Archive for September, 2008

If you are going to attend law school, you need to know which tricky legal phrases to use (so you can sound smart, which is 90% of the battle) and which to avoid so that you don’t sound like a total douche.  This will be yet another ongoing theme on this blog, because if there is one thing that blogs need it is ongoing themes.  We’ll break it down into top five lists; five phrases to use, five phrases to avoid.


1. Quid Pro Quo.  People will often avoid Latin terms for fear of sounding pretentious, but this is one one place where the use makes since.  You actually sound more ridiculous trying to describe quid pro quo without using the actual terms.  “What we have here is a situation where one party is doing something for another party with the promise that they will resipricate and do something for said party.”  Now that sounds ridiculous.  Plus, you are going to want to get comfortable with this phrase if you ever plan to work in a supervisory position (ahem, sexual harrassment, ahem).

2. Black Letter Law.  This refers to the standard principals that are known and free from dispute, but typically not compiled in one source.  This phrase is a great stall technique, because you can almost always answer a professor’s question with: “Well, there’s no black letter law for this issue.”  This is obvious (because if there was established law, the professor wouldn’t ask you a question about it), but the phrasing will make them think you are really grappling with the issue’s complexity and that you have investigated the source material seeking a consensus.

3. Onerous.  This is a word, not a phrase, but it is a great one to use to sound like a lawyer.  Attorneys and legal scholars love to label laws onerous or egregious.  Onerous is best used when knocking down a “straw man” argument (a phrase for another day!).  For instance: “Those against capital punishment argue that putting someone to death is too onerous, but in reality …”  (I bet you would love to hear the end of this hypothetical statement.  “Putting someone to death might not be unduly burdensome to the now dead person?  Please explain!”)

4. Mitigate.  It’s an important word in contracts (“duty to mitigate”) and it is just fun to say.  Try it out a few times.  Plus, you can conjugate it and really bring the hammer in class by saying things like, “The damage here is mitigated by the fact …”  See, genius.

5. Coaseian.  This works especially well if you are at a “law and econ” school like the University of Chicago.  Instead of talking about the social cost of a situation, discuss the “Coaseian” implications.  Ronald Coase would be proud and your professor will be impressed.  If you are really bold, you can even – appropos of nothing – suggest applying Coaseian Economics to the problem of North Korea.


1. Caveat Emptor.  Just say “buyer beware.”  Please.  (Author’s note – the key “buyer beware” case in most property law classes is the infamous Stambovsky v. Ackley case, which is about a haunted house and features an opinion riddled with bad puns like “this case doesn’t have ghost of a chance.”  Your author will probably write about this case in the future and feature it as Exhibit A in the argument that professors do not have the first clue about what it is that law students find “fun.”)

2. Ex Post Facto.  it means “after the fact” or “retroactive law,” both of which are easier to say.  When in doubt, ditch the Latin.

3. Slippery Slope.  Forwarding a Slippery Slope argument is a great way to win the hearts and minds of your peers and professors … in college.  For many reasons (some of which are valid, some of which are aribtrary), worrying over a “slippery slope” is greated with nothing more than an eyeroll in law school.  It is seen as simplistic and the “easy way out” of tricky legal questions.  Your author personally finds people who hate the use of “slippery slope” more annoying than the people who use the phrase, but you are still best served avoiding it altogether.  After all, who wants to jump into that kind of hotbed of controversy!

4. The Letter of the Law.  It sounds a lot like “Black Letter Law,” but has a tototally different meaning.  If you use this phrase, people assume that you are about to invoke “the spirit of the law,” which is a mistake.  Because the law has no spirit.

5. Framers.  Never, ever mention the “Framers” of the United States Constitution.  Doing so puts you on the path to original intent, aka, the path to debate hell.  The surest way to place yourself on the radar of the lamest, most argumentative, most brown-nosing gunner in your class is to start talking about the framers of the Consitution.  This one is to be avoided if you value your sanity.


