Roman Holiday

Instead of recapping the last week in Rome, here is a sums-it-all-up Sistine Chapel story. One day we visited St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums. Everything about St. Peter’s is beyond human scale: its physical dimensions, its luxurious details, its place in history. The collection in the Vatican museums is also lush, the Roman Catholic Church having acquired a staggering number of tchotchkes. Our visit ended with the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo’s frescoes in all of their restored glory. There were probably 500 visitors in the room, everyone craning their necks to stare at the high ceilings and walls. Entering the Chapel one sees International signs advising visitors not to sit on the steps, speak, or engage in other disrespectful behavior. Near the altar and The Last Judgment stood a circle of six guards talking, laughing, gesticulating, and completely ignoring everyone else in the room–except that every few minutes one would turn, shush the crowd, and yell “no photos!” After this admonishment he turned back to yak with his pals. After a brief period of relative quiet the crowd would continue as before, talking, pointing, and shooting flash pictures. After a half-dozen flashes another guard would lift his head from the conversation, yell “shush!”, and shout “no photos!” We were also treated to a multiple-language announcement instructing us not to take photos or talk. The lapsed catholic in me could still imagine eternal damnation for ruining the Sistine frescoes so I stayed flash and photo free, but it is no surprise that many tourists ignore the rule. Everywhere else throughout St. Peter’s and the Vatican Museums photo flashes are as common as lightning bugs on a hot summer night. The obvious way to enforce the no-flash no-loud-talking rules effectively would be to deploy the guards to the corners of the Sistine Chapel. Instead they hang in a knot and act like middle-school boys on lunch break.

The guards do their jobs by paying lip-service to enforcement; the tourists observe the rules by paying lip-service to obedience. Benign chaos. That’s Roma.

“cRANKy”??

I followed a story today to cRANKy, “the first age-relevant search engine.” How does an age-relevant search engine differ from an age-irrelevant search engine? According to a press release dated today, cRANKy is “designed to deliver the most targeted search results by applying a 50-plus lens to every query . . .” The site is part of Eons, “a 50-plus media company” founded by Monster.com creator Jeff Taylor. In cRANKy’s world those who are 50+ want their data pre-chewed and still cannot process more than four pieces at a time.

I started my exploration with the “Top cRANKy Searches 2006.” Example: Top Search Number 3 is Body Mass Index. A cRANKy sidebar links to a list of its most popular search terms for 2006, which overlaps yet is different from the Top cRANKy Searches 2006: Alternative Health, Entertainment, Finances, Health/Disease, Hearth & Home, Hobbies / Fitness, Ones to Watch, Relationships, Travel Spots, Web 101. Selecting Ones to Watch in 2007 I found ten subtopics: Brain Builders, Stephen King, Blogs, Work From Home, Elderhostel, Make New Friends, Jobs After Retirement, Arthritis, Online Dating, and RVs. Putting aside the obvious that (save for Stephen King) these are not “ones to watch” but Trends, perhaps, an image began to form of the cRANKy demographic. I pictured a graying couple hopping from elder hostel to elder hostel in their RV, reading Cujo, completing Sodoku puzzles with their new friends, posting blog entries (“Five Fun Facts About Phoenix”), and making pin money by selling macramé plant hangers at craft sales. I followed the first BrainBuilder link to a results page with abundant white space. Two sponsored links appear at the top of page. Below are only four organic results, followed by another four sponsored links in smaller type. Finding additional organic search results required clicking to page 2 for results 5-8, to page 3 for results 9-12, and so on. The four-results page is a cRANKy selling point, its response to the sheer overwhelming mass of a typical Google search. (When was the last time you navigated beyond page two or three of Google results?)

How is cRANKy for general search? (As I do with other trademarks like iPod I’m trying to be fair and enter the mark as it is written, but its inelegance is off-putting). If, say, a cRANKy user wants to understand this “Facebook” her college-aged daughter is talking about, can she get her answer cRANKily? I entered “facebook” in the search field and received a query back–Did you mean factbook?–followed by the standard four results: number one to a Business Week article, number two to a Technorati page of blog posts tagged “facebook,” number three to the Wikipedia Facebook entry, and number four to facebook.com. Somehow I don’t think the cRANKy demographic will want to make sense out of the technorati page, but to be fair the site is new. It intends to rank results based on user feedback (how very Web 2.0-ish!) and in six months, perhaps, the results will better reflect the cRANKy spirit.

