Smoking and employment

Sometimes students think we make it up. Tuesday we talked about employers monitoring off-duty conduct such as smoking. After many students expressed disbelief that an employer could discharge an at-will employee for smoking–“But smoking is legal!”–I related how The Scotts Company did that very thing a few years ago. Welcome to at-will employment. The next day an alert student emailed this article from 39 Whirlpol workers suspended over smoking lies. The workers signed statements for Whirlpool’s insurers that they do not use tobacco “and then were seen smoking or chewing tobacco on company property.” Some may be fired–for lying about smoking, not for smoking. The company employs financial incentives to discourage smoking, charging tobacco users an extra $500 for annual health insurance premiums, practice common for large companies (with more than 20,000 employees), 16 percent of which charge higher insurance premiums to tobacco users.

Internet Sales Taxes

The effort to collect sales taxes on Internet transactions gained momentum recently. Last week the New York legislature passed a bill that would require Internet retailers doing more than $10,000 a year in business to collect and remit taxes on sales to customers in New York. This article in the New York Times addresses the issue, noting that since 2003 New York’s state income tax form has contained Line 59, on which taxpayers are required to list unpaid sales taxes on Internet sales from non-New York retailers. In 2006 five percent of New York taxpayers included information on Line 59, with an average tax owed of $95.36. I expect that most taxpayers are unaware that they are required to pay in-state use taxes on out-of-state purchases that were untaxed at the time of purchase because, for instance, the taxpayer had the item shipped from the store to their home. The requirement to pay use taxes has been around for some time–since the 1960s in New York, via Line 56 on older tax forms–but the only enforcement I recall involved disgraced Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski’s evasion of sales tax on a multi-million dollar purchase of paintings. Kozlowski purchased the paintings in London and had them shipped to his home in New York via Tyco’s headquarters in sales-tax-free New Hampshire, for the purpose of avoiding New York sales tax. New York indicted Kozlowski for tax evasion but ultimately dismissed the charges. New York expects to collect about $50 million a year from the new law.

Lexicon Litigation

Timed perfectly to provide material for class discussions about Fair Use, the trial started this week in J.K. Rowling’s copyright infringement lawsuit against publisher RDR Books and author Stephen Vander Ark over The Harry Potter Lexicon, the print version of Vander Ark’s website of the same name. In her testimony Rowling characterized the Lexicon as “sloppy,” “lazy,” “derivative,” and “riddled with errors.” Rowling claims that the Lexicon could interfere with her own plans to write a Potter enyclopedia, proceeds of the sale of which she would donate to charity. RDR court filings state that Vander Ark’s Lexicon “provides a significant amount of original analysis and commentary concerning everything from insights into the personality of key characters, relationships among them, the meaning of various historical and literary allusions, as well as internal inconsistencies and mistakes in the novels.” Stanford Law School’s Fair Use Project is lined up behind RDR, arguing that companion guides to other works are fair uses that have a long literary tradition.

Shed a Tier

What Law School Rankings Don’t Say About Costly Choices by William D. Henderson and Andrew P. Morriss (The National Law Journal, 16-Apr-08) provides empirical data that reinforces the lessons I’ve learned from my anecdotal experience: “Some students should consider lower-ranked schools that offer more grants, better opportunities.”) (Aside: Today a student asked that I explain what I mean by anecdotal experience. Anecdotal here means “not based on objective research or systemic collection of facts but on what has happened to me.” In one sense “anecdotal experience” is redundant, because we learn most of life’s lessons from whatever events cross our path, not from double-blind surveys. My life experience tells me that white cats with blue eyes are deaf because I have personally known two and heard of other deaf, blue-eyed, all-white cats. I would (and probably have) assert at a dinner party that white cats with blue eyes are deaf. I would not assert this as fact to the International Conference of Cat Breeders and Genetic Biologists without conducting more conclusive research.) The authors summarize the role of U.S. News and World Report rankings on law school applicants, discusses the gap between the demand for “sophisticated corporate legal services” and bread-and-butter non-corporate work, and provide data on the “bimodal” income distribution of law graduates: [T]here is a heavy concentration of salaries in two distinct ranges . . . out of 22,684 starting salaries reported for 2006, 4,809, or 21.2 percent, were in the $125,000 to $145,000 range . . . In 2006, 8,577 reported salaries, or 37.8 percent, were in [the range of $40,000 to $55,000.] The payments on $100,000-plus worth of law school debt look quite different to someone earning $50,000 than they do to someone earning $160,000 a year.”

After discussing some of the reasons for the dramatic increase in corporate-firm associate salaries the authors concluded that “only the highest-ranked students at a broad swath of regional law schools can hope for access to these high-paying jobs. [By “regional law schools” the authors, who state that in their estimation there are fewer than 20 national law schools, mean “most law schools.”] Slavishly following the U.S. News rankings will not significantly increase one’s large-firm job prospects. And the excess debt that students incur is likely to undermine their career options.” They review hiring statistics for the top National Law Journal 250 feeder schools, noting that “[b]elow school No. 26 . . . a graduate has a less than one in five probability of starting his or her career at a large law firm. If 80 percent of law school applicants are convinced that they will make that 20 percent cutoff, three out of four are destined to be disappointed.” They conclude that prospective law students should attend a regional law school in the geographic area in which they want to work and “use their entering credentials to negotiate for a substantial tuition discount.”

Excellent advice. Read the entire article.


PS:  If you are interested in this article you should read the others linked at The Blogosphere’s Advice for Current and Prospective Law Students.

More on the Legal Divide

In anticipation of my Thursday evening participation in a panel discussion on law school and the legal profession (6:30 PM in the BU School of Management auditorium), I recommend a post from Carolyn Elefant of the Legal Blog Watch Alert that reiterates themes I’ve addressed many times on this blog. Titled “Still Two Sides of the Bar in the Legal Profession” the post argues that:

  • “the upper fourth of earners in the legal profession have continued to prosper, while the bottom three-fourths have lost ground”
  • “it’s harder for those who don’t find large-firm jobs to make a living because the rising cost of legal education means that smaller paychecks don’t stretch as far”
  • “at all ends of the spectrum, there’s dissatisfaction. Lower-earning lawyers stress about finances, while those earning big paychecks stress about long hours or lack of meaningful work”

Read her post if you are considering law school. It’s a decision one should make with eyes wide open.