June 28, 2007
Law School Take-Home Exams as a Game of Scattergories
This semester I gave a take-home exam. Students had ample time to think about the exam and consult any source they wanted, so almost everyone properly identified and applied the applicable legal standards. This compares favorably with tightly-timed in-class exams (especially closed book exams, though it occurs with open book exams too) where it’s relatively easy to downgrade poor performers who widely miss major concepts.
I often worried that such mistakes reflect exam anxiety or speededness, neither of which I want to test, instead of substantive difference in learning. As a result, like Dan Solove, I’m considering moving to take-home exams as a better assessment tool.
However, when most take-home exams competently cover most of the basic points, grading distinctions become more subtle. This year, I noticed that my grading followed a process not dissimilar to the board game Scattergories. If you’re not familiar with the game, players are given a limited time to write down all of the words that they can think of that meet specified parameters (such as “list fruits beginning with the letter ‘C’”). Players earn points only if they list words that aren’t on other players’ lists. For example, if two players out of 6 list “cantaloupe,” neither of them get a point, but if only one player out of the 6 lists cantaloupe, the player scores a point. Thus, a player’s strategy can be to defensively list easy-to-identify words (to block other players from earning points for those words) or offensively list esoteric examples that other players aren’t likely to come up with (which scores affirmative points).
Writing a take-home exam follows a similar strategy. When most students analyze an issue virtually identically, these analyses all knock each other out, and no one scores any differentiated points for their work. If I expected the analysis, an omission would have detrimentally affected the score, so for these points a student could either earn a zero or a -1. On the other hand, when a student makes a relatively unique and valid point, that student earns a +1.
This suggests a “Scattergories strategy” to achieve a top score on take-home exams: address all of the basic points competently so you don’t lose any points due to omissions, but spend some time coming up with some “unique”/differentiated analysis to score extra points. Note that this may be a different strategy than in-class exams, where the top scoring paper typically gets there simply through consistently correct analysis without obvious mistakes, compared to the other papers that have one or more major mistakes.
June 27, 2007
The Ten Commandments
My wife asked me to list the Ten Commandments, and I choked. I got 7 (or 6, depending on interpretation) right, but that's not very good. I felt a little better when I checked the Wikipedia entry and saw the many different interpretations. So I'm not the only one confused. But still, as my wife said, "God made it simple for us and boiled it down to just 10 rules--and we can't even remember those!"
June 25, 2007
When Rankings Mislead
I've been doing more admissions work this year than I have in the past, and part of my sales pitch is to explain why students should look past the US News rankings. This WSJ article nails it:
Keyan Rahimi-Keshari last year chose to attend Vanderbilt University Law School in Nashville, Tenn., ranked 16th in U.S. News, over 36th-ranked California-Hastings in large part because of the rank differential. But he couldn't get a summer-job interview from any of the 40 firms he applied to in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he wants to work after graduation. The magazine's rankings, he has concluded, doesn't account for the fact that schools below the top 10 may not carry as much weight with employers outside their region. He's considering transferring to a California school.
June 24, 2007
Dilbert on Working with Lawyers
What would you rather do--check with a lawyer, or hit yourself with a hammer? Funny.
June 23, 2007
No More Dairy Ice Cream for Me
It's been a few years since I've eaten dairy ice cream regularly. (When I eat "ice cream" at home, usually it's Double Rainbow Soy Cream). However, I do eat dairy ice cream occasionally when I'm out of the house, but no more. I was troubled to learn that some ice creams now contain "ice structuring antifreeze," which is genetically modified fish proteins derived from an unattractive eel-like fish called the ocean pout. I'm not thrilled about genetically modified proteins, but I'm even less thrilled about non-vegetarian ice cream. So, from now on, it's only vegan ice cream for me.
Speaking of vegan ice cream, we finally tried Maggie Mudd recently in Bernal Heights. What a spectacular vegan treat! Definitely worth the schlep.
June 20, 2007
NYC Summer Associates Recap
Dillon on Litigating
Mike Dillon, GC at Sun Microsystems, has a terrific post explaining a GC's view of the litigation process. He offers 4 lessons:
* Litigate only "when you have an important interest to protect"
* Non-judicial resolutions are better than having a third party decide your fate
* Litigate only when you think you will win.
* Litigate to win.
Check out more details and his case study.
June 19, 2007
Bill Henderson and Andrew Morriss wrote a terrific article for the American Lawyer blasting law schools for whining about US News rankings but failing to sponsor a useful alternative. They write:
It is not reasonable to blame U.S. News for law schools’ decisions to distort the numbers. In fact, U.S. News has modified its rankings over time to include more reliable data. Rather, law schools and the ABA have failed to adopt effective self-regulation.
