back, to assume the loneliness of the final decision-maker, not sure of success but unsure of it.

And it is in that “not knowing” that the courage lies."

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Dean Kenneth W. Starr Visits Penn State

Excitement was in the air at the Lewis Katz Building as Dean Kenneth W. Starr's visit approached on Tuesday, February 3, 2009. In December of 2008, Dean Starr filed a complaint in California to address the legal question whether Proposition 8 is a revision or amendment to the California State Constitution. Members of the LGBT community called upon ralliers from Altoona to Harrisburg to peacefully protest his involvement in Proposition 8. The great tradition of free speech in America was on full display at the law school through Dean Starr's speech and the protesters' rally.

Dean Starr was hosted by the Federalist Society, a national legal student organization that is committed to the principles that: (1) the state exists to preserve freedom, (2) the separation of powers is central to our Constitution, and (3) it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is, not what it should be. More importantly, the Society is committed to attracting intellectually stimulating speakers to campus. Being provoked to think critically about a diversity of viewpoints is important for the next generation of emerging lawyers. The event was co-sponsored by the Young America's Foundation, Speaker's Trust, and the Dean's Office.

Since the law school's University Park location opened its doors in the fall of 2006, the Federalist Society has hosted debates and speeches addressing topics ranging from: immigration and the environment, to the International Criminal Court, gay marriage, and homeland security.

Dean Starr added to that fine tradition when he specifically addressed "The Supreme Court in American Life" to an audience of around 200. He believes that Americans currently either do not understand or misunderstand the role that the Supreme Court plays in our daily lives. He believes that to say that the Court is merely a political court is a misconception.

Dean Starr offered as an example a recent case where university funding was threatened if military recruiters were not allowed on campus due to the exclusion of openly gay and lesbian people in the military. In a unanimous decision on a topic that can be politically charged, the Supreme Court held 9-0 that the military has the right to recruit on campus.

Following his address, Dean Starr answered questions on topics ranging from Guantanamo Bay to the Second Amendment right at issue in D.C. v. Heller. Questions were submitted by those in the Katz Building Auditorium, in addition to students attending the event via simulcast from the Advantica Building in Carlisle.

Reflecting on the event, as one student said, "This was a Grand Slam for the law school." It was the first public event held in the Katz Building Auditorium, and I hope that Dean Starr's speech represents the first of many events that law students at Penn State will attend for generations to come.

Monday, February 2, 2009

In Praise of Technology

PSU Law is setting the standard for distance learning. With our dual-campus system, students at either location are able to enjoy the curriculum offered at the other campus via AV technology. The technology is some of the most sophisticated around, and it along with our excellent IT personnel do a phenomenal job of facilitating meaningful interaction with our professors and colleagues who reside 100 miles away. As a tech-savvy campus, we also have the additional opportunity of engaging with third parties at locations distinct from both campuses.

This morning, our Class Actions Seminar, taught by the Honorable D. Brooks Smith, Judge on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, was able to enjoy a a very distinguished guest speaker. The Honorable Anthony Scirica, Chief Judge of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States, joined our seminar from his 20th floor conference room in Philadelphia. He spoke to us for about an hour on the judicial process involved in drafting the Federal Rules. It was an amazing experience, and one made possible by the innovations of the Pennsylvania State University, Dickinson School of Law.