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Showing posts with label Louis Brandeis. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Louis Brandeis. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

So you wanna teach law school? Good luck with that. Or, 'A Clerkship Story'

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Professor Howard M. Wasserman at FIU Law, author of the superb Understanding Civil Rights Litigation, has published in Judicature a thought-provoking study, Academic Feeder Judges: Are Clerkships the Key to Academia? (spring 2021).

Yes is the short answer.  There is clear correlation between clerking and later teaching.  Wasserman explained, "Two or three generations ago, the clerkship was the essential credential, and a call from the judge or justice to the law-school dean was the ticket to the teaching job. Louis Brandeis favored clerks whom he believed would become law teachers."

But the correlation, and probable causation, is diminishing, and "[t]he Great Recession of 2008 appears to have exacerbated the disconnect between clerkship and teaching," Wasserman wrote.  He chalks up the change to a number of factors.  Teaching fellowship programs, "sexy" niche appellate practices, and more programs for advanced degrees in law have generated a pool of promising candidates on alternative tracks to fewer positions.

Though I don't think any of that will change the status quo.  Legal academics remains largely the province of an elite, including too many by inherited opportunity, especially at top schools.  Even these newly minted access tracks only reinforce exclusion.

I didn't clerk.  I've been fortunate to land two jobs in academics at schools where a clerkship was not a sine qua non.  But in my job searches, I know that I was excluded at some schools—once, only about a dozen years ago, I was told so plainly—for lack of a clerkship.  As I don't think I'm too bad at being a law professor, that's a disappointing result.  While Wasserman might purport to describe a preference of "two or three generations ago," people who were hired two generations ago are still doing hiring now.

And there is resistance to change.  For all the bluster about equality of access to opportunity uttered by the nation's overwhelmingly liberal law professors, the vast majority in the end succumb to the beguiling predilection to replicate themselves and their experiences.

Considering why students, me included, don't clerk illustrates the inequality of access to opportunity in the academy, not to mention many other career tracks.

To start with, judges, many of whom also fall prey to the predilection to replicate themselves, tend to recruit only from select law schools.  UMass Law, for example, a "fourth-tier law school," has seen only modest success at placing students in clerkships, then only at the state level, and only through concerted, all-hands-on-deck efforts by students, faculty, and staff.  

Federal judges don't recruit at UMass.  They did recruit at "first tier" Duke Law School when I was a student there in the 1990s.  But they weren't recruiting me.  The career services office groomed students with a 3.5 GPA for interviews, and my 3.4 didn't make the cut.

I think I would have made a good clerk.  Having come to law from journalism, I was a decent writer and editor.  To my observation, my classmates who excelled at law school and attained those top grades with less effort were as often as not children of lawyers and professionals.  I was not.  They seemed to understand the 1L game in a way that was opaque to me.  I figured it out and turned out A+s by the time I graduated, but that was too late to open some doors.  From where I sit today, as a professor, it's no wonder to see that my students who are the first in their families to attempt graduate school, or even university, face the steepest learning curves.

I was determined, though.  Whatever this clerkship thing was about, telling me I could not have something just supercharged my desire for it.  A full-tuition-paying Duke client, I demanded access to clerkships.  Career services pointed me to a binder of judges' names and addresses.  I was welcome to apply on my own, without Duke's help.

I remember the feel of the thin plastic cover of the binder in my hands.  I remember turning the looseleaf pages and copying the information into my notebook with a pen.  I remember feeling ashamed and angry doing this while, feet behind my back, in the career services office, other students sat, sharply dressed, waiting nervously for clerkship interviews to which they had been invited.

I did apply on my own for clerkships: 23 years old and no clue what I was doing.  Unsurprisingly, I had no bites from the federal bench.  Surprisingly, I did score an interview with a state supreme court judge.  I traveled to the state on my own dime, donned my best (only) suit, and interviewed.  The interview seemed to go well.

The judge telephoned me a couple of weeks later.  I was his first choice, he said.  My pulse quickened and face flushed.  But, he said sheepishly, haltingly, he was, unfortunately, obliged to hire his second choice, because she was the daughter of a colleague.  Surely I could understand his predicament.  This is how things are.  He was sorry.  Felt he owed me the explanation.  My heart sank.

Don't feel sorry for me.  I went right into law practice at a large, prestigious firm in a major city.  I didn't have whatever it took to get a clerkship.  But I had an opportunity out of Duke that almost none of my UMass students can get still today.  It's all relative.

