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Saturday, January 22, 2011

Long Division, Look at Me Now

Conventional wisdom has it that law school attracts the sort whose brain is weighted to the right hemisphere, whose thought process runs to the abstract as opposed to the linear and who might have pursued a lucrative career in medicine, had it not been for that organic-chemistry thing. It’s a self-deprecating joke that enjoys its share of play around here, and, like many clich├ęs, might contain a fiber of truth.

I don’t mean to paint with too broad a brush. Yes, I know lawyers who need technological help to calculate the tip at Applebee’s, acumen for instant computation of a 30-percent contingency fee off the top of any given figure notwithstanding. But I also know that certain of my classmates possess equal facility in the realms of art and science. I am not, however, among them, and I make that observation so that I can make one more: we have turned a dangerous corner.

As if to counter the oppressive weather conditions under which we trudge to class these days, our lectures have strayed from the gray dimension we were promised, spinning off the “it depends” axis into territory that demands black-and-white analysis. In Torts, we are no longer concerned with the aisle-sweeping schedules of supermarkets and the sequence of events that led to the presence of the squished grape on the floor. We’ve moved on to the mechanism by which the downed customer is to be compensated. Contracts class is a variation on the same theme, a study of the pecuniary consequences of broken promises. In other words – spoiler alert – it’s about the money. It turns out that restoring an injured party to pre-injured status involves a determination as to who pays how much and by what equation the dollars are divvied up.

As I said, this is challenging turf for some, especially those of us accustomed to scanning statistical evidence for the sole purpose of spotting subjective trends. If this were a courtroom, I would want to elicit the testimony of one Mrs. Cunningham, who once tried to teach me long division and induced a fourth-grade meltdown that for a time was the stuff of lore at Burkhead Elementary. I suffered a flashback last week when my Contracts professor listened to my overly analytical approach to computing expectation damages and looked at me as if I were a rat building its own maze when all she wanted was to hand me a gift-wrapped wedge of cheese. As an aside, I have to hand an honorable mention to her marvelous hypothetical contracts between Aunt Bee and Floyd the Barber, notwithstanding their inherent flaw, namely that Floyd would never breach a contract.

All right, if you have to know, it’s a fairly straightforward formula – subject to permutation and human touch, but straightforward at its core -- and I’m beginning to catch on. I exaggerate only because one who undertakes a courageous endeavor like law school has to maintain a sense of humor. And I’m sticking to my account of the long-division incident, not least because Mrs. Cunningham, who was in her early hundreds when it happened in the 1970s, is unlikely to refute it today.

Speaking of turning dangerous corners, I do have a couple of thoughts with regard to the construction projects that have rendered the law school virtually inaccessible by any means other than snowshoe or helicopter, but I’ll have to save them for another day. Suffice it to say that traipsing over snow-covered lengths of rebar on the way to school, while not the safest of endeavors, did engender a sense of triumph in those who survived to tell the tale and was definitely fun while it lasted. I’ll only point out that we are lawyers in training and we know a case of negligence when we see one. And we armed with calculators.

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