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Friday, August 13, 2010

Mind Your Own Chattel

Today was Community Service Day, the final component of orientation week at the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law. My contribution was to spend a few hours clearing trash from the riverfront.
As it turns out, the organization responsible for maintaining the waterfront does a fine job, so the challenge for a time was to spot something other than a cigarette butt we could classify as trash (for the record, you can pick up a lot of cigarette butts and still have nothing but a tiny lump in the bottom of your trash bag). But that was before the nice man who power-washes the concrete barriers below the River Road overpass collared me and a couple of my colleagues and took us to the real trash. He pointed to a heavily traveled bend in the road and offered to buy us pizza if and when we made it back.
OK, it wasn’t that bad. But it was a good lesson for a handful of would-be lawyers to learn: the way things look on paper isn’t necessarily the way they play out in practice. The best you can do is react to the curve and remember what it is you’re there to do.
Law-school orientation was not unlike indoctrination into a cult, and I mean that in a good way. Not only were we welcomed with enthusiasm, praised for our politeness and reassured as to our potential for success, we were introduced to a formality of conduct, a certain respectfulness we’re expected to employ in our dealings with people. We also have been equipped with practical tips for developing good study habits and strategies for coping with stress (Among the printed material we received this week was a slip of paper bearing the phone number for a local scooter service, just in case any of us are prone to excess).
We were still clutching our new law-school coffee mugs, our T-shirts and backpacks and flash drives, when they slipped a little castor oil into the ice cream and asked us to read and brief our first two cases. The first turned on whether dust qualifies as a tangible object (according to a 1999 Michigan appeals court, the answer was a qualified no), while the second posed a similar question about electronic computer signals (one federal judge in one 13-year-old Ohio case says yes).
They say it happens to all law students eventually, but I’ve already noticed a subtle shift in my thought process. By Thursday, when I had a frustrating encounter with a well-meaning friend, my fleeting inner monologue went something like this: “Do my frayed nerve endings qualify as chattel (that’s Biblical-sounding legalese for personal property) and, if so, does your traipsing on them constitute an act of trespass for which I might recover for the diminished enjoyment of my life?”
At least I know the answer. I’m learning that, in law school, the questions are hard, but the answer is always the same:
It depends.
I don’t know how I’m going to finish all the reading I have to do this weekend. But the number of cigarette butts on the waterfront tonight is something less than it was this morning, and I’m feeling pretty good about that.

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