Monday, July 30, 2012

Training a Lawyer

After three years of higher education and after about $100-200,000 of constantly accruing debt, law grads enter a packed job market. A market where these fresh, newly-appointed esquires, find their skills are not needed.
 While the national unemployment rate is 8.2% as of May 2012 according to the United States  Bureau of Labor Statistics, the current unemployment rate for new law school graduates is 85.6%, according to a press release by the Association for Legal Career Professionals. According to that same release only 65.4% of the recent grads who did find work acquired a job for which bar passage is required.
            Even the graduates who pass the bar and obtain one of these few illusive positions where a fledgling attorney can actually use his/her lengthy, expensive education, are not generally prepared to practice.
            “Law school prepares you to pass the bar exam, not to practice law, not to be a lawyer,” Stephanie Anderson explained. Anderson graduated from University of Missouri—Kansas City (UMKC) School of Law in 2011 and subsequently passed the Missouri Bar.
“Law school teaches you to be competitive and then you will get ahead.  Some of the top people in my class will make horrible attorneys because they have no people skills, no ability to negotiate. They memorized stuff for the exam and studied the hardest. This does not necessarily mean you will be a good attorney,” elaborated Autumn Huston, who received her J.D. from St. Thomas University Law School in Florida and her L.L.M. from George Washington University Law School in Washington D.C.
            Everyone I met related to the legal practice, the proverbial “they,” say about law school that, “The first year they scare you to death, the second year they work you to death and the third year they bore you to death.” With the help of hindsight, (I graduated in May 2012) I have verified this statement’s accuracy.
            The first year they bring you in, cocky but scared, excited but apprehensive, and intelligent but ignorant. Everyone thinks they know, and few know what they don’t know. Two days of property class fixed that problem for me.
After a short time in law school I began to experience feelings reminiscent of an epistemology class I took in undergrad. In epistemology, the philosophical study of knowledge, we discussed what we could and could not ever know. I accepted that I could never know whether or not I was a figment of my own or someone else’s, imagination, a character in a play or even a brain in a vat. But once I realized I knew nothing, I could actually learn something. The first year of law school has the same effect.
“The first year provided an excellent overview of the main areas,” Josh Wiseman who graduated from UMKC this May explained. Every law student spends the first year in basic core classes, contracts, property, torts (injury to one’s person or property aka lawsuits), criminal law, civil procedure, constitutional law and legal writing courses.
They’re not kidding when they say that the second year works you to death. At this point students begin to branch off onto their varying veins of study. Some walk on a clear-cut path, others search for their way through the weeds and vines of trial and error. Still, certain advanced core classes, such as a Uniform Commercial Code class (a code pertaining to commercial contracts), are required.
While the 2Ls progress and choose their own classes, professors pile on the work. The classes descend deeper into a subject matter. The reading assignments weigh heavier. The workload takes over. Many disappear into their 2L year, barely ever coming up for air, for food or even, for beer, although the law school organizations do provide substantial opportunities for free-spirited distractions.
And, amongst the rising tide of second year, 2Ls begin the job search. These students scour the local law offices, the happy hours, desperate for any connection, any driplet of experience to develop their still-in-developmental-stage skills.
“I got a job but a lot of people couldn’t,” Wiseman said leaning back in his school office chair, “So I got experience that other people didn’t.”
“Without my internships, I wouldn’t have known what I was doing,” Sarah Werner, a UMKC School of Law graduate supposed. Werner further explained that she gained a bounty of theoretical skills, but few tangible skills from her classroom experiences. 
“In the overall perspective, they drag it out too much. We have to take required classes for stuff we won’t ever do,” Wiseman added.
“Law school is too long. Six semesters is not necessary,” Chris Hawkins a recent UMKC graduate protested.
3L year is spent finishing up core classes and trying to procure a career. Class, the readings and the work seem to have moved slower 3L year. As their brains became lawyers, classes that would have seemed dreadfully impossible the year before were conquered with ease.
Hawkins described these growing reflexes as the Smell Test, the ability to analyze with the background of life experience to find what factor does not fit, even if you have no clue why. The smell test, Hawkins clarifies, “Is a reason, a spot to dig.”
“We learned to think like lawyers, Catalina Velarde, another UMKC graduate asserted. “It’s a very positive change. I feel I’m a better listener, participant in news and everything around me.”
Even though they can think like attorneys, these graduates do not feel able to act as attorneys.
“It’s one thing to know what the book says. I need to know what I can actually use,” Trisha Green a UMKC Juris Doctorate expressed with a cool frustration.
