Everything you’ve learned is on trial

I’ve written here about negotiationclient counseling, and moot court before, in a competition context. In addition, as part of many BU Law classes, students have to participate in simulated trials or pretrial processes. Negotiation and client counseling are offered as classes, for example. This semester, I’m enrolled in mediation and trial advocacy, practical courses with a significant participation requirement.

Trial advocacy (and the fall component, pretrial advocacy) is required for participation in my clinical program. Recently, I had my final mock trial, the culmination of the course and 50 percent of our grade. We had a previous trial worth 25 percent and a series of writing trial document and trial-related preparation assignments totaling 25 percent.

The trial is a stressful exercise, but it’s meant to be. It starts with reading a detailed fact pattern and exhibit packet, learning who your partner is, and who your opponents are. Teams are expected to coordinate exhibits and stipulations with each other. We have to recruit “jurors” and a “witness,” and meet in a pretrial conference to go over which exhibits the sides agree to admit or exclude, and which ones we plan to contest. We are also assigned to a judge (in our case, a practicing trial attorney volunteering his day for us), with whom we must file pretrial motions on a tight deadline.

My terrific husband agreed to serve as my side’s witness, and I spent days preparing him for his role as the defendant in a vehicular accident negligence case. Fortunately, he’s a good sport, so I could drill him on facts about his character like, “What’s your doctor’s name? How many beers did you have before getting in the car? What is the speed limit in Kenmore Square?” while he did the dishes! By the day of the trial, he had his role down cold, and he acted very much like a real witness would in a trial.

The BU Law Redstone Building Moot Courtroom (note all the amazing technology — lots of room for showing off electronic exhibits)

My partner and I divided up tasks like motion writing, exhibit preparation, direct and cross examination, and the opening and closing statements. We practiced in front of each other and with anyone else who would listen. We felt very ready heading into the school courtroom, suited up and with an armload of binders.

Still, this wasn’t this judge’s first rodeo. He was very good at calling us out on rookie mistakes like sitting on the wrong side, justifying an objection after it’s been overruled, or failing to submit our stipulations into evidence. And just to be sure we didn’t get too cocky, he threw in a couple of curveballs, like granting the plaintiff summary judgment on our counterclaim and forcing me to rewrite the closing argument on the fly. It was realistic, exciting, and highly educational.

Fortunately for us (though, I assume, irrelevant to our grade), the jury saw things our way and ruled in our client’s favor. Frankly, it felt really good, even if it was just dumb luck based on a simulated fact pattern.

A Day in the Life

I’ve mentioned before a few times that I’m a dual degree student at BU. In essence, I’m pursuing both my J.D. and my M.A. in History concurrently; the two schools allow me to share some credits so that I can graduate after three years, having taken no extra classes and paid no extra tuition, with two degrees. It is, to say the least, a good bargain.

Despite its advantages, not a lot of BU Law students enroll in dual degree programs, probably because law school has so many options for credits already – clinic, study abroad, semester in practice, externships, and etc. I’ve only been in the program for two semesters, but I really love it, so I’ve decided to write a post explaining what a day in the life of a dual degree student looks like.

A (Semi) Typical Wednesday

  • I woke up early to finish some reading for my Evidence class. I also read over the rough draft of a paper from one of my classmates in my history class, The Historian’s Craft.
  • I got to school around noon for my 12:50 Evidence class.
  • Evidence ended at 2:00, and, coincidentally, it was Student Appreciation Day! There was free ice cream and BU stuff – pens, cups, bottle openers, that kind of stuff – all over the building, so my friends and I sat in the café and talked for about 45 minutes before I had to go to my history class.
  • Luckily for me, the history building is about a block from the law school. I walked over at 3:00 (in the middle of a random hail storm, might I add – the weather in Boston is a special kind of torture).
  • History class consisted of a brief meeting with our instructor to talk about administrative stuff, and then I paired up with one of my classmates to give detailed feedback on our drafts. We’ve been working on these papers all semester, and we finally have full drafts! My paper, which has to have both legal and history analysis as part of my program, is about how newspaper coverage of one specific trial reveals contrasting emotional communities that existed at the time. I know, complicated. My partner gave me some great feedback, and class, which normally goes until 6:00, was done by 4:30.
  • I grabbed an early dinner at the Thai place across the street and then headed back to the law school to do some reading for my Trusts, Wills, and Estates class the next morning.
  • At 8:00, I helped to judge an argument for the 1L moot court that all BU Law students have to participate in. I’ve been very involved with optional moot courts this year, so it was a ton of fun to be on the other side of the bench and get to play the role of judge for once.
  • I got home around 10:30 and did some reading for my First Amendment class the next afternoon, and finally got to bed around midnight.

