Qtrax: Oops

Someone commented recently about Qtrax, a recently-announced music file-sharing company that promised a free download service with 25 million licensed songs. There’s only one problem: as reported in Music site Qtrax forced into humiliating U-turn, the company neglected to secure deals with the four major record labels before its splashy $500,000 launch party. These folks would have felt right at home during the late-90s dot-com bubble.

Big Dig Settlement

Bechtel/Parsons Brinckeroff, responsible for design and construction of Boston’s Big Dig, agreed recently (WSJ-subscription required) with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to pay $407 million settle the state’s lawsuit over design and construction flaws. Payments from smaller contractors bring the total settlement payments to $458 million. In exchange Bechtel/Parsons escapes possible criminal liability for the death of Milena Del Valle, who was killed in July 2006 when a portion of the tunnel project’s ceiling collapsed on her car. Bechtel/Parsons could also be on the hook for up to $100 million if future problems arise from the project’s flaws that cause more than $50 million in damages.

A rose among spam

Before I empty my Gmail spam folder I rarely give the contents more than a cursory glance. Today, for some reason, I glanced down the list of with greater care and spotted at the bottom, wrongly accused of spamitude, an email from Chad Bissonnette thanking me for a financial contribution to his Gran Sous water project. He is as thoughtful and well-spoken in email as he is in person. Whatever impulse led me to spend three more seconds than normal looking at my spam, I’m glad I did.

Course wiki projects

Wednesday night I had dinner at Stella in the South End with my former business partner. We dissolved our financial advisory business in 1999 when we both started teaching full-time, me at BU School of Management and David in a Boston public school. He and his family have been in New Delhi for eighteen months where his wife took an assignment for her company and David played golf and taught in an American school. He related how his 10th-grade English students engaged in “deep reading” of classic literature–that is, reading, thinking, and making marginal notes in the velo-bound public-domain works he assembled for them–and turned Agamemnon into a play about a high-stakes soccer match between bitter foes that they then performed for classes of 6th-graders. These experiences echoed the written case assignments and wiki content creation I’ve introduced into some of my courses. Make someone write about what they read, make them find creative ways to engage with the course material, and they will understand it more fully.

The wiki assignments are new to real estate law and Internet law this semester. I want another vehicle for student engagement that can tap into and capture how they learn and create a repository of resources for current and future classmates. This week I sketched out rough ideas for how students might use the wiki with no sense of how they would react to them, and asked for volunteers to create the first projects. It has only been a few days but so far I am pleased. Their initial ideas have outstripped my thinking about what they might do. It proves to me again that the best ideas come from students.

Medical Marijuana and Employment

Non-lawyers are often troubled by how messy and inconsistent the law can be. A student asked why California law could permit medical use of marijuana when its possession is a criminal offense under federal law. I noted that such conflicts remain unresolved until lawsuit puts the conflict before a court. Coincidentally, while I was in class a friend sent me this article from Bloomberg: California Worker Fired for Marijuana Can’t Sue. Gary Ross’s doctor recommended marijuana use to relieve pain from a back injury. Ross’s employer, Ragingwire Telecommunications, Inc. fired him when a drug test required for new employees revealed he had fired up. His lawsuit claimed that his termination discriminated based on a disability and violated public policy. A California trial court dismissed his lawsuit, an intermediate appellate court affirmed the dismissal, and the California Supreme Court affirmed the lower-court rulings 5-2. According to Bloomberg the court held that “[n]othing in California’s voter-approved Compassionate Use Act of 1996, which allows the smoking of marijuana when recommended by a physician, governs the ‘respective rights and duties of employers and employees.'” The article notes in passing the observation by Ragingwire’s attorney that “he didn’t believe any state legislation would overcome a fundamental conflict between the California medical-use law and federal law banning possession and use of marijuana.”

Download a song, lose financial aid?

Reading how recording labels are dropping digital rights management and recording artists are finding new ways to reach their audience, one might believe that the music industry’s business model is beginning to catch up with the 21st century. For every tentative toe in the water the industry wages a rearguard action to hold on to the past, such as the the antipiracy provisions contained in the College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007, a pending bill I’ve mentioned before. What does federal education-financing legislation have to do with music piracy? Among it’s lengthy provisions it requires that colleges and universities eligible for federal financial aid develop plans to offer alternatives and impose technological barriers to illegal downloading. The draft legislation does not impose penalties on those schools that fail to develop satisfactory plans, but the link between continued piracy and withheld financial aid is implicit in the mere existence of such a provision in this bill. While such indirect regulation of music piracy may be effective, Congress should not be putting colleges in the role of copyright enforcers for the Recording Industry Association of America. The existence of this provision in a a bill otherwise far removed from copyright issues evidences both the RIAA’s lobbying power and the absence of forward-thinking policy in RIAA and Congress.

