A gentle rebuke to some Columbia law students

Re: “Columbia University Law School is allowing its students to reschedule their exams if they feel traumatized by the recent grand jury decisions in the Eric Garner and Michael Brown cases.” Jacob Gershman, Columbia Law School Lets Students Postpone Exams Due to Grand Jury Decisions, Wall Street Journal LawBlog (December 8, 2014)

Dear Columbia Law Students,

I mean this in the kindest way possible: If you postponed your exams because the Garner and Brown cases “traumatized” your psyche, there is a distinct possibility that you are unfit to practice law. If you are one of those who claimed “trauma,” and you still want to practice law, you must toughen up before you agree to take on a client. The practice of law is not about you.

downloadIn the world where practising lawyers toil, life is far more harsh than what you have experienced within the confines of your fine law school. Let me give you three examples of what I mean, expressed in the words of the lawyers* who lived those experiences:

1.  I’m not sure if this is what you are thinking of but I did ask the Fifth Circuit once to delay argument in a case because I was on maternity leave after my first child was born and still breast feeding. I don’t think i asked for that long a delay, maybe a month? but they were having none of it — it was an en banc argument and they were anxious to reverse i think — and denied the request. I doubted the court thinks of maternity leave as a valid reason for a delay in any case, which is an arguable point. I went to the argument, brought my breast pump with me. It broke on the way there. things were uncomfortable, you might say distracting, as a result.🙂 They argued amongst themselves during argument, and Judge Jolly, acting as the Chief Judge, had to reprimand some of them to keep them in line and to allow me to answer questions. They kept cutting me off to argue with the questioner. I needn’t have been there at all which is of course sometimes true in these matters. (Punctuation, capitalization and “People Emoji” as in original.)

2.  I represented a woman in an employment discrimination and ADA case in Southern District of New York. Judge had set a discovery deadline. A week before the deadline, client was set to appear for a deposition. But then her mother died suddenly, and I was out of the country. Client was bereft and in mourning, and incapable of dealing with it. Judge said no extension. So I had to get another lawyer for her and she had to show up that week.

3.  We started o[u]r new law firm in January 1995. That month, one of my senior partners (I was the junior of the four of us) dropped dead in the office on a Saturday preparing for a trial on Monday. I saw the judge Monday morning to request a continuance because of my partner’s death. The judge insisted that this was a landlord-tenant case and therefore a high priority. I explained that no one else at the firm [k]new the client [or] had spoken to any of the witnesses. The judge was not moved. I kept pleading. Finally, the judge asked me when the funeral was to be held. I told her the funeral was Thursday, so she set the trial for Friday. Needless to say, I was not as well [prepared] for trial as I would have liked to be.

I wish you all the best, but I fear that you will be ineffective unless you heed this warning. Far more importantly, I worry for the clients that you may one day represent if you fail to heed this warning. Allow me to restate, the practice of law is never, ever about you.

RGK

*None of the lawyers who gave me these examples knew how I intended to use them.

UPDATE 

Please view the following from Scott Greenfield at Simple Justice:

59 responses

  1. Or, to summarize: “While fellow attorneys are an understanding lot [I’ve never had a reasonable request for an extension opposed by opposing counsel, fwiw], you should expect judges to be raging assholes. Love, the Judge!”

    Gotta love it! I needed a good laugh this morning.🙂

  2. I have to respectfully disagree with Judge Kopf (my fellow UNL College of Law grad) here. Whether or not Columbia’s general policy on postponements is fairly enforced is one matter. But the current “trauma” regarding the non-indictments in the Garner and Brown cases (among others) is not simply a selfish excuse. It is manifestation of a crisis of confidence in the criminal justice system overall and the fear that minority victims of police-initiated violence may be killed/maimed with impunity. Law students (black and Latino ones in particular) who are wrestling with this issue and yes, deeply affected and incensed by it, are not making excuses. Certainly, the practice of law requires an iron fortitude and suspicion for contrived excuses (as I well know after a decade of defending tenants in landlord-tenant actions), but I would hope that the legal system (courts, law schools, firms) recognizes that the entire profession is endangered by the current injustices, which weaken the faith of the American public in the constitutional promise of equal protection under the law.