Lest I scare you away from the dual degree program (or law school in general) and in the interest of full disclosure, that’s not really a typical day for me. It was a LONG, busy day, which is much more common in April than earlier in the semester. And the judging thing was totally voluntary – I am not typically at school at 10:00 at night.

Nonetheless, that particular does demonstrate one of the difficulties (and also one of the most fun parts) of the dual degree program. Within hours, I have to switch from learning the somewhat formulaic Federal Rules of Evidence to giving detailed feedback to my partner on whether or not I think a transnationalist interpretation of Benito Cereno effectively supports his argument about Melville’s perceptions of the slave trade. I love both of those things separately, but I occasionally get academic whiplash in trying to switch my brain from law to history and back again all in the course of the same day.

1L in 1Word

I asked fifty people in my first year section to describe either their experiences as a 1L or the culture at BU Law in one word. I wanted to offer a reflection of this year from someone other than just myself so that others can see the range of perspectives from an entire 1L section (or the majority of a 1L section). I’ve been privileged this year to share my first year education with former French professors, snowboard instructors, engineers, and everything in between. In a classroom filled with languages ranging from Russian to Korean to varying dialects of Spanish and fellow colleagues coming from everywhere in between Puerto Rico, Seoul, New York, and Miami, my experiences as a 1L have been enriched by the many backgrounds of all my classmates. In a community of students who came straight through from undergrad like myself to students who taught English abroad in Europe for a year to others who worked on political campaigns or in legal environments, it’s incredible how much I’ve learned about and from the group of students who sit in Room 211 five days a week.

Law school can certainly be a harrowing experience at times but the great thing I’ve experienced this year is that everyone is really trying to get through it together. I can sincerely say that I’ve enjoyed waking up every day (well, most days) to come to the Redstone building and engage with my classmates and continue to learn about everyone’s unique interests and hobbies outside of the law. The 68 seats in my first year section are filled with runners, chefs, ballerinas, symphony-enthusiast, ASL song-interpreters and the list could go on for much longer than I currently have time to write. The interesting and unique thing about 1L year is that it puts a group of competitive, high-achieving adults in a very high-school-like day-to-day structure. Law School, like a lot of things in life, is largely what you make of it and while asking fifty people to comment on their experience may seem like a fair amount, I should also note that there’s two other first year sections who are not represented (largely because finals are in about two weeks and so asking another hundred students will have to happen some other time).

The Dean’s words from orientation have resonated with me this entire year and as I approach my final weeks as a 1L (I should note that my hands are shaking as I type that last phrase while simultaneously  staring at a semester of Property notes), I confidently stand by my initial statement that Boston University School of Law is an exceptional place to be a law student and I am honored and truly proud to be a part of such a community. So attached is Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 10.20.10 PMa wide range of words my awesome section-mates would use to describe their experience this past year or the culture at BU Law.

Justice Through Litigation: Books to Read

If you’re an incoming or prospective law student, you may spend some time wondering about how you’ll make a difference in the world with your law degree. You may wonder if you’ll make a difference in some individual lives, or you may wonder how you can get involved in bigger legal issues that touch important public policies.

If you’re entering law school hoping to make change through judicial rule making, I encourage you to read the following two books to get two different perspectives on how such cases can go. I think these books really well together to illustrate both the potential and limitations of cases that are supposed to create precedent and change.

