–From Tony Arsenault, Laval University (Quebec), Date of event: Spring 2013
One of my friends took Legal Philosophy, a class whose teacher is known as a bit of a jerk and a little dismissive of lawyering as a profession.
They were discussing how to write the essay that was to be their final exam. Someone in the class asked: “Should we consider that the essay’s intended readers have any knowledge of law at all?”
The teacher said that they should write the essay as if a member of the Bar would read it.
The student drew a logical conclusion and asked if that meant the exam-takers should assume the readers were knowledgeable about law.
The teacher answered: “No. You should write as if your audience doesn’t know anything about law, doesn’t care about law and is probably intoxicated on various substances to boot.”
–Law School Story from Tony Arseneault, Université Laval’s Faculty of Law (Quebec, Canada), Date of event: 2011
In 2011, I was at my first session at Université Laval’s Faculty of Law, when I had the pleasure to meet the teacher that changed my perception of constitutional law forever: Patrick Taillon.
I come from the province of Quebec, Canada. As you may or may not know, Quebec is a civil law (French law) province when it comes to private law, and common law (English law) when it comes to public law. Essentially, all subjects like Contracts, Civil Liability or Property Law are in the realm of civil law, with everything that entails.
Since these classes are based around the mastery of the Civil Code, there is really no place for the Socratic method. Classes are taught for the most part with long lectures and minimal student intervention. This way of teaching law, common in purely civilist countries, bleeds over to the teaching of common law subjects. That means there is also no Socratic method in our common law classes, like Constitutional Law.
Thus, since teachers can’t entertain themselves at our expense through Socratic dialogues, and since teaching law in the civilist manner is, frankly, pretty boring, some of them choose to go the other way around: they entertain us.
Mr. Taillon has a pretty … unique way to do that for such a learned legal scholar. He laced his classes with sexual references to drive home points in a memorable way.
—Trying to teach us about the separation of powers (which is much less defined in Canada than it is in the United States) and checks and balances, his explanation went like this: “Essentially, the three branches are brothers and sisters and they have an incestuous triangle going on. They screw each other all the time.”
—Teaching us about article 56.1 of the Canada Elections Act, a disposition that removes the power from the Governor General to choose the date of the elections while saying that nothing in the article removes power from the GG: “This is like a rapist yelling ‘THIS IS NOT A RAPE’ while he’s doing it.”
All the while, he kept telling us what a “crappy country” we live in, because a huge part of the Constitution is unwritten and how our constitutional system is “done very badly” and “makes no sense.”
To this day, I only have to remember the sexual innuendo of the class to access everything he taught in class, filed neatly in a mental drawer. His enthusiasm for the subject is contagious. He always gave us a ton of laughs in a subject that really isn’t straightforward. He made me decide to focus more on Constitutional Law in the future.
–Law School Story from Thomas Walk, Wake Forest University School of Law, Date of event: fall 1979
Our Corporations professor had the annoying habit of ending a lot of his sentences with the phrase “All that jazz.”
Midway through the semester, my classmate who sat immediately to the left came to class with a notepad she bought at the mall. It had musical notes floating around the pages and the “All That Jazz” phrase. She wandered to the front of the classroom before the prof arrived and put the pad on his rostrum.
The professor walked in, examined the pad with a confused look, and laid it to one side.
Later that day I was walking through the hall and saw the All That Jazz pad lying on a couch. I picked it up.
The next day of class my classmate found in her chair the pad with the following message I printed on the top sheet:
“Ms. Jones (named changed to protect the victim), please see me after class. Professor Telly.”
I let her suffer in fear for a few minutes before I confessed I was the culprit and that she had not been busted by our prof. To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart, that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
From Tom Walk, Wake Forest University College of Law, Date of event: circa 1980
One of my classmates was in a Marine Corps program and kept his hair in a buzz-cut. One day our Trusts professor called on him to recite a case. After about 30 seconds it was clear that the student had not read the case.
The prof stopped him and said “You are not prepared today, are you”? He responded “I’m sorry, Professor. I washed my hair last night and had to blow it dry.” The sheer ludicrousness of the answer left the professor just shaking his head as the rest of us rolled in the floor laughing.
