Category: Law Practice


Original Habeas Writ

My brilliant colleague Lee Kovarsky is an expert on the theory and practice of habeas corpus.  He’s a wunderkind.  One can find him, in any given week, arguing habeas petitions before an appellate court, working on the first habeas casebook entitled Federal Habeas Corpus: Executive Detention and Post-Conviction Litigation with his co-author Brandon Garrett, and, as I imagine is true this week, grading civil procedure exams.  Professor Kovarsky is also writing ground-breaking articles.  Here is the abstract for his most recent work entitled Original Habeas Redux, published by the Virginia Law Review:

In Original Habeas Redux, I map the modern dimensions of the Supreme Court’s most exotic jurisdiction, the original habeas writ. The Court has not issued such relief since 1925 and, until recently, had not ordered a case transferred pursuant to that authority in over fifty years. In August 2009, by transferring a capital prisoner’s original habeas petition to a federal district court rather than dismissing it outright, In re Davis abruptly thrust this obscure power back into mainstream legal debate over both the death penalty and the Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction.

Scrambling to understand how the authority has evolved since its nineteenth-century heyday, commentators have been severely limited by the absence of any data reporting the attributes of the original petitions themselves. I have filled that empirical void by collecting and organizing the only modern original habeas data, and this Article presents those results for the first time. The data shows that the vast majority of original petitioners are criminally confined, but that they are not collaterally challenging that confinement in their initial habeas proceedings. Original writ procedure is now primarily a vehicle for litigating “successive” habeas corpus petitions that are otherwise subject to severe jurisdictional limits in the federal courts.

I argue that, in light of the writ’s history and the data I have compiled, Davis is not a blip in an otherwise constant state of original habeas inactivity. I observe that the availability of original habeas relief has historically exhibited two over-arching characteristics: (1) that the Supreme Court’s Article III appellate power to grant it is basically coextensive with Article III judicial power common to all federal courts; and (2) that the Court does not actually exercise that authority when it may avail itself of jurisdictional alternatives. I also present data confirming that the availability of conventional appellate jurisdiction exerts the dominant influence on the modern original habeas docket’s composition. I ultimately advance what I call the “capital safety valve paradigm”–the idea that original habeas should and likely will emerge as a means to ensure that the death penalty is not erroneously imposed.


Transactional Internships in the Summer after the First Year

A number of students have recently asked me about opportunities to work in transactional practice in the summer after their 1L year.   That kind of job search is challenging, as the typical kind of 1L practice revolves around planning for or resolving litigation (i.e., government agency litigation interns, judicial interns, public service interns).  Indeed, I imagine that a large plurality of law students who obtain a legal internship this summer (paid or not) will end up writing some kind of multi- or 50-state survey litigation memorandum.

However, there are transactional opportunities – at law firms (though these are hard to secure for 1Ls); in general counsel’s offices (same objection); in government; and, in particular, in tax and estate planning small practices.  I thought I’d open up a thread for folks to share ideas/experiences with transactional practice in the first summer.  If you had a great job, please tell us about it and what you did. If you’ve ideas for networking of job search, let’s make a public good of them.


The Usefulness of Legal Scholarship

A reader of my post about the N.Y. Times critique of legal education writes, in regard to the value of legal scholarship:

I happen to be on the editorial board of a T14 law school’s law review, so I have to cite check and read articles regularly. Of those I’ve read, I can’t think of a single one I thought would be useful to a practicing lawyer. The problem is, in my experience, most seem to advocate a fundamental change in philosophy to an area of law that diverges from what precedent would suggest. To me, this seems extremely unhelpful, because A. Lower courts aren’t likely to accept a grand new theory that seems to contradict what SCOTUS is saying, B. As far as I can tell SCOTUS seems not to usually change its theory either, and C. I don’t think most policymakers tend to read law review articles.

This leads me to be inclined to believe that most law review articles are useless. Are you saying my sample is unrepresentative of what’s out there? Or do I simply have a narrower definition of usefulness? Could you perhaps suggest some articles from the past year that in your mind represented useful legal scholarship?

This commentator assumes that usefulness is the equivalent of being accepted by the courts.  I quarrel with this view for many reasons:

1. An article can have an influence on cases, even if difficult to demonstrate.  Many courts don’t cite law review articles even when they rely on them.  Judges are notorious for not being particularly charitable with citations.  They often copy verbatim parts of briefs, for example.  If a law professor relies on a scholarly work even in a minor way, the professor will typically cite to the work.  Not so for courts.

2. Most articles will not change the law.  Changing the law is quite difficult, and if most law review articles changed the law, the law would be ridiculously more dynamic than it currently is.

