September 2007


I have received quite a few e-mails from you asking the general question of “how’s it going?” Truth is, I don’t really know how to answer that.

For the most part, I enjoy the subject matter of the classes I am taking (the “hard” subjects of Criminal Law, Contracts, Torts, and the “soft” subjects of Comparative Legal History and Legal Writing, plus a Practicum). However, we don’t talk about things in class the way that I like talking about them – that is, we don’t debate issues as right or wrong as much as we analyze the issues for legal reasoning and rules. I hear this is a common complaint of First Years and that it gets less clinical in later years. But I get frustrated discussing whether or not a 2 year old child visiting his parent at work for lunch who gets brain damage when he slips through an open banister of a staircase and falls to the ground below is an invitee, licensee, or a trespasser under some semi-arbitrary legal definition, instead of arguing about whether or not the parent of the child deserves $8.4 million dollars in damages for not controlling her kid while they both descend a staircase with a clearly open banister. A whole lot of legal analysis without a ton of discussion about whether or not we as a society should agree with it.

Then I have the time-draining Legal Writing class in which I spend 16 hours on a Credit/No Credit assignment and get not so much as a checkmark on the stupid thing when it gets turned back to me (if I get it back at all).

I keep having to remind myself that law school really is a trade school. They are training me how to “think like a lawyer.” The morality is left up to me to decide. More often than not, I find myself singing that classic line to Rage Against the Machine song, “F@#k you, I won’t do what you tell me!” Not a good way to spend any day…

From the “I Can’t Win” File

In the span of about a year, I have miraculously turned from a bleeding-heart hippy to a conservative corporate hack. How did I do that?, you may ask. I went to law school. Let me explain…

When I was in business school, I learned that companies are in the business of making a profit for their shareholders, and not much more. That’s the shtick. So, barring any illegal activities, anything that helps them earn a profit (selling more goods, cutting expenses, etc.) is fair game. This includes moving operations to other countries where there is cheap labor and lax labor laws, pushing the outer limits of emissions regulations (or, again, moving to countries with more flexible environmental laws), and the like. Under this model, one cannot look at corporations as being “evil,” they are simply doing what they need to do to turn a profit for the shareholders.

Well, this model didn’t sit well with me. Just because you can move operations to a place where you can pay an 8 year old child $1/day to make your shoes doesn’t mean you should. Just because you can pour chemical waste into a river (and there is, presumably, no law against it) doesn’t mean you should. And just because you can pump our food supply with growth hormones and chemical preservatives doesn’t mean you should. A sense of basic moral ethics and global responsibility should be infused in most business operations, I argued. Consumers may have to pay more to sleep better at night. So what? Americans are too spoiled as it is. The Invisible Hand of the Market, be damned!

Well, what a difference a year makes. In law school, most people (in my classes, at least) are looking out for the Little Guy. So far so good. But this protection extends to (in my opinion) ridiculous places. The classic is the McDonald’s coffee incident.

Most people know the story – old lady goes through McDonald’s drive-through, orders coffee, puts coffee between her legs while still sitting in the car, opens lid to pour in cream and sugar, coffee spills in her lap, sues McDonald’s, and wins $2.9 million dollars for spilling hot coffee in her lap. Classic case of American civil courts gone wild. I have studied this case, now, in both my business classes and my law school Torts class.

What usually happens is that once folks find out that she got 3rd degree burns from this, that McDonald’s coffee was brewed at much hotter temperatures than other coffee sold elsewhere, that they had received over 700 other complaints of burns from the coffee across the globe, and that McDonald’s management were jerks and wouldn’t settle with the old lady for her medical bills (all she was really asking for), most people feel like the company needed to be taught a lesson.

However, I still don’t feel like courts should reward people for their own negligence. In my opinion, if the court wanted to punish McDonald’s then fine, pay the old lady for her medical bills and lost workdays, and then make the company pay the millions of dollars to a Burn Victim charity or something. We should be able to both punish people for wrong-doing while not reward others for their own stupidity. Personal responsibility. That’s all I ask. Somehow, though, this makes me a shill for the Man.