Some teachers seem to recognize the student’s desires or needs such as Francis Hannah who teaches a variety of property-related classes at UMKC. Hawkins and Wiseman took Hannah’s estate planning and trust class in which each student assisted a client. Each student was responsible for contacting the client, interviewing and communicating with the client, and preparing an estate plan for the client. Both students claimed they learned significant skills such as counseling and drafting during the process.
            At the end of May the Juris Doctorates graduate and celebrate. About two weeks later preparations for the state bar exam begin, and the anti-climax plummets, They spend the next two months wading and swimming in, surrounded and engulfed by, law. The law consumes them. Life becomes one continuous hypothetical where friends, family and even strangers become part of a continuous fact pattern, a legal problem to solve.
            But the bar, as put by several Barbri professors, is not real life. Barbri is a bar preparation program that a high proportion of preppers use. Those who take the bar must memorize the elements of 17 areas of law so that they’re prepared for each element to be chosen among the lucky few for on essay portion.
            “I don’t know what they’re trying to do with that test,” Angela Dudley, a 2011 UMKC graduate, and current Jackson County court clerk illustrated by shaking her head. “Most of what they test is stuff you have to look up, that you would never need to know on the spot.”
             Velarde described the bar as “a hazing ritual, a rite of passage.”
Taking the test elucidated this purpose to me, and I found the experience enlightening, but I still believe that a law license should mean something more than having passed a written test.
            Among the extensive pool of law grads I talked to throughout the last few months, including many I met in Jefferson City at the bar test, few feel prepared to practice law. However, 89% of those who took the test in 2011 passed, according to the, a bar review web site. While most bar takers pass, and thus receive licenses to practice law, most do not feel qualified to do so.
            Many of these graduates believed some sort of adaptation was necessary. Several suggested the third year be transformed to more closely resemble programs for medicine, dentistry and psychology. Students of these professions must complete extensive clinical experience before they are released to fend for themselves or, more accurately, for patients.
These recent Juris Doctorates did not seem to be complaining about their education, because they praised its ability to instill issue spotting, research and analytical skills that will serve them as attorneys. However, they thirst to learn more about performing their daily tasks so that they’re ready before they are released into the wild.  
            The law profession requires, or allows, students to find their own experience while they’re in school and after. While this system does create positive senses of autonomy and competition, it can lead to ineffective attorneys if the job market lacks positions. While some students were unable to find jobs, and thus experience, they still may pass the bar.
            I tried talking to a Washington University School of Law graduate who sat next to me at the bar exam. In response to my questioning about the insufficiency of this test to determine our capabilities as lawyers, he answered that he was counting on poor lawyers passing so that he could get ahead of them. I would have written his name down, but we were not allowed to bring anything into the test.
            Despite this sometimes prevailing attitude, an attorney is meant to be an advocate. A lawyer’s purpose, Dudley explained, is to “Do what a client needs and wants. You do the best you can for your client, provide a service to them.”  
            For a more client-centered approach, graduates requested classes in the technical and practical aspects of lawyering.
            UMKC does have clinics and a writing program available to teach some of these skills, such as a solo practitioner clinic that Anderson regretted not taking, but these classes are optional.  The consensus from recent graduates shows that students want and, think they need, a greater emphasis on clinical experience. They think that law schools should not only offer, but require more clinic hours.  
            Justin Sullivan, a UMKC grad explained his experience in an advanced legal writing course this semester. The class required students to draft letters to fictional clients and attorneys as well as court documents. The class also required participation in a motion for summary judgment.
As Alex Edelman, another UMKC grad explained, “Legal writing needs more resources,” Edelman also thought the writing program at UMKC could be improved by a different teaching method. Now, the teachers give a vague explanation, let students try on their own, then turn in an assignment to be graded. “You can’t just tell someone how to do it by knowing how to do it,” Edelman added.
Sullivan thought the advanced writing course improved upon this issue from the introductory courses. The advanced course, under Professor Aaron House, allowed students a chance to rewrite their drafts to improve their skills and their grades.
However, Sullivan appended, “The direction is unclear and geared towards people with experience. The guys who knock it out in class, have jobs and already do it every day, but I’m not saying you should punish the successful.” Some teacher’s lack of clarity might be meant to encourage and force students to figure problems out for themselves, a skill that attorneys must possess, but students want to know how to do it correctly for sure not matter what “it” is.  
Thus, Edelman stressed his belief that a higher percentage of school funding should be invested in the legal writing program because of the program’s significance in creating useful attorneys. He clarified, “A school’s biggest accomplishment should be in training lawyers, not in scholarship”

