In Class: Legal Eagle
One of the mis-impressions people often have is that the law is a “bunch o’ rules”—that you come to law school, you learn the rules, and then you’re a lawyer. It’s not that way at all. The law is never static. Because life is not static. Society is not static.
For instance, the legal model that we have of police practices is changing. If I walk from here to a bar, the police can follow me—without any warrant, without any reason—because I’m in public. But what if they follow the GPS unit on my cell phone and track my movements? I’m still in public, right? So the police can say, “We’re free to follow you in-person. Why can’t we just follow you virtually?”
In my lectures, I now use PowerPoint instead of the blackboard. But the basic things I do—talk, call on people, question people, engage, challenge—technology hasn’t changed that. We’ll watch a film clip every once in a while just to show that I’m not completely behind the eight ball.
The other day, I showed an interrogation scene from the TV series The Wire. The police are talking to a suspect. They convince him to write a letter to the victims—some kids who have just lost their father to a homicide. I asked the class, “Was the suspect properly questioned? Did he invoke his right to counsel?” It was a lot more interesting than listening to me, obviously.
I had some law professors I greatly admired in law school. They were fantastic—just superb teachers and scholars. I could never be like them. I would look like an idiot. If I tried to be like Kingsfield [the demanding law professor in the movie The Paper Chase], people would laugh at me. And they should.
We just talked about an important federal case, “Pinkerton” [from the 1940s]. Two brothers are bootlegging, and the law says they’re both responsible for conspiracy for the crimes they committed together. One of the brothers gets arrested and goes to jail. His brother is still bootlegging. The question is: Is the guy in jail responsible for the bootlegging by his brother after he was jailed—even though he didn’t necessarily know that his brother was out doing this? And the Supreme Court said, “Yes, he is.”
But suppose that the brother who wasn’t in jail told the brother who was in jail, “Don’t worry. I’m not doing anything illegal anymore.” Then he goes ahead and continues his criminal behavior. Would the brother in jail still be responsible for those crimes? Focusing on statutes, rules and cases, and when they cover a fact-pattern and when they do not—that’s part of what you do as a lawyer.
Law is the best graduate degree you can get. I tell my students: Figure out what brings you professional satisfaction. It could be as a policymaker. Running your own business. Working for a non-governmental organization. You don’t have to practice law just because you have a law degree. You just will be better at whatever you do. Well—maybe not as an astronaut!
Edited and condensed from an interview conducted on Nov. 19, 2015.