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Love and the Law Professors

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, Jurisprudence, Law, Law School, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Liberalism, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Pedagogy, Scholarship, Teaching, Writing on March 29, 2017 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here in The University Bookman. 

As improbable as it sounds, someone has written “a love letter to the teaching of law.” At least that’s what Stephen B. Presser sets out to do in Law Professors, which is less pedagogical than it is historical and biographical in approach. If not a love letter, it’s at minimum a labor of love about the genealogy of American legal education, for which Presser is admirably passionate.

Even more improbable is how a book about three centuries of law professors could be enjoyable. Yet it is. Every rising law student in the United States should read it as a primer; experienced legal educators should consult it to refresh their memory about the history and purpose of their profession.

Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern University’s Prizker School of Law and the legal-affairs editor of Chronicles. He’s a leading voice of what is sometime referred to as paleoconservatism, who maintains that our political dysfunction derives in part from the methods and jurisprudence of law professors. His book might be called a diagnosis of our social ailments, the cure being the repurposing of legal education.

Beneath his silhouettes—two involve fictional figures (Lewis Eliot and Charles Kingsfield) while the other twenty deal with actual flesh-and-blood teachers—lies a structural dualism that enables him to classify his subjects under mutually exclusive heads: those who believe in higher law and divine order, and those who believe that laws are merely commands of some human sovereign. The former recognize natural law, whereby rules and norms are antecedent to human promulgation, whereas the latter promote positivism, or the concept of law as socially constructed, i.e., ordered and instituted by human rulers.

These binaries, Presser says, explain the difference between “common lawyers and codifiers,” “advocates of Constitutional original understanding and a living Constitution,” and “economic analysts of law and Critical Legal Studies.” Here the dualism collapses into itself. The common-law method is at odds with originalism in that it is evolutionary, reflecting the changing mores and values of local populations in a bottom-up rather than a top-down process of deciphering governing norms. Constitutionalism, especially the originalism practiced by Justice Scalia, treats the social contract created by a small group of founding framers as fixed and unamendable except on its own terms. The law-and-economics movement as represented by Judge Posner and Judge Easterbrook is difficult to square with natural law because it’s predicated on cost-benefit analysis and utilitarianism. In short, it’s a stretch to group the common law, originalism, and the law-and-economics movements together, just as it’s strange to conflate legislative codification with critical legal studies. Distinctions between these schools and traditions are important, and with regard to certain law professors, the binaries Presser erects are permeable, not rigid or absolute.

Presser’s narrative is one of decline, spanning from the late eighteenth century to the present day. It begins with Sir William Blackstone, “the first of the great modern law professors.” Presser may overstate the degree to which Blackstone propounded a common-law paradigm that was frozen or static and characterized by biblical principles. The influence of Christianity and moral principles is unmistakable in Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Law of England, especially in its introductory and more general sections, but the vast majority of the treatise—which was intended for an audience of young aspiring lawyers, not scholars or jurists—describes basic, mundane elements of the British legal system and organizes judicial principles and decisions topically for ease of reference. Presser is right that, more than anyone else, Blackstone influenced early American lawyers and their conception that the common law conformed to universal, uniform Christian values, but Jefferson’s more secular articulation of natural law as rooted in nature had its own adherents.

Other teachers included here are James Wilson (after whom Hadley Arkes has named a fine institute), Joseph Story (whose commitment to natural law is offset by his federalist and nationalist leanings), Christopher Columbus Langdell (whose “original and continuing impact on American legal education is unparalleled”), Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (whose career as a professor was short and undistinguished), John Henry Wigmore (whose “sometimes idol” was Holmes), Roscoe Pound (“a figure of extraordinary talent”), Karl Llewellyn (the “avatar” of the legal-realist movement), Felix Frankfurter (“no longer the God-like figure at Harvard”), Herbert Wechsler (“the anti-Holmes”), Ronald Dworkin (who reformulated the theories of John Rawls), Richard Posner (the subject of William Domnarski’s recent biography), Antonin Scalia (“best known for his bold conservative jurisprudence”), and several still-living contemporaries.

Presser is particularly hard on Holmes, relying on Albert Alschuler’s harsh and often careless assessments of the Magnificent Yankee. He charges Holmes with embracing the view that judges were essentially legislators and suggests that Holmes was “policy-oriented.” Although this portrayal is popular, it is not entirely accurate. In fact, Holmes’s jurisprudence was marked not by crude command theory (the Benthamite version of which he adamantly rejected) but by deference and restraint. Presser himself recalls Alschuler in claiming that Holmes “was prepared to approve of virtually anything any legislature did.”

So was Holmes a policy-oriented judge legislating from the bench, or did he defer to legislatures? Undoubtedly the latter. Only once during his twenty years on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court did he hold legislation to be unconstitutional. As a Supreme Court Justice, he almost programmatically deferred to state law. “[A] state legislature,” he said, “can do whatever it sees fit to do unless it is restrained by some express prohibition in the Constitution of the United States,” adding that courts “should be careful not to extend such prohibitions beyond their obvious meaning by reading into them conceptions of public policy that the particular Court may happen to entertain.” Rather than imposing his personal policy preferences, Holmes believed that a judge’s “first business is to see that the game is played according to the rules whether [he] like[s] them or not.” If Holmes’s conception of judicial restraint and the Fourteenth Amendment had carried the day, the holdings in Roe v. Wade, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Lawrence v. Texas, and Obergefell v. Hodges, among others, would not have occurred.

Presser admittedly doesn’t like Holmes, but he is polite about it. There’s a charming sense of collegiality in his assessments of his contemporaries as well. He boasts of his own traditionalism without hesitating to call Duncan Kennedy and Catharine MacKinnon “brilliant.” He disagrees with his opponents without denigrating their intelligence and expresses gratitude to faculty whose politics differ radically from his own. He describes a variety of disciplinary schools, including critical race theory, which don’t appeal to him. And he gives some unjustly neglected thinkers (e.g., Mary Ann Glendon) the attention they rightly deserve while some overrated thinkers (e.g., Cass Sunstein) receive the attention they relish.

President Obama is held up as the quintessential modern law professor, the type of haughty pedagogue responsible for the demise of the rule of law and the widespread disregard for constitutional mandates and restrictions. Yet law professors as a class weren’t always bad; in fact, they once, according to Presser, contributed marvelously to the moral, spiritual, and religious life of America. Presser hopes for a return to that era. He wishes to restore a proper understanding of natural law and the common-law tradition. His conclusion takes a tendentious turn that reveals his abiding conservatism. Those who agree with him will finish reading this book on a high note. His political adversaries, however, may question whether they missed some latent political message in earlier chapters.

But isn’t that the nature of love letters—to mean more than they say and say more than they mean? Presser’s love letter to law teaching is enjoyable to read and draws attention to the far-reaching consequences of mundane classroom instruction. He’s a trustworthy voice in these loud and rowdy times.

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Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Pragmatism, and the Jurisprudence of Agon

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Legal Research & Writing, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, Scholarship, The Supreme Court, Western Philosophy, Writing on December 7, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

My latest book, scheduled for release next week through Bucknell University Press, is about United States Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.  The book continues my work at the intersection of law and the humanities and should interest scholars of literary theory, American literature, jurisprudence, and pragmatism.

I argue in the book that Holmes helps us see the law through an Emersonian lens by the way in which he wrote his judicial dissents. Holmes’s literary style mimics and enacts two characteristics of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s thought: “superfluity” and the “poetics of transition,” concepts ascribed to Emerson and developed by literary critic Richard Poirier. Using this aesthetic style borrowed from Emerson and carried out by later pragmatists, Holmes not only made it more likely that his dissents would remain alive for future judges or justices (because how they were written was itself memorable, whatever the value of their content), but also shaped our understanding of dissents and, in this, our understanding of law. By opening constitutional precedent to potential change, Holmes’s dissents made room for future thought, moving our understanding of legal concepts in a more pragmatic direction and away from formalistic understandings of law. Included in this new understanding is the idea that the “canon” of judicial cases involves oppositional positions that must be sustained if the law is to serve pragmatic purposes. This process of precedent-making in a common-law system resembles the construction of the literary canon as it is conceived by Harold Bloom and Richard Posner.

The book is available for purchase here:

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Judges and Dons

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Humanities, Law, Legal Research & Writing, Pedagogy, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy on April 27, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here in The University Bookman.

For a still-active judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit who “moonlights” as a law professor, Richard Posner is oddly and stunningly prolific. He not only contributes to scholarly discourse but also writes his own legal opinions. That places him in a small minority among federal judges. Posner is justifiably proud of his prolificacy and diligence, and he’s neither apprehensive nor ashamed about castigating his peers—another quality that sets him apart.

