Monday, August 24, 2009

So you want to go to Law School?

On occasion, relatives and friends inform me they are contemplating law school, and inquire as to my thoughts. My first question is always this: “Why do you want to go to law school?”

If you want to become a lawyer, (and you live in the United States), you won’t have much choice. As far as I know every state requires a Juris Doctorate to take the Bar entrance. Long, long ago, you could clerk and intern enough to qualify; but I don’t believe that is still possible.

If you want to bang on tables, F. Lee Bailey style, or become the next Johnnie Cochran, it is off to law school. I found, though, that many law students didn’t necessarily know what type of lawyer they wanted to be. Some were there because their fathers were lawyers, and it was what was expected. Some were there because they thought of dollar signs, and medical school takes too long. (More on this in a minute.) Some were there because they were not ready to leave off college, and it seemed an amicable post-graduate step.

And even those who were certain they wanted to practice law, (such as myself) did not know where they would fall. One could become a transactional lawyer, bogged down in painstaking minutiae, turning a one-paragraph contract into a 14-page document with paragraph titles, contents page and an index. (It must have been a transactional attorney who coined the phrase “party of the first part.”)

Transactional lawyers never, EVER see the inside of the courtroom. Many transactional lawyers hire other lawyers to handle even traffic tickets.

Or one can become a litigator. The person who appears in court, shouting at witnesses and being yelled at by judges. Again, this does not narrow the field. One could go into criminal work (either federal or state), or civil work (personal injury, contract, general litigation). And there are the fields of bankruptcy, taxation and immigration that (being a bit simplistic on my part) are a combination of transactional and litigator. Mostly preparing forms, with a hearing, and a possible trial.

One can go into family law (divorce, post-divorce concerns over parenting time, support and alimony) or into probate work (will and trust preparation, petitions for guardianship or conservatorship). And within each field, one often specializes further. Only Medical Malpractice, for example. Or only Drunk Driving cases.

People generally fell into three (3) areas of practice:

1) An area they were particularly passionate about;
2) What the family did;
3) Where they got their first job.

If a person went into law school, intent on becoming a litigator, they would concentrate their course study towards that ends, look for jobs with litigation as a primary opportunity, and focus attention there. A number of my classmates had parents who were lawyers, and it was expected they would “follow in the family’s footsteps.” If the family work was personal injury—so was the child’s.

And finally, many went out looking for jobs, and where they started gave them the experience enabling them to obtain their first job. If, while in law school, you clerked for two years in a medical malpractice firm, when you start looking for a job your greatest advantage was the two-year experience already under your belt. You tend to naturally end up there.

There are other reasons to attend law school. If you want a political career, a law degree is very helpful. It may help you in a business setting. If you want to teach; you get a doctorate and a chance to wear fancy robes and the longer hood at graduations.

I am not much help in any of those directions. I decided to become a lawyer after my freshman year at college. I wanted to be a litigator. The guy in the courtroom. To me, law school was a necessary drudgery to attend in order to reach that goal. A necessary step in the progression.

It was not a hard decision, nor one I debated over, trying to decide what direction my life would go, or what I would do. Sorry I cannot be any more help in other endeavors.

As I attended exactly one (1) law school, I have no knowledge as to other law schools’ experience. I can only relate from my own.

I can tell you, law school is not some higher institute for the crème de la crème; you get the same personalities you did in high school and college. Remember the girl that panicked and studied 100’s of hours for a simple quiz? She is there. The guy who was always late to class? There too. You find the class clown, the jocks, the partiers, the stress-studiers, the “the professor said we HAD to do it this way!” Even the guy using his pencils like drumsticks; yep—he made it to law school!

A rumor persisted the first year was hard to weed out the lesser students, but I don’t recall the first year being any harder or easier than any other.

Secondly, I attended law school from 1988 – 1992. (Law degrees are typically three year programs, but I attended night school, as I worked during the day to pay for classes at night.) A lot has changed since then. We didn’t have electrical plugs at every desk; we used books. Our “Powerpoint” was the professor writing on a blackboard. In fact, our research class was one of the first to use this thing called “Lexis”—allowing legal research on a computer. And the monitors we had could only loosely be called “color” since the text was in green and the screen was black.

To give you an idea of how times have changed, when I graduated, I contacted a company about legal forms on Word(c). They laughed, “Since 98% of law firms use WordPerfect(c), we don’t bother offering forms in Word(c).”

After you graduate—what are you going to do? The employment is really, REALLY thin in Michigan. (Again, I can’t speak for elsewhere.) Last year our firm advertised for a part-time legal secretary. We are talking maybe 20 hours a week for $10-$12 per hour.

