Summer Wanes

This morning’s swim was extra wet, Hurricane Danny’s peripheral rain plopping on the lake’s still surface.  The lake was 20 degrees or more warmer than the 52 degree air temperature and especially quiet, the rain and chill keeping inside the occasional fisherman I see during my just-out-of-bed ritual.  I don’t know how many more morning swims this season holds.  Likely they could be counted on one hand, and certainly no more than two.  Classes start in five days and life swings back to the city.  Judy and I have been in Maine seven of the past eight weekends, missing one for my bike trip around Lake Champlain and her family visit to the Garden State.  We had Maine guests every weekend save one, and loved it all–which does not mean we won’t enjoy time off from being hosts.  This weekend’s guests are long-time friends with whom we used to own a house.  They require little hosting, and we can dial back the relentless attention to detail required to make the weekend run smoothly.  Relaxing, but with the first taste of fall weather the past few days–and with Hurricane Danny dropping buckets of rain outside–this weekend is a transition.

I felt this keenly while I swam.  Rather than don a post-swim rain-soaked robe I left it in the house, walking to the dock wrapped in a towel.  Diving in was a relief, the lake so much warmer than the air and rain above.  I started fast to shake off the chill from the walk and swam to the rock ledge off the south end of our cove, standing in neck-deep water to adjust the goggles. Mist pockets drifted at the cove’s far edge and here and there across the lake.  The gray sky and water set off the dark green trees climbing the hills around the lake.  The boat and swim raft floated motionless in the cove, no wind disturbing the lake’s glassy rain-pocked glassy.  I tried to brand the image into memory, then swam 500 feet to the submerged rock off the cove’s northern point.  I swam fast, pushing myself, enjoying the rhythm–inhale on the breath stroke, water rushing past head and arms, loud burbling exhale.  This summer I swam anywhere from a half- to one and a half-miles each day at the lake and slip easily into good rhythm.  I never sprint, though, and almost out of breath was relieved to spot the large algae-slicked rock looming a few yards ahead.  It sits two feet below the surface 20 yards off the point, in six feet of water–a lurking hazard for an inattentive boater with a outboard motor.  After catching my breath on the rock I slowly swam back to the dock.  Each breath stroke brought a view of familiar water, rocky bank, mottled green foliage, gray-brown trees, and gray sky, a rolling series of snapshots skewed right 90 degrees.  I peeled the goggles off at the dock and floated on my back.  Not for long–the rain was falling too hard on my face for comfort.  Wrapping the towel around my waist–I left it in a tight roll so it was soaked on top–I walked back to the house for my morning coffee.

The Real America

Timothy Egan’s post on the NY Times Blog captures some noteworthy facts on Tuesday’s election.  It begins “[g]uess who won Joe the Plumber’s vote.  Not Joe the symbol and unlicensed tax-dodger coming soon to a garage sale near you, but the ral people about $42,000 a year, the median income for plumbers and pipefitters.  Barack Obama carried hard-working Americans of that income stripe by 10 points . . .”  And her carried those who make more than $200,000 a year, and Latinos, and the young, and the suburbs . . .

The election results rejected the recent trend in Rove-inspired Republican electioneering, the character-assassination-by-association that replaced substantive discussion at the highest level of the party.  Enough voters saw through the Republican assertion that Obama is “too radical.”  McCain’s concession speech and Obama’s victory speech revealed the truth of their respective appeal in stark terms.  The audience for McCain’s dour luxury-resort address looked like a Junior League party hosting the members of Augusta National.  The camera’s strained to find even once face of color in the crowd.  Other than the range of ages represented, Obama’s audience reminded me of a photo taken when a friend’s daughter graduated from West Point, a cross section of skin colors, ethnicities, and melting-pot origins that truly is, despite Palin’s sneering assertions, Real America.  Republicans can either broaden their appeal and re-establish relevance or continue their sour, mean-spirited migration to the right.

Weather Stats

July weighs in as washout in today’s Globe puts numbers on my dock-based rainfall analysis:

  • 6 inches of rain in July, compared to July average of 3.06 inches
    6th wettest July since 1920
    9 July thunderstorms, compared to July average of 4
    21 thunderstorms in seven months of 2008, compared to annual average of 17

Meteorologists predict the heavy weather, caused by “a warm humid air mass hanging over the region,” will continue into August. They are correct so far. I’ve been at the lake for six hours and rain has fallen for about half of them, including a 20-minute burst that ran down the screens in sheets.

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. 