3. No matter what discipline or area, most of the things produced are not going to be great.  Most inventions are flops.  Most books, songs, movies, TV shows, art works, architecture, or anything produced are quite forgettable and will likely be forgotten.  Great lasting works only come around infrequently, no matter what the field.

4. Most people are forgettable too.  In the law, most practitioners and judges have been forgotten.  Only a few great ones are remembered.  Of the judges who are most well-known, it is interesting that many were more theoretical in nature and had a major impact in changing the law — typically in ways law professors might change the law.  Think of Benjamin Cardozo, who wrote many articles and books and who radically changed the law.  Think of Felix Frankfurter, a former law professor.  Think of Louis Brandeis.  Think of Oliver Wendell Holmes.  These were jurists who were thinkers.  They were readers.  They were literary.  They were writers of scholarship too.  Maybe the forgettable practitioners and judges are the ones who ignore legal scholarship.

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“The first thing we do, let’s [train] all the lawyers.”

David Segal has a front-page, above-the-fold article in today’s New York Times, What They Don’t Teach Law Students: Lawyering.  Segal blasts legal education for failing to produce prêt-à-porter lawyers sized to fit the needs of everyone from Skadden Arps to solo practitioners.  Segal also denies the value of “pure” research — law review articles and other scholarly output that do not satisfy his requirements for immediate application to daily practice.  Gerard Magliocca and Alex Guerrero already commented on one of his examples.  As with Dick the Butcher’s suggestion in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2, Segal’s article is wrong on both teaching and research.

First, teaching.  I think that when law schools succeed at their mission they do produce graduates with skills ready for use in any legal environment.  It’s just that developing the skill set that Segal prioritizes (such as his opening example: filing a certificate of merger with a secretary of state) is not the sole, let alone primary, goal of legal education.  Those form-filling and filing skills are important, but best honed by firms that daily engage in those specialized, localized, and technical operations.  Law schools, in contrast, have the advantage in teaching the general skills and knowledge that firms of all sizes (as well as government agencies and corporations) have neither the time, inclination, nor resources to perfect.  But these organizations desperately need these things in the lawyers they hire: critical thinking, professional standards, ethical judgment, and historical perspective (to name a few).

Unlike medical schools and engineering programs, law schools do not set out to create technicians.  (I suspect that the best medical and engineering institutions don’t have this goal either, but this is the common comparison.)  Law schools, especially, should produce graduates comfortably inclined to question the status quo, challenge assumed truths, and think about the long-term implications of their actions as members of a learned profession.  Over time, one hopes that their training will combine with experience to produce in them judgment about when each skill should take a leading role.  Lawyers with these skills are needed in any age, but especially one that produced such colossal fails ranging from Enron to government-sanctioned torture.

Second, research.  I also reject Segal’s essentially anti-intellectual critique of research.  Last spring, I was asked by a high-level Russian official to write a report on a verdict in a criminal case.  That report explored the many departures from Russia’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights to be found in that verdict, but it also raised serious questions about fundamental aspects of Russian law.  The report could hardly qualify as research readily useful to the day-to-day activities of a practitioner at the bar of any American state or the present Russian one.  Nevertheless, I found that the research that I conducted, the exercise of drafting my report, and the report itself generated useful starting points for several discussions in classes that I teach on American law.  Those conversations ranged from an aspect of the famous Chenery case in my Administrative Law class to an editing exercise in a seminar on counterterrorism.  Needless to say, I hope it also makes a positive impact in Russia when it is released next month.

Those teaching moments were hard to foresee at the outset of my research.  But anyone who values knowledge for its own sake would not be surprised by the serendipity my Russian law work produced in my American law classrooms.  That the report led to invitations to speak to groups at universities and thinktanks in the U.S., U.K., Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Belgium also suggests that what counts as valuable research might benefit from a less cramped definition than Segal and company provide.


Suggested Reading (for Law Students and Profs): Open Book: Succeeding on Exams from the First Day of Law School

Barry Friedman and John C.P. Goldberg have a new book out on how to take law school exams called Open Book:  Succeeding on Exams from the First Day of Law School.  It is something different and really worth recommending.  Here are a few reasons why I would love my students to read the book and its online content.  First, the book imparts fabulous advice on why law profs give exams and how those exams directly connect to law practice and the whole law school endeavor.  Second, the website has so many practice exams (in all of the core areas) with marked up answers that explain the reasons behind the prof’s thinking and evaluation of the answers.  This is an incredible help: students learn what worked on the exam and why.  Third, the joy that the authors take from teaching and the practice of law leaps off the page — it’s so clear how wonderful they are as teachers and mentors.  Their enthusiasm and respect for what lawyers do is obvious and inspiring.  The pedagogy will appeal to law professors, and it is an entertaining read, nicely illustrated.  The website is full of useful content (those practice exams and feedback I talked about).  (Profs: to check it out, you need an access code to get to the premium content but can easily get one by writing them from the author contact page.)