And we had lawyers apply.

We were stunned. They informed us the jobs are so scarce, they would take anything. One particular candidate stated it best. “I thought I would get my law license and I would finally have made it. That the rest would be downhill. It is not happening. There are no jobs out there for lawyers whose only experience is law school.”

Her husband (also a lawyer) had just got a job entering data in a bankruptcy firm, and was happy to have found that work.

Those thinking of huge salaries a la Tom Cruise in a John Grisham novel, best think again. Yes, some of the top students in the United States can make good money right away. But the cold reality is that they are the exception, not the rule.

Worse, the best salaries are in the big firms. Which means you won’t be practicing law as much as practicing office politics. Firms require billable hours. Meaning lots and lots of long hours. And associate attorneys have to please the junior partners who please the senior partners. Your first year you write a lot and maybe…MAYbe attend court with someone. Your second year you get to argue a motion or two. Eventually you get a small hearing.

But if, at any step, you mis-step—your job is in jeopardy. Two (2) anecdotes as to why I never wanted to work for a large firm.

One acquaintance of mine obtained a job with a very prestigious law firm. And did quite well. He pulled a few tricks out of his sleeve, and seemed to be on the fast track to rapid promotion. Then, one day, a partner asked him to handle a matter of more personal nature. A hearing for the partner’s family member. Unfortunately, the facts were not good, the judge was not predisposed, and the other side had the day.

My acquaintance was out of a job. “You are only as good as your last trick” was what he said.

On another occasion I had a motion against an associate in another prestigious law firm. It happened my partner is very good friends with a partner in this firm. The associate’s boss’s boss’s boss. And this was a troubling case. If I won the motion, I would have won the entire case. Immediate judgment for my client. If I lost, the case would simply proceed forward. No harm; no foul.

This associate feared losing the motion; it didn’t make a huge difference to me. He was informed (I was told) that if he lost the motion, don’t bother coming back to the office. I don’t know whether they really would have fired him, but throughout that motion I watched as huge drops of sweat poured off his face. He felt his entire career going down the drain on one motion. (As it was, that day the judge WAS predisposed, and I lost the motion. His job was saved.)

I wouldn’t want so much riding on so little.

And-- with our current recession--partners are reluctant to take a pay cut; the first people on the chopping block, after support staff, are the newest lawyers.

As for me… I am a lawyer who loves his work. We see complaints of other lawyers wanting out of the practice, or looking for alternative work. I do not understand it. I love what I do.

I am not sure I am much help as to whether to go to law school. It was like driver’s education class. A necessary chore that gives you esoteric principles of rules of the road, and where the pedals are, but it isn’t until you are behind the wheel before you understand how to drive.

Law school doesn’t teach you how to practice law, really. Your first job does that.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Can you Tolerate another post on Intolerance?

Two commentators on the last blog entry raised points furthering the discussion.

Reuben referred to Wendy Brown’s interview on tolerance/intolerance. She defined tolerance (after reviewing its use in a broad spectrum of fields) as the “the management of some undesirable element or foreign body invading or taking up residence in the host that one would rather not have to deal with. It is about managing some object of aversion that is different with a stigma—different with a problem.”

Of course, the word “management” leaves much to be desired, requiring further clarification. How does one manage? Is there a limit on management? Is there a limit on reaction? But setting aside the ”how” for a moment; observe the ”what”--what are we managing? Notice the words utilized:

“not have to deal with’

Before we can “tolerate” something—we first made a determination we do not want the thing to exist! Or, at the least, exist in any realm where it impacts us. We first make the decision the thing is NOT desired. NOT wanted. It is, by virtue of our tolerating it, not worthy of continuing.

Sam pointed out an article by Greg Koukl (admittedly I was surprised to be agreeing along with Koukl) making a similar conclusion when he states: “The irony is that according to the classical notion of tolerance, you can’t tolerate someone unless you disagree with him. “

The host on the Wendy Brown interview picked up on the fact, by claiming “tolerance”—we have degraded the thing being tolerated. If I “tolerate” homosexuality, I have made the determination it should not exist—it is repugnantly holding one’s nose while dealing with an undesirable problem.

I find no virtue in tolerance, because living in our world we are forced to interact with undesirable elements. We cannot control our physical bodies degrading (sadly). I don’t desire to lose my hair—what “virtue” is it that I “manage” this undesirable element? We face financial undesirable situations, physical, natural and…not surprisingly due to the variety of humanity…socially undesirable situations. We will deal with people we disagree with. That we desire would not exist—at least not in their current form. That fact we have to deal with them, and then to label it as “tolerant” and pat ourselves on the back by labeling this forced interaction as “virtuous” is silly. Might as well be proud of breathing.