–From David Barman, Florida International University College of Law, Date of event: circa 2005
My son saw my first-year law school casebooks and picked up my Torts book. His first comment was: “Twelve hundred pages. That’s more than Harry Potter!”
Then he asked me, “What is Torts?” He’s a bright boy, but he is only nine. I asked him: “If you park your bike on the sidewalk, and a man hits your bike with a car, who did something wrong?” He said the man with the car. I asked why. My son answered “Because I’m allowed to put my bike on the sidewalk, but he isn’t allowed to drive on the sidewalk.” I said “Correct.”
Then I asked him: “Does the man in the car have to pay for the bike?” My son said yes. Then I said, “What if you get off your bike on the street and you leave it there just for a minute, and a man in a car hits it?” My son said, “It’s my fault.” I asked why, and he said, “Because I shouldn’t have left it in the street.”
Then I asked him if the man in the car has to pay for the bike. My son answered, “No.” I asked him why and he repeated, “Because I shouldn’t have left it in the street.”
I told him good job, that’s what Torts is. He said, “Is that it?” I told him “Yes.” Then he looked real confused and said, “Then why does the book have twelve hundred pages?”
–From Jerry E. Stephens, University of Kansas School of Law, Date of event: Spring 1975
I had labor law at the University of Kansas under Professor Ray Goetz in the mid 1970s. Goetz was a truly outstanding teacher. He was able to refer to some momentous labor arbitration—particularly involving major league baseball—to spice up his lectures. But Ray Goetz could also be intimidating, particularly when he would look over the top of his reading glasses at students giving inane answers and comments.
He did have one redeeming virtue: he would call students for class recitation in classroom seating order. That gave students a rough estimate of the likelihood of being called on that class day and the next, and saved on some class preparation at times.
As it happened one rainy Saturday morning, the majority of those ahead of me skipped class. That left only two classmates ahead of me for class recitation that day. Neither did very well and Goetz was getting particularly exasperated.
Then he called on unprepared me. Just as I opened my mouth to answer there was a huge clap of thunder. Goetz probably sensed that I was unprepared. He looked directly at me and said that the thunder might have been the best answer I was going to muster that day. So he skipped me and turned to the next student in the row, who was much better prepared than I was.
–From Bert Jones, University of Oklahoma College of Law, Date of event: 1956
Your Palsgraf piece in the ABA Journal took me back to my Torts I class at the University of Oklahoma in 1956. When we got to THE CASE, we stayed on it for what seemed like a very long time. One day the professor, Harold Wren (one of the best teachers I ever had at any level), commented that the case had obviously had considerable influence nationwide. He began discussing a Wisconsin case as an example of how courts were following what Cardozo and Andrews had done. I sort of blurted out “Couldn’t have influenced Wisconsin.”
Whereupon Professor Wren had me rise and asked “Why not, Mr. Jones?” I said, “Well, sir, Palsgraf was decided in 1928 and the Wisconsin case you mentioned was in 1924.” He quickly checked his notes, turned and made a large number 1 on the blackboard, turned back and said, “One for you, Mr. Jones.” Thankfully, he did so with a smile!
–From Jon Avery, Georgia State University College of Law, Date of event: 2006
I, like every other 1L, got to take Contracts. And, like every other 1L in Contracts, we studied Hawkins v. McGee, aka the “hairy hand case.”
Someone asked the professor, “How do we know it was the surgery that caused the palm of the hand to be hairy? The guy could have genes that gave him a hairy palm, right?”
The professor responded, rhetorically, by asking, “What is the first thing we should ask when trying to determine whether the surgery caused the hairy palm?” The professor apparently was trying to get the student to think about what part of the body the skin was taken from to graft to the palm.
The inquiring student sat open-mouthed, unable to think of an explanation when someone in the back piped up: “Was he blind, too?”
–From Professor Ann H. Britton, Georgetown Law Center, Date of event: 1972.
I was proud of one of my classmates at Georgetown in 1972 (sorry, long forgot the name of the guilty party)when he briefed Hawkins v. McGee as: “A hand with a burn is worth two with a bush.”
McClurg note. For those who have not yet studied Hawkins v. McGee or have somehow forgotten it, Hawkins is the classic case from first-year Contracts in which the defendant doctor guaranteed plaintiff, a young man with a burned hand, “a hundred per cent perfect hand” if he would let the doctor perform surgery on him. Instead of a perfect hand, plaintiff ended up with one that grew thick hair because of a skin graft from his chest.
