Monday, October 08, 2007

Law School, Again

Let me explain law school to you.

You may get an assignment to write a brief, then to argue, at some later date, in front of a panel of mock judges, advocating that brief. Be very careful to know exactly what is expected of you in this brief. Otherwise, you might have wasted many hours of your life on precisely the wrong things, like...this friend of mine.

The assignment will come with an appellate record - in the case of my friend, a trial order (with facts), an appellate opinion, a concurrence in that opinion, a dissent from that opinion, and, finally, a grant of writ of certiorari to the United States Supreme Court. My friend's role, then, was to write a brief to be submitted to SCOTUS.

Here is the mistake my friend made. The record contains a discussion, at two levels of the federal courts, of various cases on the two issues relevant to the case. My friend teamed up with another friend, and they took an issue apiece, as is appropriate for this team moot court competition. These two friends, thinking that they had better make the best argument possible, researched the cases in the record, and found other relevant cases by spending varying amounts of time on Westlaw. Roughly twenty-four hours before the finished brief was due, they started the minor things - checking citations, writing the non-substantive parts of the brief, making sure indentations and headings were all right, checking spacing, and all these other seemingly irrelevant things. Twenty-four hours seemed like a good amount of time to set aside for this, although it took over twelve hours to actually fix everything, get everything right, and print off fifteen (yes!) copies (plus, bizarrely, but per requirements, an electronic file on a 3.5" floppy disk. Do they still sell these? Yes, these friends found out, they actually do.). Having put a good deal of time into the minutiae of the brief, but not enough time to recheck everything for utter accuracy, these friends turned in what was a good technical brief with an excellent argument section - twenty pages, singled-spaced, in the argument section alone.

The brief was graded and returned. The grading form was roughly three pages - my friend is too lazy to check right now. The substantive grade was determined on three lines; the technical grade determined on almost three full pages, containing almost innumerable factors. Apparently, to my friends' surprise, the substantive discussion would have been perfectly fulfilled had they included no more than those cases, statutes, and Constitutional provisions contained in the record. The extra work on Westlaw was purely wasted. Perversely, the technical details were paramount, and more care had probably been taken by the graders in checking the table of authorities for the right number of trailing periods (my friend is not making this up - points were deducted viciously in the table of authorities) after case citations and before the corresponding page numbers than in actually reading the argument.

My friends have the first round of oral argument tomorrow. If the brief grade is anything to go by, the judges are more likely to ask, "Why is the short form citation of Widmar on page 7 of your brief so sloppy?" than "Do you dispute opposing counsel's assertion that Widmar and its progeny provide a compelling argument that the forum in this case was public?"

That's law school. If you want substance, join another field. If you like to spend more time checking the form of citations than actually reading the case cited, you'll fit right in. Welcome to law school - a position on law review is waiting.



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