28 April 2005

Eternal Sunshine of the Legal Mind

Soon-to-be Harvard Law alumnus Jeremy Blachman of the eponymously-named and always-excellent Jeremy's Weblog recently betrayed the secret all recent law school graduates and new attorneys share:
I have a secret. And it's getting more and more difficult to hide it. I think my family's finally catching on. There's only so much verbal gymnastics one can do before the truth is obvious. My friends here know my secret. It's their secret too. It's the elephant in the room. It's okay to talk about it, but it's embarrassing for other people to find out. I mean, it's not our fault, but it can feel that way. Like we've done something wrong. Like we're imposters. But I don't think we are. I think somehow the expectations just don't match the reality. People make certain assumptions. Heck, we make our own assumptions. But it turns out that the assumptions just aren't true. And so we carry around our secret, a little bit ashamed, a little bit amused, a little bit concerned, a little bit puzzled, a little bit resigned, and a little bit angry.

Here it is: I don't know any law.

That's an overstatement, but not by much. I don't know that I really thought about it before I started law school, but I feel like I must have assumed I'd graduate having more of a clue than I do. I've been noticing more and more lately. People cut you some slack when you say you're just a student, but you tell them you're about to graduate and they expect Perry Mason. After watching a segment on The Daily Show last week, I had a conversation with a friend about whether they would be allowed to film on the Harvard campus without permission. Neither of us had any idea. I have no clue what the difference between robbery, burglary, larceny, theft, and just plain stealing are. My cousin is a teacher. She asked me whether it's legal to handcuff her students. I mean, it sounds illegal... but is that really a more informed answer than I would have given three years ago?

If I may humbly offer some reassurance to Jeremy before he is set upon and killed by his classmates for blabbing, let me pass along the following truths I've learned in the nearly ten years since I left law school:
  1. You know more than you think you know;
  2. Much of what you know is useless in the real world, but will be impossible to forget;
  3. You must forget everything you know in order to pass the bar exam;
  4. After the bar exam is behind you, you will learn what you need to know;
  5. Your years in law school have enabled you to learn what you need to know once you've forgotten everything you knew in order to pass the bar exam which tested nothing you learned during your years in law school; and
  6. If Truth Number Five, supra, seemed like a reasonable sentence to you, you're ready to practice law.
Jeremy's lament that he has "no clue what the difference between robbery, burglary, larceny, theft, and just plain stealing are" also gives me the segue I need to digress into relating my own experience with the aforementioned Truth Number Two:

I am an in-house attorney at a software company; my principal duties involve contract law, intellectual property protection and licensing, regulatory and export compliance, employment law, and corporate governance issues. As such, there is absolutely no reason for me to recall that:
  • the common law felonies were murder, manslaughter, larceny, arson, burglary, robbery, mayhem, rape, sodomy, and suicide;
  • robbery is an illegal taking of property directly from a person using violence or forceful coercion;
  • burglary is breaking into a residence at night with the intent to commit a felony (e.g., robbery or larceny);
  • larceny is robbery without the personal touch;
  • theft is common law larceny as codified by many modern statutes; and
  • stealing is an informal name for the foregoing concepts and you cannot do it until you pass the bar exam.
There is no reason for me to know any of that, but I do and I can't forget it. Most likely, if Jeremy ever reads this post, he also will not be able to forget it and he will curse my name when this information pops into his thoughts as he attempts to formulate a response to a civil procedure question on his bar exam. Nevertheless, I'll offer one last thing I've learned from painful personal experience -- if you rattle-off the common law felonies at a dinner party, people will think you're creepy.


Anonymous said...

And to think he had to go to Harvard not to learn any law...he could have done that anywhere.

Interesting blog! I found you by following breadcrumbs from the Blawg Review.


Unknown said...

Right you are; I learned no law somewhere else and am using that lack of knowledge on a daily basis a decade later. Thanks for following the breadcrumbs from Blawg Review!

Anonymous said...

I also can't dismiss the useless knowledge of criminal law I acquired back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. And I still am looking for a satisfactory answer to this question:

What is the appropriate criminal penalty for the felony of suicide?

Anonymous said...

THIS is hysterical. So, so true. I'm trying not to explain what "premeditation" is to the clueless among us.

I'm thinking "life" is the appropriate penalty to the question above mine.