So it cannot be that we are tolerant—that we “manage” undesirable elements—it has to be HOW we manage them where the divide comes in. Where we consider some responses—some forms of management—to be “tolerant” when dealing with undesirables, and some responses to be “intolerant.”

Can it really be as simple as the Golden rule? Can it be when we treat others as we would want to be treated, we consider that “tolerant”? And when we don’t—it is not?

As I previously stated—street preachers don’t bother me. In my “Golden rule” I could see how treating others as I would want to be treated means I don’t care about this. Yet for others, it IS intolerant. Because they would never treat others that way, and would never want to be treated in this fashion. (It is why I subscribe to the Platinum Rule rather than the Golden rule; treat others as THEY want to be treated, not as YOU want to be treated.)

It is time we stopped worrying about who is being tolerant and who is not. To stop labeling the other person as being “intolerant.” As if that means anything. Better to question whether they would like to be treated the way they are treating you.

The line between “managed correctly” and “not managed correctly” when it comes to tolerance is too nebulous a concept to bother debating it.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Is Atheism an intolerant belief?

A British Television show discussed this with some interesting back-and-forth as reported by The Friendly Atheist.

The problem I see in these conversations is the lack of specificity. The lack of definition. Two (or more) people talking with two (or more) perspectives on the subject. How do we define “intolerance”? Who determines what is “intolerant”? How do we develop a scale where something is “more” or “less” intolerant?

Let’s start with a basic definition—what is “intolerant”? It means “to not tolerate,” leaving us with the next question: defining “tolerate.” I would broadly define “tolerate” as “a situation where the person has no desire to change the status quo.

Think of it in terms of temperature. If a person is comfortable, they do not change the status quo--they leave things as they are. If they become warm, they no longer tolerate the situation and make choices: complain, lose some clothing, turn on air, sit there and sweat, etc. Become cold, make similar choices. They attempt to change the status quo.

Everyday we are confronted with situations designed to be intolerant. Designed for us to not tolerate. Your alarm clock is deliberately noisy and obnoxious to make you modify the status quo of sleeping. That phone ringing is purposely intended to change your situation of not answering the phone.

I have always found this preface phrase rather silly: “This doesn’t bother me, but…”. Of COURSE it bothers you; you would be unaffected and silent if it didn’t!

The question of whether beliefs are “intolerant” is so basic within beliefs (especially those strongly held), I find the question inane. The person with the bumper sticker, “Not out of a Job Yet? Keep buying Foreign Cars” has a belief about buying American products and is, by virtue of putting that bumper sticker there, attempting to change the minds of someone who does not. The very point of the bumper stick (and the belief behind it) is to change the status quo of a person thinking of buying a foreign car. Of making them not tolerate (by fear, or discomfort, or sense of loyalty) buying Honda.

The instant I begin discussing my belief with the intention of persuasion rather than mere information—I have become “intolerant.” I hope to change the status quo of another person by making them no longer “tolerate” their position.

Imagine someone asks me for the fastest way home. I suggest Highway I-75. Another person chimes in, “No, Telegraph Road is faster.” If I shrug and move away—I was only providing information about my belief as to the quickest route. I am not being “intolerant.” But, if I start discussing traffic signals, or construction, or number of miles, attempting to convince I-75 is faster—I am attempting to change the status quo. I am attempting to make the person not “tolerate” taking Telegraph Rd.

If we are in a position where we desire to convince another of the viability of our belief—whether it is atheism, deism, agnosticism, theism, pantheism, whatever—even if it is for a hope they recognize our human ability to be persuaded differently than they are; we have become “intolerant.” We are hoping to change the other’s status quo that our belief is not viable, or we shouldn’t hold such belief.

Beliefs are intolerant. Atheism is intolerant. The real question (hardly every addressed) is what is the proper response way to be intolerant? “Proper” being a heavily loaded word.

What reaction is required? What is “too much?”

Back to our temperature example. My wife is cold-blooded. She likes temperatures when they start to reach the lower 90’s. Then she becomes comfortable. Otherwise she does not tolerate the temperature. And she reacts.

Bless her heart; she tends to overreact. In the car we hear, “I’m cold!” and the next thing you know, the seat warmers are on, the heat is turned on full blast, she is wrapped in a blanket, hoodie, winter coat and boats. The rest of the family starts to peal off clothes like a Nudist Colony Lobby, and let the heat-stroke fantasy of being in a desert wash over us.