    While law schools are the incubators of new attorneys and should give them some insight into what to expect as attorneys, they are also “schools” and, thus, places where respect for dialogue and students’ reactions (which are sometimes emotional, as here) to current events that directly affect the legal system should be honored.

  3. Dear Clint,

    To clarify, the point I was making stands whether the claim of trauma over the Garner/Brown tragedies was real or bogus. Thank you for your engagement.

    All the best.

    RGK

  4. Way off dude. On May 5, 1970, I along with others closed down New York Law School after the Kent State killings. Students from other law schools followed suit and exams were postponed. Many felt that the killing of students on a campus in Ohio by National Guard soldiers put the country at risk and undermined the principles of justice we were learning to manipulate at school. I was rewarded with a leave of absence for a year, which I took, working at a pre-trial release program in the Manhattan Criminal Court. You probably would have found me unfit for admission as a result of my actions, a charge I had to confront years later when I applied.

  5. Right on! Practicing law means standing up for your clients, sometimes at times of stress and tragedy. If you are engaged in a last-ditch appeal for a client on death row, your personal situation doesn’t matter. A client in a civil suit, who has waited years for justice, may be somewhat less compelling, but still to that person–whom you are bound to serve–the trial is all-important. While seeking a continuance because of a family death or emergency is legitimate, your personal feelings about public affairs have to take a back seat to what is best for your client.

    I was in law school in 1970 (at the school the judge loves to hate), at the time of Kent State and the “Cambodian incursion” that led to a national student strike. I thought postponing or calling off exams was not justified then, and I still feel that way.

  6. Clint,

    While I got a chuckle at the unintended message of his snark, I have to agree with the Judge here. Our “justice” system has been a train wreck for decades, and the Garner incident is nothing new. See, City of LA v. Lyons. Remember Rodney King?

    We’ve all seen this rodeo before. Those fellows and gals called “prosecutors” have always turned a blind eye to it or worse, have actively aided and abetted the crimes. Judges who are supposed to stand as our only line of defense are often corrupt lickspittles who are disdainful of our rights under law. The REAL crisis is that this is not a crisis.

    Our anger at injustice is what drove us to this folly, but we can’t be of value to anyone if we drown in a tsunami of emotion. Life is full of trauma; the natural state of Man is to be uncomfortable. You have to learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

    Get over it, kids.

  7. Any practicing attorney has had times when they have had to do their best to represent their clients despite personal or professional difficulties. With all due respect to this generation of law students, unless they are a lot less involved in current affairs than the students who attended law school in the 1980s, there is nothing in the decisions from St. Louis or Staten Island that is particularly shocking or traumatic to any person with the knowledge of history that one would expect from a student at Columbia Law School — we can all agree to disagree over the appropriateness of those decisions. There is a difference between a student strike out of outrage over this incident (we had several days of student protests shutting down the law school during my three years) and claiming that you are too traumatized by a news story with which you have no personal involvement to study or take an exam.

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  9. I think the Judge makes important points that all law students would do well to take to heart, no matter how patronizing they might find them.*

    But I would add a related point.

    The Judge’s examples simply attempt to parallel the Columbia students’ situation. In each, the lawyers had a deadline, an event outside the merits of the case arose and interfered with their ability to the meet the deadline, the lawyers asked for more time, they didn’t get any. Likewise, the Columbia students had an exam date, traumatic and distubring outside events unrelated to the exams arose and interfered with their ability to prepare, the students ask for more time, they got it.

    But the practice of law differs from the study of law in at least one important way that doesn’t lend itself to parallelism. That is, sometimes the traumatic and disturbing events are not external to your case. Sometimes they are your case. So it’s not just that you occasionaly need to be able to work through crappy external circumstances. To do the really tough stuff, you need to live in the mud, where it’s almost always hard and dirty.

    As a concrete example, I would wager that many of the Columbia students who were genuinely traumatized by the grand jury decisions are among the same Columbia students who aspire to great feats of social justice and community-changing roles in public service. One career track that jumps to mind is the civil rights division of the Department of Justice. But far from taking personal days today, many in the civil rights division need to be at the very best–right now–not in spite of the grand jury decisions, but because of them. For they are now grappling with how to advise the Attorney General about the exceptionally weighty decision of… how to respond to the very thing that Columbia students are saying made it too hard for them to study for their property exams.

