The Best Of The Best

Tonight the 87th Academy Awards will take place in Hollywood. At this time last year Matthew McConaughey won an Oscar and I blogged about the best parts of my 2L year at BU Law.  I don’t really have any Oscar predictions for this year, but I would like to reflect on the best parts on my 3L year so far. The envelope please…

Oscars-180x300Best Course: Administrative Rulemaking in Health Law

I am a big fan of courses that allow you to gain practical experience while in law school. It’s that kind of experience that will prepare you for the legal field after graduation. Admin Law is a great course for learning about the structure and rules of government agencies, but actually interacting with an agency is something else entirely. Professor Outterson’s course allows you to take a hands-on approach to how regulations are implemented by commenting on proposed rules from health-related agencies. I am glad that I was able to take this course the first time it was offered at BU Law. I hope that it is offered again, as it is a shining example of what makes BU Law’s Health Law program so special.

Best Professor: Mark Pettit

Some of you may have taken or are taking Contracts with Professor Pettit. I did not have the pleasure of taking that class with him, but I am happy to say that I am in his Evidence class this semester. Professor Pettit brings an energy and enthusiasm to the classroom that truly keeps his students engaged in whatever subject matter he is teaching. He switches things up by showing law-related videos in class, then asking legal questions about them (along with whether you know the movie or the actors). Best of all, he sings student-written songs in class about whichever topic he may be covering that day. His voice is just as great as his teaching style!

Take a moment to recognize the course or professor that has made an impact on you this year. Who would you give an award to?

Your friendly local law student can’t give you legal advice (& she’s sorry for it.)

A couple of days ago I received an email from a friend of a family member of mine asking for my help in understanding an issue of tax law. I’ve been asked to give advice on the law or legal systems a few times now in law school and every time I’ve had to decline. If you find yourself in this situation in law school, you’ll likely need to decline as well.

It’s illegal in the US to practice law without a license. As students, we are unlicensed (unless we have a student license, in which case we can’t work without supervision.) In addition, it is a violation of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct for an attorney to do work which he/she is not competent to do. Violating either of these rules could have real consequences for law student, as it might affect your ability to get licensed and/or lead to personal liability.

When family members and friends come to me with questions about the legal system I always want to help them, but I always find myself assessing in my mind whether or not I’m doing something proper. I don’t want to open myself up to trouble, and I also don’t want to give bad advice. While this carefulness I’ve developed is likely appropriate protection both for myself and for those who trust me to give good advice, it’s a strange new feeling to have my hands tied when I want to be able to help.

In this case, I sent an email to the individual who asked for help directing them to some online resources  (the IRS Publications,) for their own research purposes, and also directed them to the VITA/TCE program, from which they could get free tax help if they qualify. Although I could likely find the right answer for this person, it’s better for them to get advice from someone with some experience (and malpractice insurance.) It’s better for me not to have to worry that I might make a mistake and worry about consequences down the road.

On a final note, this situation makes me mindful of the serious gap between the supply and demand for well-priced and accessible legal services with regard to relatively simple issues. The ‘access to justice’ problem is likely caused by a combination of restrictive licensing laws, malpractice liability, and in no small part, the cost of law school versus the pay scale for a ‘middle market’ lawyer. This reminds me to sign up for more volunteer hours at my VITA/TCE tax preparation center!


Watch and learn

I’ve already sung the praises of “learning by doing” at BU Law in previous posts about clinics, competitions, and internships. I’d like to add that “learning by watching” isn’t so bad, either. In the past two weeks, I had two great watching experiences, first as coach and director of the BU Client Counseling team, and second as a student in Mediation observing two real-life mediators.

The BU Client Counseling team did very well in the regional competition. As a student director/coach, I fortunately did not have to be an expert as much as a supporter and guide. Fortunately, this year’s theme was family law, and as the only coach (of four) with any family law experience, I was a good resource for basic facts, standards, and guidelines.

The competition works by giving teams just one or two sentences to work from, e.g. “Sam Bennington has called you about his/her adoptive daughter who was recently taken from him/her.” From there, the teams have 45 minutes with an actor playing “Sam Bennington” in which to build rapport, explore potential complications, counsel on moral or ethical dilemmas, offer advice and next steps, and then send the client on their way and perform an exacting self-critique. They’re scored on how well they do on all of these things, and given a ranking as compared to all other teams. The best team in a region goes on to nationals; our best BU team came in as regional runners-up, and are alternates for the nationals. Read more about the results (and other BU student competitions) here.

BU Law sent three great teams of two to the regional at Suffolk University Law School.