Over the years, Posner has tried to, in his words, “pull back the curtain” on his colleagues, our Oz-like federal judges, exposing their failures and inadequacies—what he calls, channeling Star Wars, the “dark side”—lurking behind the glow and aura and imprimatur of state power. Posner suggests that federal judges are not adept at preventing “hunch” or “ideology” from influencing their decisions. Because of their inadequate knowledge and limited training, he adds, federal judges too often resort to feeling and intuition—their “unconscious priors”—to resolve difficult facts and issues. He believes the legal academy should curb this judicial inadequacy, insofar as scholars could, in their teaching and writing, guide judges with clarifying direction. Yet he sees a troubling gulf between law schools and the bench, one that, he insists, “has been growing.”

Hence his latest book—Divergent Paths—which seeks to “explain and document” this gulf, “identify the areas in which federal judicial performance is deficient, and explain what the law schools can do to remedy, or more realistically to ameliorate, these deficiencies.” Posner is as hard on the professoriate as he is on the federal judiciary, indicting the former for its dislocation from the bench and the latter for its “stale” culture. To his credit, Posner criticizes only the federal judiciary and the elite law schools with which he is familiar. He does not purport to speak for, about, or against the state institutions and non-elite schools to which he has had little exposure, which lends his critique credibility.

Little else in the book, however, is modest. Posner is his typical boisterous self, and his characteristic crankiness is on grand display. Whether it bothers or delights readers depends, I suspect, on the extent to which they agree with him. If you’re in accord with Posner on this topic—the institutional and cultural barriers separating federal judges from legal scholars—you’ll find his frank attitude and no-holds-barred criticism to be entertaining. In equal measure, someone else might find them off-putting. The same goes for the book: whether you enjoy it will depend on your affinity for Posner.

Like Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, his hero, Posner sees Darwinism—natural selection in particular—at work in all aspects of human experience. For example, the legal academy is “Darwinian” because “each species of professor must find an academic niche in which he can avoid destructive competition from other professors.” As a result, professors gather together in protective communities—an “academic ecology,” in Posner’s words—based on shared disciplinary interests. “Their need to communicate with persons outside their niche,” Posner opines, “like the need of a squirrel to learn to eat dandelions as well as nuts, is minimized.” This metaphor supposedly illustrates that the academy has become divorced from the judiciary. Although amusing as figurative language, it’s perhaps not borne out by facts or evidence, nor by the data Posner presents in tables in his introduction. At best, then, Posner’s complaint is anecdotal, not empirical, and that’s disappointing coming from this learned judge who earned his reputation as an empiricist.

“Increasingly law school faculties cultivate knowledge of fields outside of law but pertinent to it,” Posner says, “including economics, psychology, statistics, computer science, history, philosophy, biology, and literature.” The gradual incorporation of disparate disciplines in law schools has, Posner believes, developed in tandem with the growing academic neglect of judicial activity. Put simply, law schools no longer primarily study the behavior and methodology of judges as they once did. Moreover, as law professors have proliferated and law schools have increased in size and number, legal academicians have found ample audiences among faculty and scholars and thus have not suffered from their dislocation from judicial institutions or from the flesh-and-blood judges who decide concrete cases.

Posner decries, with Trump-like enthusiasm, the “refugees” from other, less lucrative disciplines who’ve sought asylum in law schools. He claims, with apparent disgust, that “many of these refugees have a natural inclination to base their legal teaching and writing on insights gleaned by them in the disciplines that were their first choice.” Yet he never adequately demonstrates that interdisciplinarity—and the concomitant diversification of perspectives and backgrounds among legal faculty—damages or thwarts legal education. In fact, what he seems to decry is the current curriculum of legal education, which, to his mind, should focus on judicial behavior and opinions rather than on other areas of the law. He stops short of proposing that administrators build a wall around law schools and make other departments pay for it, but he would, I sense, favor a moratorium on faculty immigration to law schools, and possibly mass deportations for the faculty he deems unworthy or unqualified.

But what Posner dubs “the Ph.Deification” of law faculties is not necessarily bad. Posner himself reveals the disadvantages of being a generalist, which is what law school prepare their students to be. His own understanding of pragmatism, or rather misunderstanding, is itself evidence that he would have benefited from deeper learning in that subject (say, more reading of Peirce and James and less of Dewey and Holmes) before adopting it as his personal methodology and proclaiming its virtues to the world. His literary criticism in Law and Literature betrays a sometimes embarrassing unfamiliarity with the trends and history of that discipline, and his early forays into the economic analysis of law have failed to influence the economics profession or to contribute anything of lasting value to professional economists. Indeed, it is perhaps because he knew more than untutored lawyers about economics—though substantially less than actual economists—that his “economic analysis of the law” for which he became famous was as influential as it was.

The legal community, and legal scholarship in particular, would benefit from welcoming qualified specialists and, in so doing, broaden the parameters of legal study and force lawyers out of their insularity. Professors of legal writing ought to be equipped with academic training in writing and the English language. Isn’t the systemic problem of bad legal writing self-perpetuating when legal writing professors are drawn, not from professional writers and teachers, but from lawyers? Moreover, professors of corporate law or finance ought to have academic training in those subjects—training that goes beyond the rudimentary glosses that find their way into judicial opinions written by non-expert judges. To read judicial opinions on a particular subject is not a fruitful way of learning that subject. A judge may have no experience in the insurance industry, for instance, when a difficult subrogation case arrives on his docket, yet he or she must handle the case and likely write an opinion on the facts and issues involved. The judge must rely on the evidence and briefing proffered by the parties to the case, not on personal expertise, which he or she lacks. Accordingly, the resulting opinion—inherently and intentionally limited to what it can accomplish—will not likely be sufficiently edifying or insightful to have staying power, that is, to teach future students and practitioners about the fundamentals of insurance.

Yet Posner is right to grumble about how the legal academy is populated by professors with little practical experience in law. In fact, law is the one discipline in which, counterintuitively, the more practical experience you have, the less marketable you are as a professor. He’s probably right, too, that there are too many law schools and too many law professors—and, hence, too many lawyers for the saturated legal market.

Targets of Posner’s ire include jargon, esoterica, obscurantism, and wordiness (“the fetishism of words”); the so-called Bluebook, which is a standard reference tool for lawyers concerning forms of citation to authorities (which is “maddening,” “superfluous,” “cancerous,” and “time-consuming”); student editing of law reviews (for which “neophytes” rather than peer reviewers make the critical editorial decisions); excessive, obtrusive, and needless footnoting in legal scholarship (due in part to the aforementioned neophytes); the culture of secrecy and mystery among federal judges; the decline in legal treatises; hyperspecialization among professors; the political nature of judicial appointments and confirmations (including an emphasis on biological diversity rather than diversity of backgrounds and experience); lifetime tenure for federal judges; legal formalism; the unintelligibility of legal opinions to non-lawyers—the list goes on. If you’re familiar with Posner and follow his writings, you’ve probably heard these grievances already. But they’re worth repeating if, in book form, they can reach larger audiences.

Still, one gets the sense that Posner rushed this book into his editors’ hands. A chunk of a paragraph on pages 225–26 reappears, verbatim, on page 271, thus undermining one of Posner’s central points: the importance of brevity in writing. Some of his accusations can’t be supported by evidence, such as “academic critics of judicial opinions feel superior to the opinions’ authors” (how could Posner divine this psychological insight?) or “the average law professor was a better law student than the average judge had been” (possibly true, but how does Posner know this?). Posner’s citations to Wikipedia, moreover, will raise eyebrows. Finally, it’s either dishonest or imperceptive for this one time opponent of same-sex marriage to now claim that bigotry alone explains the conservative and Christian position on that issue, which is barely relevant to Posner’s book and for which he offers little argument.

Posner is willing to depart from judicial norms and conventions. He believes that case precedent should not govern causes of action that entail novel issues and circumstances. Controversially, he encourages judges to look beyond the briefing and the record to ferret out the truth and context of matters inadequately illuminated by the parties to the case. Some of his suggestions will seem remote to the average reader and aimed at an elite (if not aloof) audience of politicians and federal judges. Whether federal judicial salaries account for regional cost-of-living differentials, for instance, matters little to most Americans. Nor do we care, quite frankly, whether judges lack collegiality; we just want them to rule the right way. One would hope personality conflicts wouldn’t influence the operative rules that shape human experience, but it turns out that judges can be petty.

Posner fittingly includes a question mark in the title to the final section of his book: “The Academy to the Rescue?” That punctuation mark reveals how skeptical—or at least tentative—Posner remains about the likelihood that his subjects will institute proper and constructive change. Most of his proposed solutions are sensibly plain: if student editing of law reviews is bad, do away with student editing of law reviews; if the law school curriculum is bad, change it; if judges write poorly, offer them training in writing through continuing legal education courses; if litigants and lawyers travel too far and at too great expense, allow them to videoconference.