    So in the immortal words of the Epicurean Dealmaker–speaking of how to be successful as an investment banker, but who could easily have been talking about success in the rough and tumble world of the law–if you want to make your mark, “Harden the F*&! Up”.

    http://epicureandealmaker.blogspot.com/2012/11/the-rules.html

    *Law school is not law practice, nor is it meant to be, so different rules reasonably apply–but taking time off from your client’s case because you were traumatized by current events, no matter how crappy they are, is absolutely not acceptable behavior. Everyone who wants to practice law should be clear on that.

  10. Julian,

    You should write this blog. You are much better than I am. Thank you.

    All the best.

    RGK

    PS When you take over, one bit of advice. Never, ever, tell the Supreme Court to “Harden the F*&! Up,” “STFU,” or any variation of those things. If you don’t follow this advice, the wrath of Khan will be visited upon you by really smart, and delicate, law professors. That will cause you to wet your pajamas each night.

  11. I quote Dorothy Parker, this is very sick making. How many more condescending letters to the law students on the sad but noble life of the lawyer remain to be written? To quote a famous QC, this kind of complaint is barely tolerable from a golf club bore. As dockshots pointed out the complaints about Columbia are a mere repeat of the letters to the editor, no blogs in those days, over law school closing over Kent State. The world did not end then and it will not end now. Given the age those old time protesters have reached, they are probably boring the young with their stories of life in the trenches.

  12. I am reminded of one of my favorite scenes from the Paper Chase when Professor Kingsfield tells Hart:

    “Mr. Hart, here’s a dime, now go call Mommy and Daddy and tell them that there are some serious doubts about you ever becoming a lawyer…”

    Or words to that effect.

  13. Haha – no, thank you Judge.

    (Relatively) Rare is the blog that advances a worthwhile discussion with its words.

    Rarer still is a blog that advances a worthwhile discussion by daring to exist.

    Not to say Herc & the Umpire doesn’t do the former, of course it does, in a very big way, but I know a great many of us are especially appreciative of how it does the latter.

  14. Anonymous, As I recall Hart wound up bedding the profs’. daughter. That leaves moe unsure of your moral.

  15. I’m 1000% with you judge. Some of these comments, for Pete’s sake, put your (in my case big girl) pants on and get to work. What are they going to do the first time a judge they are appearing before rules incorrectly under the rules of evidence or the law? Cry? Good grief. The epic river of change is going to keep flowing regardless, so keep on keeping on, and relish the progress.

  16. Hapless, I can not resist, if I remember my Bible studies, the Lord of the Flies is the father of lies. Started law school in 1962 and finished teaching in 2013, banished into the outer darkness of blog replier, in that time law students did not change that much

  17. Dear hapless thee Toad the one true Lord of the Flies,

    First, I do believe that many law schools are dropping their admissions standards to stay solvent.

    Second, I do believe that many law schools are too easy on law students and that leads to a culture of laziness that probably impacts the passage rates.

    Third, I do believe that the declining bar passage rate is a product of points one and two above.

    Fourth, I don’t have empirical data to backup the foregoing. So, these are (informed?) guesses on my part.

    Ribbit X 2.

    All the best.

    RGK

  18. 1stclerk,

    Spoken like the mean ass trial lawyer that you once were.*

    All the best.

    RGK

    *1stclerk is now an administrative law judge.

  19. I don’t consider my job sad or noble, and I hate the idea of sounding like I do, so I take your point to some degree.

    But refusing to take an exam as an act of protest (Kent State), whatever the merits are there, is categorically different than begging off an exam (Columbia) at a professional school because of a trauma rationale that would work nowhere in the professional world. IMHO.

