Public Legal Services in Times of Distress

Posted on Categories Family Law, Marquette Law School, Milwaukee1 Comment on Public Legal Services in Times of Distress

While the nation is not (yet?) in an economic depression, our “worsening recession” has catastrophically affected thousands of area families across the social spectrum. For those who were desperately poor a year ago, not much has changed except perhaps for having even less reason to hope — dreams of government bailouts are duly noted. Joining the ranks of the forlorn are middle-class types who are facing foreclosures of their homes, job losses, and attendant legal problems. (Economic distress begets a host of family-related issues, to take just one example). For both the old and the newly poor, to use that term loosely, one of their many problems is how to confront complicated legal problems when they cannot afford legal counsel. In sum, this is a time of increasing demand for legal services by the very people who are least able to afford it. So what, if anything, is being done about it?

It is a point of pride for me to be involved in two institutions that are well aware of these gaps and are doing what they can with limited resources to assist: Marquette Law School and the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee. Both the Law School and the Legal Aid Society confronted these issues long before the current downturn. Moreover, their focus has not been on criminal representation, important as it is, but on the unmet needs of indigents faced with a raft of traditionally civil legal problems. My purpose is to familiarize those who may not be aware of these efforts as well as to underscore the affinity between these institutions. Continue reading “Public Legal Services in Times of Distress”


Posted on Categories Legal Practice3 Comments on Outliers

Like many lawyers and law students, my holiday reading list studiously omits overtly legal topics. Well almost. I co-teach a course at the Law School called Quantitative Methodology, which drew me to Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers (Little Brown, 2008). In statistics, an “outlier” is an observation that is “markedly different” from others in the sample. Gladwell’s book is itself an outlier of sorts; how many books that revel in statistical analysis have been number one on the New York Times‘ nonfiction list? Part of the answer lies in Gladwell’s remarkably lucid writing style. What makes the book fascinating, however, is that Gladwell’s focus is not statistical concepts as such, but a particular kind of outlier, namely, successful people and the reasons for their success. And as I finish grading exams for the fall semester and prepare for the spring semester that starts on January 12 (today), the time is ripe to consider both success and failure. My comments below scratch just the surface of a more complex argument, but it will give you a sense of Gladwell’s purpose.

Gladwell’s book ranges widely over the domain of successes. Why are the best Canadian and Czech hockey players usually born between January and March? What explains the staggering success of a Bill Gates or Robert Oppenheimer while other even more brilliant types fade into obscurity? How come “gifted and talented” kids from the suburbs often do not fulfill the promise predicted by their IQ tests? Why are the socially disadvantaged children who attend the KIPP Academy in the South Bronx so good at math? And, for that matter, why is it that Asian children are also so much better at math than typical American kids? (Teaser: the answer lies not in genetics, but in culture and the language (literally) of mathematics.) Continue reading “Outliers”

Obama and Lincoln’s Bible

Posted on Categories Legal History, Political Processes & Rhetoric3 Comments on Obama and Lincoln’s Bible

Although every presidential inauguration is historically significant, some are more so than others. (Think about Coolidge’s 1925 inaugural — if you can.) President-elect Barack Obama’s upcoming inauguration is important for all the obvious reasons, yet it is intriguing to watch how skillfully he is using history to further underscore its significance while building legitimacy. Putting aside all the tripe about his “team of rivals,” Obama’s announced intent to use Lincoln’s Bible for the oath of office bespeaks how attuned he is to the use of symbols in our political (and legal) culture, particularly Lincoln’s legacy. Lincoln, too, skillfully used American history and religion to explain and to justify his actions.

Lincoln’s Bible resonates at different levels. First, it is deliciously ironic that a Democrat will make the first use of the first Republican president’s Bible since Lincoln himself in 1861. Second, the decision generated considerable press, which in turn subtly emphasizes Obama’s willingness to publicly embrace religion as part of our political discourse. Third, it poignantly ties Obama’s inauguration to the Civil War, the emancipation of the slaves, the country’s continuing struggles over race, and, of course, Lincoln himself. By using Lincoln’s Bible, Obama portrays himself as Lincoln’s heir. Lincoln’s Bible will become Obama’s Bible as well.

As an historian, I applaud Obama’s willingness to consciously craft historical memory and, most of all, his rich appreciation for symbols in American politics. Continue reading “Obama and Lincoln’s Bible”