Divergent Paths succeeds in demonstrating the need to refocus the legal curriculum on judicial behavior, if only by exposing judges’ decision-making to scrutiny (and ridicule) and demystifying the glorified processes of judicial deliberation. “Most judges evaluate cases in a holistic, intuitive manner,” Posner submits, “reaching a tentative conclusion that they then subject to technical legal analysis.” Their goal is to arrive at decisions that comport with prevailing notions of morality, justice, and common sense. Statutory idiosyncrasies or awkward case precedents will not, in Posner’s view, prevent these judges from reaching the result that people untrained in the law would likewise reach because of their ethical predispositions and basic sense of right and wrong. Judges are people too, and for the most part, they want to do what’s reasonable.

Humility has few friends among judges and law professors, so it is fun, one must admit, to watch Posner serve these cognoscenti a still-steaming pan of humble pie. But even sympathetic readers will grow weary of the relentless complaining after hundreds of pages of it. Perhaps Posner should have minded his own dictum: “If you want a flawless institution go visit a beehive or an anthill.” Then again, if Posner—who inhabits both the judiciary and the academy—doesn’t speak up, who will? Answers to these questions could determine how important Divergent Paths really is.

Allen Mendenhall Interviews James Elkins about Law, Literature, Poetry, and Teaching

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Creativity, Humanities, John William Corrington, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Michael Blumenthal, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy, Western Philosophy, Writing on February 26, 2014 at 8:30 am
Jim Elkins

James Elkins

AM:  Jim, thank you for doing this interview.  You recently came out with a book, Lawyer Poets and That World We Call Law.  You’ve been researching and writing about lawyer poets for some time now.  What is it about lawyer poets that fascinates you, and what is it about this type of person that makes him or her unique?  In other words, what makes a lawyer poet different from a doctor poet like, say, William Carlos Williams, or a banker poet like T.S. Eliot?

JE:  I first got interested in lawyer poets about 12 years ago when I was introduced to the work of a southern writer, John William Corrington. I found Corrington’s life and work fascinating, and was puzzled by the fact that he was an accomplished poet—as well as a novelist—when he took up the study and practice of law. I had trouble getting my mind around the fact that Corrington was a poet and a lawyer. One reason was that I held some of the usual stereotypes of lawyer and poet. These endeavors—poetry and law—don’t look, at least according to the stereotypes, as if they have much in common. Lawyers and poets appear to us as different as day and night. I was intrigued by this idea of one person embracing such different—or seemingly different—endeavors. When I decided to write about Corrington, I knew I needed to think through this idea of being a lawyer and a poet, a poet and a lawyer.

My fascination with lawyer poets lies in how our iconic images of lawyer and of poet are put to the test when we think about one person writing poems and practicing law. There is, I think, something intriguing about the joining of such differing enterprises in the life of a single person. I don’t want to claim that there is anything unique about lawyer poets, or that the joining of law and poetry creates a unique kind of person. What is unique is how the idea of a lawyer poet changes our sense of who we are as lawyers (that is, those of us who are associated with the legal profession), and how, when our legal colleagues turn out to be poets, we have an open invitation to read their poetry, and for many of us, that means a pursuit of a genre of literature we thought we had no need to pursue.Lawyer Poets

AM: I want to come back to Corrington in a minute.  He’s someone I’ve grown to admire, and I have you to thank for introducing me to his work.  First, though, I’d like to discuss your book, Lawyer Poets and That World We Call Law.  You published several lawyer poets in it.  How did you decide which poets and poems to include? 

JE:  I discovered the work of all the lawyer poets whose poems appear in Lawyer Poets and That World We Call Law during the decade that I tried to identify all the lawyer poets in the U.S., from the first days of the republic. It got to be something a bit more than a research project. I simply wanted to know every lawyer I could identify throughout our history that had taken up with the muse. Along the way, I began to collect a rather substantial list of contemporary lawyers who write and publish poetry. I started reading the poetry and then began to publish the best of what I found in the Legal Studies Forum, a journal I’ve edited for over 15 years now. I might note that most lawyer poets do not write poems about the law and the practice of law and I did not seek out law-related poems. We have a long history of legal verse and most of it is rather bad. What I found in the work of the lawyer poets I was publishing was an occasional poet and an occasional poem about the practice of law that sounded right to me. After publishing the work of lawyer poets for a decade, I found, looking back on what we had published, that the lawyer-related poems held up quite well. And, I found that they looked still more interesting when they were collected and laid out poem to poem. It dawned on me that I had published the best lawyer-related poems in the past 50 years, and that the poems deserved their own anthology.

AM:  One of the poets in the anthology is Michael Blumenthal.  Is he still teaching at West Virginia University College of Law?  I don’t think I ever heard the story about how you two connected.

JE:  When I first got started on the lawyer poets work, I was corresponding with Marlyn Robinson, a reference librarian at the Tarleton Law Library at the University of Texas School of Law. Marlyn compiled a short list of lawyer poets for me, and she mentioned that a poet named Michael Blumenthal, who was then living in or around Austin, had once been a lawyer.

Blumenthal was one of those lawyers, like Archibald MacLeish and John William Corrington, who become lawyers and then realize that what they really want to do is to follow their literary pursuits. I began reading Blumenthal’s poetry and it became clear that he was by no one’s estimation an amateur. In fact, his poetry was so good and his abandonment of the legal profession so apparent, that I didn’t try to connect him for fear that as a major poet he would have little interest in being identified as having any association with the legal profession. And to complicate matters, whenever I did give thought to contacting Blumenthal, I found that he was a poet who seemed to have no permanent home.

I continued to read Blumenthal’s poetry, and then moved on to a collection of his essays, a novel, and a memoir. There is, I think, something rather daunting, at least for me, in trying to contact a major writer. Then, one day, I was working with a Canadian writer on an introduction to a memoir of Roma Goodwin Blackburn, a Canadian lawyer, when she happened to mention Michael Blumenthal. I asked her how she knew him, and she said she had recently corresponded with him to obtain permission to quote one of his poems in a book she was writing with her husband. I told her that I had been wanting to contact Blumenthal but could never quite track him down (not adding that I hadn’t really tried all that hard). She told me he responded to her request promptly and seemed a pleasant enough fellow.

If I have the time right, that was probably in 2005. I sent off a note to Blumenthal and found not only that he was pleasant but seemed interested in the fact that I had found my way to his poetry by way of the fact that he had once been a lawyer. We continued our correspondence, and I decided to devote an issue of the Legal Studies Forum to Michael’s work.

In 2007, we published Correcting the World, an issue of over 440 pages of Michael’s poetry, essays, and fiction. Michael had not, in 2007, when we published the LSF issue devoted to his work, fully addressed, in any of his writings, his decision to leave the legal profession and take up his life as a literary man. I asked if he’d be willing to do that in an essay for the LSF issue, and to my surprise he agreed to do the essay. I talked the powers that be at the law school into inviting Michael to the law school to present his essay, “The Road Not Taken-Twice.”

At this point I still had not met Michael, although we had been working on the LSF collection of his writings for over a year. Michael’s presentation was quite engaging, and it dawned on me that we needed a stronger literary presence at the law school than I was able to provide; what we needed was a poet-in-residence. And now, the delicate part: Would Michael have any interest in thinking about a visiting appointment at the law school? I knew that he was moving from university to university as something of an itinerant professor holding endowed visiting positions, and I thought we might interest him in a stop at the law school. To my surprise, he seemed intrigued by the idea, and the next thing I knew, Michael Blumenthal was a visiting professor at the college of law. He has now been a colleague for several years, and I’m now even more convinced that every law school needs a lawyer poet in residence.

AM:  Do you ever try your hand at poetry?  I’ve found that, for me, it’s hard to read a lot of poetry without trying to write it myself. 

JE:  I will have to admit that I am not a poet. And yes, there are times, when I’m reading poetry, that I imagine that in some reincarnation I will end up, somewhere down the line, as a poet. I’ve written a few poems, and I’ve written just enough to know that poetry requires experience and skill that I do not have. I admire the poets I read enough to know that I need to leave poetry to those who are driven or led, in some way, to be poets. My friend and colleague, James Clarke, a rather prolific poet and retired judge in Canada, has encouraged me to write poetry but I take his suggestion to be a gesture of friendship that discounts the steep learning curve that I’d face as a poet.

AM: I can relate.  I once hoped to gain the experience and skill to become a poet, but I gave up at some point.  Do you ever feel lonely working on poetry and the law?  What I mean is, do you ever feel as if you’re going against the grain, doing something different and even unappreciated by some in the legal community?