The lesson still is, or should be, a painful one.  The changes that Wasserman cited do little to change the reality of access to opportunity in legal academics.  Teaching fellowships are typically reserved for diverse candidates.  Because diversity doesn't refer to socioeconomics, nor family immigration history, most of my students, like me, would not qualify.

A top-end practice experience did give me an advantage in my applications to the academy.  But for even the very best of my students—who, if it matters, might have chosen UMass for reasons of economic, geographic, or other necessity, not a function of choosing the highest ranking school one can get into, which is what I did—a job at a "white shoe" law firm is a pipe dream.

And more advanced education is not feasible for students who, like me, financed legal education wholly through debt.  My wife and I just paid off our own educational debt last year, right after we started borrowing to pay for our daughter's college education.  We were lucky; neither of us had undergrad debt, thanks to scholarships and the military.  I turned down two full scholarships to lower ranked law schools.  Some of my law students have twice the debt we had and will be lucky to have a quarter of the job prospects. 

One of my students graduating now would make a superb teacher, and he is so inclined.  He asked me about it.  What can I say?  He lacks the demographic endowments requisite for a diversity fellowship.  One of my own faculty colleagues said at a hiring meeting just last week that "we don't need more white" at UMass.  She was applauded.  This student will never score a Boston law firm job.  A UMass valedictorian was told at a Boston law firm just a few years ago that his interview was a professional courtesy to the dean, but the firm would never hire from a public school.  And this student is swimming in debt.  Should I tell him to dig deeper and get a "corrective LL.M." at full price from one of the elite law schools he probably should have chosen to begin with?

The change that Wasserman reported is good news, but I don't think will effect improvement in true diversity in the legal academy in my lifetime—taking into account lived experience, more than just boxes checked for skin color, gender identity, and sexual preference.  Even new avenues of access are limited to narrowly defined classes of people and favor the advantaged insiders of the socioeconomic elite.

And the real kicker about clerkships is that you never get a second chance.  Perversely, one is qualified for a clerkship only once, precisely when one is not qualified for a clerkship: as a graduating law student.  My students who cannot, for a variety of reasons beyond their control, clerk after law school will never clerk.  I would love to clerk, still today, but I can never be 23 again.  When I apply to lateral now in academics, the omission of a clerkship a quarter century ago still stains my résumé.

The stains of access denied last for life.  That's how access to opportunity works in many sectors of the American job market: hallways of doors that are closed to ordinary people.  The liberal legal academy is no exception.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was kind of a pompous ass


Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (FJC), “the great dissenter,” was kind of a pompous ass.  That probably should not have surprised me, given his birthright in Massachusetts aristocracy.  And that probably should not have been my chief take-away from the book, The Great Dissent (2013) (Amazon; Macmillan), the impressive accomplishment of author and law professor Thomas Healy at Seton Hall Law.  Somehow I am stubbornly surprised every time a person I admire turns out to be no more than human.

The subtitle of The Great Dissent reads, How Oliver Wendell Holmes Changed His Mind—and Changed the History of Free Speech in America.  That refers to a monumental shift, now legendary in constitutional law, that seemed to have occurred in Holmes’s thinking over the summer of 1919.  In the spring of 1919, Holmes and the Court majority were eagerly doing their part to condemn targets of the First Red Scare, such as labor agitator Eugene Debs, for criminal violation of the post-WWI Espionage Act.  Then in fall 1919, Holmes suddenly turns up in dissent to further convictions.  He used almost the same language, the same rules that he had authored and joined earlier in the year.  But in the fall, with not even a wink at the reader, he seemed to think the words had acquired entirely different meaning.

Partnering with Justice Louis Brandeis, Holmes’s powerful dissents in 1919 and following years outlined a philosophy of free speech that ultimately passed the test of time.  Holmes veritably gushed ideas, such as “clear and present danger” and “marketplace of ideas,” that became benchmark norms in 20th-century civil rights law—not only in the United States but in democracies around the world.

So what happened to Holmes in the summer of 1919?  To answer that question, Healy takes the reader on a spellbinding journey into the social and political dynamics of America’s intellectual class—and last survivors of the Civil War—as they struggled to maneuver the country in a new world order shaped by the ravages of an unprecedented war.

