Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Classroom cutups in law school and other stories

First a quick medical update:  I had my second paclitaxel infusion today in my second round of third line of chemotherapy/treatment.  Dr. E at Seattle Cancer Care was very pleased with the CT scans.  We showed him the written report via my daughter's IPOD Touch, and he showed us the actual scans (or parts of them) on his SCCA computer.  We talked about my continuing coughing problem and based on the information I provided him, he suggested that it might have more to do with post nasal drip (yay) than the cancer.  So I am going back to using a nasal inhalant and, if needed, cough medicine and we'll see where that takes us.  Staying on the paclitaxel is indicated given the positive scans, but it means that I will continue to lose my hair (what is left of it) at a fairly rapid rate.  We'll see how long it will last under these stresses.  I may be bald eventually.  No predictions.

The chemotherapy infusion always includes an antihistamine to guard against allergic reactions and a steroid to insure the best possible absorption of the taxol.  What that means is that I fall asleep early on during the infusion, come home and sleep for part of the afternoon, then wake up and am raring to go for the night.  So, mindful of my drug driven state of alertness (I walked around Greenlake late in the afternoon and dead headed part of  a large rhododendron while the light lasted), it seems an appropriate time to reminisce about my least favorite school again.  Why is it that the worst times produce the best stories?

I entered law school in 1973 about as naive to the law as one could be.  As the descendant of generations of physicians, I had absolutely no idea what lawyers did, aside from watching Perry Mason and To Kill a Mockingbird.  I had heard stories of attorneys representing draft resistors and challenging restrictive racial laws and it seemed to me that lawyers were a force for good in society but I was not clear, beyond this, what the practice of law encompassed.

So my first semester in law school, I learned that "Torts" were wrongful acts where the person who was harmed could recover damages and/or seek an injunction.  It didn't include breach of contract, which was covered in another course--Contracts--which I was also taking.  Four classes were mandatory for all first year law students in the fall semester:  Torts, Contracts, Civil Procedure and Criminal Law.  There were approximately 250 law students, so there were two sections of each class.  Torts was taught by two different professors--one for each section--but one professor taught both sections of Civil Procedure, Contracts and Criminal Law my first year. 

The first thing I learned in law school, was that the seat you sat in on your first day would be your permanent seat for the semester.  A seating chart was handed out, and you signed it and were expected to be in that seat the rest of the time, so that the law professor could call on you at will to answer questions based upon the cases you were assigned to read, using the Socratic method.  The Socratic method had been the ideal teaching pedagogy in law school and, in theory, in the hands of a good teacher, it could be used to teach puerile students, such as myself, how to think like a lawyer.  Here is what wikipedia has to say about the Socratic method in law school:
The Socratic method is widely used in contemporary legal education by most law schools in the United States. In a typical class setting, the professor asks a question and calls on a student who may or may not have volunteered an answer. The professor either then continues to ask the student questions or moves on to another student.

The employment of the Socratic method has some uniform features but can also be heavily influenced by the temperament of the teacher. The method begins by calling on a student at random, and asking about a central argument put forth by one of the judges (typically on the side of the majority) in an assigned case. The first step is to ask the student to paraphrase the argument to ensure they read and basically understand the case. (Students who have not read the case, for whatever reason, must take the opportunity to "pass," which most professors allow as a matter of course a few times per term.) Assuming the student has read the case and can articulate the court's argument, the teacher then asks whether the student agrees with the argument. The teacher then typically plays Devil's advocate, trying to force the student to defend his or her position by rebutting arguments against it.

These subsequent questions can take several forms. Sometimes they seek to challenge the assumptions upon which the student based the previous answer until it can no longer be defended. Further questions can be designed to move a student toward greater specificity, either in understanding a rule of law or a particular case. The teacher may attempt to propose a hypothetical situation in which the student's assertion would seem to demand an exception. Finally professors can use the Socratic method to allow students to come to legal principles on their own through carefully-worded questions that encourage a particular train of thought.

One hallmark of Socratic questioning is that typically there is more than one "correct" answer, and more often, no clear answer at all. The primary goal of the Socratic method in the law school setting is not to answer usually unanswerable questions, but to explore the contours of often difficult legal issues and to teach students the critical thinking skills they will need as lawyers. This is often done by altering the facts of a particular case to tease out how the result might be different. This method encourages students to go beyond memorizing the facts of a case and instead to focus on application of legal rules to tangible fact patterns. As the assigned texts are typically case law, the Socratic method, if properly used, can display that judges' decisions are usually conscientiously made but are based on certain premises, beliefs, and conclusions that are the subject of legitimate argument.