Here’s the back-of-book blurb:

Open Book is the ultimate insider’s guide to succeeding on law school exams. The authors draw on decades of classroom teaching and student counseling to create a concise, lively book that imparts a method of law school exam-taking that maximizes your chances of success—and helps prepare you for the world of practice. Their Web site ( gives you access to valuable exam-related resources.



F.M. LaGuardia and Lawyers In the Way

As a law professor and lawyer, I like law and lawyering. But I hate as much as the next guy when lawyers get in the way of people trying to do business. 

In the past year, lawyers have poisoned three separate personal deals of mine, over matters neither I nor the other side needed to care about.  The lawyers were hurting not helping their clients. 

Lawyers need to know, and as a law professor I try to teach, the difference between legal matters and business issues. Lawyers must know the difference and stay out of the way of business matters. 

All this prompts me to reprint below a wonderful letter from the inimitable Mayor of New York, Fiorella La Guardia.  The letter, dated January 29, 1944, is addressed to the heads of various airlines, including American, Eastern, PanAm, and United. 

The  letter’s ultimate paragraph and final words speak volumes to my point, and the letter as a whole is vintage piece of written communication.  Read More


What Do Law Professors Do?

In the legal writing interviews with the Justices that I referred to over the weekend, Chief Justice Roberts said that “[w]hat the academy is doing, as far as I can tell, is largely of no use or interest to people who actually practice law.”  Judges and lawyers often make similar comments, so I thought that I would try to explain why I think this view is, at least, exaggerated.

First, there are many excellent scholars who write traditional doctrinal articles that are useful in deciding difficult cases.  Some fields, of course, lend themselves more to that than others, but I think it would be wrong to dismiss what they do.

Second, some legal scholarship is directed at the Executive Branch, Congress, or administrative agencies. These papers will be of no interest to courts or most practitioners.  For instance, I have an article coming out soon on “Reforming the Filibuster.”  That article is not less valuable because it is about the Senate.

Third, a significant amount of legal scholarship is devoted to “basic research” such as philosophy or history.  Almost every field can be divided into applied research and basic research, and what courts and attorneys do is applied.  It does not follow that because the utility of basic research (say, human anatomy) is uncertain that means it’s useless.  It takes time to figure that out.

Fourth, legal scholarship is indirectly transmitted to judges through their clerks and briefs. Even if a clerk, who is usually more familiar with current law review articles than the judge, does not cite articles that he or she read, the information or analysis in there still exerts some influence on the bench memo or draft opinion.  Ditto for briefs, especially for amicus briefs written by professors, which are more common nowadays.

Now I do not deny that there is plenty of legal scholarship that is esoteric or useless.  That is a necessary cost of academic freedom to some extent, and also reflects the more interdisciplinary nature of the legal academy since the 1960s.  (In other words, the more subjects that are under the law umbrella, the more apt one is to think that a given aspect not your own is a waste of time.)


Blame Email Disclaimers on Judge Harmon?

The Economist has a fun blurb on email disclaimers — the ones that boldly state that the email you’ve just received creates no legal relationship, offers no advice, and generally isn’t worth the paper it isn’t printed on.  The blurb argues that such disclaimers are “are mostly, legally speaking, pointless. Lawyers and experts on internet policy say no court case has ever turned on the presence or absence of such an automatic e-mail footer in America, the most litigious of rich countries.”  Why, then, do they exist?  Because lawyers are lemmings, and “once something has become a legal habit it has a tendency to stick.”  Also, of course, the marginal cost to each sender of adding a pointless disclaimer is basically zero.

But inefficient social movements presumably need some kind of push to get off the ground, even if they fly off a cliff.  I hypothesize that Judge Harmon’s highly publicized secondary actors decision in the Enron litigation from 2002 provided the launching pad.  In that decision, as you may recall, Judge Harmon said that law firms (and accountants, and consultants) could be exposed to securities liability as a primary violator of 10b-5 if they, with requisite scienter, created a document that (when routed to the public) turned to be misleading.  I remember being in practice after that decision came out, and the firm was quite concerned to create disclaimers for all documents that went out the door to try to react to the decision’s potential scope.  Indeed, we know that one result of the decision (and others like it) was to push firms to move from general to limited partnership models.  So perhaps it also influenced email practices.