–From Erin McCaughey, Florida Coastal School of Law, Date of event: Fall 2004
Our Torts casebook (the well-known Prosser, Wade book) was livened up by photographs of certain important judges and other characters involved in the famous cases.
One prominent photo was of the great Judge Learned Hand, appearing in the middle of his opinion in U.S. v. Carroll Towing, right alongside his famous cost/benefit analysis for negligence cases.
The most prominent part of the photo was that Judge Hand had eyebrow hair that looked about 3 inches long. Not only was it long, it was incredibly thick.
One day in class, the professor asked a student, “What do we remember about Judge Learned Hand?”
“Eyebrows,” the student replied.
The class erupted with laughter, and the professor couldn’t help himself either.
–From Élise Hendrick, University of Cincinnati College of Law, Date of event: 2002
In my Con Law class, we were discussing the “fighting words” doctrine of Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, in which the petitioner was arrested after distributing anti-Catholic literature and delivering an anti-Catholic harangue in a heavily Catholic neighbourhood in the 1940s. Upon asking why he was under arrest, the officer suggested that he, “Shut up, you damn bastard,” to which Chaplinsky, not to be outdone, replied by calling the officer a “goddamn Fascist” and a “damn racketeer.”
The class went on for about a half hour with comments on how the cop started it, and, how, as the prof summed it up “Chaplinsky got a raw deal.” At this point, unable to resist, I raised my hand and suggested that the Court had perhaps ruled against Chaplinsky because of his apparent ingratitude: “After all, all the poor officer did was urge Chaplinsky to assert his Fifth Amendment rights and he wasn’t even required to do that yet!”
–From Jennifer Pruchnicki, University of Oklahoma College of Law, Date of event: circa 2000
Last year, my Con Law class was usually pretty interesting and lively, but the day we discussed Bowers v. Hardwick is my favorite memory.
[McClurg note: In Bowers, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a constitutional challenge to a state sodomy statute, finding no fundamental right to sexual activity between consenting unmarried adults.]
A student raised his hand and commented to the professor “So, this case basically says that the courts can regulate what goes on in your bedroom?” After some discussion, the same student innocently mumbled, “Well, that just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.”
–From Jim Brewer, Willamette University College of Law, Date of event: circa 1990
I remember clearly reading and discussing the hairy hand case Hawkins v. McGee in law school. I also remember classmates looking at my own hirsute mitt and wondering if my feelings would be hurt. Fortunately, I’m not the most observant or otherwise perceptive guy, so I didn’t have clue why people were looking at my hands, tittering, and then asking about the value of a hairy hand.
Fortunately (in this time of post-traumatic torts), I finally made the connection this year. My firm works as City Attorneys for a City with brand-new council-chamber robotic cameras for televised hearings on the public access channel. These cameras are in those domes that casinos and grocery stores have, and one of them is directly over the place where I usually doze through the meetings.
Evidently the operator of the robotic camera couldn’t resist zooming the thing straight down onto my hands and leaving the camera there for most of a lengthy land use hearing.
When the Council meeting was broadcast, the City received call after call complaining about the horrible image that cluttered the upper reaches of the cable system. I have reviewed the tape. It is an extreme close-up. And these hands aren’t just matted with hair on their backs (note how I distance myself from the offending extremity). They have long, thick, black locks in two places on each finger. At one point on the tape I’m impatiently tapping a pen on the table, and it looks like a tarantula is performing an indecent act of self-abuse.
When the Court distinguishes between a “perfect hand” and a “hairy hand” what happens to my self-image? You want to talk “genuine hardship?” Even global warming is working against me, since there is virtually no chance I can wear gloves as a fashion statement. I’ve thought about boxing gloves, but typing is so damn hard …
And I think the statute has run for suing that damn contracts prof, too.
–From Ray Baxter, University of Arkansas School of Law at Fayetteville, Date of event: circa 1974
When I was a freshman at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, in Contracts we were studying the case of Lucy v. Zamer. We all remember that case in that it stands for the proposition that a person is bound by the reasonable meaning of their offer or response thereto. Professor Al Witte found the case to be of extreme significance and basically talked about it for the better part of two weeks.