If law schools are serious about diminishing the importance of the rankings, a simple solution is available: supplying more detailed information in a standard format that would allow students to make direct school-to-school comparisons.
The article also includes numerous examples of just how out-of-control the law school rankings game has gotten. Few of these anecdotes are new; but as strung together by Bill and Andrew, they are devastating.
Bar/Bri Settlement Rejected
Judge Real has rejected the proposed settlement in the Bar/Bri antitrust lawsuit. The soap opera continues!
June 15, 2007
Law Professor "Job Hopping"
National Law Journal: "More job hopping at schools." This year, there was a lot of faculty movement at highly ranked law schools--a circumstance this article attributes to (1) Harvard's decision to bring in new blood and reduce faculty-student ratios, and (2) Columbia's vow to increase its faculty 50% (over 3 years) to reduce faculty-student ratios. Collectively, these decisions led to a domino effect which is likely to percolate for several years as top-ranked schools raid lower-ranked schools and as professors play musical chairs among the top-ranked schools. Some implications:
* reduced faculty-student ratios are terrific for both students and faculty, but they don't come for free. At many schools, this necessarily means increased tuition for students. With tuition well over $35k/year at some schools, how high can tuition go?
* the article suggests that faculty decisions to move aren't always financially motivated, but at many schools, lateral movements by professors (or, at least the threat to do so) is a principal way for professors to reset their salaries to prevailing market standards. In turn, as law professor salaries escalate due to this market-resetting, students likely will pay the bills for this as well.
* as the article points out, some students are disappointed when they select a school to study with a particular professor who then moves on. Note to prospective law students: life is uncertain, so deciding between schools based on the identity of specific professors has an unmitigatable risk of disappointment.
June 13, 2007
Israel Trip Recap
A recap of all of my Israel trip-related posts:
* Frommer's Israel book review
Israel Trip Reflections
It's a little late, but I made a list of contemporaneous observations during my Israel trip 6 months ago. In no particular order:
* In Israel, places have been built, torn down, and rebuilt, in many cases over the course of centuries (or even millennia). In many cases, interesting sites have been modified to reflect the then-current ruler, which changed multiple times over the eons. So this leads to an interesting philosophical question: if modern day archivists wish to restore ruins, what era should they restore it to? With the evolution of history, there is no single definition of authenticity or accuracy.
* At the same time, the history is still being written, and this era shouldn't be ignored either. It was weird seeing people still living in the "ruins" of the old city of Akko, which was a Crusader castle that was extensively remodeled by the Ottomans. Assuming we wanted to restore Akko to make it more authentic, are the modern residents any less a part of the history? This reminded me a bit of the gorgeous Ottoman walls around the old city of Jerusalem. They were not used for their contemplated defensive purposes over the course of 5 centuries--until the 1967 war, when the Israelis had to dislodge the Jordanian army from the old city (there are even bullet holes near some entrances).
* Excluding the historical stuff, Israeli architecture is generally not very aesthetically pleasing, but Tel Aviv and its suburbs was particularly conspicuous. Many buildings are unadorned concrete cubes with flat roofs. I imagine it's what Soviet architecture looked like.
* The compulsory military service plays a big role in Israeli life. It acts as a type of social glue not unlike a fraternity/sorority. For example, one colleague told me that certain law firms are "tank" firms, i.e., comprised of lawyers who were part of the tank corp and, through that, developed a common identity.
* Advertising in Israel rarely featured celebrities--in stark contrast to the US, where so much of our advertising is celebrity-driven. My initial assumption is that certain religious subgroups would object to celebrity advertising, but no one supported that hypothesis. Perhaps it's because there are relatively fewer homegrown Israeli celebrities? Or perhaps Israeli advertising is just behind the US, and a few years from now it will catch up?
* Israel is a cat country. There were cats everywhere. At the University of Haifa conference, one cat walked into the conference room, found a seat, took a bath and then curled up for a nap for a couple hours. No one seemed fazed by the extra attendee.
* Israelis smoke a lot. Of course, I come from California, which has virtually banned smoking in public places, and I know smoking is more common in the rest of the world. But people smoked everywhere, even where there were "no smoking" signs. On the first night, someone lit up in the restaurant dozens of feet away, but it still made my eyes water. It reminded me why I'm a huge fan of rules against smoking in restaurants!
* The diversity of produce in Israel was amazing. (Of course, we have it pretty good here in California, too). It was disorienting seeing bananas growing in the desert near the Sea of Galilee.
* Speaking of food, I loved being able to get tasty $3 falafels wherever I went. Why can't we have this in the US?