How about it?  For those of you in practice in the mid-1990s, can you reach into your archives and check for email disclaimers? If not, we’ll call my theory a winner. If so, we need to find some new explanation. [AJ Sutter, I’m talking to you.]


Randomization, Intake Systems, and Triage

Thanks to Jim and Cassandra for their carefully constructed study of the impact of an offer from the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau for representation before the Massachusetts Division of Unemployment Assistance, and to all of the participants in the symposium for their thoughtful contributions.  What Difference Representation? continues to provoke much thought, and as others have noted, will have a great impact on the access to justice debate.  I’d like to focus on the last question posed in the paper — where do we go from here? — and tie this in with questions about triage raised by Richard Zorza and questions about intake processes raised by Margaret Monsell.   The discussion below is informed by my experience as a legal service provider in the asylum system, a legal arena that the authors note is  strikingly different from the unemployment benefits appeals process described in the article.

My first point is that intake processes vary significantly between different service providers offering representation in similar and different areas of the law.  In my experience selecting cases for the asylum clinics at Georgetown and Yale, for example, we declined only cases that were frivolous, and at least some intake folks (yours truly included) preferred to select the more difficult cases, believing that high-quality student representation could make the most difference in these cases.  Surely other legal services providers select for the cases that are most likely to win, under different theories about the most effective use of resources.  WDR does not discuss which approach HLAB takes in normal practice (that is, outside the randomization study).  On page twenty, the study states that information on financial eligibility and “certain additional facts regarding the caller and the case”  are put to the vote of HLAB’s intake committee.  On what grounds does this committee vote to accept or reject a case?  In other words, does HLAB normally seek the hard cases, the more straightforward cases, some combination, or does it not take the merits into account at all?

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What Difference Representation: Case Selection and Professional Responsibility

Thanks for the invitation to participate in this interesting and provocative symposium.

I’m a legal services attorney in Boston. My employer, Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI), has as one of its primary tasks to connect the state’s field programs, where individual client representation occurs, with larger political bodies, including legislatures and administrative agencies, where the systemic changes affecting our clients most often take place. (The legal services programs in many states include organizations comparable to MLRI; we are sometimes known by the somewhat infelicitous name “backup centers.”) Among the programs with which MLRI is in communication is the Harvard Legal Assistance Bureau, and I would take this moment to acknowledge the high regard in which I and my colleagues regard their work.

The substantive area of my work is employment law. It is no surprise that during the past three years of our country’s Great Recession, the importance of the unemployment insurance system for our clients has increased enormously and, consequently, it has occupied a greater portion of my time than might otherwise have been the case.

I’m not a statistician nor do I work in a field program representing individual clients, so my comments will not address in any detail the validity of the HLAB study or the conclusions that may properly be drawn from it. As one member of the community of Massachusetts legal services attorneys, however, I have an obvious interest in the way the study portrays us: we are variously described as self-protective, emotional, distrustful of being evaluated, and reluctant to the point of perverseness in participating in randomized studies of the kind the authors wish to conduct. Our resistance in this regard has itself already been the subject of comment here. Happily, it is not often that one looks into what seems to be a mirror and sees the personage looking back wearing a black hat and a snarl. But when it does happen, it’s hard to look away without some effort at clarification. So I will devote my contribution to the symposium to the topic of the perceived reluctance of the legal services community to cooperate in randomized trials. It goes without saying, but the following thoughts are those of only one member of a larger community.

My understanding is that in the HLAB study, no significant case evaluation occurred prior to randomization. Many of us in legal services view with trepidation the idea of ceding control over case selection to the randomization process. Others have more sanguine views, either because they assume that randomization is already taking place or that it ought to be. For example, in his comments from a few months ago, Dave Hoffman was working under the assumption that to randomize client selection would not change an agency’s representation practices at all, and on that basis, he criticized resistance to randomized control trials as “trying to prevent research from happening.”

The authors of the study are enthusiastic about randomization not only because of its scientific value in statistical research but also because it can help to solve one of the thorniest problems facing legal services programs – the scarcity of resources as compared to the demand. As long as the demand for legal assistance outstrips the supply, Professor Greiner has said, randomization – a roll of the dice or the flip of a coin — is an easy and appropriate way to decide who gets representation and who does not.

I believe it’s erroneous to assume that randomization would not change representation practices, at least in the area of legal services in which I work. I also acknowledge that it is possible, at least theoretically, for all the cases in a randomized control trial to have met the provider’s standards for representation. This would provide some measure of reassurance. However, in one area of law, immigration asylum cases, the authors have concluded that time constraints make such an effort unworkable.

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