Same goes for this case where the child fell through the open banister of a business’ staircase and sustained permanent brain injury that would leave the child with “behavioral problems” (what child doesn’t have behavioral problems, I ask). The doctor estimated long-term care for the child at $1.8 million, but the judge awarded the parents $8.4 million, essentially because the business wasn’t following building codes and should have known.

Let’s see here, so a mother walks with her toddler down a staircase with an open banister and doesn’t carry the kid or hold his hand as they walk down it? Hmmm…. sounds like natural selection to me. Yet, we are rewarding this behavior at a tune of $8.4M? This is better odds than winning the lottery! All I have to do is give my kid a slight push down a staircase and I’ll never have to work again!

Well, that makes Jennifer a Baby Killer. “But, Jennifer, don’t you think it’s tragic?!?” Of course it’s tragic. But for whom? The child? The parents? Or the 100 people who will be unemployed if this judgment sticks and the company has to go out of business? Or the next potential entrepreneur who can’t open a shop because the liability insurance is too high? There’s a bigger picture, here, People. They don’t get it. Apparently, they are just much nicer people than I am…

So, in a nutshell, that’s how school is going. I’m learning a lot, but I’m not sure that I love it. Not yet, at least.

It started off like any other Friday. Just after 8:00 AM, I set up my desk and was ready to dig in to the Torts reading – trying to catch up with the reading that I didn’t do the night before. That’s when it appeared – the Blue Screen of Death. I didn’t recognize it at first because the Blue Screen of Death on a Windows box is a shocking, electric blue, usually accompanying a “fatal error” message of some sort. On a Mac, however, the Blue Screen of Death is a beautiful gray blue – like the morning sky just before the sunrise on a crisp fall morning. Apple always has had a way with style…..

So, I call tech support (Brent). What does this pretty blue screen mean? Tech support (Brent) gives me a series of instructions (turn it off, hold the alt key down 30 seconds while powering it up, take out the battery, yadda, yadda, yadda). No go. It’s turning on, but failing on the boot somewhere. Not to worry, tech support tells me. Macs are bullet-proof, but he knows of one person at his office who had a problem with the OS. He bets we can boot it off of the disk. I refrain from panic.

At 11:00 AM, the Geek Squad arrives (Brent). We plug 2.5 hours of change into the parking meter (at $1.60/hour, I might add). He sets up shop on a nice table in the loft of the newer law school building. Lots of natural light, trees outside, breeze blowing, very peaceful. He slides the OSX disk into the CD slot. “Well, this is going to be a short visit.” Why?, I ask. Because the problem is not with the OS, but with the hard-drive. Not good. He takes the computer to the Apple Store in ABQ Uptown. I go to class.

At this point, I am not worried. Every time I think all hope is lost, Brent pulls some trick out of his sleeve and fixes it. Hello – that’s why I live with an ADHD engineer/programmer. In-house tech support. Plus, the rhetoric is that Macs are waaaaayyyyyy better than PCs, right? After the fiasco with my Dell Inspiron a few years ago (bought it new, reinstalled the OS on it 4 times in 3 months, sold it on Ebay for 40% of what I bought it for 4 months before), nothing could possibly top that – especially with a Mac. This is all salvageable.

Wrong. Diagnosis: Catastrophic hard-drive failure. Everything gone. I completely lost it. Four weeks of law school notes, down the F-ing drain. I seriously wanted to die/quit/stab myself in the eye/punch someone. I couldn’t even remember if I had ever backed up anything on that machine. My mind was completely blank. Lots of tears later, I found myself back in Santa Fe. Brent takes my USB key from my bag, sticks it in the PowerBook, and looks for the last file date. 09/06/07. By my stupid, freaking luck, I apparently backed up all of my files on Sept. 6th. I don’t even remember doing it. I only lost 1 week’s worth of stuff. The whole weekend consisted of him reinstalling everything back on my computer (new hard-drive replaced thanks to the Apple Store on warranty), but I’m finally back on track. What a nightmare.