One day after having thoroughly indoctrinated us concerning that case, he asked a question. He said, “Mr. Baxter, if I were to have made you an offer and you responded with an uplifted finger, preferably the middle one, what would be the reasonable meaning of your response?” I responded, “Professor Witte, that would depend on what was offered and that it was you who made the offer in the first place.”
Professor Witte was completely embarrassed by this and the entire class erupted in laughter because it was the one and only time that Professor Witte had been had throughout the entire semester. Quite a bit of humor was had during the semester, but never at his expense. He was determined not to be gotten the best of. He then told me, “Mr. Baxter, that is the most lawyer-like thing that you have uttered all semester.” He added that the key words to the answer are “it depends.”
–From Jennifer Longo, University of Memphis School of Law, Date of event: Spring 2007
At the beginning of the year, my Torts professor made it known that we were not only allowed but encouraged to bring our friends and loved ones to class. Often, he would call on students who brought visitors so they could “impress” their guests. Realizing this might deter some from bringing visitors, he later informed us that if we didn’t want to be picked on for bringing a guest we should just let him know not to call on us. So after months of talking up his class, I finally managed to get my boyfriend of three years, who was in town for Valentine’s Day, to come to class.
On the day of the incident, I sent my professor an email to let him know that my boyfriend was coming to class, and that I didn’t feel any need to impress him so he really didn’t need to call on me. A number of students had brought their significant others to class without incident, so I naively thought it was safe. Well, “Tortman” kept his word and didn’t call on me, but the same didn’t go for my boyfriend.
Ironically, the topic for the day was spousal immunity. In the middle of the lecture, my boyfriend was introduced to the Socratic method firsthand when the professor asked him if he had any questions. He responded in the negative, but Tortman followed up anyway. He said he didn’t want to pry but, since the topic was spousal immunity, he had to ask, “Have you two discussed getting married?”
My boyfriend felt the same feeling that many law students feel when they are faced with a Socratic question to which they don’t have an answer. Stunned, he racked his brain for the correct response as the class erupted in laughter, and I turned bright red. After a prolonged response that felt like forever, my boyfriend responded “no comment.”
This wasn’t the first time that we had been embarrassed about the marriage question but this was the first time it was done in front of a class of seventy people. But I guess I should have been ready for such an event, especially since we had just finished studying assumption of risk.
Needless to say this will be a Valentine’s Day to remember. As for my boyfriend, I don’t think he’s a fan of the Socratic method.
McClurg note: As the perpetrating prof in this incident, I plead guilty to all charges.
–From Keaton Oberst, Texas Wesleyan School of Law, Date of event: Fall 2005
On the very first day of Torts, a student was reciting the facts of a case, and concluded that the defendant was found “guilty.”
“Really?” the professor asked, sounding intrigued. “He was found guilty.”
The student responded that the defendant was indeed guilty. Without warning, the professor threw himself against the wall in mock distress.
This surprising prompt allowed the student to realize her mistake in confusing civil and criminal justice. She corrected herself by saying the defendant was liable.
The professor responded, “Phew! I was worried there for a second!”
The class was amused and my colleague seemed quite embarrassed.
–From Melissa John, Northeastern University School of Law, Date of event: 2001
Having gone straight from college to law school, I didn’t even own a suit by the time first-year mock oral arguments came around. The weekend before I was scheduled, I hit Filene’s and bought a brand new “power suit.” I looked pretty sharp, felt pretty good, and come oral argument time, I was ready to blow them away.
As I put the suit on, I realized, in terror, that there in very obvious plain view was the shoplifting tag that the Filene’s clerk had left on my jacket! Not having any time to stop at a store to get it removed before the argument, I just went to school, hoping no one would notice. Wouldn’t you know, the first words out of my opponent’s mouth were: “Your Honor, opposing counsel is a common criminal and shoplifter, how can you believe anything this woman says?!”
Needless to say, that comment broke the ice, and I was able to make my argument with a lot less tension.
–From Rob Spring, Southern Illinois University School of Law, Date of event: Spring 2003
Spring semester of my first year: We had just finished writing an appellate brief and the first-year class was partnered up to compete in oral arguments. The week before we had a practice round before local lawyers and judges. I didn’t do too badly, my brief was pretty good and my partner was better than me.