JE:  My work with lawyer poets has, from the beginning, been an exhilarating endeavor. And I must say, I have not experienced the work in a lonely way. Initially, when I began to identify the hundreds and hundreds of lawyers who had turned to poetry throughout history, I had the sense that I had descended into a vast underground cavern populated by the most exciting unknown persons you could imagine. John William Corrington (who died well over a decade before I discovered his work) was only the first of these exotic—and yes, I think, initially it felt like I was dealing with some exotic creature, something like a hilltribe elder from a remote village in Burma. I felt like I had stumbled onto a new world and a new way to think about “law and literature.” Law and literature had become, in my discovery of the lawyer poets, an introduction to lawyers who practiced literature, just like they practiced law. One doesn’t feel lonely living amidst these wonderful ghosts!

Then I began corresponding with contemporary lawyer poets. I didn’t have all that much success in inducing them to talk about their lives as lawyer poets (with a few notable exceptions, Michael Blumenthal being one of them), but I did find that lawyers were interested in talking with me about their poetry. If I had not started publishing the poetry of lawyers in the Legal Studies Forum, things might have taken a turn toward the lonely. I began to spend considerable time reading poetry and trying to figure out how to think about what I was reading and how to talk to poets about their work. Keep in mind, I did not grow up reading poetry, and with the exception of Wendell Berry and Robert Bly, had really not read poetry. So, novice that I was, I was entering a new world and that produced its own excitement. As the years rolled along, I found that I had been befriended by poetry, and that poets were becoming my friends. I mentioned my friendship with Judge Clarke, and this is a friendship that arose from my efforts in publishing his poetry. A similar thing happened with Michael Blumenthal, who is, as you know, now a colleague. There are countless other friendships of just this kind—built around our regard for poetry—that working with lawyer poets has made possible.

Do I think of my work as going against the grain? In all honesty, I don’t. I see my work with lawyer poets as being another expression of the rich history of lawyers engaged in literary enterprises. My work is not against the grain, it is the grain.

Am I concerned that this work is unappreciated by the legal academic community? I can’t say that I am. In an essay, “Why Write?” that appeared in the Journal of Legal Education last year, I noted that “Law teachers dance to the beat of different drummers. We are driven by different visions of legal education as we adopt, adapt, and advocate a law school’s regime of training.” I’ve never let what my colleagues do (or think they are doing) confine my vision of what a lawyer’s education might be, or what it should be. If I had sought appreciation for any of my work as a teacher, I would have given up writing many years ago. In fact, if it were appreciation that drove me, I would never have undertaken my work with lawyer poets.

AM:  You’re right: it is the grain.  I agree completely.  And I’m glad you mentioned your essay “Why Write.”  I read it recently and was planning to ask you about it.  In fact, it was that essay—and in particular the line about “a note of sadness”—that brought about my previous question.  What I wanted to ask you about, from the essay, was your colleague’s assumption—I think you refer to him as “Randy”—that everyone in the legal academy is writing for the same reason.  Your point, I think, is that all writing has a rhetorical purpose: sometimes it’s to persuade; sometimes it’s to explain; sometimes it’s just a tedious exercise to gain tenure; and sometimes it’s to delight and explore.  Some of us can’t help writing.  I sometimes find myself at the kitchen table, and instead of enjoying my meal I’m panicking because this is time I could spend reading and writing.  I was wondering if you could say a little more about this colleague’s assumption and whether it’s systemic or shared by many others.

JE:  In my Journal of Legal Education essay “Why Write?” I was puzzled by a colleague’s notion that he had somehow failed as a scholar because legal colleagues didn’t pay what he thought was enough attention to his writing. My colleague assumed that if you write about a legal doctrine in an informed way the world—that is judges, legislators, law professors—would take note of the work. I found my colleague’s assumption that when we write the world should pay attention to us a bit puzzling. I had always assumed that for the most part what we publish in law reviews gets little or no attention. Most of us don’t write law review articles that are celebrated for changing the law or offering new perspectives on the law.

In my case, much of my writing has been about legal education. I never had any notion that in writing about legal education my colleagues were going to change the way they think about legal education and legal training and begin to rely upon me for guidance. Consequently, I had the sense that in my writing—and I’ve written far more than most of my colleagues—I wasn’t trying to change the world, so my writing did not depend on an appreciative audience. Why, then, should I bother to write? I remember talking with one of my law school professors about writing—who was both prolific and recognized—when I first went into teaching. I knew when I decided to teach that I’d have to write and publish law review articles. I knew, following the scholarship of the professors that I had in law school, that some of them were scholars (and writers) and some of them were not. I was curious, when I talked with Robert Sedler, who had been my teacher in conflicts and in constitutional law, what prompted him to be so prolific as a writer. Bob Sedler told me something I’ll never forget: “Jim,” he said, “the reason I write is that I’ve been puzzling over something and I’ve been reading what has been written about it, and I realize that what I really want to have said about the subject, said in a way that responds to my concerns, has simply not been written. I write to compose something that I would have found valuable and interesting if someone other than I had written it.”

I think Bob Sedler’s notion has left an indelible imprint on my thinking: I write to say something in a way that I think it should be said. Now, does this mean that all of my writing is exquisite, and the answer is clearly no. When I revisit my older work, I have no doubt that what I wrote could have been said better. But that isn’t really the point. The point is that I said it as best I could; I made a down payment in the writing in living up to Bob Sedler’s notion that you write because you want to say something in a different way than what you find that has already been written.

I don’t think I said, and I didn’t mean to imply in my essay, “Why Write?” that my legal colleagues all write for the same reason. Quite the opposite. I assume that my colleagues write for many different reasons. There are undoubtedly some colleagues who write only because the job requires it (and, unfortunately, after they get tenure, some colleagues manage to get away with writing little or nothing at all). Other colleagues write because they want to think of themselves as scholars. This idea of being a scholar never quite caught on with me. For the first decade or so after I started teaching, I wrote to address a particular problem or concern, often something in or about my teaching. Then, somewhere along the way—and I think this came as I began to teach literature and narrative jurisprudence courses—I began to think about writing as writing, or as you put it, writing as a rhetorical endeavor. I wasn’t writing in the rhetorical sense of trying to persuade anyone to adopt my ideas (and yes, there is always something of that whenever we write), but writing as an experience of writing and writing in furtherance of the idea that if I paid particular attention to how I write, I might actually be a writer. I confess that I am far more drawn to the idea of trying to be a writer than to the fantasy of being a scholar.

AM:  There is no doubt in my mind that you are a writer, and I’ve always enjoyed the way you locate readers in particular settings, no matter what the topic of your essay is.  There’s one essay you wrote that begins by talking about how you’re sitting at home waiting for the mail to arrive, and then you head out to the mailbox once the mail arrives.  It’s that sort of thing—very subtle—that I’ve always admired in your work. 

One of the reasons I went to West Virginia for law school was because I had read your essays when I was an undergraduate trying to figure out what to do with my life.  I was an English major, so it didn’t take me long on Google—or whatever interface or browser we were using in those days—to find your work.  I remember thinking, “law school can’t be all bad with people like this in it.”  I even remember emailing you before I went to law school, and you and I talked about a number of things. 

As for scholarship, there are those who write about others, and those who write so that others will write about them one day.  You fall into that latter camp, I think.  One day, people will be writing about your essays and thinking about your approach to pedagogy. 

We should probably be wrapping up soon, so just a couple more questions.  Since we’re on the topic of pedagogy, I’m wondering about your thoughts on the future of legal education.  It seems that every week now there’s a major article lamenting the decline of law schools or highlighting some law school “scam” or scandal.  Many people are predicting that several law schools will cease to exist in the not-too-distant future, and there can be no doubt that there is an overabundance of lawyers, that law school and law school textbooks are too expensive for most young people, and that the legal job market is very tough today.  How does all this impact the future of the legal academy?   

JE:  Allen, I remember quite well our correspondence before you took up the study of law. That kind of personal interaction with a prospective student is unusual. In other disciplines, students often seek out particular teachers and attend schools because of a desire to study with a particular teacher. Law is unusual in that sense. Students go off to law school with the idea of studying law and becoming lawyers; they don’t think all that much about who their teachers will be and the differing conceptions that their teachers have about law and the practice of law. I know that you came to law school with the idea of studying both law and literature, and I know just how rare that situation is. Most students with a literary interest expect to put their literary work on hold while they are in law school. If they made me King of legal education for a day, I think I’d mandate that every law student be exposed to the idea that the law too is a literary enterprise and can be viewed from a literary perspective, and that a literary perspective might be a prism through which we can see our lives as lawyers with better clarity.

I’m afraid I can’t offer anything new, startling, or subversive on the future of legal education. My focus in the past fifteen years has been on my own teaching, writing, and the make-over of the Legal Studies Forum as a literary journal. Some semesters I have almost no students sign up for my courses, and other semesters they arrive in plentiful numbers. I have never quite been able to figure out how that works. I am still intrigued by how my own teaching works (and what to do when I admit to myself it sometimes does not work). I am still writing about what I teach and how I try to teach it. The more I focus on teaching, the less I think about the future of legal education. I sometimes think we’ve lost our bearings in legal education, but we have been so hell-bent on doing that for some 60 plus years now I no longer see it as a problem that awaits us in the future.

