Water Water Everywhere

Hydrologists use a concept called a “100 year flood,” which describes an event with a recurrence interval of 1% per year, or an event with a probability of occuring once every 100 years.  One  could use other recurrence intervals, such as a “10 year flood,” with a ten percent probability of occurring each year.  I first encountered the terms as a real estate lawyer looking at survey plans.  Anytime a client bought or developed land anywhere near water the surveyors would note the location of the 100 year flood plain.

I’ve been thinking of these concepts because summer 2008 has brought more violent thunderstorms and more rain to the northeast than I can remember.  I’m not suggesting the rainfall approaches 100 year storm levels, only that rainfall since summer’s advent is notably above normal.  The Maine dock is my yardstick.  Using it to measure water levels is tricky because I install it each spring and remove it each fall.  Its elevation is always relative to the level of the lake.  Other fixed points, like the end of the dock installation ramp, tell me that the lake is unusually high for July 31.  The dock tells me that the lake is about nine inches higher than it was when I installed the dock in early June.  I install it with the bottom edge just touching the water.  In a normal summer by the end of July there would be 4-6″ of clearance between the bottom of the dock and lake–enough for the dogs to swim underneath.

Not this summer. 

Bat Week

In Maine the other day I opened the door to my workshop.  It’s a homemade barn-style door that hangs from galvanized rollers inside an eight-foot long galvanized track.  As I slid the door aside something flew from behind it, past my head, and out over the door.  “Weird place for a bird’s nest” I thought, with little room between the outside door and screen.  As I looked for straw, twigs, or other signs of a nest something again flew close to my head and lit atop the sliding door.  It paused momentarily, then tucked its leathery wings to its side and sinously crawled over the top of the door, its tiny muscles and bones flexing and reaching under its skin.  No bird, this, but a bat.  I angled the door away from the workshop for a better look.  The bat was at the top, closest to the wall, so close that I feared squishing it if I let the door hang normally.  I propped the door away from the house to give my new friend time to consider its options.  Shortly the bat crawled into a narrow recess in the door, no doubt the same refuge from which I disturbed it.  Years ago I mounted a bat house on a tree at the edge of the woods.  I followed the directions to the letter as to the bat house’s location, orientation to the sun, height above the ground, and color.  As far as I can tell it is still bat-free.  Now without trying I’d provided a bat habitat that followed none of the rules and rolled back and forth, to boot.  I decided I could try co-existing with my workshop bat but it settled the issue by moving on.  A week later the bat has not returned.

Not to say I’ve been bat-less.  That same day I took a twilight swim as the sun dropped below the horizon.  The sunset was spectacular, the lake reflecting blood-red light that spanned the western sky.  The lake was calm.  I floated on my back in the deepening dark when I noticed winged shapes flitting and darting erratically above.  Raising my head I saw a dozen or so bats hunting insects over the lake.  I perched on a submerged rock to watch.  The bats swooped, abruptly changed direction, flew low over the lake and spiraled 20 feet in the air.  Watching any one bat in particular was impossible.  I couldn’t keep track of their movements.  Occasionally a bat would fly straight at my head, coming as close as a foot, only to veer aside when it realized I was not on the menu.  Their mid-air agility is wondrous.

I’ve returned to this spot at twilight a number of times, watching the aeriel show from shore.  The complex, zany flight patterns continue to fascinate, as does the bats’ utter silence.  Their wings make no sound as they zig and zag.

No Posts If Sunny

Are summer sunshine, air temperatures in the 80’s and 90’s, cooling breezes, and refreshing lake water the enemies of blog posts?  In my case, seeing that I’ve been in Maine for a week without even thinking of writing a post, the answer must be yes.


We installed the dock in early June with about 6 inches of freeboard. I install it close to the spring water level, knowing the level will decline by summer’s end.  However what goes down sometimes goes up first.  June has seen a lot of rain.  Three days ago lake water lay about two inches below the dock surface.  It rained all weekend, at times heavily, and yesterday morning a thunderstorm raged close by and poured sheets of water on already-soaked earth.  I know exactly how hard it rained because I was out in the storm calling for a missing dog.  I turned home when lightning flash and one beat later thunder cracked almost directly overhead, deciding it was not a good day to die.  Just as I entered the house Chelsey tore up behind me, wildness in her eyes, and bolted in before me.  All safe.  I took this picture after the storm.  One more heavy rain will submerge the dock.  It’s happened before; everything returns to its level sooner or later.



I’m in Maine this week with the dogs, enjoying the solitude. I’ve been working most of the day. I needed a break so an hour ago I played fetch with the dogs–this time I threw and they retrieved–and went to the transfer station to get rid of the accumulated trash and recyclables. It’s a short drive and the snow that started earlier this afternoon made it especially picturesque. At the station I dumped the trash in the appropriate bins and chatted with Eric, the affable and quite competent transfer station agent. Eric, as he always does, had biscuits for the dogs and, as he always does, Eric handed them to me for feeding. Cleo and Chelsey don’t distinguish much between biscuits and fingers and in their eagerness they will take in everything attached to an item of food and sort it out later. As I was leaving Eric motioned for me to roll down my window. “Your sticker expires on the 31st. You’ll need a new one for next year.” “Thanks” I said. “Are the town offices open today?” He confirmed they were.