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It’s time for the #8 song on the all-time list of legal rap goodness … “Guilty Until Proven Innocent” by Jay-Z and R. Kelly.

Now … is any more justification necessary than the mere fact that R. Kelly was involved?

If so, then read it and weep.

This song actually disappoints a little when it comes to legal commentary, as the title misleads.  You think it is going to be another scathing (if inaccurate) commentary on the legal system by Jay-Z, but it is really just another brag rap with a few “law morsels” thrown in.  Thankfully, the law morsels are pretty good.  Oh, and has it been mentioned that R. Kelly was involved?

Alan Dershowitz = Jay-Z?

Alan Dershowitz = Jay-Z?

Tasty Legal Morsel #1 – Copyright infringement.  You have to listen carefully or you will miss it, but Jigga quickly informs us that the public couldn’t wait and had to have “it” (the Dynasty album) before the release date.  He became “irate” about this fact.  And we though Metallica was the band that brought down Napster!

Tasty Legal Morsel #2 – Bail.  Late in the first verse, Jay-Z tells us that he was arrested and put in a lineup (because people were “trying to put dents” in his “armor”).  But because he’s a survivor and liver than most, he is out on bail for $50,000 and “still riding with toast.”  How brazen to be out on bail and still carrying a weapon!  Or is it?  Is this a restricted firearm?  Concealed without a permit?  Within the city limits of Chicago or Washington D.C.?  We don’t get any context that explains why this would be a cocky, taunting move in the face of Johnny Law.  Frankly, this is a letdown.

Tasty Legal Morsel #3 – Informants.  They are legal and effective, but despised in the hip-hop community.  Who hasn’t heard the valiant “Stop Snitchin” war cry?  Jay decides this is a good time to remind us that he himself doesn’t snitch (this, despite the fact that he devoted an entire song – “A Week Ago,” featuring Too Short – to the topic on his Life and Times Vol. 1 album).  He explains that he doesn’t have to go to the cops to get rich, he just goes “to the block” to “pitch” (that means to deal drugs, squares).  Again, I’m wondering about this – do people really turn to snitching to “get rich”?  It has always struck me as a “incarceration prevention” strategy more than a business opportunity.  Maybe your author is just naive.

Tasty Legal Morsel #4 – Defense attorneys.  Jay-Z shines a light on the inequalities in defendant representation embedded in our justice system when he says that he’s “got big money, big lawyers to fight it” and that “like Cochran,” you’ll never see him boxed in.  And this is basically the whole reason that he’s “back on the streets before you know it.”  (Well, that and the fact that he’s claustrophobic, which is an admittedly tremendous bit of word play.)

Tasty Legal Morsel #5 – Frivolous civil suits.  This is where it gets pretty personal as he describes a sex act performed on a woman who later sued him for hitting her over the head with a champagne bottle at a bar (“can he buy me a car?”).  He never goes so far as to say it didn’t happen, instead arguing that buying a Range Rover for the victim won’t make her pain go away.  Not real sympathetic.  But given the fact that he calls her suit “rhetoric,” I’m guessing he finds the whole thing a waste of taxpayer money.

All told, Jay-Z covers a lot of ground here, but most of the lyrics consist of bragging about his ability to manipulate and abuse the legal system, which runs counter to his martyr stance in the title.  I wonder if he even bothered to reconcile the two …

Either way, it is song #8 and Jay-Z’s second appearance on the list.  He’s like rap’s Alan Dershowitz at this point.

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My friend Peter approached me in the hall. “So, have you decided whether you are taking that Immigration Law class yet?

“I don’t know, I heard he grills people. I don’t need that kind of stress.”

“Come on, it’s a great class.”

“Tell you what, if you get me one of those Law Review outlines for the class, you can count me in.”

