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Saturday, March 5, 2011

Just Briefly

Question Presented:

         Is a middle-aged refugee from the decaying empire of American journalism entitled to recover for emotional distress sustained in pursuit of a law degree?

Statement of Facts

         Claimant once reasoned that telling true stories was a more or less unobjectionable way to make a living and spent a number of years telling stories of tragedy and corruption and natural disaster, greasy summer festivals and farmers whose gardens occasionally yielded a turnip that looked like either Jesus or Elvis, depending on the light. And then two things happened. First, claimant grew weary of telling the same stories with interchangeable names. Next, people who used to buy expensive newspaper ads recognized that one could read about senators and mutant turnips in a digital language of ones and zeros without paying and without getting ink-smudged fingers and could sell their bicycles on Craigslist for free. Claimant concluded that if one is to recast oneself from a role of casual observation into one of genuine advocacy, one had better do so while one still has some daylight.


         Claimant has worked pretty hard on a brief, which is not merely a brief, but is The Brief, the unholy badass of the spring semester and the basis for a hefty percentage of a first-year student’s final grade in legal writing. Claimant has consequently suffered distress. Severe distress. Emotionally, that is. To send her away empty-handed would shock the conscience, would violate society’s evolving standard of decency and be altogether unreasonable.



* * * * * * * * *
         That’s a truncated and highly imprecise illustration of the way in which I communicate these days. As it turns out, a legal argument is a story told according to formulaic construction, conveyed in a language of buzzwords handed down from high court to low and repeated only with precision. The perfectionist who normally dwells within me (but with whom my relationship is now estranged) likes that part of the law, the recognition that no two words mean exactly the same thing or evoke the same visceral response. In a non-academic setting, you might call it plagiarism. Around here, we call it research.

         The aforementioned brief has consumed our lives in recent weeks. The doctrinal professors have indulged our inadequate preparation and our lackadaisical class participation with knowing nods and transparent stalling techniques so that we cover less material than we ordinarily would. The legal-writing course with the deceptively simplified name of Basic Legal Skills spans a full year. In the fall, you write memos predicting what a court is likely to do under a given set of circumstances. The spring is devoted exclusively to the brief and is your chance to unleash your inner, pre-disbarred F. Lee Bailey and try to convince the court that the only just result is the one that favors your client.

         For a conceptual thinker like myself, the meticulous work of ensuring the accuracy of the citations, merging roman and Arabic numerals in the same document and taking care to italicize the word but not the comma has been as difficult as crafting the argument. It is also instructive to know that, in the practice of law, a deadline really is a deadline. There will be no vaguely frustrated judge to rip the document out of your queue 20 minutes after the deadline has passed and no law clerk whose job it will be to fix your mechanical errors. It’s hard out here for a would-be lawyer.

         There were last-minute printing errors and technological gaffes, but I’ll spare you the details. Before I turned the thing in, I told it I had done all I could for it, that it would now have to go forth in this Rand Paul-icized world and either stand or fall on its own merits. When the professor took it from my hands, she gleefully pronounced it a rite of passage.

         I went home and poured myself a drink.

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