On being called on in class
We have just wrapped up our third week of a new school year. One of the great joys and privileges afforded to me is to teach first-year Property Law. My students are, I hope, beginning to learn that I expect a lot of them.
In the 1973 film, "The Paper Chase," Prof. Kingsfield begins the protagonist's first day of law school by calling on him to recite the facts of the case of Hawkins v. McGee. James Hart had not realized any reading had been assigned for the first day, but instead of calling on any other student, Kingsfield sets forth the facts himself and proceeds to push Hart to answer the question of what damages should be awarded in the case. Hart finally manages to answer the question, however haltingly; Kingsfield neither criticizes nor praises him, but calls on the next student, Mr. Pruitt. The camera cuts immediately to Hart dashing into the bathroom, flinging himself into a stall just in time to throw up.
Kingsfield's character is based loosely on Edward H. "Bull" Warren, who taught at Harvard Law School through most of the first half of the 20th Century and who was legendary for taking no prisoners when it came to first-year Property Law. He was infamous for his intolerance of tardiness, lack of preparation, or sloppy presentation. He was the guy who, during a stint as acting dean, admonished the entering class, "Look well to the right of you, look well to the left of you, for one of you three won't be here next year. Ours is the policy of the Open Door." He scared the hell out of his first-year students.
Much has changed in legal education since 1921, when Warren gave that famous "Welcome Address," but some professors still push students hard enough that they feel ready to throw up after the first time they're called on in class. Why do we do that?
When Warren died in 1945, the Harvard Law Review published a special issue filled with tributes written by his colleagues and, yes, his former students. One of those, W. Barton Leach (second author of Casner's famed casebook on Property Law), summed up the restrospective respect Warren's students reported:
College graduates who come to any law school face a regimen and set of standards very different from those they have been used to. A photographic memory, "interesting" ideas, and an imaginative prose style will draw the high grades in many college courses. In others a premium is placed upon exactness, but the ideas are expressed in formulae, mathematical or chemical. Few college students have had training in precision of thought expressed in words. This is the stuff of the law, and it is well that students should early acquire a respect for it. The Bull's method inspired respect.
Being called on in class may not need to feel like a thrashing, but I think it probably does need to feel hard, because it is hard. Practicing law is even harder. Lawyers must bring their best thinking to bear for every client. The strongest argument is the clearest, most logical argument, thoroughly researched and succinctly stated. Developing the best argument (not just a pretty good one) is almost always hard work.
Harder than that is maintaining your moral compass under duress. Reason is the blood of the law, but law does not happen in an abstract realm of reason; it happens in the midst of disagreement and dispute, and often in the midst of anger, heartbreak, grief, anguish, greed, and fear. Lawyers almost always have the opportunity to take the easy way out, or to help their clients to do so. To stand in that temptation, and yet resist it, is hard.
Things that are hard are not usually very pleasant, at least while we are doing them. But do them we must, not only in crisis, but in all the days leading up to the crisis. If we don't, we never gain any strength, any muscle. The lawyers who helped shred papers for Enron were not stupid; they were weak. I teach Property Law, but in some sense I am also a trainer, a coach. My job is to make students strong - strong of mind and strong of heart.
And I try to do that by following Bull Warren's example: by requiring students to work hard, and by insisting they provide me with "... precision of thought expressed in words."
Even if it makes them throw up.