The Benefits of Low Expectations

art9.jpgSince arriving in Williamsburg, one of my main tasks has been to prepare for the first class that I will be teaching: Secured Transactions. Based on the involuntary grin that comes over the face of my-former-Article-9-teaching colleagues when they hear that I have been given this, I take it that it has, perhaps, not been regarded as the coolest class to teach. For myself, I suspect that Secured Transactions is the ideal class for a new law professor. Here are my three reasons:

1. Article 9 tested is on the bar exam, so it is something that students feel they ought to actually master.

2. It is a code subject with a reputation for difficult technicality, so students are more likely to feel like they must pay attention in class to master it. (See 1 on their motivation for mastery.)

3. Students will have very low expectations about the interest of the subject matter. No 2L or 3L thinks, “Wow! Lien priorities! There is an exciting and sexy subject.”

Reason 3, in particular, I hope, will work in my favor. It turns out that Article 9 is quite a bit more interesting that students suspect. It includes a number of great set-piece battles: secured v. unsecured creditors, voluntary v. involuntary. Thanks to the work of folks like Lynn LoPucki and Elizabeth Warren one can present the subject as an ideological battle between the banks and the little guys that raises basic questions about the nature and reality of legal liability. In other words, students will come to the class expecting a few hours of weekly boredom suffered for the higher cause of passing the bar and will find — to their surprise — that, hey, there is actually something going on in this class other than mastering the intricacies of the UCC filing system.

This optimistic line of thinking, has made me wonder about which subjects benefit from low expectations and which subjects suffer from high expectations. For example, in law school I expected to find Administrative Law fascinating. I had these visions of titanic struggles over the separation of powers and ongoing battles over the legitimacy of the administrative state. To be sure, Admin provide these, but in the end the battles were not as much fun as I had expected. On the other hand, I took bankruptcy for the sole reason that after a couple of semesters crammed with courses like legal philosophy, Roman law, and Islamic jurisprudence, I had to demonstrate to prospective employers that I was more than a disappointed Yalie and actually knew some “real law.” I was shocked to find how much fun bankruptcy was. It was less that bankruptcy had some decisive advantage according to some universal metric of interest, than that it managed to wildly exceed my (tremendously low) expectations.

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7 Responses

  1. anon says:

    Tax is legendary for capitalizing on the “low expectations” phenomenon, even though basic tax is more tax policy than technical detail and involves one of the few real world discussions about the allocation of the benefits and burdens of society that you will get in law school.

  2. GMC70 says:

    Having taken and passed secured transactions, and passed the bar (yea!!), I can tell you without hesitation that the lesson to be learned in the banks v. little guy scenario is simply this, always.

    Banks win. Surprise. Those with money and access to legal expertise win. Shocking.

  3. Alfred L. Brophy says:

    Never underestimate the importance of low expectations. Very thoughtful post, Nate.

  4. tim zinnecker says:

    After teaching both Sadistic Transactions and Payment Systems close to twenty times each (including again this summer), I can say without hesitation that the most frequent comment I receive from students is that they found the classes more interesting than they expected when they enrolled. (For other noteworthy comments, see “‘Dear Diary’ Moments in the Semester of a UCC Law Professor,” 50 Mercer L. Rev. 603 (1999).) Good luck teaching the course, Nate. You’ll be one of the few, the proud, the annointed — a UCC professor.

  5. Matt says:

    I would hazard a guess that private-law classes are overrepresented among those benefitting from low expectations, and public-law classes among those suffering from inflated expectations. And I would guess that no class suffers more from inflated expectations than Con Law.

  6. Law Student '06 says:

    Not every state’s bar exam tests Article 9. The MBE portion of the exam only tests Article 2. New York does test Secured Transactions (Article 9), but on the essays it has only come up twice in 48 administrations of the exam (essentially, the last 10 years). Other states, like New Jersey, do not test those subjects at all.

    I definitely think that law students often feel they should take the class for bar exam purposes. However, in reality, my guess is that few states heavily test the subject. I’d also guess that in the states that do test Article 9, that it would likely show up in combination with a more basic subject area (like Contracts), than on its own.

    I wish you the best of luck in teaching the class!

  7. Richard Murphy says:

    I had low expectations for A9 as a student, but had a fantastic time — fabulous professor who prowled around the room thumbing through the UCC with bemused students. Most concepts were illustrated by problems involving battles between “SP” (secured party) and “TP” (tacky person). Somehow, TP always lost.

    Best of luck!