My real argument was scheduled for the next week. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I was sure my argument was set for a week from Thursday. It wasn’t. On Wednesday the week before, as I was walking out to my car ready to drive home, I happened to see one of the guys I was arguing against running towards the law building in a suit and holding a brief in his hand. A sudden flash of panic came over me.
Nah, it couldn’t be today. But I needed to make sure and went back to check the posted schedule on the professor’s door. Much to my horror, not only was I up on Wednesday, but I only had 5 minutes to prepare, and I didn’t even have a copy of my brief! I hadn’t prepared at all. All I could think of was that I was going to repeat Lawyering Skills again. I thought of just ditching and running to my car and heading home.
But I decided to bite the bullet and go down to the courtroom, where I was greeted by our opponents and my partner, who had a look of total disbelief on her face. All three of them in suits and dressed for success. I hadn’t shaved, and needed a haircut, and was wearing a faded blue teeshirt, a pair of Quicksilver shorts, and sandals.
Luckily my partner didn’t kill me and had a copy of my brief. After explaining myself to the court for my unprofessional attire, we were allowed to proceed. I was supposed to go first, but had to force my partner to go first while I tried to figure out what I was going to say to fill up 15 minutes. Luck was on my side. My brief had been pretty good to begin with, so improvising with it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. When my partner finished, I gulped and jumped right in. I greeted the court and surprisingly enough did well. Afterwards, we all had a really big laugh.
I was really lucky and I know it. I was lucky I had a good partner, that she had a copy of my brief with her, that I saw Robbie (my opponent) in a suit, and finally that my professor didn’t kick my ass right out of the court room when I showed up in shorts and a teeshirt.
–From Anna Scruggs, University of Michigan Law School, Date of event: Spring 2005
Today, by email, during our Friday afternoon Con Law class, a dance-off was declared to take place after class between the right side of the room and the left side of the room. Then, just as our prof ended the class, someone pulled out a boom-box and things got crazy.
Two guys from our side of the room jumped up on the tables and busted out their best/worst moves, prompting the other side to dance back. Then I, along with another right-side mate busted out our best. The whole time, our prof was laughing so hard (she didn’t know this was coming) that it looked like she was going to fall off the podium. There were people in sunglasses, people chair-dancing, on tables, just for the heck of it.
Then, to everyone’s surprise, instead of the left side returning fire, our prof (a former U.S. Supreme Court clerk) jumped down from the podium and started breaking it down! So in the end, we declared our prof the winner. Like we didn’t already think she was the best.
I still have no idea why there was a dance-off, but that’s the funniest thing we’ve ever had happen in our section. Exams come and go, but what I’m going to remember best is getting served by our professor. Maybe there will be a re-match.
–From Scott Holmes, Cumberland School of Law, Date of event: Spring 2004
In my Property class with Prof. Snoe in the Spring of 2004 he asked a classmate, “Do you notice that when you talk all the typing stops?” (Most students in the class use laptops for note taking.)
“Yes, sir,” the student replied.
“Why do you think that is?” asked Prof. Snoe.
“I guess because I am wrong,” the student answered.
Snoe quickly responded, “You should have more faith in yourself, Mr. ___. I am sure you are wrong.”
Prof. Snoe is still the master of the Socratic Method.
–From Anne Fitzpatrick, University of Michigan Law School, Date of event: Fall 2003.
McClurg note: My parody of law school, The Law School Trip, contains a fictional student’s class notes regarding the rule against perpetuities, with bastardized references such as “Alien Nation of Property???” and “Life in Bean???” Anne Fitzpatrick proves once again that fact is stranger than fiction with this real-life excerpt from her Contracts notes regarding the parol evidence rule:
Found in my notes for J.J. White’s Contracts class during my first week of law school: reference to “the pro-elevens rule (?)”
–From Alyssa Bender, Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, Date of event: Fall 2003
It was towards the end of the semester and we were in Contracts class. It was nearing the end of class, when our teacher said, “Okay, now I’m going to tell you about the final exam.” There was complete silence in the room, when I — not intending to — sighed and said, “Oh God.”