We expect beliefs to be intolerant. We expect beliefs to be proclaimed to the point of making another uncomfortable. Not tolerating the situation. The question is this—what is too much?

Here the problem varies so much from person to person. Some find street preachers too pushy. Others find them entertainment and love to engage them. What one person would say, “that level of persuasion is too much” another would say, “doesn’t bother me.”

A great example of this came from the video on Friendly Atheist. A person (theist actually) pointed out that some things said by atheists about theists were not as bad—not as intolerant—as being told you were going to hell. That has never bothered me. Christians who indicate “You are going to hell!” to me do not cause me to flinch. I understand why they think that, I am not afraid of a non-existent place, I understand they don’t have any evidentiary arguments and are reduced to fear-mongering.

I hear, “You are going to hell” and it doesn’t cause me to change my status quo. My heart maintains the same beat. My mind forgets it as quickly as a passing road sign. So what…

BUT, I hear, “The disciples wouldn’t die for a lie” and my heart does start to race. My mind starts to frame the argument as to why this is so terribly wrong. My fingers start to twitch on the keyboard. Other theists may hear this and think nothing of it. Forgetting it as quickly as a passing road sign.

“You are going to hell!” I don’t react. I tolerate this phrase.
“The Disciples wouldn’t die for a lie.” I react. My mind changes from what it was thinking on. I do not tolerate this phrase.

Yet for others it is the opposite. In such a diverse society, how do we learn to get along when each phrase could be considered highly intolerant to some, mildly offensive to others, and of no interest to the rest?

Who sets the standard for when something is “intolerant”? I propose we use the same method we do in other situations—think about the other people present, granting consideration as best as possible.

I sense Christians feel, in this area of intolerance, that their beliefs are being forced out of the marketplace of ideas. That they are no longer allowed to practice what they believe. I sense, when complaints of “Atheists are intolerant” are being banded about, it is saying, “You atheists get to practice what you believe, but we are hindered in some way.”

I see complaints of how Christians can’t pray at graduation ceremonies. Christians can’t hand out pamphlets on the street due to ordinance impositions. Christians can’t do this; Christians can’t preach that. I see Christians who feel like the society is giving deference and favoritism to non-believers.

It isn’t. It is attempting to give consideration to others. Christians should try it themselves with a dash of humility.

Imagine you are in charge of a banquet. What do you put on the menu? Think about it for a second.

Most likely, one of your first questions would be, “Who are I serving?” If you are at First Baptist Church, most likely wine would not be on the menu. Serving “Harleys & Hookers”—beer would be a prerequisite. You start to consider the people.

We’ve all been to wedding receptions. What is on the menu? Some salad, some rolls, a vegetable, a fruit, a potato, ziti with spaghetti sauce, a chicken and a beef. Occasionally a few fish. Why is that the menu over and over and over? Because it is designed to provide for the most people. Some like chicken, some like beef. Rare is the person who will only eat pork or fish. Salads are innocuous. Even a vegetarian will not starve with such a meal.

If you are in charge of a banquet, you will default to the safest menu in consideration of the crowd. Something that hopefully everyone will be satisfied with.

What you don’t see—what you won’t do—is say, “Hang it, I am in the mood for hot Mexican, so we are having chips and salsa (only hot—no medium or mild), and spicy beef & bean burritos and hot Spanish rice, Corona’s and deep-fried ice cream.” Banquet planners understand their own preferences will not please even a majority of the crowd.

Yet what happens when it comes to praying before the banquet? We often see Christians who proclaim, “I am a Christian, so I’m going to pray a Christian prayer, dang it. It is not about what others want, it is not about giving consideration to others—this is about ME and MY BELIEF, and if they can’t tolerate it—too bad. ‘Please God and not humans,’ so says God.”

The same person wouldn’t serve Thai and only Thai, because they like it. Yet when it comes to praying, they demand a Christian prayer, because they like it.

See, it is NOT that non-believers are winning some battle regarding praying at banquets. It is that, like the food, the safest route is to have a non-confrontational prayer, or no prayer at all. It is giving consideration to the audience.

Imagine giving a prayer that is not offensive to Jews. Best leave off Jesus and the Holy Spirit. And not offensive to Christians. “Allah” is right out! And not offensive to Muslims, and not offensive to pagans and not offensive to… In the end, the safest default is to have no prayer at all. True, even THAT will offend some. But it is impossible to pray before a banquet of mixed beliefs and not offend someone.

Face it—your belief is intolerant. What you do with that, and how much consideration you give to others who believe differently is up to you.