Sometimes, the class ends with a discussion of doctrinal foundations (legal rules) to anchor the students in contemporary legal understanding of an issue. At other times the class ends without such discussion leaving students to figure out for themselves the legal rules or principles that were at issue. For this method to work, the students are expected to be prepared for class in advance by reading the assigned materials (case opinions, notes, law review articles, etc.) and by familiarizing themselves with the general outlines of the subject matter.

I've mentioned one law professor at Kentucky who used the Socratic method to verbally abuse a female student in a criminal law or procedure class the year before I started. And it seemed  that many of the professors that I had at law school did not know how to use the technique very well, and at times descended into ridicule, if not abuse, albeit much lighter than the Crim law prof.  So many of us learned to take seats in the back of the class the first day, to better avoid being  called on, or to say "pass" when we were indeed called upon, to avoid being ridiculed by the professor when the answers that we gave were not what the professor wanted.  One tempermental professor, after receiving five successive "pass" responses  from students, stalked out of the classroom and didn't return until the next day. 

One student who used the first day sign up system to her advantage, was a first year my second year of law school.  Mikkal was the daughter of a named partner in a large Louisville law firm, and unlike me, knew well what to expect when she got to law school.  Her first day, she showed up to class with a tall potted plant and placed it on the seat next to her.  When the seating chart was passed around, she wrote her name on her seat and filled in the name, "Robert Plant" for the seat occupied by her leafy apartment dweller.  And so it stood.  From time to time the professor, looking down at the seating chart would call on Mr. Plant but would never get a response.  Finally about halfway through the semester the professor lost his cool when yet again, Mr. Plant, had not responded to his question, blurted out in frustration, "Where is that Mr. Plant?  He never seems to be in class?"  Without missing a beat, Mikkal responded, "He's feeling a little green today."

The subject matter of most of the classes that I took in law school were for the most part, deadly dull to me because they were taught as appellate court cases and seemed to be removed from real life.  It was not until I began the practice of law that I became really interested in the subject matter of my practice.  As a result, there are very few substantive learning vignettes that I have of those three years in the classroom, but one of them occurred in my Torts class when my professor, Mr. A, a new teacher, was discussing the concept of res ipsa loquitor, from the Latin: 'the thing speaks for itself.'  This is a doctrine that is used in a torts case where there is clearly an injury and clearly someone responsible for the injury but the causation chain is unclear.  Professor Awas a very, nervous, timid sort of fellow, so the example he gave to illustrate the doctrine, completely took me aback and, as a result, I have retained it to this day.  It seems that a woman went to the dentist for a significant dental procedure, one that required that she be put under anesthetic to accomplish it.  She was given the anesthetic, fell asleep and woke up some time later with the procedure accomplished, but a finger on her right hand was broken.  Neither the dentist nor his assistant would explain why her finger was broken, so she eventually sued the dentist.  In court the story came out that the anesthetic the dentist used had a side effect where the patient, right before they went under, would have muscle spasms where the muscles would contract.  In this case, as the woman was going under, had a muscle spasm in her hand and grabbed the dentist's crotch and then went out, holding his crown jewels in a vise like grip.  The dentist in a paroxysm of pain, had to break her finger to get the death hold off his balls, but was too embarassed to explain it to his patient until required to in court.  I don't remember the final outcome of the case.  Never will forget that doctrine, though.

Another time I remember is when our Civil Procedure professor had pity on our first year confusion and gave the class two hour refresher before the final, to tune up our understanding of the all the many and complex rules that govern civil cases filed in court.  My friend Katherine, at one point during the refresher, exclaimed in tears, "I don't get any of this!"  She, of course, went on to be our class valedictorian.  Some of us who were not as forthright and honest as Catherine, purchased professional course outlines published by Gilbert's as an assistance to understanding the huge swathes of cases, holdings, dissents, and what it all meant in our classes.  At one of my Rho Epsilon Hork meetings we talked about seeing if Mr. Gilbert could be our commencement speaker because obviously, who better to tell us how to pass the bar exam?

In one class, we didn't have to use Gilberts.  That was because about ten year previous, some law student had put together an outline of our Contracts class.  It was taught for many many years by Wilbur Hamm (a very, kind wonderful man), and the outline came to be known as the "HammOGram."  And even though it was fairly old by the time our class received its copies, Professor Hamm followed the outline religiously--his last words on contracts, the last day of class, were almost verbatim the last words in the outline.