The room erupted in laughter, and everyone was looking at me. I was totally unaware that my sigh was heard or why everyone was laughing. Finally, the person next to me told me everyone heard me. I went beet red. The professor just went on telling us about the exam. Later, on the way out, people came up to me and told me: “Wow, you said exactly what I was thinking/feeling.”; and “What a great way to break that tension. Good job!” I was thoroughly mortified, and then I had to hear from everyone in my section come exam time: “Remember: no sighing during the exam!”
–From Francine Traiger-Poor, Massachusetts School of Law, Date of event: March 2001
We were in first-year torts and discussing slander. The Professor stated that one of the elements of slander was that the defamatory statement must be heard by “one third person.” A student raised her hand and told the Professor she didn’t understand.
The Professor went on to explain how if one third person didn’t hear the statement it wasn’t considered published and didn’t fulfill the elements. The student, still obviously confused, asked: “But I still don’t understand which 1/3 of the person has to hear it!”
–From Emily Durham, Valparaiso University School of Law, Date of event: Fall 2003
About two weeks into the fall semester, my fellow 1Ls had not quite figured out that cell phones were a major felony in class. Somewhere about halfway into our Criminal Law class, the FOURTH cell phone rings. It took all he had for our professor to stop class and say with a straight face, “Just put them on vibrate and play with yourselves.”
–From Paula Cardoza, Indiana University School of Law, Date of event: 1979
I call this one “Realistic Expectations.” It was the end of the first semester of our first year, and we were petrified and clueless as we approached final exams. One professor told us that he would put one of his past exams and a sample “A” answer on reserve. Without missing a beat, a voice from the back of the room called out, “Could you put a sample ‘C’ answer on reserve, too?”
–From Debra Reece, University of Arkansas School of Law at Little Rock, Date of event: Fall 2000
Okay, here’s my funny law school moment. I’ll leave out the poor guy’s name. We were in property class, discussing wills, etc. One of my classmates was having a little trouble getting down the vernacular. He particularly had trouble with mortgagor vs. mortgagee. So he was always careful to check to see if he was on the right track when new words were introduced.
After spending some weeks with exercises that referred to a “grantor” and “grantee,” we had a problem with a testator in it. He was a bit confused, so he asked, “If the grantor leaves stuff to his grantees, does that mean the testator leaves stuff to his testes?”
We roared. It took him several seconds before he realized what he’d said, and our professor was rendered speechless. Several times in our first-year orientation, we heard, “Don’t worry about saying something stupid in class. No one will ever remember what you said.”
Not true. We will never let him live that one down.
–From Ming Chi, University of Hawaii School of Law, Date of event: Fall 2002
While in Contracts we had a case about a woman who sued a man who had promised to pay for some of the child-raising costs for a baby born as a result of a one-night stand between them. However, the man took a paternity test and found out he wasn’t the father, so he refused to pay. Our professor was leading our class in discussion and I mumbled something about this case being something straight out of Jerry Springer. Our professor caught wind of my words and then proceeded to ask the class who mentioned Jerry.
I nervously raised my hand and she asked me to elaborate. Well, I let the class have it … ranting about how this slutty woman was sleeping around with multiple men and how unfair it was to make the man pay for child support even though she had given the kid up for adoption after three years.
The professor looked really confused and was trying hard to see how my ranting related to our discussion. It was then that my friend Becky, who sat next to me, tapped me on the shoulder and told me, “I think she thought you said jury.”
The class roared in laughter after I explained myself, and I think I was excused from all other class discussion that day for Contracts.
–From Tom O’Neil, University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law, Date of event: 1992
In my first year of law school, my dear friend Deacon was on the hot seat in Criminal Law one day. The professor was grilling Deacon about the viability of a fetus as it relates to murder. In one of his answers, Deacon made a very intelligent and medical-sounding response.
The professor, apparently taken aback with the student’s elevated tone, asked “Are you a doctor?” to which Deacon responded, “No, but I played one on TV.” While the class thoroughly enjoyed his answer, the professor completely missed the joke and continued the discussion on homicide …
–From Chris Krankemann, Regent University School of Law, Date of event: Fall 1998
Every law school I bet has its zealots for Constitutional law. You know, the ones who live to talk about it and never shut up in class. The ones who think that they are smarter than the nine justices on the Supreme Court.