Don’t Go to Law School

I’ve posted before that prospective law students must honestly consider their prospects for success in law school because, unless they attend one of the very top-ranked schools, their job opportunities will be limited if they are not ranked at the top of their classes. The Wall Street Journal Law Blog recently interviewed “law school naysayer” Kirsten Wolf, a 32-year old BU law graduate. Wolf went to law school a few years out of college believing that she would obtain a marketable skill that would justify the cost of borrowing to pay tuition. In the fall of her second year, when she realized her B+ average was not good enough to land her a summer associate position with a large firm, she began to question her decision. Already $45,000 in debt she stayed, graduated in 2002, passed the Massachusetts bar, and found no law jobs waiting. She went back to the company she worked for before law school and then eventually moved to New York where she landed a job she enjoys, as an office manager for a literary agency. She is paying her $87,000 student loan debt over 30 years–which means she’ll still be paying for law school as she approaches her 60th birthday. In Wolf’s words:

I’m on a one-woman mission to talk people out of law school. Lots of people go to law school as a default. They don’t know what else to do, like I did. It seems like a good idea. People say a law degree will always be worth something even if you don’t practice. But they don’t consider what that debt is going to look like after law school. It affects my life in every way. And the jobs that you think are going to be there won’t necessarily be there at all. Most people I know that are practicing attorneys don’t make the kind of money they think lawyers make. They’re making $40,000 a year, not $160,000. Plus, you’re going to be struggling to do something you might not even enjoy. A few people have a calling to be a lawyer, but most don’t.

Legal Blog Watch Alert picked up Wolf’s story and also reported about a lawyer who auctioned his law school diploma on eBay. The post notes the lack of discussion on academic law blogs about whether to attend law school.

For years I have advised students that exceptional performance in law school is more important than where you go. Wolf’s story bears this out. She must have been a good student and gotten good LSAT scores–BU law would not have admitted her otherwise–but that doesn’t put you at the top of your class. Even at BU, which is always ranked as one of the top 25 or 30 law schools in the country, a B+, top-half of the class performance will not open the most lucrative doors. I’m seeing this again with a friend who is currently in her second year at BU. She is quite smart, works exceptionally hard, is one of the most personable and engaging people I know, and yet has been unable to crack into the Big Law summer associate track. And if you aren’t on that track after your second year of law school, your earnings horizon changes dramatically. Yet had Wolf gone to a lower-ranked school and finished at the top of her class–say in the top 10 or 15 places, or top 3.00%–odds are that she could have obtained a high-paying job. Finishing in the top 3% of one’s law school class does not happen without brains and lots of hard work. That’s why those at the top of their class will still merit a look from the most selective employers, because the employers know what it takes to get there.

I’ve always taken a laissez-faire approach with prospective law students. I’ll be honest about the risks and pitfalls of a legal career and then support the student’s decision to attend law school notwithstanding my warnings. I’m now rethinking my approach. Should I recommend a student who has not shown the academic ability to finish in the top five percent of his or her law school class?

Gran Sous Water Project

On a recent flight to Miami my wife and I met Chad Bissonnette, a 25-year old from Tolland, CT, not far from Manchester where I spent my youth. Chad was on his way to Haiti where he has been working with the community of Gran Sous, an island in the Gulf of Gonave, to improve their water supply. A visit to Gran Sous in 2005 developed into a commitment to help the community that Chad describes at http://supporthaiti.blogspot.com/. He has lived in Gran Sous for most of the past six months. Among many impressive attributes–Chad is intelligent, articulate, and funny–what impressed me the most is Chad’s commitment to working with the community instead of imposing on it his preconceived notions of what it needs. He acts as the community’s agent, helping to implement their decisions, although it is clear that his involvement and fund-raising have catalyzed the project. It is a wonderful to meet someone committed to community service for purposes other than resume-building.

It’s Back

A Foolish Consistency and all related pages crashed Wednesday from code gremlins and my game attempts to save it as it sank. It’s back as it existed on January 4, which means it is missing a few posts and all of the course documents I uploaded this week. I’ll restore everything over the weekend. Sorry for the inconvenience.