AM: This has been a fascinating conversation, and I hope we get a chance to have another one like it.  It’s been so long since I’ve been back to West Virginia that I’d like to ask about the changes to the law school and how the weather and a few friends have been, but I’m mindful that we’re doing this interview not for my personal benefit, but for the benefit of readers, so I’ll hold off.  We can have those other conversations another time. 

I’ll finish by asking if you could say a bit about what Legal Studies Forum has published lately, and what it has in store for upcoming issues.  Since you mentioned your role in transforming Legal Studies Forum into a literary journal, I’d also like to ask you about the history of the journal.  It strikes me that the journal itself probably hasn’t told its own story, and the journal is so interesting and has been around for so long that its story needs to be documented. 

JE:  Allen, I noted earlier in the interview that I had transformed the Legal Studies Forum into a literary journal, and I think that is also a fair description of where the journal is at today. We publish poetry and fiction by and about lawyers, and we have also published memoirs, autobiographical essays, and traditional literary essays (for example, a 2013 issue was devoted to Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). This year we are publishing two collections of poetry (two issues of the journal, each issue devoted to a single poet), a novel, and an issue of miscellany that focuses on “Lawyers and Literature.”

You asked about the history of the Legal Studies Forum. I have been tempted for a good many years now to write what I know of the history of the journal, and having failed to do so, I have tried to encourage some of those who were involved in the founding of the journal to write the history and have been unsuccessful on that front as well. The history of the Legal Studies Forum is of interest to me because the journal has played a rather central part in my life as a writer and as a teacher. Maybe this interview will get me back in the notion to work on the history.

The Legal Studies Forum (LSF) got its start in the mid-1970s as a newsletter of a newly formed organization called the American Legal Studies Association (ALSA). ALSA has, unfortunately, been defunct for a good many years now, and the remaining remnant of that old organization is the journal.

LSF first appeared as an ALSA newsletter in 1976. In 1977, the newsletter became the ALSA Forum and was published under that title until 1984 when it was retitled the Legal Studies Forum, the title the journal still carries. I have given thought on several occasions to changing the title of the journal to reflect its present literary bearings, but I have a fondness for the old title and have never been able to bring myself to give the journal a new name.

The journal slowly evolved from an organizational newsletter into a “forum” that in its published form looked like it had been printed in someone’s basement. It most definitely had a homemade look and that sense of being marginal has followed the journal to this day (and I have done little to have it otherwise). So, the journal didn’t begin as a journal, it began with ALSA, an organization created by colleagues in the Department of Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. The UMass department of legal studies was created by Ron Pipkin, John Bonsignore (now deceased), and Peter d’Errico, who were trying to escape the business school where they were teaching business law.

The early 1970s was a time when the antinomian streams flowing in the academic disciplines—sociology, anthropology, and psychology—were subjecting the disciplines to challenging changes. We had begun to hear talk of breaking down the barriers between disciplines, and we were beginning, in the mid and late 1960s, to see the appearance of new interdisciplinary programs: women’s studies; African American studies; environmental studies. Bonsignore, d’Errico, and Pipkin developed the idea for a stand-alone Department of Legal Studies that would make it possible for UMass students to major in law the way they would philosophy or sociology. Their approach to legal studies was interdisciplinary, critical, and humanistic. They wanted to establish a beachhead for legal studies that would stand apart from the kind of vocational training and empty philosophical posturing they associated with legal education. ALSA and the Legal Studies Forum represented legal studies as one of the liberal arts; the study of law was viewed as being a humanistic discipline. Bonsignore, d’Errico, and Pipkin, with uncanny foresight, viewed legal studies as an interdisciplinary crossroads with law being a central focus. What the founders of ALSA could not foresee is that legal scholarship (and to a far lesser extent, legal education) would undergo the same kind of sea-change with the arrival, in the late 1970s, of Critical Legal Studies, feminist jurisprudence, and law and literature (with variant strains of legal storytelling and narrative jurisprudence).

ALSA was founded as a home away from home for colleagues who were teaching law in the various social sciences (anthropology, sociology, psychology) and in the humanities (philosophy and history) who had some reason to identify their work with law as well as with the core discipline that defined their university existence. Some of these teachers were law-trained, and some were not. The folks at UMass begin to think that the legal studies program they were pioneering might be the basis for legal studies programs around the country. The late 1970s was also a time when paralegal programs were beginning to appear in undergraduate studies, and teachers in these programs were looking for an intellectual home base. Interestingly enough, in the early days of ALSA there was a concern that the legal studies movement—and yes, there was some notion that a “movement” was underway—might drift in the direction of paralegal programs, and you can be sure that Bonsignore, d’Errico, and Pipkin had no desire for that to happen. They didn’t discourage paralegal teachers from participation in ALSA, but the ALSA mantra for their own Department of Legal Studies—and for the journal—was always: interdisciplinary, critical, and humanistic. That was enough to keep the paralegal folks at bay.

I should note that while the UMass-Amherst folks were always thinking about teaching law outside law schools, indeed, they argued that it was the very fact that law was so often taught only in law schools that underscored the need for a legal studies movement, they were always more than welcoming to the few law teachers that became involved in the organization. I was one of the early “outsiders” to cast my lot with ALSA, but not the first. Wythe Holt, the Marxist legal historian, and a law professor at the University of Alabama, is the only known legal colleague who attended both the first ALSA conference in 1977 and the first Critical Legal Studies conference held at the University of Wisconsin, also in 1977. Wythe published several articles in LSF, with one article appearing in the second volume of the journal when it was then the ALSA Forum. I attended the second ALSA conference in 1978 at Rutgers, and gave my first paper at an ALSA conference in Pittsburgh the following year. J. Allen Smith, at Rutgers law school, one of the old “law and literature” men, was also involved in the early conferences and published several articles in LSF in the early years. (We were doing law and literature articles in LSF before “law and literature” picked up momentum in the early 80s.) David Papke, who obtained a Ph.D. in American Studies (University of Michigan, 1984), now on the law faculty at Marquette University, attended the early ALSA conferences, and served as editor of LSF (1990-1996) before I took over as editor. Judith Koffler, another widely-respected law and literature scholar, appeared at most of the early ALSA conferences.

ALSA failed to survive but it did succeed in one sense: The ALSA conferences were lively affairs, with a degree of informality and a sense of collegial extended family, that made it possible for me, and colleagues like Judith Koffler and Wythe Holt to find like-minded colleagues. (I should note that both Koffler and Holt ended up as visiting professors at West Virginia and both would have remained on the faculty if it had not been for the short-sighted decision-making of my colleagues.) ALSA, and now LSF, have been most successful in helping to create a community for colleagues who think of the study of law as a liberal art.

Is there a “legal studies movement” in existence today? I don’t think so. Have the ideas and ideals associated with the “legal studies movement” found their way into legal education? I think they have. This immigration of ideas has taken different forms: the humanistic legal education movement (1977-1985), the law and literature movement (now commonly attributed to James Boyd White’s The Legal Imagination published in 1973, a movement that gained more attention in the late 70s, early 80s, and has now gained the status as a “school” of contemporary jurisprudence); Critical Legal Studies (CLS arrived in legal education at the same time ALSA was founded, and is now, so far as most of us can see, given up its corporeal existence).

I don’t see anything these days to suggest that anyone is talking about a “legal studies movement.” The one person that persists in writing about “legal studies” is Austin Sarat at Amherst College. In the last 20 years, Sarat, writing about the teaching of law as a liberal art in undergraduate schools, has been a one-man legal studies movement!

Did the “legal studies movement” spearheaded by ALSA change law school training? I think the literal answer is no. What happened in legal education, as I have alluded to here, is that legal scholarship (law reviews/law journals) now routinely publishes interdisciplinary work. In the past four decades (that happen to span the years that I have been teaching), there has been, shall we say, a “greening” of legal scholarship that encompasses the interdisciplinary, critical, and humanistic approaches that my UMass-Amherst colleagues and LSF tried to focus on. Unfortunately, the UMass model for legal studies did not find widespread adoption, and the liberal arts perspective in legal education, notwithstanding the greening of legal scholarship, is still a marginal enterprise.

AM:  Jim, thanks so much for this very interesting, very informative interview.  I’ve really enjoyed this.

JE:  Allen, I greatly appreciate your continued interest in my work and this rare opportunity to present in more detail what I have been trying to do as a teacher, writer, and editor. Thanks for all the effort you have put into making this interview possible.