So what did I learn, and how? I have counseled  a good number of actual clients in clinic, but watching our teams, first at the BU-wide competition where I played the dual roles of client-actor and judge, and then as observer-coach at regionals, I learned about the importance of starting with small talk to put the client at ease. I learned that taking the ‘temperature’ is the most important thing because it helps you set the tone for the rest of the meeting. Getting client goals out early can shape your meeting, but it can also blind you, keeping you from vital questions that get to the hurdles you’ll face later. I found that you should always ask about the good and bad about all players, and carefully assess whether your client is telling you the truth, and what you’ll do if they’re not.

I learned just as much from our teams’ missteps as I did from their successes, and from judges’ feedback. It was a month-long crash course in client counseling, and I didn’t even have to counsel anyone (except my student teams).

In Mediation, our professor does a great job of bringing in experienced guests. Two weeks ago, we had our first mediator guests, two speakers with fascinatingly different styles. They demonstrated how they prepare clients for mediation and how they deliver opening statements, in the context of a real case where a woman sued her investment advisor and his employer

Steven Manchel talked first about how he works hard to tailor his personal appearance to his audience’s expectations. I liked that he had very specific expectations for his clients and worked to convey his seriousness to them. It served as interesting contrast to Gerry Zipser’s much more relaxed approach, which seemed to put more trust in her client’s ability to conduct herself appropriately, but also took into account that her client had more emotional baggage and less of a professional image to uphold than Manchel’s corporate client. Each then delivered a real opening statement.

It prompted me to assess my own style. I decided that if I were preparing a client to enter a mediation, my approach would be somewhere in the middle. It raised questions for me about understanding my clients’ needs: Do they need to be told exactly what to do, or will that approach intimidate or belittle them? Are they more interested in an attorney who has a commanding or “impressive” appearance, or one who can relate to them on their level? How will coaching your client help or hurt your case? What if you tell them not to move and they wind up looking stiff, or afraid? What if you say too little and your client ends up working against herself? Finally, I wondered about what I presumed was a major part of client prep: the managing of expectations.

It might sound like I had more questions in the end than answers, but I love that. The answers will come eventually, but these folks taught me what I ought to be asking. That’s so important.


Thinking Local

With all of the snow we’ve had in Boston recently, small businesses have had a rough go of it. People haven’t gone out shopping as much lately. They’ve been eating out less. Businesses have had to close for days. Valentine’s Day reservations were cancelled. In fact, this week was declared Valentine’s Week by Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker in order to encourage people to support their local shops and restaurants. Mayor Marty Walsh has encouraged Bostonians to do the same. Small businesses are special, and the historic amount of snow we’ve received is highlighting that fact.

Schools have been just as affected by the snow. With more snow days than I’ve ever seen before, class schedules have had to shift back and forth. The law school had to rearrange events it had planned. This impacts students and teachers along with the staff that are responsible for keeping things running.

Most of these issues stem from the lack of public transportation available as a result of the snow. The MBTA has shut down several of its routes over the course of these snowstorms, making it more difficult to go to school, the store, or a restaurant. I am thankful that I live within walking distance of the law school, but I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for those who don’t.

Things are returning to normal now both academically and economically. Make-up classes have been scheduled and businesses are open once again. Still, these storms have set us all back in some way. Catching up on class takes time, but the losses suffered by local businesses may be felt for much longer. That’s why we should all do what we can to support the small businesses in our community. I think I’ll be eating out tonight. How about you?

Blizzards… So Many Blizzards

I’m not sure I would say “survive a few blizzards” was ever really on my bucket list of things to do, but at least now I can appreciate what “cold” really means and why northerners are so tense. Growing up in sunny and warm Georgia weather definitely used to make me wonder why northerners are so gruff and tense, but now I am living through the worst Boston winter in years. I get it. The city’s record snowfalls in a short period of time has cleaned out grocery shelves and created angry commuters. Last Friday I walked two blocks from my dentist’s office to the MBTA train station, and it was so cold, my eyes hurt. Yes, my actual eyeballs hurt.

Today, Neptune is bearing down on us and the winds are so strong, the snow is horizontal. Luckily, I’m safe and warm inside my home, and even luckier, my apartment complex has a back up generator. Not so lucky are those hard working people plowing nonstop to keep the roads cleared and parking lots ready for the coming workdays. If any city could handle this type of snow, it’s Boston. My friends text and call with concerns about my safety and how I’m doing, but despite the concerns of where to put this much snow or how the city can even take cleaning up another blizzard, it’s amazing how the roads and sidewalks are cleared.

Now, don’t get up in arms because I’ll admit it’s not perfect. Trust me. I commute 45 minutes from my home to school everyday. The MBTA is in much need of updates and repairs and my normal 45-minute commute has become 75-90 minutes. In fact, one day, it was a whopping three hours to commute to school. As much as I am not happy about my commute these days, I will say, for what they’re working with, Boston is doing pretty well. With that said, please no more snow. Even though our winter was mild up until mid-January, these last few weeks is really dancing on everyone’s last nerve. Please, no more snow.