There is an apocryphal answer to the 1919 question.  The free speech analysis that Holmes and Brandeis worked out after 1919 bore a striking resemblance to an earlier proposition advanced by Judge Billings Learned Hand as trial judge in a 1917 case in federal court in New York.  Hand and Holmes knew one another, if not well, and their contrasting judicial philosophies, co-existing in era, frequently prompt comparison by scholars.  So it was once speculated that perhaps Holmes had met with Hand in precisely that summer.  It’s the kind of story that would make an exciting two-man show for the law-and-theater crowd.

As Healy tells it, Hand did play a role, if less direct, in reshaping Holmes’s thinking.  Another figure emerges as a key intermediary in Healy’s narrative, British political scientist Harold Laski.  Laski did interact with Holmes quite a bit, before, during, and after the summer of 1919, and his influence is plain.  Of course the full story is a good deal more complex, and Healy constructs it masterfully.  More than that, I won’t spoil.  Read the book.

Holmes in 1861 daguerreotype.
I was struck by three points of the story, and they all relate to Holmes not really being the paragon of personhood I wish he were.

First, Holmes was an elitist.  He read 50 books in the summer of 1919, Healy recounts.  He was always eager to immerse himself in the rich intellectual legacy of the Greek philosophers.  He was much less eager to take up Justice Brandeis’s invitation to visit textile mills in the summer of 1919 to witness for himself the unsettling state of labor and labor strikes in post-war America.  On the one hand, it’s fabulous that Milton’s Areopagitica and Mill’s On Liberty were part of the deep knowledge of the man who shaped modern free speech law.  On the other hand, it’s hard to tell whether he really understood the implications of dissent on the ground.

As my law school is now in the process of hiring a new dean, I think about Holmes's elitism in relation to the transformative trauma unfolding in legal education today.  Law schools are entranced with experiential education and are dumping jurisprudence in an effort to get students more time in practice training.  Ian Holloway and Steven Friedland recently located legal education in tension between a “grand university” model and a “Hessian craft guild" model.  Holmes was all grand university, and that is not ideal.  But modern free speech would not be what it is today if we were depending on the Hessian craft guild to build it.  It’s really important to have room for both.

Second, Holmes was a little slow on the uptake, even on free speech doctrine.  There was in fact correspondence between Hand and Holmes, though it pre-dated 1919.  And Healy reports how Holmes just missed the point.  Had he gotten the point, he might have started dissenting a bit earlier, and maybe even saved some demonstrators and harmless Bolsheviks from long prison terms.

A good example of Holmes’s fumbling start is the “clear and present danger” doctrine, which was born before the summer of 1919, but only later acquired its more rights-protective meaning.  “Clear and present” was indicative of Hand’s influence, suggesting as it did what today we might call a behavioral economic approach to legal reasoning.  But Holmes rather blew it, because his use of the test was highly subjective.  He gave the test no meaning, so allowed it to be perverted by the fever of the Red Scare.  Later evolution of the test would reveal a dynamic relationship between variables such as the “imminence” and “gravity” of the danger.  That more sophisticated analysis prophylactically protects speech that might be subversive, but poses no real threat, and also allows free speech doctrine to realize its critical anti-majoritarian function.  Hand understood that in 1917.  It took Holmes quite a while to work it out.

Third, Holmes was not a friend you could count on.  Amid the Red Scare, Holmes’s dear friends Laski and Felix Frankfurter, on the Harvard Law faculty, suffered virulent persecution for their politics and identities.  The “Red Summer” was the very summer of 1919.  Both men were sympathetic with labor, and both were labeled Bolsheviks.  Frankfurter, who was Jewish and Austrian, was further denigrated by post-war anti-Semitic and anti-German sentiments.  Critics of Laski, a British national, demanded his expulsion from teaching at Harvard Law.  Imagine!—persecution on a law faculty based on the politically correct zeitgeist.  How last century.

To be fair, Holmes and Harvard Law Dean Roscoe Pound did take steps to defend Laski and Frankfurter.  But their efforts, especially Holmes’s, were lackluster.  Despite the loving affection that Holmes professed for like-a-son Laski in private correspondence, Holmes resisted early entreaties to help.  Holmes was afraid of offending Laski and Frankfurter’s persecutors on the Harvard Law faculty, whom Holmes regarded as friends.  Holmes preferred to distance himself from the conflict and retreat to the sanctified solitude of his private library.  The great dissenter, a Civil War veteran wounded in action, whose famous diction dominated doctrinal opponents, shrank from moral defense of his friends, lest the comforts of his social and economic status be placed in jeopardy.   