Driving there I noticed the lack of cars. I’d driven about 5 miles and seen no more than ten vehicles, including town trucks sanding the roads. I was savoring the lack of traffic, contrasting it with traffic at home, when I arrived at the town offices. I never mind going there. The ladies who work there–I’ve only seen women behind the counter–have always been helpful and efficient.

“What can I do for you?”

“I need a new Bulky Waste sticker.”

“Where do you live in town?” I gave her the local address. She entered something in a computer and looked at the screen for a while. Then she pulled a map out from under the counter, consulted it, and entered something else in the computer. Then she looked at me. “Who are you?”

“David Randall.” And as soon as she asked the question I knew I had a problem.

“That property is owned by a trust.”

I know that, of course, but I only think about it twice a year when I pay the real estate tax bill. I owned this property originally but four years ago we transferred it to a Qualified Personal Residence Trust–a QPRT. My wife, the estate planning lawyer, knows all about these legal techniques for reducing estate taxes. Owning this property in a QPRT is a good thing for our children when we get deposited in the bins of that great transfer station in the sky, but not a good thing for me today at town hall. Only the trustee has the legal authority to act as the owner, which means that she has to write a letter to town hall on behalf of the trust authorizing the town to issue a Lakes Region Bulky Waste Facility sticker to me so I can take out trash in 2008.

When I need to explain the difference between legal and beneficial ownership I’ll send students to this post. Beneficial ownership means the trash belongs to you; legal ownership means someone else controls what you can do with it.

The Purpose of Law School II

Recently, articles about law school and the legal profession have captured my attention more than is customary. I’m not certain why. There are obvious reasons: I’m nearing the bottom of my pile of to-be-written LSAC recommendation letters, I’m talking often about law school, I’ve had retrospective discussions about law careers, and Damages recently concluded its initial season. Uncanny how that show captured the essence of my first year of practice in the municipal finance department. Murder, intrigue, double crosses, nights at the financial printer’s proofreading offering statements . . .

This time I’ll point to Legal Blog Watch, where Carolyn Elefant has done all of the heaving lifting in a post titled Law School Rankings to Students: Don’t Tell Me What You Want, What You Really, Really Want. The entire post and its linked materials (except the Spice Girls’ lyrics) are worthwhile to those interested in law school. Briefly, law students rank “quality of teaching, bar passage rate, placement rate at nine months, practical skills training and faculty-student relations” as most important in evaluating law schools. The U.S. News law-school rankings don’t “consider quality of teaching, practical skills training or faculty-student relations” and give less weight to bar passage rates and placements. U.S. News bases 25% of its rankings on reputation among law professors and deans, 15% on reputation among lawyers and judges, and other factors declining in significance.

Trying to put the U.S. News Rankings into perspective for prospective law students can be frustrating. The rankings promise to impose order on the difficult choice of selecting a law school but like many analytic tools, people wield them without understanding how to do so or try to make them do more than they can. There’s just something irresistible, atavistic even, about numbered lists. I recall a student deciding between two schools who was convinced that a school ranked 63rd by U.S. News would provide him with a materially better education and job prospects than one ranked in the mid-70s. That’s nonsense. Finish at the top of your class in either school and you’ll have excellent job prospects in their markets. Finish in the bottom half of your class and it won’t matter if your school is ranked in U.S. News’s top 20. Many wanna-be law students forget that half of them will finish in the bottom half of their class, at least until Lake Wobegon Law School opens its doors.

The disconnect between law students’ wants and the U.S. News ranking factors reflects the yin and yang of law school education. Does law school introduce students into analytic thinking that is the backbone of legal problem-solving or does it teach a trade? Which is more important for a law school graduate, sophisticated understanding of legal principles or knowing how to search a title? This should not be binary question; lawyers should know the how and the why of law. There are extremely smart attorneys who are flummoxed by law’s mundane, boring, and necessary details and law mill practitioners churning out form documents who can’t see the forest for the trees. Elefant agrees with a blogger who “wonders whether law student[s] are sufficiently qualified to evaluate the quality of a law school, or to know what aspects of legal education are important.” She says “the most important skills that law school teaches are (1) writing ability and (2) analytical thinking.”

I think the answer is more complicated. Recent posts have discussed the difficulties some law graduates have finding jobs that pay enough to cover their law-school loans. Many students enter law school without any clear understanding of what lawyers actually do only to discover that (1) they don’t like doing it, (2), they aren’t good at it, and/or (3) it is not at all what they expected. The practice of law is stratified, with the handful of top graduates (not all of whom graduated from the U.S. News top-ranked schools) landing the best paying jobs at corporate firms and everyone else finding their niche along the continuum from “interesting and challenging” to “mind-numbingly and soul-suckingly dull.” Learn to analyze, learn to write, but if you are in the bottom half of your class at a lower-ranked school and $150,000+ in debt, you had better come out of law school knowing how to do something besides spot issues.