There was also the absent minded Constitutional Law professor who once bumped into a fire extinguisher, put it under his coat and continued to walk down the hall.  When crossing busy Limestone Ave at noontime to get a sandwich at the local deli, was heard to mutter at the cars whizzing by, "Let it be a Cadillac...."

Then there was Professor G who practically cried in class over the death of the family gerbil.  Pat Crumm, a classmate from Eastern Ky, who was so poor that he was couch surfing with friends and hanging on by his fingernails academically, was roused by this to reply, "Ain't life a bitch?"

I also remember constructing bingo cards with classmates that had the names of all the gunners in the class--those students who really liked to answer questions--and would even raise their hands to be called on, as opposed to those of us who physically would duck, lacking the preparation and/or self confidence to withstand the barrage.  And if your bingo card filled out either horizontally, vertically, or sideways, the winner shouted in the middle of class, "Bingo!" taking home the kitty. We ran that for maybe a week, before the kitty ran out of funds.

Our seats were on risers going up 10 rows, and the professor was at the base of this, with a green chalkboard behind him (the first woman law professor at UK was hired my last year).  The Civil Liberties professor, who was quite short and had a noticeable lisp, liked to position himself below any female student who had a skirt on, and deliver his lecture there for noticeable periods of class time.  A woman I worked with after law school, who was a year ahead of me, boasted  during our  work commute one day, that when she took Civil Liberties,  she once wore her shortest skirt with no underwear to class, and that professor remained glued directly below her for the entire hour.  Then, there was the younger tax professor who was heard to say in class that women were either, "workless sexaholics or sexless workaholics."

My Property professor, Professor F, had a long hypothetical that went on for two classes about how could a hair salon owner construct a sign that would make her truly immune from liability for lost or stolen coats, or other property left at the hair salon.  Professor F left for the University of New Mexico after that year.  I am sure there was no connection.

The last classroom story from law school that I remember is fall semester, second year.  I had a friend, Stephen Hickman,  from college, who spent the night with me on his way driving from the east back to Macalester to begin his senior year (remember that I graduated from Mac a year early so we were actually only a year apart).  I offered to bring him to class so he could see what law school was like, and the class in question was Trusts and Estates, taught by Professor M, a former dean of the law school and a long time professor there.  It was first day of class and I was hell bent with good intentions to be a good note taking student, so I was there scribbling away until Steve poked me and asked, "Did you see that?"  "No, what," I responded.   "Just watch,"  he replied.  And so I did.  Professor M had a lecture style that I have simply never seen before or since.  It appeared that he played pocket pool, but more than that, he like to emphasize certain sentences by bending his knees at the end and puffing up his cheeks and emitting what can only be described as a loud, "huh!"  It was not an infrequent occurrence.   In fact the next week, several of us up-to-no-good-niks set up a new kitty.  And we all picked the number of times we thought Professor M would do his "huh" routine during one class.  I remember that my selection was somewhere in the 50's.  We assigned two people as official counters, promising them our notes from that day of class.  The total, which was an average from the counters was in the high 70's or low 80's as I recall.  Flabbergasted.

I'd love to tell you about the UCC final exam papers (or blue books) that were stolen from the UCC Professor's car our third year of law school, but I didn't take that course, so I will leave it to someone else to fill in the blanks.

Law school:  couldn't take the bar exam without it.

1 comment:

Dan Matyola said...


I'm very glad to hear the your treatment is going so well. I'm certain that your positive attitude is a factor in this success.

That is a great essay on law school and the Socratic method. Thanks for sharing those wonderful tales.

Almost all my law school profs -- except Ruth Bader Ginsberg -- used the Socratic method; she lectured. Most of them were quite civil to the students, although my crim procedure prof did like to pick on those of us working as his research assistants on the Criminal Law Revision Commission. When he learned my history, he would call on me as "Captain M," pointed out that he served as a private in the Corps. I got my revenge when I learned that he actually had been promoted to Sgt, and told him I had "no time for Sergeants."

The only humorous incident I can recall with the Socratic method involves C Clyde Ferguson, who was a visiting professor at Rutgers for one year. (,_Jr. ) He was so intimidating -- physically and intellectually -- that he once urged a young female student to "read between the lines" of the case, and she appeared to actually try to literally do that.

You remain in our thought and prayers. Hang in there.