A Lawyer's Purpose

A debt collection law firm in Columbia, Missouri hands out the “Shark of the Month” award for employee excellence. While most lawyers try to evade this label, Faber and Brand, LLC has embraced the designation.
            Early on in law school they explained to us that because attorneys are associated with the most negative experiences in people’s lives such as, divorces, personal injuries, property disputes, wrongful firings, personal and commercial bankruptcies and criminal accusations, they are destined to own a negative reputation.
“Most lawyers have very good intentions,” Alex Edelman a University of Missouri—Kansas City (UMKC) graduate explained. “The archetype of the $1,000-suit guy at a large firm is a minority.” Edelman added. Most attorneys are at small practices. According to the American Bar Association web site, a study from 2005 states that only 1% of attorneys worked at a firm with over 100 lawyers while 76% worked at a firm of two to five attorneys.
            A lawyer’s job is, “To protect people’s rights and be an asshole…for whoever needs someone to be an asshole for them,” Tay Schumacher, a UMKC graduate exclaimed curtly. With a job description like Schumacher’s, it’s no wonder that lawyers are viewed so negatively.
A lawyer must be an advocate, do the dirty work, to perform the duties that someone whose emotions are involved is unable to do. But before a lawyer can advocate, she must counsel.
“People just want to be heard, someone to pay attention, to acknowledge that they have a legitimate problem,” Stephanie Anderson, who graduated from UMKC in 2011 and passed the bar the same year explained. The solution, “Depends on the client’s goals, the client’s priorities,” she added. What may be important to one client is not important to another. One client may prefer to have a judge or jury tell them they’re right, and another just wants the problem to go away with as little disturbance as possible, Anderson clarified. While the first client will want to go to court, the second may prefer private negotiations.
Early on in law school they told us that attorneys are gatekeepers of knowledge. Attorneys know how to spot the issues and where to look for answers. Edelman explained that a lawyer’s job is to perform the issue spotting that the public just isn’t trained to do.
After the important variables have been isolated, an attorney must determine the appropriate action, the solution.
“People get so involved in the emotional aspect and don’t know how to proceed,” so a lawyer must, “get the problem to its basic core and go from there,” Anderson testified. She added that many people do not understand the system and that they immediately assume a lawsuit is the best solution, when a personalized letter may be sufficient. Anderson asserted that part of an attorney’s power just comes from awareness of certain resources.
“Lawyers help the world go ‘round,” Chris Hawkins, who intends to work in estate planning claimed. “People need help with estates, trusts, wills and its difficult stuff to do,” Hawkins spoke thoughtfully. Hawkins described how he wants to help people control how their assets are saved and distributed, that he wants to help ensure that his future client’s desires are met even after that are deceased. A client will come to Hawkins, explain to whom and when he wants to pass his land, his money, his stocks, his record collection, his Ty Cobb rookie card. Hawkins will be charged with finding the most appropriate method, but there may not only be one answer.
Trusts and wills can interact with each other with varying results, and there exist countless options that I have never heard of. Hawkins’ specialized knowledge and research capabilities will help him determine a proper course of action, to practice appropriately, although there may be multiple acceptable solutions.  
We use the term practice to describe an attorney’s job, like they use the word practice in medicine, Angela Dudley stated, adding that there’s no one right way to perform lawyerly tasks. One attorney might omit an argument when another attorney chooses to concentrate on it. Even another attorney might vary in how she makes the same argument.  
If nothing else a lawyer brings an air of seriousness to a situation. Hiring a lawyer shows that the client is taking action, Anderson added. “[Then,] it’s not just you; it’s you and an attorney.” The attorney provides backup, the muscle and sometimes the balance.
Lawyers are necessary, Carl Scarborough explained discussing the often frowned-upon criminal defense attorney. “Their role isn’t so much to get the guilty to run free, but to have fairness in the system, to make sure it works properly. “Before I looked down on them as trying to keep scum bags on the street, but now I see the both sides of the argument.”
These attorneys provide a power check to the prosecutor to prevent a drumhead court room, to protect defendants from being railroaded. Thus, as Scarborough defended, an attorney’s presence simply allows the adversarial system to work properly. Each party needs a proponent or one party will be regularly ravaged.
However, many people rightfully complain that lawyers overcomplicate the justice system.
“It’s upsetting to me,” Schumacher stated solemnly, “when people think they know [their rights] and they don’t. Maybe it’s our fault, the court’s fault for making things so convoluted.”
Sarah Werner, a UMKC grad, told an anecdote about several individuals, opposing sides from the Universities of Missouri and Kansas, arguing over who had the first homecoming. Each rival held early homecoming-like celebration and the issue is repeatedly debated.
One party claimed their school said the word “homecoming” first, while the other insisted the word itself did not matter because their side held a homecoming-like gathering that predated the word “homecoming.”  Both claims to the invention are reasonable, but both parties would have made the opposite argument were they on the opposing side.
With attorneys the debate keeps going around in a circle, until a judge or jury makes a decision one way or the other. If both sides have legitimate arguments, then one does not have to be right and the other wrong.  Both could be right. Both could be wrong. The solution is likely to be in the middle in the mess between facts and law and not necessarily with one party or the other.
Catalina Velarde, a UMKC Juris Doctorate stated sadly, “It kills me that sometimes whoever arranges the words the prettiest wins.”