Brimming

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.

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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?

Science 101

Following a discussion of employment law this week a student sent me this article: Biologist fired for beliefs, suit says. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute fired postdoctoral researcher Nathaniel Abraham from his position in the biology lab because he believes “that the Bible presents a true account of human creation.” Abraham was hired to work on a project that “studies how aquatic animals respond to chemical contaminants by examining ‘. . . mechanisms from a comparative/evolutionary perspective,'” did not inform anyone that he does not believe the fundamental tenets of evolution underlying the research, and was fired when he disclosed this fact.

Is belief in evolution a bona fide occupational qualification for this position? Woods Hole fired him because of his religious beliefs, yet his beliefs are fundamentally incompatible with his job responsibilities. How could he even take such a job? It would be like an adherent to Christian Science–which treats illness through prayer rather than medicine–being trained as an oncologist. The article puts it this way: “‘A flight school hiring instructors wouldn’t ask whether they accepted that the earth was spherical; they would assume it. Similarly, Woods Hole would have assumed that someone hired to work in developmental biology would accept that evolution occurred. It’s part and parcel of the science these days.'”

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.

To Be* or Not to Be*

My recent posts about careers in law (Legal Careers and Not Covered By LSAT Prep) is generating interesting discussion both online and off. My wife, a very happy solo practitioner for over 21 years, takes a more expansive view of the value of a legal career. She considers a law degree to be a great credential that opens doors to many fields. I did not mean to suggest that the cost/benefit calculation is, or should be, the only way to assess the value of a law degree. Every prospective law student should ask at least three questions: The first is can I afford law school–that is, can I make enough money after I graduate to pay back student loans and live the type of life I want to live? The second is what will a law degree enable me to do that I could not do without a law degree? If your only answer to this question is “practice law” then you need to consider it more thoroughly. Most non-lawyers equate “law practice” with “litigation,” but most lawyers are not litigators. The only times I’ve entered courtrooms since graduating law school in 1981 were to get sworn in, to hear oral arguments as a law clerk, and for jury duty. My law degree led to practice in real estate and municipal finance, which led to expertise in the arcane field of non-rated tax-exempt bonds, which led somehow–here the trail gets fuzzy–to teaching full time in a business school. This is not the type of career you map out in your first week of law school, but it is the type of career a law degree makes possible.

Which does not mean, of course, that I agree with my wife’s position. The third question is do I want to do those things that law school allows me to do? Too many law graduates discover that they really do not like being lawyers. A lot of what lawyers do is mundane, tedious, repetitive, and nit-picky. When I left my BigLaw life in 1988 I learned that I enjoyed being the client much more than I enjoyed being the lawyer, even though as general counsel I was still practicing. I enjoyed it even more when I left practice behind to make business decisions. I only started to enjoy law again when I was free from the constraints of practice. I was lucky to find in teaching an outlet for my interests and talents, but it was not only luck. I was willing and to make profound changes in the nature of my work. When success in practice requires becoming the go-to guy or gal for Section 1031 like-kind exchanges or local permitting for shopping center development, the horizon can become too limiting. Not for everyone, but for many.

*A Lawyer

They Did Walk This Way

BU Today features a story about BU’s role in the Boston rock scene, and opens with a story of “five guys who didn’t exactly go to college” renting a Comm Ave apartment and playing gigs around Boston University. Those five guys–Aerosmith, and how amazing is it that Aerosmith’s original lineup is still intact?–were common sights around West Campus during my freshman year at BU. They were friends with Jeff Green, the resident grown-up in the first tower. The first time I saw them was in the dining hall one Friday evening. They trailed Green through the food line and are together at a table while everyone else wondered “who ARE those guys?” They were high profile. Imagine Steven Tyler and Joe Perry (who I also encountered once in the appliances department at the defunct Lechmere in Cambridge, shopping for a refrigerator) and the rest looking 36 years younger and not as healthy as they do now, wearing full rock-star garb, carrying plastic trays loaded with mac & cheese, Cokes, and frosted white cake, sitting in the dining hall surrounded by young college students with mouths agape. Jeff Green also let them practice in the basement rooms off the tunnels connecting the West Campus dorms. You’d go down to check on your laundry and hear Train Kept a Rollin’ reverberating off the cinder blocks. In the spring of 1974, when Aerosmith had a major Boston presence and were on the cusp of going national, they played at one of the Wednesday night dance concerts–“BU Boogies”–in the George Sherman Union. They’ve always been great in concert.