Friday, January 13, 2012

Civil Liberties, Celebrities, and Legal Academia

I was in trouble again. The client balked at a huge bill—my bill—for research and drafting on a really tricky indemnity problem. It was a tough one: very little controlling case law in our jurisdiction, and what there was seemed to contradict what we wanted. I read every indemnity case in our jurisdiction. Then 50 or so from our neighboring state, followed by every law review article I could find and cases from other jurisdictions as well.  The issue meant $1.5 million for the client, and it was my first oral argument.  We won.  And when the bill went half paid, half of my billed hours disappeared with it.

From a colleague: “We’re not academics. We’re plumbers.”

That hurt.


I’ve been wanting to write about the profound uselessness of legal academia, but the more I tried to muster up the appropriate sturm und drang, the more I realized that 1) that’s not really fair, and 2) Scott Greenfield writes on this much better than I do.  While attorneys learn their trade on the job, I don't think they can do high-level work without a deep, thorough, and, yes--academic--knowledge of their area of law.  That doesn’t mean other attorneys don’t try to do without.  I’ve met a few.  And I’ve enjoyed leading them down daisy-strewn paths before having my way with them and tidily disposing of the remains.*

Academic resources for lawyers aren’t difficult to find--so long as you’re not looking in legal academia.  The best legal education I’ve gotten in eight years of practice has been through a very few (expensive) organizations with and carefully selected (expensive) seminars.  (Bryan Garner’s seminar is incredible.) I’d say you get what you pay for, but I don't know the extent to which taxpayer money funds tenured professors at public law schools. My return on that has been effectively zero.   

Not that I haven’t tried! Over the years, I’ve had a few encounters with legal academic celebrities. From the practitioner perspective, they’re not all they’ve cracked up to be.  

I.  The Class 
I attended a two-week seminar with Chief Justice Rehnquist in law school.  For 10 minutes after class each day, hizzoner would chat with all comers.  By day three, someone thought to have the Justice autograph his books, and he spent all remaining after-class chat-time servicing the queue. I asked him to sign the one I bought new, “All the Laws But One: Civil Liberties in War Time." He was extremely frail, but very courtly.  His hand must have ached, but he still offered to sign my other books.*  As I recall, I stuttered, blushed, and ran away.  

The lecture consisted of him reading his same set of ancient lecture notes that, rumor had it, he'd read every year. They looked it. All students were under strict orders to not fall asleep during class lest we embarrass the school. It was good that they warned us.

II.  The Conference 
A few years later, I signed up for an academic conference in an area I was practicing in. Judge Posner as the keynote speaker, which I was excited about because, of course, I read his blog. I drove two hours to attend on my own dime. The “conference” turned out to be less of a practical education and more of an academic circle-jerk, each speaker presenting their own micro-area of potential future legal developments.  None expressed much interest in justifying how their little parts fit into the law as a whole.

Posner is a good speaker, but the substance of the speech was just better-presented utopian policy. I asked him a question after, because his policy goals seemed very different than the law I worked with every day.  He gave me a glib and unsatisfying answer before my courage failed and I ran away.

90% of the conference attendees were law students there for extra credit

III.  The Subway 
[Ok, don’t draw any conclusions about legal academia from this last one, or I’ll feel guilty for taking such a cheap shot. I’m including only because 1) legal celebrity and 2) funny.]

Maybe a year into practice, I flew to NY to depose a pediatric cardiologist in his Upper East Side apartment. My office paid for my flight, airport cab, and one night in a hotel. I stayed a self-funded extra day to visit a friend, which meant riding a subway to Bedford-Stuyvesant to sleep on his air mattress. It was the first time I’d ever travelled anywhere alone.

I lost the afternoon in a Manhattan candy store, and then panicked when I realized it was dark.  I didn’t know where the subway was, or what to do, and how long before I’d be stabbed.  I had a street map and a cell phone, but my friend wasn’t answering.  I stood on the street corner leaving increasingly hysterical messages when a nicely-dressed man approached me.  He said he’s heard me on the phone and when I found the subway could I show him too.  

I had him watch my luggage while I hunted for the entrance, which turned out to be a few blocks away. When I returned a half hour later, he was still standing there with my stuff, looking concerned. We walked to the entrance together and then parted ways. I got a ticket from the kiosk and then went looking for a restroom to change out of my suit and stilettos.  
Ten minutes later (having given up the search) and I saw him again.  He couldn’t figure out the ticket kiosk or the ATM swiper and was angry and frustrated that no one would help him.  I talked him down, swiped his ATM card, got him a ticket, and led him to the right platform.  Turns out, we were riding the same train.

We got to talking on the train.  He was apologetic for being so much trouble and he was very grateful that I’d helped him.  Eventually, we got to the “You’re a lawyer?-I’m a lawyer!” part of the conversation.  “Actually, I’m a judge now,” he told me.  When he got off the train, we exchanged business cards.  

He was a Justice of the International Criminal Court at the Hague. 

If I am ever tried for war crimes, I’ll ask if he remembers me.  


*Metaphorically.  What?  Quit looking at me like that.

**Ah, youth.  I sincerely believed at the time that a signed book by William Rehnquist about civil liberties in wartime would be something interesting and valuable, rather than an artifact of supreme irony.

***Ok, here’s a bonus celebrity encounter that also makes me laugh. I’d been to NY once before, as a kid, and my younger brother got in a shoving match with a girl in FAO Schwartz. My mother went to go apologize to the girl’s mother, only it was Christie Brinkley.  She (my mother) was not very happy about that. 


  1. > I didn’t know where the subway was, or what to do, and how long before I’d be stabbed.


  2. When your only referent for big city is "Adventures in Babysitting" (which is set in Chicago), this becomes an ominous harbinger of doom.