  20. The practice can be traumatic. I had a client commit suicide the evening before a hearing. He left a message on my voicemail minutes after I had left the office for the evening and minutes before he pulled the trigger. I got it the next morning before leaving for the hearing. (That’ll mess with your head . . ..) The hearing went on and so did the case. If you want to be a lawyer, you’re signing on to the system, for better or worse. If you don’t like it, fight harder. If you’re not prepared to lose a case or receive a bad ruling, or deal with obnoxious clients, opposing counsel, judges, etc. etc., go into another line of work. But to walk away from an exam is inexcusable. I regret to say that my alma mater, Georgetown, followed Columbia’s lead.

  21. Judge, when you were a newly minted JD, District Judges in NE were complaining that you and your contemporaries from UNL and CULaw had been coddled and babied, and were demanding a return to the true cruelty of traditional law school, having survivied your generation of law students, I am sure we will survive todays. I might add that the classes around your time were the swollen ones when everyone wanted to go to law school and faculties all got big raises. Talk about declining standards.

  22. I was upset and distracted by the Eric Garner case in the last few weeks.
    I still took three exams this week.

    You’re right on, Judge.

  23. I had Roger Fisher, who later became famous for writing Getting to Yes, for civil procedure. He used to ask: What do you do if the widow is rich and the railroad is bankrupt? Answering tough questions honestly is part of the job description, no?

  24. Anon.,

    Thank you very much. For the details of this depressing intellectual surrender by the UCLA law professor, see here.

    War story (really): In 1971, I was fortunate to represent my law college in the final rounds of the National Moot Court competition in New York. Of course, we had to be prepared to argue both sides.

    The Mỹ Lai Massacre was a mass killing of between 347 and 504 unarmed civilians in South Vietnam on March 16, 1968. It was committed by U.S. Army soldiers from Company C of the 1st Battalion. Some of the women were gang-raped and their bodies mutilated. Only Lieutenant William Calley Jr., a platoon leader in C Company, was convicted. Found guilty of killing 22 villagers, he was originally given a life sentence. The moot court problem was built on these facts, and a fictional Calley was a party to the fictional litigation.

    In my law school, we had a mix of strong anti-war folks and Vietnam vets who had equally strong opposing views. My views then or now on Vietnam are irrelevant.

    The idea of complaining about the moot court topic because it was too sensitive never occurred to me, or, so far as I can remember, anyone else. I cannot fathom making such an objection now.

    The silver bowl that I received from the American College of Trial Lawyers for my engagement in that competition sits in my den to this day. It stands as a testament to the best learning experience I had in law school. It is too bad that the UCLA law professor deprived his kids of that same learning opportunity by refusing to insist that they grow up.

    All the best.

    RGK

  25. I wish I only had to take three exams this week! Ah well. Didn’t hear anyone try the “trauma” routine at my school. Everyone knew how dumb that’d be.

    -SLS

  26. Judge I am confused, since the question was used, how were the students deprived of the opportunity to answer it? The Bruin story is about post exam criticism. He did tell another professor of V Conspiracy fame that the question had not worked as he hoped so he adjusted the grading. Most profs have had that experience. On the other hand all I got out of moot court was a cheap trophy, resent the soft treatment and fancy prizes you folks got.

  27. First-year torts started at 8 a.m. I worked in bars until 4 a.m. I probably never had a shorter fuse in my life, and hated everything about the class.

    So it was one day that the professor presented a problem concerning a defective tire that caused a crash. Since it was law school, the problem probably also included some dead cows and a guy getting on a train. Twirling on my last brain cell, some knucklehead in the back decided to engage the professor on the subject of defective tires:

    Knucklehead: “Why was the tire defective?”

    Professor: “Just take it as a given: The tire was defective.”

    Knucklehead: “Did it have a hole in the bottom? The Side?”

    Professor: “It was defective. That’s all you need to know.”

    Knucklehead: “Did the owner properly maintain the tire?”

    Professor: “It doesn’t matter. The tire was defective.”

    Knucklehead: “Why was the tire defective.”

    As the back-and-forth circled toward home, my brain cell erupted. “Asshole, the fucking tire was defective!”

    Knucklehead: “Oh.”

    I hope Knucklehead spent the rest of his career toiling in some legal dungeon.

    That’s how it is in law schools–nothing occurs that has any foretelling of the actual practice of law. It is the ivoriest of ivory towers. It is theory without any grunt. Not one law school graduate leaves as a lawyer. Not convinced? Consider this: besides how to do legal research, how much of that education do you use today?