Seven Points of Grammar

In Advocacy, Arts & Letters, Communication, Essays, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Teaching, Writing on November 20, 2013 at 8:45 am

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An earlier version of this piece appeared here in The Alabama Lawyer.

As a staff attorney to Chief Justice Roy S. Moore, I read several briefs and petitions each day.  I have noticed that certain grammatical errors are systemic among attorneys.  Some errors are excusable; others aren’t.  Here are seven errors that are inexcusable.

1.    “Whoever” and “Whomever”

Many attorneys do not know the difference between whoever and whomever.  Test your knowledge by answering these questions:

Which of the following sentences is correct?

A.  Give the document to whoever requests it.

B.  Give the document to whomever requests it.

Which of the following sentences is correct?

A.  Whoever arrives first will get a copy.

B.  Whomever arrives first will get a copy.

If you answered A to both questions, you were correct.  Here is a trick to help determine whether to use whoever or whomever:

STEP ONE:  Imagine a blank space where you wish to use whoever or whomever.

Example: Give the document to ______ requests it.

STEP TWO:  Split the blank space to create two sentences; then fill in the blanks with the pronouns he or him.

Example: Give the document to himHe requests it.

STEP THREE:  Whenever you fill in the blank space with a him/he combination, use whoever.  As we have already seen, the previous sentence should read, “Give it to whoever requests it.”  Whenever you fill in the blank space with a him/him combination, use whomever.

Him/He = whoever

Him/Him = whomever

Here are more examples:

STEP ONE:           You should hire ______ Pete recommends.

STEP TWO:          You should hire him.  Pete recommends him.

STEP THREE:      You should hire whomever Pete recommends.

 

STEP ONE:            This letter is to ______ wrote that brief.

STEP TWO:           This letter is to himHe wrote that brief.

STEP THREE:       This letter is to whoever wrote that brief.

 

STEP ONE:           The prize is for _____ wins the contest.

STEP TWO:          The prize is for himHe wins the contest.

STEP THREE:      The prize is for whoever wins the contest.

 

STEP ONE:            The lawyer made a good impression on ______ he met.

STEP TWO:           The lawyer made a good impression on him.  He met him.

STEP THREE:       The lawyer made a good impression on whomever he met.

 

STEP ONE:            The lawyer tried to make a good impression on ______ was there.

STEP TWO:           The lawyer tried to make a good impression on himHe was there.

STEP THREE:       The lawyer tried to make a good impression on whoever was there.

2.    “Who” and “Whom”

The difference between who and whom has fallen out of favor in common speech, but retains its importance in formal writing.  Use who if the pronoun is a subject or subject complement in a clause.  Use whom if the pronoun is an object in a clause.  A trick to help determine whether to employ who or whom is to rephrase the sentence using a personal pronoun such as he or him.  Consider the following:

A.      Proper: Whom did you meet?  (Rephrase: I met him.)

           Him is objective, so whom is proper.

Improper:  Who did you meet?

B.       Proper: Who do you think murdered the victim?  (Rephrase: I think he murdered the victim.)

           He is subjective, so who is proper.

Improper: Whom do you think murdered the victim?

C.        Proper: Who was supposed to finish that brief last week?  (Rephrase: He was supposed to finish that brief last week.)

            He is subjective, so who is proper.

Improper: Whom was supposed to finish that brief last week?

D.        Proper:  Justice Brown is the man for whom I voted.  (Rephrase: I voted for him.)

            Him is objective, so whom is proper.

Improper:  Justice Brown is the man who I voted for.

3.    “As Such”

I used to practice at a mid-sized law firm in Atlanta.  Tasked with reviewing the writing of all associate attorneys at the firm, one partner became hardheaded about two words: “as such.”  He always struck through the word “therefore” and replaced it with the words “as such.”  He did this so often that I finally decided to correct him. I was tired of watching him substitute a grammatical error for a sound construction.

When I spoke up, he got defensive.  “As such means ‘therefore,’” he said.

He was wrong.

The Random House Dictionary (2013) describes “as such” as an “idiom” that means “as being what is indicated” or “in that capacity.”  In other words, after you have described something, you use the phrase “as such” to refer back to that something “as described.”  Here are examples:

  1. He is the president of the university; as such, he is responsible for allocating funds to each department.
  2. This is a matter of law; as such, it is subject to de novo review.
  3. Theft is a crime; treat it as such.

In these examples, “as such” properly refers back to a definite antecedent.

“As such” appears regularly in legal writing.  Whenever I see this construction misused, I think about that partner in Atlanta and become agitated.

“As such” is a simple construction; as such, it entails a simple application.  Don’t be shy about calling out your colleagues when you see them misuse this construction, even if you are a “lowly” associate.  You might just save them—and the partners—from embarrassment.

4.    The Colon

Although many rules govern the use of colons, I want to focus on this one: Never place a colon between a preposition and its object or between a verb and its complement.  Likewise, never place a colon after such words or phrases as especially, including, or such as.

These sentences violate this rule:

  1. He was convicted of several crimes, including: first-degree robbery, arson, third-degree burglary, and second-degree forgery.
  2. Some affirmative defenses are: statute of frauds, waiver, statute of limitations, and contributory negligence.
  3. Most restrictive covenants have provisions about the developer or declarant such as: “Property Subject to the Declaration,” “Easements,” “Assessments,” and “Membership.”
  4. She enjoys the sites, especially: the courthouse, the town square, and the memorial.

No colon is necessary in these sentences.

5.    Subject-Verb Agreement: “Neither,” “Nor,” “Either,” “Each,” and “Number”

Attorneys generally understand subject-verb agreement.  A verb must agree with its subject in number.  That is, a singular subject must take a singular verb; a plural subject must take a plural verb.  The following words, however, give attorneys trouble: neither, nor, either, each, and number.  What follows should clarify how to make these nouns agree with a verb.

Neither Mel’s clients nor his associate ___ going to the meeting tomorrow.

When you pair neither and nor as conjunctions linking two nouns, choose the noun closest to the verb and let that noun determine whether you use is or are.  In the example above, associate is closest to the verb.  Associate is singular, so the proper verb is is.

Neither of the partners ___ attending the meeting.

Neither is singular and the subject of the sentence.  It requires a singular verb: is.  The verb is not are if the plural noun (partners) is not the subject.  Partners is not the subject; it is part of a prepositional phrase.

___ either of you available to take his deposition tomorrow?

Either is singular and the subject of the sentence.  It requires a singular verb: is.  The verb is not are if the plural noun (you) is not the subject.  You is not the subject; it is part of a prepositional phrase.

Each of you ___ contributed valuable insights to the case.

The pronoun each is the subject of the sentence.  Each is singular and requires a singular verb: has.  Many attorneys will write have because they think that each is plural or that the verb must modify the plural noun youYou is part of a prepositional phrase and cannot serve as the subject of the sentence.

The number of thefts ___ increasing.

Number can be singular or plural depending on the context.  Here, number is used with the definite article the.  Therefore, the singular verb (is) applies.  In most cases, if number is used with the indefinite article a, then the plural verb (are) applies.

6.    The Possessive Form of Nouns Ending in “S”

My sixth grade teacher instructed me never to add ’s after a singular noun ending with an s or s sound.  She was wrong.  The trick to nouns ending with an s or an s sound is that no trick exists: the rule is the same for these nouns as for all other nouns (with a few notable exceptions, such as the words “its” and “yours”).  To form a singular possessive, add ’s to the singular noun.  To form a plural possessive, add an apostrophe to the plural noun.  Here are some examples:

Singular Noun

Mr. Jones               Mr. Jones’s

Mrs. Burnes           Mrs. Burnes’s

The boss                The boss’s

Plural Noun

The Joneses           The Joneses’

The Burnses           The Burnses’

The bosses             The bosses’

7.    “Only”

Only is one of the most regularly used words in the English language.  It is also one of the most regularly misused modifiers.  Below are examples of how attorneys misuse only in petitions and briefs.  I have altered the language in these examples to conceal the identity of the authors.

A.  “The appellant only references the reason why the appellee did not seek counseling.”

This sentence implies that the appellant does nothing—nothing at all—but reference the reason why the appellee did not seek counseling.  The appellant does not eat, sleep, think, talk, love, feel, or breathe.  The only thing he does is reference the reasons why the appellant did not seek counseling.  He must be a robot.  The author of this sentence intended to say the following: “The appellant references only the reason why the appellee did not seek counseling.”  This revised sentence means that, of all the reasons from which he could have chosen, the appellant referenced only one.  The appellant could have referenced other reasons, but did not.

B.  “He only robbed two people.”

This example suggests that “he” has never done anything—anything at all—but rob two people.  If all you have ever done is rob two people, your entire existence has been a crime.  The author of this sentence intended to say the following: “He robbed only two people.”  This revised statement should cause one to ask, “That’s it?  Just two people?”