* Particularly in Jerusalem, it was amazing to see people dressed up in all different types of religious garb. I didn't even recognize most of the outfits. I wouldn't say that Jerusalem was an integrated city, but there seemed to be significant tolerance for different outfit choices, much more so than here in the US. At the same time, one's choice of dress was often a major political statement; down to different kepahs signaling which Jewish sect the wearer belonged to. This also contributes to rampant profiling, which was disconcerting to my American sensibilities. Also on dress--most religious sites banned shorts. That was tough on me!
* Israel used to be a near-socialist economy. Perhaps socialism (everyone pitching in together and making sacrifices) was a necessity when the country was literally in a fight for its existence. I'm not saying Israel's existence is now assured, but the country has moved on, both economically and psychologically. From my vantage, there were almost no visible vestiges of socialism.
* I was surprised at how much trash was everywhere. My understanding is that some communities can opt out of paying taxes, but then trash pickup service gets cut. It was amazing how much trash was piled up right next to sacred sites.
* Israelis eat late. Breakfast often starts at 8. Lunch was typically around 2. Dinner was often at 8 or later. I wasn't able to tell if this was due to some effort to harmonize with European hours? Israel was 2+ hours ahead of Europe, so maybe the schedule is pushed back to better sync up with European trading partners? It reminded me a little of the dynamic with NY and the rest of the US. New York is generally a late city; in many business circles, 9:30 or 10 is an acceptable start time for the workday. In the Midwest, which is one hour behind NY, the schedule was generally one hour earlier than NY (all the way down to the prime time TV schedule, which expressly is 1 hour earlier than Eastern time) to better sync up with New York. In Milwaukee, on New Year's Eve, the TV stations even show the Times Square ball dropping live, meaning that Milwaukee celebrates the New Year at 11 pm. And in California, we don't do everything 3 hours earlier than NY, but anyone dealing with NY works an earlier schedule. This is especially brutal for those in the financial industry (many of whom start when the opening bell rings at 6:30 am Pacific); but even I was affected; when I had NY clients, I usually tried to start my work day at 8 am, which was already midday (11 am) for my clients.
* Israel is so rich in antiquities, there was no visible effort to prevent tourists from destroying or picking up artifacts at sacred sites. Many amazing sites had effectively no security, and one tour guide even encouraged us to pick up a millennium-old souvenir from Caesarea. I contrast this with the very tight efforts to restrict such behavior in the US, where our physical cultural resources are so limited that we guard them very, very carefully.
* The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is a truly remarkable place. I need to spend a lot more time there to fully appreciate it. However, I found one aspect especially noteworthy. The building is owned collectively by 6 different Christian churches, but they have divided the building into different property spheres that (as I understand it) are tied to who maintains the building. As a result, any maintenance effort has implications for property ownership, and the result is that maintenance efforts that cross property boundaries have property rights implications--which leads to paralysis. So the building is falling apart and in desperate need of maintenance, but the property allocation structure prevents that. It made me wonder if there would be some way to create tradeable property rights that would facilitate maintenance rather than inhibit it. So not only is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher an important place spiritually, but it may be a laboratory for the problems created by miscalibrated property rights.
* The "streets" in the old city of Jerusalem are too narrow for modern cars/trucks, so goods move into/out of the old city on narrow tractors. They travel around blind curves at a high rate of speed. It reminded me a little of the angry tractor-bull scene from the movie Cars.
* Walking around in Israel, I was routinely bombarded by dozens or even hundreds of personal commercial solicitations an hour--especially in the markets and tourist destinations. Verbal spam, so to speak. I wonder which is worse--the dystopian view of personalized broadcast ads from Minority Report, or the real-life assault of humans soliciting other humans?
* I loved the opportunity to hang out with a very eclectic group of international tourists in Jerusalem. I did some extra traveling with a Pentecostal Afrikaners couple from Namibia and a Church of Christ couple from Brisbane, Australia. (My wife still gives me a hard time that I spent so much time on the Christian historical sites).
* Israel is a country of high transaction-costs of living. Israel spends a lot of its GDP on security and defense--these are necessities, but they are "sunk costs" in terms of improving the quality of living. Plus, Israel simply can't produce as much output as the US due to the extensive Israeli and Jewish holidays. Finally, a fair amount of time is spent bargaining over goods, which I found very tiresome and unproductive. It's amazing Israel has as robust an economy as it does given how many disadvantages it has.
* Most people speak English, but A LOT of signs are only in Hebrew. I found it surprisingly difficult navigating around independently without speaking/reading any Hebrew.
Remarkably, six months later, I'm still sorting through my personal experiences and observations from Israel. It was that rich--and that complicated--a travel experience. For that reason (among others), I commend a trip to Israel for anyone who has the chance to go.