The following stories started as one question: “What is your favorite part of the Constitution?” As my classmates answered, the story cultivated itself. As my sources spoke I found direction, an unmapped course, a winding route of potential. My question and source lists expanded, and a project emerged among the scribbled pages in my haggard notebook.
These posts are editorials I’ve put together to try to tell the story of my 3L class as we walk into an empty job market wracked with accumulating debt. I’ve interviewed fellow classmates and a few other Juris Doctorates who are legally certified attorneys. I thank everyone for taking their time out to talk to me. I had planned to write an entire article but realized I fall unfortunately short in regards to balance.
I wanted to file a complete story, but the Bar came first. I had to complete my primary objective because I signed up and I had no plans to fail. So, I want to put what I’ve compiled, a subjective view of law school, law and lawyers as told by my classmates and myself.
I’ve interviewed mostly recent UMKC grads so the perspective is limited. To finish this story correctly, I need to interview underclassman, potential law students, professors, members of any Board of Law Examiners, practicing attorneys of all ages, disciplines, experiences and jurisdictions, members of the medical field and citizens in general.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

State of Mind...Under a Week to Go

I went to the law school for an hour today. The building crawled with frantic soon-to-be attorneys, milling about, chatting about a practice test many of them just took.

Loners broke from the pack, hiding silently surrounded by their carrel desks or behind stacks of books upstairs in the back corner of the library. Splinter cells amassed in every room, behind every wall, every window.