C.  “The agency granted the application on the condition that the hospital only will move 300 beds.”

A hospital that does nothing but move 300 beds will not help sick patients.  The author of this sentence should have written, “The agency granted the application on the condition that the hospital will move only three-hundred beds.”  In this revised sentence, “only” modifies “three-hundred beds” rather than the verb “will move.”

Attorneys are educated; we tend to avoid using language if we aren’t certain about its grammatical soundness.  But something about the foregoing rules baffles us.

The rules, though, are easy.  What’s difficult is overcoming habits and industry-wide error.  If you aren’t certain about a rule, don’t just ask your colleagues for the solution.  And don’t take your colleagues’ suggestions at face value.  Consult a good, reliable grammar book.  Doing so will improve your writing and possibly raise the quality of writing among the entire profession.

Is Hacking the Future of Scholarship?

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Humanities, Information Design, Law, Legal Research & Writing, Scholarship, Writing on October 16, 2013 at 7:45 am

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This article appeared here in Pacific Standard.

Most attorneys are familiar with e-discovery, a method for obtaining computer and electronic information during litigation. E-discovery has been around a long time. It has grown more complex and controversial, however, with the rise of new technologies and the growing awareness that just about anything you do online or with your devices can be made available to the public. Emails, search histories, voicemails, instant messages, text messages, call history, music playlists, private Facebook conversations (not just wall posts)—if relevant to a lawsuit, these and other latent evidence, for better or worse, can be exposed, even if you think they’ve been hidden or discarded.

Anyone who has conducted or been involved with e-discovery realizes how much personal, privileged, and confidential information is stored on our devices. When you “delete” files and documents from your computer, they do not go away. They remain embedded in the hard drive; they may become difficult to find, but they’re there. Odds are, someone can access them. Even encrypted files can be traced back to the very encryption keys that created them.

E-discovery has been used to uncover registries and cache data showing that murderers had been planning their crimes, spouses had been cheating, perverts had been downloading illegal images, and employees had been stealing or compromising sensitive company data or destroying intellectual property. Computer forensics were even used to reveal medical documents from Dr. Conrad Murray’s computer during the so-called “Michael Jackson death trial.”

Computer forensics can teach you a lot about a person: the websites he visits, the people he chats with, the rough drafts he abandons, the videos he watches, the advertisements he clicks, the magazines he reads, the news networks he prefers, the places he shops, the profiles he views, the songs he listens to, and so on. It is fair to say that given a laptop hard drive, a forensic expert could nearly piece together an individual’s personality and perhaps come to know more about that person—secret fetishes, guilty pleasures, and criminal activities—than his friends and family do.

In light of this potential access to people’s most private activities, one wonders how long it will be until academics turn to computer forensics for research purposes. This is already being done in scientific and technology fields, which is not surprising because the subject matter is the machine and not the human, but imagine what it would mean for the humanities? If Jefferson had used a computer, perhaps we would know the details of his relationship with Sally Hemings. If we could get ahold of Shakespeare’s iPad, we could learn whether he wrote all those plays by himself. By analyzing da Vinci’s browsing history, we might know which images he studied and which people he interacted with before and during his work on the Mona Lisa—and thus might discover her identity.

There are, of course, government safeguards in place to prevent the abuse of, and unauthorized access to, computer and electronic data: the Wiretap Act, the Pen Registers and Trap and Trace Devices Statute, and the Stored Wired and Electronic Communication Act come to mind. Not just anyone can access everything on another person’s computer, at least not without some form of authorization. But what if researchers could obtain authorization to mine computer and electronic data for the personal and sensitive information of historical figures? What if computer forensics could be used in controlled settings and with the consent of the individual whose electronic data are being analyzed?

Consent, to me, is crucial: It is not controversial to turn up information on a person if he voluntarily authorized you to go snooping, never mind that you might turn up something he did not expect you to find. But under what circumstances could computer forensics be employed on a non-consensual basis? And what sort of integrity does computer or electronic information require and deserve? Is extracting data from a person’s laptop akin to drilling through a precious fresco to search for lost paintings, to excavating tombs for evidence that might challenge the foundations of organized religion and modern civilization, or to exhuming the bodies of dead presidents? Surely not. But why not?

We have been combing through letters by our dead predecessors for some time. Even these, however, were meant for transmission and had, to that end, intended audiences. E-discovery, by contrast, provides access to things never meant to be received, let alone preserved or recorded. It is the tool that comes closest to revealing what an individual actually thinks, not just what he says he thinks, or for that matter, how and why he says he thinks it. Imagine retracing the Internet browsing history of President Obama, Billy Graham, Kenneth Branagh, Martha Nussbaum, Salmon Rushdie, Nancy Pelosi, Richard Dawkins, Toni Morrison, Ai Weiwei, or Harold Bloom. Imagine reading the private emails of Bruno Latour, Ron Paul, Pope Francis, Noam Chomsky, Lady Gaga, Roger Scruton, Paul Krugman, Justice Scalia, or Queen Elizabeth II. What would you find out about your favorite novelists, poets, musicians, politicians, theologians, academics, actors, pastors, judges, and playwrights if you could expose what they did when no one else was around, when no audience was anticipated, or when they believed that the details of their activity were limited to their person?

This is another reason why computer and electronic data mining is not like sifting through the notes and letters of a deceased person: having written the notes and letters, a person is aware of their content and can, before death, destroy or revise what might appear unseemly or counter to the legacy he wants to promote. Computer and electronic data, however, contain information that the person probably doesn’t know exists.

More information is good; it helps us to understand our universe and the people in it. The tracking and amassing of computer and electronic data are inevitable; the extent and details of their operation, however, cannot yet be known. We should embrace—although we don’t have to celebrate—the technologies that enable us to produce this wealth of knowledge previously unattainable to scholars, even if they mean, in the end, that our heroes, idols, and mentors are demystified, their flaws and prejudices and conceits brought to light.

The question is, when will we have crossed the line? How much snooping goes too far and breaches standards of decency and respect? It is one thing for a person to leave behind a will that says, in essence, “Here’s my computer. Do what you want with it. Find anything you can and tell your narrative however you wish.” It is quite another thing for a person never to consent to such a search and then to pass away and have his computer scanned for revealing or incriminating data.

It’s hard to say what crosses the line because it’s hard to know where the line should be drawn. As Justice Potter Stewart said of hard-core pornography, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.” Once scholars begin—and the day is coming—hacking devices to find out more about influential people, the courts and the academic community will be faced with privacy decisions to make. We will have to ask if computer and electronic data are substantially similar to private correspondence such as letters, to balance the need for information with the desire for privacy, to define what information is “private” or “public,” and to honor the requests of those savvy enough to anticipate the consequences of this coming age of research.

Amid this ambiguity, one thing will be certain: Soon we can all join with Princess Margaret in proclaiming, “I have as much privacy as a goldfish in a bowl.” That is good and bad news.

The Law is Above the Lawyers

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Conservatism, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Legal Research & Writing, Literary Theory & Criticism, The Supreme Court, Writing on October 3, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

This review appeared here in The American Spectator.

Antonin Scalia and Bryan A. Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts (Thomson West, 2012)

Do not let its girth fool you: Reading Law by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and legal writing guru Bryan A. Garner is an accessible and straightforward clarification of originalism and textualism.* A guide for the perplexed and a manual of sorts for judges, this book presents 57 canons of construction. Each canon is formatted as a rule — e.g., “When the syntax involves something other than a parallel series of nouns or verbs, a prepositive or postpositive modifier normally applies only to the nearest reasonable referent” — followed by a short explanation of the rule.

Frank H. Easterbrook, who provided the foreword to the book, submits that originalism is not about determining legislative intent, but construing legislative enactment. In other words, originalists interpret as strictly as possible the words of the particular text and do not look to the earlier maze of political compromises, equivocations, and platitudes that brought about the text. Each legislator has unique intent; projecting one person’s intent onto the whole legislative body generates a fiction of vast proportion.

That the process of enacting a law is so rigorous and convoluted suggests the importance of adhering closely to the express language of the law; legislators, after all, have taken into account the views of their constituents and advisors and have struggled with other legislators to reach a settlement that will please enough people to obtain a majority. A judge should trust that painstaking process and not overturn or disregard it.

Originalism involves what Stanley Fish, the eminent Milton scholar and literary critic turned law professor, has called “interpretive communities.” That is the very term Easterbrook employs to describe how judges should account for cultural and communal conventions at the time a text is produced: “Words don’t have intrinsic meanings; the significance of an expression depends on how the interpretive community alive at the time of the text’s adoption understood those words.”

To be sure, the original meaning of a text — what reasonable people living at the time and place of its adoption ordinarily would have understood it to mean — is never fully accessible. The meanings of old laws are particularly elusive. When a judge can no longer identify the context of a law by referring to dictionaries or legal treatises available when it was promulgated, then he should defer to the legislature to make the law clearer.