This is obvious to anyone who has spent a single day in a law school, but might not be evident to the newcomer: a huge (and necessary) component of law school involves using other people’s work.[1] Outlines prepared by others can save you a ton of time studying for exams, but they can also be a useful tool for getting through your classes and for surviving the Socratic method. A good outline will capture the main points of each topic, giving you valuable clues about the direction of classroom discussions. A quick glance at a good outline can make up for hours of pre-class reading, and at least give you something to say if the professor happens to call your name. Class notes can be even more useful. Having great class notes taken during a previous semester can completely obviate the need to go to class, and can also eliminate the fear of the Socratic method.

In the best-case scenario, a friend who happens to be a diligent note-taker (choosing not to partake in the online chat room discussions) has already completed a class that you will soon take. The professors also often teach the same legal subject repeatedly (especially in slow-developing areas of the law such as Trusts and Estates) and uses the same course materials each time. If you find yourself in this situation, you have hit the law school free-riding jackpot. It is as if you needed one more player to play on your neighborhood pickup basketball game and found LeBron James looking to run. You can sit back and enjoy the ride.

During 1L year, this author happened to come into possession of the greatest set of notes ever to have existed. This wonderful document gave us a window into the mind of the professor, predicting almost verbatim what he was going to say. It was rumored that these notes were the collective creation of many previous students, much like people suspect Shakespeare was not one individual, but multiple people working together. Also like Shakespeare, the work was unsurpassed. To those without the notes, it may have seemed like only the professor’s lecture points were from a prepared speech, and that at least the questions and discussions were impromptu and ad hoc. On the contrary, these notes revealed that almost every word the professor said was scripted and prepared, like he was a robot programmed to read from the same document we had found.[2]

But like most things of great power, notes of this brilliance should be used very carefully.[3] This author quickly developed an etiquette for using this magical script during class, and your author urges readers to follow these two important rules if they find themselves in a similar situation.

Rule #1 – Sharing is Caring. First and foremost, share the magical notes. Don’t try to keep them to yourself, because if you are so lucky to get these notes, other people will also have them as well. Be generous and share with your friends, who will appreciate the gesture. They will come across these notes eventually, and if they then figure out that you had them the entire time, they will know that you didn’t offer it to them. Even worse, they will know that you weren’t as brilliant as you made it seem that day the professor called on you, and they will question your integrity. It will also quickly become clear which other students have these notes, since their answers to the professor’s questions will mirror the language in the notes.[4]

Rule #2 – R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Use the notes with respect. Never raise your hand to respond to a professor’s question and answer as if you thought up the concept yourself. If you get called on, pause and reflect upon the question, perhaps even giving a wrong answer now and again.[5] When you give the right answer, never use the same wording as the notes. This author noticed a few students raise their hands to answer the professor’s question using the same exact language as the notes, and the author’s opinion of them changed forever.[6] It is as if they stood up and announced that they spend every Saturday tripping old ladies outside the local market. Just dishonorable and pathetic, really.

Most class notes or outlines don’t approach these great heights. Nevertheless, even an average outline or collection of notes will prepare you for what to expect each day in class and set your mind at ease if you happen to miss a lecture here and there (or always). They can also decrease your anxiety level about getting called on, and you may even find yourself going to class more often to partake in “the life of the mind.” At the very least, if you happen to be at school and don’t want to miss out on a potentially hilarious IM chat session, the fear of getting called on won’t deter you from attending class.

Outlines and notes are best used in coordination with some of the other tools mentioned in this blog. Because they don’t include every conceivable detail of each case, a class or professor that emphasizes facts or procedural posture may ask you detailed questions to which an outline wouldn’t have the answer. That what having a prepared friend in the chat room is for! These documents are generally most useful to give you a sense of the professor’s style, how each case fits within the overall structure of the class, and for the main points of each discussion.

[1] Not plagiarism though. That is still a big no-no.

[2] We were unable to catch the professor plugging himself into an outlet, but our suspicions never completely disappeared.

