Finding Your Own Path

Posted on Categories Legal Education, Legal PracticeLeave a comment» on Finding Your Own Path

Life sometimes turns out not at all as we planned.  And that can be a very good thing.

Take my life, for example.  As an undergraduate, I had it all planned:  I was going to be a career woman in corporate public relations or a professional writer, living in a large city — Chicago, perhaps — unencumbered by family demands because I decided I did not want children.  Fast forward a couple of decades and here I sit, in the living room of my home in suburban Madison, Wisconsin, a mother of two sons, a lawyer, and a law professor.

How and when did that master plan change?  As I think it must be for most people, there wasn’t necessarily one grand event that put me on a different path.  Instead, it was little choices I made along the way, little, but, as it turned out, significant choices, such that one day I woke up and realized I was in a place that vastly differed from where I thought I’d be. When I think of it, I am always reminded of something author Marion Winik said in her book Rules for the Unruly:  Living an Unconventional Life: “The path is not straight.” Continue reading “Finding Your Own Path”

It’s National Punctuation Day

Posted on Categories Legal Writing13 Comments on It’s National Punctuation Day

SemicolonToday is National Punctuation Day.  Yes, there really is such a day (it’s the sixth annual one, actually), and grammar geeks like me are celebrating.  There’s even a national baking contest where contestants are supposed to bake something in the shape of a punctuation mark.

Lynne Truss, the author of the best-selling book Eats, Shoots & Leaves:  The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, says that “[P]unctuation is a courtesy designed to help readers understand a story without stumbling.”  It’s a courtesy that applies not only to stories, of course, but to any written product – letters, articles, memos, briefs, and emails.  Punctuation clarifies the writer’s meaning.  Take these seven words:  A woman without her man is nothing.  There are two very different readings of this sentence, depending on how it is punctuated.  It could be:  A woman, without her man, is nothing.  Or it could be:  A woman:  without her, man is nothing.  What a difference punctuation makes!

What’s your favorite punctuation mark?

Lawyers & Social Networking

Posted on Categories Legal Ethics, Legal Practice, Media & Journalism9 Comments on Lawyers & Social Networking

computer_with_scales3An article in today’s New York Times talks about what can happen when lawyers open up online.  The article begins with the story of Sean Conway.  Attorney Conway took to his blog to state exactly how angry he was with a Fort Lauderdale judge.  He said she was an “Evil, Unfair Witch.”  But because Conway is a lawyer, his online ranting resulted his being reprimanded and fined by the Florida bar.

Of course, lawyers aren’t the only ones whose livelihood is affected by their online postings.  There’s this, and this, and this.  Having one’s online activity be the basis of dismissal has increased so much that a new phrase – “Facebook fired” – has entered our lexicon. 

But being a lawyer means something more.  Lawyers have long been held to a higher standard of conduct than other members of society.  As the New York Times article points out, your “freedom to gripe is limited by codes of conduct.”  Thus, criticizing the court or revealing client details online – even if the lawyer thinks she’s veiled the true subject – can cause trouble for a lawyer because she runs the risk of violating rules of professional responsibility. Continue reading “Lawyers & Social Networking”

Obama’s Speech on Education

Posted on Categories Media & Journalism, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Uncategorized4 Comments on Obama’s Speech on Education

440px-Official_portrait_of_Barack_ObamaAt 11 a.m. central time, President Obama delivered a speech addressed to school children across the country. The hullabaloo that has preceded this event has amazed me; last week, Florida Republican party chairman Jim Greer said he was “absolutely appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama’s socialist ideology.” A Facebook poll that asked whether President Obama should “be allowed to do a nationwide address to school children without parental consent” was running at 50.2% saying “no,” 46.1% saying “yes,” and 3.7% saying “I don’t care,” as of just before 11 a.m. this morning.  Another online poll, on Newsvine, showed that 81.3% of the respondents indicating they’d let their children hear the speech, 16.9% saying they wouldn’t, and 1.8% indicating that the idea of a speech was fine, but that there wasn’t enough time in the school day for such a thing.  This isn’t, of course, the first time that a sitting president has addressed school children.  In 1991, George H.W. Bush gave a speech at a junior high school, “urg[ing] students to study hard, avoid drugs and turn in troublemakers.” Democrats criticized the speech as “paid political advertising.”

