Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Practicality and legal education

[This is cross-posted at Law School Innovation]

On Sunday, several people forwarded to me this fascinating article from the New York Times. The critique of law schools presented there cuts to several truths: That too much of our scholarship has no impact on anything (and goes largely unread), that we are not student-centered enough, and that we in the legal academy are often more focused on impressing one another rather than addressing real problems in our society.

One of the intriguing criticisms in the article centers on the increasing trend toward hiring professors who have a Ph.D., but no legal experience. I think this is a fair critique, and one which merits close examination as we keep in mind our status as a professional rather than a graduate school; My own scholarship is almost always narrowly focused on a discrete issue in the real world, and that is intentional-- I don't want to waste my time on things that don't have a chance to solve a problem. For the same reason, most of the classes I teach consist largely of practical teaching for the real world: How to write a sentencing memo, for example, or what happens at an initial appearance behind the scenes.  My most recent entry on SSRN argues in favor of more experiential teaching.

Still, we must be discerning in that critique of Ph.D.'s in our midst. It's unfair to assume that all Ph.D.'s in the legal academy produce work which is disjoined from real-world legal issues. In pondering this, I remember that my own experience overlaps with the very start of this trend. I was a research assistant for the late Stanton Wheeler at Yale Law School, at a time when Prof. Wheeler was still a controversial figure because his background (and Ph.D.) centered on sociology rather than the law.

Given that, though, there were few legal academics I have come across who are more focused on real-world legal problems than Prof. Wheeler.  This probably is no accident, as his tenure overlapped with the last of the Legal Realists at Yale. For example, he is largely remembered for his pioneering book with Kenneth Mann and Austin Sarat, Sitting in Judgment: The Sentencing of White-Collar Criminals. That book was centered on 51 in-depth interviews with federal judges; Wheeler went right to the source in describing how the law actually works.

Rather than critiquing Ph.D.'s in the academy, we need to look more closely at the scholarship all legal scholars are producing, and rethink the way we value that work. Stanton Wheeler was not a lawyer, but few of us produce such valuable and relevant scholarship, or teach such clear-minded truths.

Thanksgiving (for being a student "always") does not absolve us of our obligation to (occassionally "teach") question and respond "gently" to all (education) we receive during this journey we call life...

Of Thanksgiving...
Five weeks ago I was introduced to Mark through the article he wrote, “May your debate about gay marriage be constructive.” Sunday I had the pleasure to meet him (and his son) after his presentation at Colonial Church. In both instances conversations were raised – gently. “Gently” serves well all of our conversations, beginning with those shared during the blessed gathering many will participate in this week.

The gentle conversations I have experienced and participated in since being welcomed into the “Oslersrazor” family have introduced many different lens through which my vision of life has become much fuller and more focused – adding layers of insight and challenge for my new tomorrows – and also allowing my architectural designs (inhabited sculpture) to take on new meaning and purpose.

May your Thanksgiving be a celebration of sharing good company, good food, good cheer and filled with “gentle” conversation - conversations that “…may do more to create change than all the posterboard signs in the world.”

Weeks ago I shared with Mark an inspirational piece I wrote for Manija, an Afghan woman who left family and loved ones to begin a new chapter in her life. I had known her and her extended family for five weeks, though in that time they touched my heart in a special way. She was shy and lacked confidence; though I saw so much potential in her that I was inspired to throw a going away party for her at the Crescent Moon restaurant in north-east Minneapolis where she worked for her uncle.

Sunday I presented Mark with a box of eight Crayola crayons. He and each of you have thankfully added to my box of crayons. Happy Thanksgiving and God’s Blessing to all…
IT WAS AN ECLIPSE, as real as any solar or lunar; the glowing essence of one overshadowing another, unexpected, though possibly intended. A young woman’s new hire, her glamorous appearance and vibrant personality seeking a place among others became an instant, threatening challenge to the gentle, comely niece of the owner. The fragile perception of self and the confidence it conveys often as visible as our existence.

Eyes seldom betray what is in our heart, their brightness often a reflection of our soul. How to embrace and encourage a delicate blossom to fully bloom? Within weeks, we celebrated with a party to wish her well on the new journey she was embarking upon; being reunited in an unfamiliar community with her returning husband. Her favorite sheet cake was inscribed with, “May Happiness be Your Destination.” My gift, a box of eight Crayola crayons.

Life begins as a child’s first box of crayons, vibrant primary and secondary colors representing the comfort and security of treasured moments - black and brown, shades of cloudy skies on the horizon; the absence of white, supplanted by the light of love.

Life’s journey, when untethered from security of the known, a sojourn through light and darkness, experiences more defining than perceived. We can harden our hearts, unable to accept, embrace and share all that is encountered and offered to us; including the sweet serenity we are promised. Walls and barriers erected to protect often hold back the light resulting in a darkness that diminishes sight, sheltering us from experiences intended to nurture; holding us fast to known valleys blanketed with shadows – adding crayons to our coloring box representing the sullen shades of life.

Or we can embrace our new todays with an open heart, letting light shine through, courageously experiencing life in the moment, nurturing with reverence all its brightness. We can add an array of crayons, the addition of white, creating tints not shades, savoring moments experienced in the light - crayons representing the peace, happiness and joy of life’s journey. Hold your box of crayons close, each color reflects what has been experienced and responded to, to what has been shared.

To a large crowd, Jesus spoke in a parable, the Parable of the Sower and when finished, He continued, “No one lights a lamp and puts it under a bushel basket or under a bed; he puts it on a lampstand so that whoever comes in can see it. There is nothing hidden that will not be exposed, nothing concealed that will not be known and brought to light. Take heed, therefore, how you hear; to the man who has, more will be given; and he who has not, will lose even the little he thinks he has.”
Luke 8: 16–18
– New American Bible, St. Joseph Edition

Having listened and stepped confidently into the light is much more rewarding than remaining in shadows to contemplate alone. Courageously sharing our less than perfect self with God, and with others, increases our confidence and lights our path of self discovery. When light shines brightly, illuminating the spectrum of colorful experiences and blessings of life’s journey; we will have more crayons to color with, more love and treasured moments to share. We will enjoy abundance, secure in the knowledge more will be given, that His blessings will continue, adding more crayons to our coloring box.
One of my legal friends put it best, I think. He had attended a very prestigious law school and did very well, but recommended sending our son to Baylor Law.

"They taught us all about 'THE LAW", but forgot to tell us where the courthouse was and what to do when we got there."

I think that sums it up pretty well!

Happy Turkey Day to all.

Your words remind me of Yale Divinity School. A number of our professors had never served as pastors in the parish; a number had not been ordained, though most had an active affiliation with a Church.

Suffice it to say, that when it came to pratical matters ("lovingly" called pastoral theology), we were mostly on our own. We learned how to approach batpisms, confirmations, weddings, and funerals after we graduated and served as associates in parishes.

"The practical arts of ministry" were not stressed, they took a back seat to Bible, theology, and liturgy.

The great strength of a place like Yale, though, is the opportunity it affords to learn how to think deeply about such things. For that, I am grateful.
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