[3] Akin to the Peter Parker “with great power comes great responsibility” refrain in Spider-Man.

[4] Plus, it is fun to use the chat room to “predict” what the professor will say next. For some reason, this never gets old.

[5] It is also a fun pastime to watch your classmates act out the scripts, particularly when the professor doesn’t know a thing.

[6] The ultimate fear is that the professor comes to realize that his notes have been disseminated and then takes some form of action to change the outline, or even to punish the lucky students.

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We’re back with more hot legal rap action (note: phrase inserted for SEO purposes).

Continuing the sensation that is sweeping the nation, The Legal Ease is here to present the #9 “Rap Song That Deals With Legal Issues” of all time … “Murder Was the Case” by Snoop Dogg.

This early 90’s classic had a lot of things going for it – the Mista Grimm intro, the all-one-word subtitle (DeathAfterVisualizingEternity), that pitch perfect first line (“As I look up at the sky – my mind starts trippin’, a tear drops my eye”), and so much more. But for our purposes, the real value here is obviously the hard-hitting, first-person account of being a prisoner in the state pen. Perhaps not surprisingly, Snoop tells us that it isn’t enjoyable – not in the least.

The key to appreciating this song for the legal commentary it provides, is eschewing the first verse, which is a narrative of a near death experience (highlight: when Snoop asks God to save him and is told that he will live for eternal life AND forever, which is a pretty amazing deal). It is verse two – when he comes “fresh up out” his coma – when he really starts breaking it down.

We learn that Snoop makes a dramatic recovery from being shot and nearly killed and that he does it with the help of the homies in his corner, and the “keys” he was fronted. Uh oh.

By verse three, we realize that “livin’ like a baller loc” has caught up to Snoop and that God has punished him for not changing his ways. You know what that means, right? Rolling on the prison bus (“the grey goose”) to Chino to serve a sentence. Here’s where we get inside Snoop’s head. He’s shackled from head to toe (with nowhere to “gizzo”). People recognize him. He senses danger. But he’s the O.G. D-o-double-g from the LBC, so he “mad dogs” people like he doesn’t care in a red (not orange?) jumpsuit with braids in his hair.

Snoop is clearly scaring people because they take him to the “level 3 yard.” This puts him in position to hear all the brutal sounds of prison life, such as toothbrushes scraping the floor (who knew?) and people getting shanked (more like it).

Snoop never really goes into the details of his trial, why he committed a murder (did God make him, for going back on his “Crossroads” esque deal?), or what kind of appeal process he’s looking at, which is why the song is only #9 on the list.

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Listen up, people. We’ve got more Socratic method fact and fiction for you.

Fiction: If you do not know an answer, everyone will think you are an idiot who should be at the Tijuana School of Law and Cosmetology.

Fact: Human beings are far too self-absorbed to really notice what sort of answer you are giving unless you do something that really annoys them. In three years of law school, your author can’t recall thinking – even once – “wow, that’s a really stupid answer, what an idiot” or hearing someone else make a similar comment about a peer’s answer. Generally, law students are not paying enough attention to one another’s responses to form that sort of opinion, whether it is because they are too busy trying to be prepared in case they get called on, or because they are just bored and are surfing the web. Moreover, everyone is in the same boat. You are attending school with these people because you belong there. If you do not know the answer, you are probably not the only one in the room in that predicament.