As I read the text of President Obama’s speech, I find it hard to discern “socialist ideology” or even “paid political advertising.”  (Let us remember that pretty much everyone to whom his remarks are addressed is unable to vote!)  His remarks seem more “Republican” than not.  The themes of personal responsibility and hard work pervade the speech.  He says, “But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world – and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities”? He exhorts students to avoid making excuses about their role in their education.  “[T]he circumstances of your life – what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you’ve got going on at home – that’s no excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude. . . . That’s no excuse for not trying.” And he reminds students that success is hard work and that they should learn from their failures.  “[Y]ou can’t let your failures define you – you have to let them teach you.”

How could any parent find fault in such advice?  Is it simply because the messenger is from a different political party or is it something else entirely?  Barack Obama is the president of the United States.  A demanding job, to be sure, but also a job that is heavy with symbolism.  There shouldn’t be anything inherently political in the simple fact that the county’s figurehead wishes to press upon the country’s future – its school children – that they ought to do their best in school and work hard.

Thinking Like a Lawyer

Posted on Categories Legal Education, Legal Ethics, Legal Practice, Marquette Law School5 Comments on Thinking Like a Lawyer

150px-Paper_Chase_BookAt the start of each academic year, I cannot help but to think of Professor Kingsfield, the notorious contracts professor in The Paper Chase. The various classroom scenes where Professor Kingsfield grills student after student on classic contracts cases like Hawkins v. McGee have for years served as a sort of example of the “typical” 1L experience with the dreaded Socratic method.

While Professor Kingsfield surely sits at one end of the spectrum for professorial style, the Socratic method he uses endures.  It is, as one text notes, law school’s “signature pedagogy.”  It’s the way the law school professors across the country have been teaching law students about legal analysis for more than a century.

And students learn.  They begin their first year of law school with, to paraphrase Professor Kingsfield, “a head full of mush.”  Even by the end of that first semester, though, most 1Ls have developed an ability to turn that mush into cogent analysis, to make fine-line distinctions, to look for weaknesses in another’s argument, and to argue both sides of any issue; in other words, they learn to “think like a lawyer.”  This “thinking like a lawyer” is undoubtedly a necessary professional skill; however, mastering the process can come at a personal cost.

For all of the successes of the Socratic method, some have argued that it has serious flaws.  Most recently, Professor Elizabeth Mertz has criticized the Socratic method because of its “acontextual context.”  She notes that the Socratic method virtually ignores morality and social context in its attempt to teach students “objective” analysis. Continue reading “Thinking Like a Lawyer”

Is a Laptop-Free Zone the Answer to the Laptop Debate?

Posted on Categories Legal Education5 Comments on Is a Laptop-Free Zone the Answer to the Laptop Debate?

One of the most charged debates within law faculties across the country is the issue of implementing (or not) a ban on laptops in the classroom. Most law schools have wireless Internet access in the building, and some schools even require students to own laptops. More recently, however, individual law school professors (and, in at least one case, the law school itself) have begun banning the use of laptops in the classroom. The impetus for such bans seems to be professors’ concerns with students surfing the Internet during class, checking their email and instant messages, and even instant messaging their classmates “the answers” during class. Some professors feel the laptops create a physical barrier between them and their classes, and they are unable to gauge the students’ understanding of the material.

Professor Jana R. McCreary of Florida Coastal School of Law enters the debate with an article that will be published this spring in the Valparaiso University Law Review. Professor McCreary’s article contributes to the debate some empirical research on students’ laptop use. She surveyed almost 450 second-year law students from three law schools (University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, Nova Southeastern Shepard Broad Law Center, and Seattle University School of Law), asking students to respond anonymously to questions about their laptop use in class and their opinions about laptop bans. Her conclusion: many students use laptops as a tool for note-taking, organizing, and, indeed, thinking; thus, an all-out ban would be detrimental to students’ learning. Her solutions: create a laptop-free zone in the front of the class and/or implement a temporary one- or two-week ban on laptops to allow students to experience class without the laptop and to decide on their own whether to continue to use a laptop.

Continue reading “Is a Laptop-Free Zone the Answer to the Laptop Debate?”