    So, Rich, what does it matter what law schools do? If your roommate croaks, you get all As. If you’re too busted-up over national events, take the exam some other time. If your dog climbs on the bed and pisses on your head, skip the day. What does it matter?

    The truth is that no matter how much they are coddled, the real world will alter their perception. I say coddle them; hug them; give them cookies. Let them believe the world is full of kind acts and good intentions. Teach them that theory guides society and all wrongs are righted.

    It’s possible the professor could have gone on for hours telling Knucklehead, “Just take it as a given: the tire was defective.” That’s law school. In the real world, several authors of the thirty-five comments before mine would let him know he was an asshole. Then, he would have the chance to be a lawyer.

  28. Judge: On the other hand…………law school is competitive and being permitted additional time,to prepare for their exams, as provided for by the school’s procedures, gives those claiming a”trauma” an advantage over their classmates. The students have manipulated “the law” and obtained a benefit for their “client”. Granted, some may say that this isn’t “fair” but……….
    Perhaps these students will be just the type of attorneys clients will seek out to represent them.
    Just sayin

  29. RL,

    “Goldstein added that he will discount scores students receive on the question if it lowers the overall score of the student.” Since there was no adverse consequence to answering the question poorly or not at all, the student’s mettle was not tested when he or she was upset or distracted–that, of course was the point of this post. Technically though you are right, they got to answer the question. I apologize for my mistake.

    All the best.

    RGK

  30. Duke,

    You are correct. Columbia (and UCLA and perhaps other) law students are either(1) taught to game the system or (2) taught that the practice of law is all about “me.” I feel much better now.

    All the best.

    RGK

  31. RGK,
    I thought that the purpose of law school was to teach you to “think like a lawyer.” I’ve got the cynical bastard part down, at least!

    -SLS

  32. SLS,

    Socrates: How can you tell an average trial lawyer from a great trial lawyer?

    Pupil: Whether he or she has “arm candy?”

    Socrates: Close, but wrong.

    Pupil: OK, how do you tell the difference?

    Socrates: It is all about sincerity.

    Pupil: How so?

    Socrates: The great trial lawyer can fake it.

    All the best.

    RGK

  33. Judge I am right full stop. Goldstein had a level of pressure and difficulty in mind when he wrote the test, he found the question had created a problem he had not anticipate and adjusted his grading. I do not see the big deal. You have been sucked into a similar situation, allowing your emotional reaction to the material you read to cause problems not intended by the material.

  34. Judge Kopf —

    I agree with your post. As a training ground for future lawyers, CLS may be doing its students more harm than good. Lawyers in the “real world” must push through all sorts of stress and trauma. (I started a three-week federal jury trial the week after by beloved dad’s memorial service. I wrote a cert petition in the waiting room while my wife had cancer surgery.) Some of the comments to other articles about this matter are concerning though. Some writers suggest that this episode should cause potential employers to question candidates from CLS. I hope that doesn’t happen. As I understand it, a relatively small group of students availed themselves of this offer, and it would be manifestly unfair for the whole school to be negatively branded by this.

    DRF

  35. Good grief! Let’s bring back the military draft and let these wusses spend some time in basic training with a drill sergeant! I have not one ounce of sympathy for these “traumatized”, sniffling professional whiners. Shaking my head at such stunning selfishness and stupidity. ‘Nuff said . . . .

  36. Mr Fine I wish you had posted earlier, since my tears were all used up. Do you remember the old radio and tv show Queen for a Day, stories like your always won the prize, but I have already wasted my sympathy on some of the lesser sufferers.

  37. repentinglawyer:

    At first, I feared that your brutal, dagger-like snark would cause me career-ending trauma. Then, I finished reading your comment.

    Best,

    David

  38. Dear David,

    You have the gentle soul of your father, a marvelous and highly regarded physician. As you know, that is a high compliment.

    All the best.

    RGK

  39. Repentinglawyer
    Please feel free to comment on any of my ruminations especially when they tend to boldly go where no Northcote has gone before.As for the Father of lies what would the world be like without art? See the movie
    The Invention of Lying.

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