Shops were set up. Fortresses had been constructed. Walls of blackletter law barricaded these study-bingers from the rest of the world. Bridgeless moats filled with chomping gators warded off any would-be interrupters.

Some shoulders hunched at computer screens, others laid back on couches or comfortable chairs in the lounge. Books, folders, binders, papers, note cards, pens and highlighters scattered across every table.

Anxiety, fear, intensity, dedication and perseverance dangled thickly in the air. I could smell the mental sweat. I could hear the wheels turning. I could see the effort, the desperation, the determination as they burrowed deeply into their books. 

As for me I switch where I study practically by the hour. I do a session at one coffee shop, a session at home for lunch, an afternoon session at another coffee shop then back home to finish up. The order is not the same each time but you get the idea. The walk from Westport to home to 39th street refreshes my dwindling spirit. The sun, the heat, the sweat recharges a bored, drained mind.

5 hours and 25 minutes under a week from now I will be finished with the bar. I will have completed my obligation as a law student, to myself. Book II will be closed and the epilogue will consist of hurried packing before I return home to start Book III.

I write, I listen to music and I read other material to keep my mind going, to refresh my dehydrated mind.

Can I please get a montage?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Just say illegal searches

Before you read this post understand that NOTHING I SAY IS LEGAL ADVICE. Duh, Alex, that's the name of your blog. Well, it's worth repeating since I'm trying to explain some of your rights. I just want you to know that I'm only studying basic law and there are probably elements or exceptions that I don't know about, and I have to cover my own butt when relaying information relating to anything that could be considered close to a legal suggestion. The following is a hypothetical situation intended only for educational purposes. I do not intend to encourage you to break any law.

So you're driving along, maybe a little fast, with a fat sack of reefer in a backpack in your back seat, and an illegal British immigrant and a loaded machine gun in your trunk. I'm not really sure what you're doing, but that's none of my business. You get pulled over by a police officer because your blinker didn't blink when you changed lanes, a perfectly legitimate reason to stop you, but a pain in the ass nonetheless.

Don't freak out. Be polite and answer the officer's questions, but say no more. And if he asks to search your vehicle, you have a Constitutional right to decline. Unless of course, he has probable cause to search. Then you're at his mercy.

Generally, a police officer needs a warrant to search your property (I'll explain warrants another time). However, there a few exceptions. One of these relates to automobiles.

If a police officer has a probable cause, or PC, to believe that a vehicle contains fruits, instrumentalities or evidence of a crime, they may search the whole vehicle and any container that might REASONABLY contain the item for which they had probable cause to search.

What is probable cause? I'm glad you asked.

Probable cause requires trustworthy facts or knowledge sufficient for a reasonable person to believe that the suspect has committed or is committing a crime.

The officer approaches your window and asks you if you were aware that you didn't signal when you moved back to the right lane after passing a slow driver. Of course you signal, you always signal. I guess your light must be out.

Even though your eyes are clear and you show no sign of wrongdoing, the officer asks what you've been up to, if you have any contraband. You reply politely but sternly, "No sir."

The officer glances at your friend who seems a little nervous, isn't looking at the officer, and your passenger's eyes appear blitzed, red, squinted and hazy. Although the officer can't see your passenger's eyes clearly, he asks to search your car.

YOU CAN SAY NO. Just be polite. DON'T BE A SMARTASS and you can get your ticket and move on your way.

However, this comes to another warrant exception, consent. A warrantless search is valid if the police have a voluntary consent. I'm telling you this because knowledge of the right not to consent is not a prerequisite for voluntariness. IT DOESN'T MATTER WHETHER YOU  KNOW YOU CAN REFUSE CONSENT OR NOT. If you consent to the search and he finds your gun, nugs, and human contraband, well you're going to jail.

Let it be noted that when consent is given, the consenter must have authority to do so.

Let's say your freaked out passenger tells the cop to go ahead and search. Well, if you don't object then the cop can go ahead and scour your vehicle for contraband.

Anyone with an apparent equal right to use or occupy the property may consent to a search, and evidence found may be used against the other owners or occupants. However, an occupant cannot give a valid consent to a search when a co-occupant is present and objects to the search and the search is directed against the co-occupant.