June 11, 2007
Generation Y Lawyers
I've previously blogged on the intersection between Generation Y/the Millennials and law firms. The latest article on the topic (free reg. req'd), with some great tidbits such as:
* the woman lawyer who asked "Do I really have to wear a bra to work every day?”
* "Recruiters tell Crane that parents are accompanying their law-student kids to interviews; some are calling the firm to complain if their children don’t get hired or receive a less-than-stellar evaluation." Wow! My Jewish mom has occasionally threatened to go after some colleague/supervisor who she felt slighted her son, but she never actually went through with it!
My Requirements for a Supervised Academic Paper
Students regularly ask me to supervise a paper of theirs. This blog post discusses my suggestions and requirements if you want me to supervise your paper.
1) At your earliest convenience, read Prof. Eugene Volokh's book, Academic Legal Writing [Amazon Affiliate link]. Copies are available in the library, the bookstore and online. This is a terrific book that (among other things) efficiently explains how to select a paper topic (and how NOT to do so). This book will save you a lot of time in the paper-writing process, so the earlier you read it, the better off you will be.
2) In my opinion, selecting a paper topic is the most critical stage in the paper-writing process. A paper with a poor topic still will be a poor paper, no matter how well-written or researched it is. In contrast, if the topic is stellar, a paper can be a star paper even if it is only competently executed. So there is little point in marrying a poor paper topic, as it will simply mean that you are investing a lot of hard work in a paper with little or no upside.
Unfortunately, it is hard to find a worthwhile paper topic. Then again, I may be more demanding about paper topics than other professors. I routinely reject paper topics that (a) are case notes, (b) are already well-covered by the existing literature (or are going to be imminently flooded by papers in queue), (c) relate to a current event (such as pending legislation or a current dust-up) that likely will be forgotten in 12-18 months or has a high risk of mooting by subsequent developments, or (d) seek to recap the existing state of the law rather than advancing the dialogue. There are no shortcuts to picking a good topic, so I expect that generally you will do a fair amount of upfront work evaluating potential topics (including doing careful precedent checks to assess the originality of your proposed topic), and it's probable that I will reject several of your topic proposals before we find a mutually acceptable topic.
3) After we agree upon a paper topic, I will ask you to provide me your preferred schedule of deliverables with your own self-selected deadlines. I am not good about proactively cracking the whip on you; instead, I prefer that you let me know how you like to work, and then I can enforce your self-selected deadlines if you prefer. However, if you are the kind of writer that needs a professor to constantly hound you on deadlines and deliverables, I may not be the best choice.
You can pick any delivery schedule you want, but if you delay your work until the end of the semester, you run a serious risk of having me raise major structural concerns about the paper with little time for corrective measures.
4) I think it's very hard (if not impossible) to write a publishable paper in a single semester from a "cold start." However, I will be happy to work with you even after the semester if you want to make your paper publishable or if you want to submit it to the writing competitions. On that front, you might educate yourself about possible writing competitions using my mom's book, How to Pay for Your Law Degree [Amazon Affiliate link; but I recommend you look at the copies are in the library].
June 08, 2007
Climbing Everest...in Shorts?!
People do so many stupid stunts nowadays (and usually throw the video up on YouTube for everyone to see) that it takes a lot for a stunt to be impressive, but this one floored me. Wim Hof, a Dutch mountaineer, announced that he would climb Mount Everest wearing only shorts. This was not an apparent suicide mission; he'd already proven his chops by climbing Mont Blanc in shorts, by running a half-marathon in Finland (ground temp: -35 degrees) barefoot in shorts, and by holding his breath underwater for almost 6 1/2 minutes under the North Pole ice cap. Now, I'm known for wearing shorts even when the temperature is pretty cold, but clearly this dude is in a different league altogether!
Unfortunately, he didn't make the top. Instead, due to a nagging foot injury, he turned around after getting over 24,000 feet in shorts. Still, an impressive feat; also impressive is that he made it over 20,000 feet wearing sandals as his footwear.
While his summit attempt didn't work this year, he says he will try again in 2008.
We're trying something new this year at SCU by offering a new 1-unit course entitled "E-Discovery." See the press release. While I'm sure E-Discovery topics have been addressed in other law school courses, I believe this is one of the first courses that a law school has offered for academic credit that focuses solely on E-Discovery.
June 06, 2007
Importance of Practice Areas
National Law Journal (free reg. req'd): "The selection of a practice area may have a greater impact on an associate's life than any other factor, even the selection of a law firm." As I've indicated before, I'm always amazed that some law students completely overlook practice area considerations when evaluating career options.