Judges should not impose their interpretative guesses onto the law and, hence, onto the people; nor should judges make new law on the mere supposition, however reasonable, that a text means something that it might not have meant when it was written. “Meaning” is itself a slippery signifier, and it is in some measure the aim of this book to simplify what is meant by “meaning.”

The book is not all about grammar, syntax, and punctuation. It has philosophical and political urgency. The authors propose that the legal system is in decline because of its infidelity to textual precision and scrupulous hermeneutics. A general neglect for interpretive exactitude and consistency has “impaired the predictability of legal dispositions, has led to unequal treatment of similarly situated litigants, has weakened our democratic processes, and has distorted our system of governmental checks and balances.” All of this has undermined public faith in lawyers and judges.

Scalia and Garner, who recently teamed up to write Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges (Thomson West, 2009), proclaim themselves “textualists,” because they “look for meaning in the governing text, ascribe to that text the meaning that it has borne from its inception, and reject judicial speculation about both the drafters’ extratextually derived purposes and the desirability of the fair reading’s anticipated consequences.” Most of us, they say, are textualists in the broadest sense; the purest textualists, however, are those who commit themselves to finding accurate meanings for words and phrases without regard for the practical results.

Consequences are the province of legislators. A judge ought to be a linguist and lexicographer rather than a legislator; he or she must be faithful to texts, not accountable to the people as are elected officials. (Leaving aside the issue of elected judges at the state level.) The authors seem to be suggesting that their approach needn’t be controversial. Originalism and textualism are simply names for meticulous interpretive schemes that could lead judges to decisions reflecting either conservative orliberal outcomes. One doesn’t need to be a fan of Scalia to appreciate the hermeneutics in this treatise.

Never have we seen a plainer, more complete expression of originalism or textualism. Reading Law could become a landmark of American jurisprudence, numbered among such tomes as James Kent’s Commentaries on American Law, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s The Common Law, H.L.A. Hart’s The Concept of Law, and Lon L. Fuller’s The Morality of Law. Although different from these works in important ways, Reading Law is equally ambitious and perhaps even more useful for the legal community, especially on account of its sizable glossary of terms, extensive table of cases, impressive bibliography, and thorough index.

Every judge should read this book; every lawyer who cares about law in the grand sense — who takes the time to consider the nature of law, its purpose and role as a social institution, and its historical development — should read this book as well. If Scalia and Garner are correct that the general public no longer respects the institutions of law, then this book is valuable not only for revealing the root causes, but also for recommending realistic and systematic solutions.


* Originalism and textualism are not the same thing; this review treats them as interchangeable only because Judge Easterbrook’s forward uses the term “originalism” whereas Scalia and Garner use the term “textualism,” but each author appears to refer to the same interpretive approach.

Habermas for Law Professors

In Art, Arts & Letters, Communication, Creativity, Essays, Ethics, Habermas, Humanities, Information Design, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Politics, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on November 4, 2011 at 3:12 pm

Allen Mendenhall

This post is an adaptation of this printable, PDF document

This post is intended to assist law professors who wish to incorporate critical theory (in general) and Habermas (in particular) into their teaching.  This post addresses just one essay by Habermas that is representative of his thought.  It does not address other important areas of Habermasian theory such as the “public sphere” (a concept that the essay nevertheless implicates). 

This post should provide some basic insights into Habermas that could be incorporated into a law school classroom.  Contracts in particular would benefit from Habermasian analyses, which could just as constructively be applied to torts, evidence, constitutional law, or any course dealing with litigation and the courtroom.  This post provides basic information.  It does not tell law professors how to use the information.  The use will require creativity. 

 

Fundamental to the paradigm of mutual understanding is … the performative attitude of participants in interaction, who coordinate their plans for action by coming to an understanding about something in the world.  When ego carries out a speech act and alter takes up a position with regard to it, the two parties enter into an interpersonal relationship.  The latter is structured by the system of reciprocally interlocked perspectives among speakers, hearers, and non-participants who happen to be present at the time. 

        —Jürgen Habermas, “An Alternative Way Out of the Philosophy of the Subject”[1]

In a way, “An Alternative Way Out of the Philosophy of the Subject” is a response to Foucault’s theories of subjectivity that treat subjects as produced by forces of power.  Habermas seems to consider Foucault’s theories as so preoccupied with knowledge formation and structural preconditions for knowledge formation that they (the theories) become pseudoscience abstracted from practical realities.  A Foucaultian paradigm centers on subjectivity trained by mechanical forces whereas a Habermasian paradigm explores communicative reason in the context of discourse enabled by the ideations of individual subjects articulating their positions to one another in mutually intelligible utterances.       

Contra Foucault, Habermas submits that reason—articulated, assimilated, and mediated by language—must be understood as social.  For social interaction to be meaningful, its interlocutors must believe that their articulations are objectively “true” or sincere (I place “true” in quotations because the “pragmatically expanded theory of meaning overcomes [the] fixation on the fact-mirroring function of language”).  Speech must be governed by points of common understanding.  These points are reached when “ego carries out a speech act and alter takes up a position with regard to it.”  Ego, here, refers to a person’s conscious awareness that is capable of being conveyed in speech.  “Alter” does not refer to alter ego, but to some agent outside the subjective world of cognition, intention, and belief.  This “alter” is part of the external or objective world to which the ego can articulate feelings or thoughts, provided that ego and alter have in common a familiar discursive space (a lifeworld) for their subjective expressions.  By this reading, alter has an ego, and ego can be an alter.  The terms simply depend upon which subject is articulating his position in a given speech situation; the terms are merely descriptive.  

To claim that we can comprehend events or things in the world is to suggest that we can speak about them.  To speak about events or things in the world is to convey information about them from one party to another using shared vocabularies governed by rules that the parties accept unconditionally. The interpersonal relationship among or between parties, as Habermas suggests, is “structured by the system of reciprocally interlocked perspectives.”  The study of this relationship brings Habermas further away from the Foucaultian paradigms of subjectivity and towards the paradigm of mutual understanding that has come to mark Habermasian thought.  Read the rest of this entry »

What is a Research Paper, and How Does It Implicate Disciplinarity?

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, Writing on September 8, 2011 at 10:51 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Richard L. Larson interrogates the “research paper” signifier. He claims that this signifier lacks settled meaning because it “has no conceptual or substantive identity” (218). He calls the term “generic” and “cross-disciplinary” and claims that it “has virtually no value as an identification of a kind of substance in a paper” (218). Despite its empty or fluid meaning, the term “research paper” persists inside and outside English Departments, among faculty and students, at both university and secondary school levels. The problem for Larson is that by perpetuating the use of this slippery signifier, writing instructors mislead students as to what constitutes research and thereby enable bad research.

The term research paper “implicitly equates ‘research’ with looking up books in the library and taking down information from those books” (218); therefore, students learning to write so-called research papers inadvertently narrow their research possibilities by relying on a narrow conception of research as library visitation, note-taking, or whatever, without recognizing other forms of research that may be more discipline-appropriate: interviews, field observations, and the like (218). Using the term “research paper” to describe a particular type of activity implies not only that other, suitable practices are not in fact “research,” but also that students may dispense with elements of logic and citation if their instructors didn’t call the assignment a “research paper.” Really, though, research papers teach skills that apply to all papers, regardless of whether instructors designate a paper as “research.” In a way, all papers are research papers if they draw from sustained observation or studied experience.

Having argued that the term research paper is a vacant signifier—vacant of identity if not of meaning (not that the two are mutually exclusive)—Larson argues that the “provincialism” (220) of writing instructors (by which he means writing instructors’ presumption that they can and should speak across disciplines despite their lack of formal training in other disciplines) leads to a problem of territoriality. Some information belongs in the province of other disciplines, Larson seems to suggest, and writing instructors should not assume that they know enough about other disciplines to communicate in a discipline-appropriate setting. Some knowledge, in other words, lies outside the writing instructor’s jurisdiction. I’m ambivalent on this score. Read the rest of this entry »

Note from a Reader: An Article about Leaders in Legal Education

In Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Pedagogy, Teaching on August 2, 2011 at 11:46 am

Allen Mendenhall

A loyal reader of this site has suggested that I post a link to this article about 10 leaders in legal education.  I’m happy to do so.  I’m curious what other readers think of the list. 

Although I’ve posted the list below, I encourage readers to click on the link above to see why these leaders were chosen.

1.  Massachusetts School of Law, Andover

2.  Richard Matasar

3.  Elizabeth Mertz

4.  Association of American Law Schools

5.  Barbara Boxer

6.  David Lat

7.  George Leef

8.  Susan Sturm and Lani Guinier

9.  Bryan Garner

10.  Stephen R. Marsh

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