So, ASSERT YOUR RIGHTS. Politely decline. If the officer asks why, you can tell him you're in a hurry, you can tell him you know your rights, you can tell him any reason you can think of, but as I said before, DON'T BE A SMARTASS. He might imply that you're hiding something. He might straight up ask if you're hiding something, but you should know that your mere refusal to a search is not sufficient grounds for probable cause.

However, if your nervous friends spurts out something about the bag, the gun, or the Brit, then you're sunk. An admission like this is almost certainly sufficient to give a reasonable person the belief that your car contains contraband, so choose your friends wisely.

The scope of the search depends on what your passenger admits to. The officer can search in any container that could hold whatever contraband he reasonably believes you possess. If your passenger admits to the stowaway, then the officer can pretty much only search the trunk, or a portion of the car that could reasonably contain a human being. He could not search the backpack...yet.

However, once the officer finds the illegal immigrant you're going to jail, and he can search the entire car incident to arrest. Before you're secured and may still gain access to the car, the officer can make a protective sweep of the entire area of which you have control (to prevent you from pulling out a weapon and attacking him) which is pretty much the entire car. He can also search the entire passenger area if he reasonably believes that it contains evidence for the offense for which you are being arrested may be found there. I'm not sure if he would have reason to believe the passenger car contained evidence in this case.

After you, your passenger and the stowaway have been taken to jail your automobile will be impounded. At this point the police, if the department has a standard operating procedure, may search your ENTIRE VEHICLE, for inventory purposes (This is done to make sure you don't sue them for conversion, or taking your property. Nice of them, huh?) At this point they'll find the gun and the nugs too and there's nothing you can do about it. It doesn't matter at this point that they weren't looking for that specific contraband.

I hope the previous post has been informative. Lawyers, if I'm wrong, please enlighten us.

In the jungle

Law, elements, and exceptions rise up around me like thick trees, the densely populated, vast expanse of a jungle. I hack through hearsay. I uproot Criminal Procedure. I trip on the ancient low-hanging vines of Property.

I hike, I wander, I wonder, I trek through the depths, through the brush and swamps. The sky eludes me, blacked out by the overhanging limbs, concealed by foliage. No wind, no rain, only a sweaty heat causing my clothes to cling tightly to my skin. I wipe off my brow only to have the droplets replaced within seconds.

I'm surrounded by law, engulfed by its elements, entrenched by exceptions. I force my feet forward. Although I see no light, the only way out is to keep moving. No time to stop. No time to drink. No time to eat. Just keep moving. Just keep moving forward until a sliver of light appears among the foggy shade.

In reality I have barely exercised in days. I'm living off the fried food I pillage from 39th street. My main fuel is caffeine. I have set up camps at a series of coffee houses and restaurants. I can feel my stomach expanding, my face bloating, my cholesterol rising, my physical endurance waning as my mental stamina cultivates.

I don't mean this to sound like Chris Taylor writing home to his grandma in Platoon, but I guess it turned out that way. Okay, maybe I did a little bit, but I feel better now. Thanks.

I'll try to get back to some kind of consistency on here for the next two weeks. Two weeks until the rest of my life.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Bar Approaches...A poem

The Bar approaches, the time is near, the trial, the undertaking.

The journey, the struggle to improve our minds, our task we cannot be faking.

A monster, the boss at the end of the game, but jump on his head enough,

Evade his fire, his thrashing tail, and he will later not seem so tough.

Our brains punch-drunk, our minds wired shut, trapped in the laws' depth and darkness,

The blackletter jaws, clamp down on our necks, choking out all the brightness.

But if we put in our time, our rhythm and rhyme, we will grow strong with every hypo.

The monster will cower, all his bitter and sour, he'll be revealed as a lowly old troll.

We'll move past the bridge, a hindrance no longer, a clear path to greener pastures.

So we dig our heels deep, chug, crawl or creep, because this just won't go any faster.