Well, I was not one of those people, nor were my close friends in law school. So for my small group of friends to escape the misery of Con Law we decided to create a new form of entertainment called CON LAW BINGO. Perhaps someone else thought of this first, but we had never heard of it.
Every day before class, we held a draft in order to pick students (zealots) who surely were likely to open their mouths during class. Every player drafted nine people, to create a 3 x 3 card of zealots, but no zealot could be on more than one card. Strategy was everything!
Then it was just the basic rules of bingo. Once three zealots in a row spoke out in class, the player had to raise his/her hand in class and make some sort of comment regarding the class. But to win, the player had to incorporate the word “BINGO” in his comment to the class.
By the end of the semester, almost the entire class was entering into their own bingo groups and playing CON LAW BINGO.
However, eventually the professor became suspicious since the word “BINGO” was mysteriously being worked into the discussion 2 or 3 times every class. He eventually discovered our little game and scolded us for not taking Constitutional Law seriously enough.
–From Rita Weeks, Boston University School of Law, Date of event: 2002
We had 20 minutes left in our 2 hour constitutional law class, and everyone was bored stiff. The professor was irritated at the lack of participation and enthusiasm, but most students were either already asleep or online on their laptops.
A strange, faint noise came from the back of the room that got my attention. It sounded like a little bell ringing –– the type a dog or cat would have on its collar. Curious, I turned and looked behind me, but didn’t see anything, so I turned back around. My friend, Jeremy, who sits next to me, said ““There is a dog behind you!”” Of course, I figured he was teasing me about my extreme love for dogs, so I rolled my eyes, but he said, “No really, there is a dog behind you.”
Looking behind me again, I saw a tiny little white fluffy dog that couldn’t have weighed more than 4 pounds. The dog was just quietly walking around, from the back of the room to the front of the room. I almost started laughing, and Jeremy and a few other students around us were trying not to laugh as well.
The professor heard the commotion and turned to our side of the room and asked if there was a problem. Of course, none of us said a thing, which made her even more irritated. The dog was right by my feet at this point, and I wanted to pick it up and give it back to the girl who sat a few rows behind me, who was obviously the dog’s owner as she was trying to discreetly coax the dog back towards her, but I figured if the prof saw me holding a dog she would have my head.
We tried to stay quiet, but the tiny dog made its way to the front of the room, where it peed on the floor!
When the professor finally saw it, she was less than thrilled, but the whole class couldn’t help but laugh and talk about it. In her commanding classroom manner, she announced, “Well, I guess the shit hasn’t hit the fan, but the urine has!”
She then harshly reminded us that along with cell phones and food, animals were items that we are not allowed to bring to her class.
–From Jim Redeker, Washburn University School of Law, Date of event: Fall 1995
We were first year students and most of us were still deathly afraid of not being prepared for class. One of my classmates, a real “gunner,” lamented to a professor that he was ALWAYS prepared for class, but that none of his professors would call on him. His classmates were treated to hassle free classes for the next week as every professor had this student answer every question in every class.
On Monday, the student seemed quite pleased with all of the attention he was getting. On Tuesday, he was not so thoroughly prepared and he heard about it. On Wednesday, he was prepared for all of his classes again. By Thursday, his lack of sleep was starting to become evident. By Friday, he was pleading with his professors to stop calling on him.
–From Jenna Solari, University of Georgia School of Law, Date of event: Spring 1998
A simple, yet funny, classroom exchange took place between Professor Robert Brussack and first-year civil procedure student Chris Hoofnagle during my second semester of law school (Spring 1998). Having one semester under our belts, we had begun to figure out the Socratic method. Professor Brussack posed a complicated question to Chris, who gave a long-winded but intelligent sounding answer. The room was silent for a few seconds after Chris finished speaking, until Chris finally shrugged and said, “Well, that was my best guess. I’m sorry it was wrong.” Professor Brussack replied, “How do you know it was wrong?” With the utmost sincerity Chris responded, “Because you’re smiling.”