First, I highly recommend both Gideon’s Trumpet and The Buffalo Creek Disaster. Gideon’s Trumpet tells the story of the case which established our the right of a criminal defendant to an attorney even if they cannot afford it. The Buffalo Creek Disaster tells the story of the legal battle of the survivor’s of a disastrous flood caused by a badly maintained, privately owned dam. The case from this book was the first in which civil damages were awarded for PTSD. Both stories are suspenseful and inspirational. Together they illustrate how litigation can create new precedents that change the law and how we see things.

In comparison, I also highly recommend The Lost Children of Wilder. This book follows a case brought by the ACLU against the state of New York for discrimination in its foster care system. The case spanned several decades, and even though the ACLU attorneys “won” in the end, the book shows how limited the effect of that win was. The book alternates between following the case as it progresses through court and following the head plaintiff, Shirley Wilder. As the case clunks through the system, Shirley is moved from one bad foster situation to another, eventually giving birth to a son who himself is taken into foster care. By the time the case is resolved, Shirley is dying of aids and addicted to drugs, while her son is a single father who is homeless on and off and works as a barber. To me, this case artfully showed how a ‘winning’ case can still fail its plaintiffs and in addition, fail to make the sweeping institutional changes it sought.

I didn’t make it all the way through it myself, but I think that A Civil Action could be another good read illustrating the limited reach of plaintiff’s litigation. As a plus, both A Civil Action and Gideon’s Trumpet have been made into movies, so you have an alternative way of enjoying them!

So, if you’re looking for some pre-law school reading material and food for thought, these are the books I recommend!

Run Sarah, Run!

This week, the school has been abuzz with talk of last Saturday’s annual “Ambulance Chase” – BU Law’s annual 5K, where professors, students, staff, and alums engage in a grand race down the Charles River. The Ambulance Chase is the great leveler, a perpetual source of friendly ribbing among professors and students. When it all comes down to it, your professors seem far less intimidating when they’re shivering at the starting line in jogging pants and sneakers just like you.

While I missed the festivities this year because I was in snowy Salem taking the MPRE (the dreaded legal ethics exam all law students must take in order to become licensed to practice law), the event made me stop and think about how running has been an integral part of my journey towards becoming a lawyer.

In past posts, I have mentioned that the BU law campus is about a two-minute walk from the glorious Charles River. What I probably haven’t quite conveyed is just how much I love running there. There’s no feeling quite like grappling for hours with a seemingly impossible topic within the law, then leaving your books in the library to jog along the Esplanade. The graceful swoosh of crew boats passing by and the sailboats fluttering along has a strange way of helping all those discombobulated ideas suddenly fall into place and make perfect sense.

Boston is a city made for runners. The city actually plows some of the running trails around the city. Like the USPS, people take great pride in running through all weather conditions. Runners and non-runners alike rally together for the Boston marathon – Marathon Monday is actually a holiday in the city! And when the sun is shining, the river is packed with serious athletes, grandmas in swishy jogging suits, moms with strollers, professors, high school teams, and everybody in between, all out to stretch their legs and breathe in the fresh air.

It’s important to have that “something” in law school to refocus your mind, calm your stress, and remind your heart exactly why you came to law school. For me, when the sun is shining and the ice is melting, that thing is running. I rehearsed my moot court speech, practiced things I might want to say during interviews, and thought through every presentation I’ve given in law school while running down the river.

The moral of this story is not – contrary to how this may sound – to advocate running. It kills your knees and does weird things to your feet. Rather, the moral of the story is to keep doing what you love while you’re in school. If you let go of cooking or playing the tuba or whatever it is that makes you tick, it’s easy for the stress that inevitably comes from the day-to-day to make you forget why you quit your job or uprooted your life or whatever else it is you did to get to law school. For me, running is the thing that helps me sort the clutter of life from the things that I should be appreciating. It gets me out of my world and thrusts me into something different and beautiful. It clears my mind. That spring is finally here makes it all the better! Lace up your shoes, BU – there are more Ambulance Chases to come!