Would I recommend this search engine tricycle with training wheels to my 85-year old father-in-law or the residents of the continuing care retirement center on whose board I sit? Not yet.

Vanishing Trials

Take note, prospective trial lawyers: the route to the courtroom travels an increasingly-narrow path. The number of civil trials has declined steadily over the past 40 years to the point that only 1.8% of all civil cases filed in federal court result in trials. The number of civil trials in state courts shows a similar decline. I would not have guessed the number to be so small. Today’s Boston Globe reports “[b]ecause of the high cost of going to trial, fear of unpredictable jury verdicts, and other factors, many cases instead are being resolved through settlements, mediation, and arbitration, which litigants often prefer to the emotional ordeal of going to court.” Rational reasons all, but (as The Globe reports) fewer trials means fewer experienced trial lawyers, a problem compounded by staffing practices in large corporate firms. If you hire Bob Popeo to represent you in a civil matter then, if your case is one of the 1.8% that goes to trial, you want Bob Popeo as lead counsel in the courtroom, not not one of Popeo’s talented younger partners and certainly not a litigation-department associate, no matter his or her academic pedigree. When the Popeos of the litigation bar retire, however, the ranks of lawyers with trial experience will grow successively thinner with each generation. As high as the stakes and arduous as the preparation for a summary judgment motion might be, it is not the same experience as a multi-day trial.

The article points out some of the steps firms are taking to enable younger lawyers to gain trial experience, such as handling pro bono cases through the Boston Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyer’s Project. Shortly after its inception in 1977 I worked as a paralegal at the Volunteer Lawyer’s Project. VLP is worthy for its pro bono client services and for the hands-on opportunities it provides to attorneys. Taking a case through the Volunteer Lawyer’s Project may increase a lawyer’s chance of trying a case but trials are no more numerous in those cases than they are in civil limitation in general.

Civil trials are terrible vehicles to resolve disputes, contentious, ridiculously expensive, and emotionally draining, and I don’t bemoan their paucity. The scarcity of trials underscores a disconnection I experience in just about every conversation with wannabe law students, who think of litigation when they think of the law: most lawyers are not litigators. For every lawyer in the litigation department of a large corporate firm there are often 5-10 lawyers in other practice areas. They are real estate lawyers, corporate lawyers, trusts and estates lawyers, tax lawyers, municipal finance lawyers, environmental lawyers, they almost never set foot inside a courtroom (testifying as a witness for a deal gone wrong doesn’t count), and they practice outside the gaze of Court TV, law-based TV shows and movies. We will never see a television drama called Bond Counsel or Fiduciary (well, maybe on cable), which means most pre-law students will experience the law through the distorted and diminishing prism of trials.

Sacha Pfeiffer, Few chances for lawyers to develop trial skills, The Boston Globe 29-Nov-06, p.1

Have It Your Way

Isleta Puebla, N.M. uniform police officers Mark Landavazo and Henry Gabaldon were riding in their patrol car when hunger came upon them. From the drive-through window of a Los Lunas Burger King they ordered hamburgers. Halfway through their meal they discovered that the burgers were garnished with marijuana, a fact confirmed when the officers administered a field test to the leafy topping. The officers sought treatment at a hospital. Police arrested three Burger King employees and charged them with possession of marijuana and aggravated battery on a police officer. Officers Landavazo and Gabaldon also filed a civil lawsuit against Burger King Corporation for personal injury, negligence, battery, and violation of fair practices.

Apparently this renegade Burger King outpost didn’t stop at goosing up the garnishes. My investigative team reports it may have also changed the lyrics to the BK jingle:

Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce,
Cannabis–that won’t upset us
All we ask is that you let us
Light up a J

Could this explain the behavior of that masked king in the BK ads?

Sources: The Modesto Bee, Police Sue Burger King, 08-Nov-06, modbee.com; Associated Press, Police Officers Sue Burger King Over Marijuana on Burgers, Law.com, 08-Nov-06