This brings your author to another important issue regarding the self-esteem element of classroom discussions: the negative impact of “Gunners.”[1]

Gunners will enter class possessing (or, at least, believing they posses) a wealth of irrelevant and unnecessary knowledge, and they will claw each other’s eyes out for the chance to extol this knowledge to the professor. They have read the professor’s books and publications, and have done background research before the class even began. Do not be unnerved by this bizarre behavior. Do not think that they are representative of everyone in the class. And DO NOT be intimidated simply because they appear to know more than you. Professors are not impressed by this kind of lunacy. Everything that you need to know, and are expected to know, is in the assigned reading. In fact, professors do not like it when students do extra research, both because it distracts from the general instruction they are giving, and because it exposes these students as exactly what they are: insecure know-it-alls who need constant approval from authority figures because they were not hugged enough as children.[2]

[1] These fellows will be discussed at length when The Legal Ease starts to break down “The Cast of Characters,” but they warrant special attention here. No group represents a more destructive force in a law classroom. They are the law school equivalent of the overzealous military recruit that makes everyone look bad in boot camp only to wind up torturing an enemy combatant and bringing great shame upon the United States. Okay, that might be harsh, but let’s just say that a gunner’s star will certainly fade, and it will happen quickly.

[2] Your author has some proof of this last part and would share it, but the research is, sadly, incomplete at this time.

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“I just made such a fool of myself,” my friend Julie lamented in embarrassed fashion as we exited class during the fall quarter of our 1L year. “I was completely unprepared when the professor called on me, my answer was totally wrong, and he kept coming back to me. Everyone must think I’m so stupid. I don’t even want to look at anyone right now,” she cried.

After a puzzled silence, I responded with, “You got called on?”[1]

As Jerry Seinfeld once joked, the average American’s greatest fear is public speaking, a greater fear even than death.[2] It is not surprising then, that the aspect of law school that strikes students with that nervous sting of apprehension is the Socratic method used by professors to foster involvement in their classes. Entering law school, nearly all students are terrified of being called on by one of their luminary professors. This fear, more than anything else, motivates students to be prepared for class. It drives them to read every word of every case, to highlight footnotes with special, colored highlighters, and to chew their fingernails down to the cuticles.

However, as mentioned ad nauseum in this space, having your name called by the professor need not be a heart-stopping, hyperventilation-inducing event. It’s really not that scary. Nor does anyone care about what happened ten minutes after the fact. Repeat: no one cares. Not only that, but the urban legends and myths and whispered cardinal rules that float down law school corridors are largely made up, erroneous, and dead wrong. Over the course of three years, most law students eventually come to these realizations. But why suffer needlessly for any period of time?[3] In this ongoing feature, your author will separate myth from reality in order to hopefully alleviate some of your anxieties from Day One.

Fiction: You must never, ever utter the words “I don’t know” when called upon. Always try to come up with an answer, lest you disappoint all the brilliant minds around you and cause your family great shame and embarrassment for years to come.

Fact: It is absolutely, unequivocally, one hundred percent okay to tell a professor that you do not know the answer. In fact, this is a much better option than stammering nervously as you try to scam your way to an acceptable response.[4] If a professor calls on you and you don’t know the answer, simply say “honestly, I don’t know” or something along those lines.[5] It will buy you time, which allows you to collect your thoughts, lower your heart rate, and even score up some answers from outside sources. Plus, it sets a nice tone for the rest of your Socratic dialogue, as you begin with a humble statement, which is much better than coming off snotty or condescending. However, don’t think that simply saying “I don’t know” gets you completely off the hook. You will need to have something to follow with, which is why your author recommends reading the other Socratic method posts.

[1] This is not a fabricated story just to hammer home the point. This actually happened and the friend in question is really named Julie.

[2] Allowing for the brilliant punch line: “Most people at a funeral would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.”

[3] There are no stats on this, but a best guess says that students – on average – come to this realization after about 1.7 years of law school.

[4] This almost never works.

[5] It is not recommended that you try “I don’t know’s” distant cousin, “Um, I didn’t do the reading” or “Sorry, I nodded off for a minute.” If you want to use one of those responses, proceed with caution.

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Classes started yesterday at Yale, as the law school’s fall semester kicked off in earnest.

Elsewhere, blue unicorns were seen running past leprechauns and dragons.

(Seriously, have you ever met anyone from Yale Law School? Are we sure that such people exist?)

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