Huh.

An honorable biographer, Healy is straightforward and matter of fact when it comes to Holmes the man.  Holmes was a voracious reader, brilliant thinker, and surely was one of the greatest jurists, perhaps the greatest jurist, in American history.  Civil rights as we know it today, and much of human rights as it is known in the world today, owes a debt to Holmes.

Holmes also cheated on his wife.

“If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.”  James 4:17.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Laughing with Lenny Bruce, from schmuck to conscience

 
Kitty Bruce cuts the ribbon on the Lenny Bruce archive at the Brandeis University Goldfarb Library.

There is indecent language in this post.

In the last week of October, Brandeis University hosted a conference, “Comedy and the Constitution,” celebrating the life and work of comedian Lenny Bruce (1925-1966).  The conference marked the accession in the Brandeis University Library of Lenny Bruce’s papers, donated by his daughter Kitty Bruce, who participated in the conference.  The program was organized by Professor Steve Whitfield in American Studies and Sarah Shoemaker in Goldfarb Library Special Collections.  Featured speakers included Christie Hefner, former chairwoman and CEO of Playboy Enterprises, and “outrage” comedian Lewis Black, known to many through his long-running Daily Show segment, “Back in Black.”

My own paper for the academic part of the program concerned free expression and communication regulation.  Specifically, I looked at Bruce's technique of repeating indecent words with the aim of disempowering them.  If one repeats fuck again and again, the tenth repetition doesn’t sting the ear as much as the first.  George Carlin was there at least once when Bruce was arrested for “obscenity” based on the use of discrete words.  There can be little doubt that the experience directly influenced Carlin’s famous “seven dirty words” routine.  This comedic tradition at least tracked a strengthening of free expression in U.S. culture and law—think “Fuck the Draft” on Cohen’s jacket, 403 U.S. 15 (1971)—and might moreover have been a precipitating force.  For better or worse, the power today that attaches to many favorites in the pantheon of bad words is not what it used to be.  Ruth Wajnryb observed in her 2005 book, Language Most Foul, “[N]owadays it takes several fucks to achieve what one lone fuck would have achieved ten years ago.”

The lodging of Bruce’s legacy at Brandeis is a good fit for a couple of reasons.  The university is named for Justice Louis Brandeis, an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1916 to 1939.  Brandeis was a key contributor to modern First Amendment law.  In the wake of World War I, he laid the groundwork for a more vigorous model of speech protection than had been known in the prior century.  Even amid the Red Scare, Brandeis recognized that if freedom of speech means anything, then minority perspectives on politics must be protected, however distasteful to the establishment.

Brandeis also was the first Jewish member of the U.S. Supreme Court, an experience that informed his views on social justice and antimajoritarianism.  Judaism played a key role in the founding of (non-sectarian) Brandeis University and remains today an omnipresent part of the university’s social culture.  Bruce was a Jewish comedian, and his cultural experience shaped his comedy.  

A number of academic papers at the conference focused on the role of Yiddish in the comedy of Bruce and also in the wider tradition of Jewish comedy.  I was ignorant on this point.  But presenters made a compelling case that the Yiddish tongue is especially well suited to comedic devices such as double entendre and nuanced word play.  In broad strokes, the particular compatibility of Yiddish with comedy seems a function of the truism that people have always turned to comedy to relieve suffering.

Christie Hefner

In terms of political commentary, Christie Hefner traced a direct legacy from Lenny Bruce to the sharp witted comedy of The Daily Show and Last Week with John Oliver.  I think she’s right.  Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert routinely scoffed at the notion that they produce news, despite serious research showing their influence on popular thinking about politics.  Stephen Colbert’s SuperPAC bits on The Colbert Report spoke volumes on the very real role of money in politics.  John Oliver eschews the label of journalist, but his work at HBO has at least raised awareness, if not effected reform, on critical social issues such as net neutrality.

Someone at the Brandeis conference pointed out that some of our attribution to Lenny Bruce of a desire to make the world a better place--by cursing of all things--has got to be a posthumous fiction.  I think that’s right too.  Bruce was just a person, not a legend.  He wanted to sustain himself with his flair for the funny, to fill seats at shows, and to take care of his family.  Arrests for obscenity--the more absurd the state's case, the better--were good for business.

I’m not troubled by any dissonance in the legend and the man who was Lenny Bruce.  The Old Testament is replete with the sea changes of unlikely messengers.

Lewis Black