Lessons Learned

  1. Save Often, Back Up Just as Often – At a mere $100/kilobyte, I could have sent my computer to an Apple-approved shop in California for a few weeks, with no guarantee that they could have retrieved anything at all off of it. My 500MB USB key was 80 bucks, and the external hard-drive thingy (120GB) that Brent bought me on Friday was $150. You do the math.
  2. Buy the extended warranty – Even though this was technically covered under the “first” warranty, I bought the AppleCare plan, which extends coverage through 2010 (and, more importantly, covers the entire time I’m in school). The charge for replacing the hard-drive was $317 (free for me). AppleCare was $150.
  3. Don’t Believe the Hype – Apple’s are cute. They’re stylish. They’re funky and hip and sleek. Their software is easier to use. Their laptops weigh less. All of this is important. But, they are not bomb-proof. Do not let anyone – no matter how cute, persuasive, or fanatical they may be (Brent) – tell you that an Apple will never fail you. See #1. Learn it. Live it.

Take it from me – Friends don’t let friends trust computers.

The last two weeks have been difficult, but I’m starting to find my stride. Lots of reading (we’re already on page 233 in Criminal Law – and not very far off from that in 3 other classes) and lots of busy work in my legal research and writing class. It seems to come in waves, though, so just when I’m losing it, there is a small break to catch up again. Every time I take a day off over the weekend, I regret it. So if I can get a solid 5-6 hours of studying in each day, I’m in a good position for the week.

Some surprises

As with most things, the instructor sets the stage for whether or not you’ll like something, but who knew that I’d like Criminal Law so much? My professor is a well-respected defense attorney who is dynamic, challenging, and organized (a rare law professor quality, I’m finding). He certainly puts us through our paces in class, facilitating tough sessions of Socratic Twister (right brain Blue!), but at the end of the class, I know exactly what I was supposed to learn. My notes read like outlines. Love it.

He also runs his class by the Designated Hitter Rule – he lets you know in the prior class if you are “on deck” next class, and you are expected to know your stuff and be the subject matter expert for that class. He chooses Hitters by going through the class list alpha order, so since I’m close to the top, I was a Hitter last week. The preparation was nerve-wracking, but I figured out that it isn’t about the home runs – the trick is getting the base hit. Small successes often mean as much as the big wins. It helped that I was assigned the Michael Milken and RI nightclub fire cases (two cases I already know a lot about), but I did pretty well and my self-esteem boosted a bit for the rest of the day as a result.

Another surprise is that I quite like my Contracts class. It could be that my business education has predisposed me to analyze contracts and transactions more than the average bear, but I enjoy defending the small business person against a lender who claims that spending $10,000 for a business trip to Asia wasn’t an operating expense (hey, she could have been talking to manufacturers about making her gadget to sell in Wal-Mart! We are in a global economy…). It’s also fun to read about a bunch of drunk hicks who make a deal to sell a family farm for $50,000 on the back of a customer ticket at a bar and argue about whether or not it’s an enforceable contract (it was in that case).

Some things never change

Student groups are a big thing in law school (networking, resume building, blah, blah, blah), but I resolved not to join anything my first semester. I couldn’t resist, though, when the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund club announced their first meeting. New Mexico not being much of an activitist State, I had almost forgotten how crazy animal people can come off. The president of this club is what I would define as “militant.” She’s more concerned about turning everyone into vegetarians and boycotting Babe movies than in legal advocacy. Although I agree with a lot of her views (I consider myself an Ethical Vegetarian, after all), I’m more interested in the low-hanging fruit – like making cock-fighting a felony and enacting stricter penalties for companion animal abuse and neglect. The traditional animal welfare/rights rhetoric turns the average person off, and this girl looks like a whack-job. It is my new mission to either soften her message, or to lay in wait until she graduates at the end of the year and stage a coup.