–From K. Christopher Branch, Loyola Law School Los Angeles, Date of event: circa 1988
At our school, we had chalkboards that slid up and down so that when both were in the down position, you could only see the first board and not the second. In the middle of a first-year Property class, the professor ran out of space on the first board and pushed it up revealing the second, on which someone had stuck a huge bumper sticker from a welding school that said, “WHY NOT TRY WELDING?” Everyone lost it, and the professor lost the class for the rest of the day.
Another day, we locked the prof out of the classroom. We thought it was funny until he walked away and made us come back on a Saturday to make it up. Guess he had the last laugh.
–From McClurg, University of Florida College of Law, Date of event: circa 1978
I decided to add a couple of my own stories from law school in the hope that you—the loyal website visitor—will be stimulated to send in your own story.
What’s scarier than the first day of law school Orientation? We were packed like matches into an auditorium at the University of Florida, sitting in alphabetical order. Speaker after speaker took the podium, but the only thing I remember them stressing was the lack of bathroom facilities in the law school. I’m sure they talked about other things, but that’s what seemed to stand out. The way people went on and on about it, it appeared to be the most important issue in legal education.
After the speeches, we were divided into groups. A third-year student took us on a tour of the law school. We traipsed in single file down hallways, through classrooms and finally into the library, where in a narrow aisle between the stacks a large puddle on the floor blocked our passage.
Everyone, including our 3L tour guide, stood stymied staring at the puddle until the guy behind me deadpanned, “I guess they weren’t joking about the bathrooms.”
In the stress of the circumstances, this struck me as hilarious. I turned and introduced myself to James H. “Mac” McCarty, Jr., who to this day is one of my best friends.
–From Peter Weinberg, University of the Witwatersrand Law School (Johannesburg), Date of Event: 1975
During a discussion on the causes of divorce during a Law of Persons lecture, our lecturer asked whether adultery was a criminal offense. One student, who shall remain nameless, put up his hand and said “No, professor, adultery has been abrogated by disuse.”
The professor thought for a moment, then replied “Mr. _____, I think that the criminality of adultery has been abrogated by disuse. The practice is, I believe, still very popular.”
–From Gorden Penny, Texas Wesleyan School of Law, Date of event: Spring 2009
One student, while engaging in Socratic analysis with a female torts professor, referred to former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor as “MR. O’Connor.” His reference has gone down in the annals of “Absolutely What NOT to Say in Law School.”
–From Jarod Morris, Oklahoma City University School of Law, Date of event: Fall 2004
During my Civil Procedure course at Oklahoma City University I was called upon to discuss the Burger King franchise case. The professor asked me a series of questions and I did quite well until the professor came to the question regarding jurisdiction for the suit and why one of the parties wanted to have the case decided in a particular jurisdiction.
I was stumped. I couldn’t think of anything so I responded, “I guess they just wanted to have it their way.” The class erupted in laughter and I was so zoned in the Socratic Method dialogue that I didn’t realize the humor in the statement for a few seconds. I couldn’t have come up with something like that if I tried.
–From Fred C. Russcol, Albany Law School, Date of event: 1972
At Albany Law School in 1972, Professor Watkins was brilliant but prickly. One day, he called on my friend, John Keyes, who answered as best he could. After a moment, Professor Watkins said, “Mr. Keyes, can you tell me why that was the stupidest answer I’ve heard all semester?”
My friend responded, “Well, Professor, it’s the first time you’ve called on me!”
–From Timothy DePeugh, Catholic University School of Law, Date of event: Fall 2003
My Contracts professor, the ultra-fabulous Professor Watson at Catholic University, is shiny bald. One day he called on me to discuss a case that involved jojoba fields in Arizona. I always choked and made a fool of myself in class when he asked me questions, so while I was fumbling around, he asked the class generally if anyone knew what jojoba was. Surprisingly, I actually knew the answer to that one, and said it’s a seed from which they extract an oil that’s often used as an ingredient in hair care products, especially shampoos and conditioners.
He said, “Well, Mr. DePeugh, I wouldn’t know anything about that.” And the whole class erupted in laughter. I had no idea what was so funny, so I sort of zoned out for a bit. He continued asking questions, and a few minutes later, while I was in the middle of answering another one of his questions, I blurted out, “Oh! Now I get it. It’s because you don’t use shampoo … oh no, I’m so sorry.” And once again, the class burst into laughter. He thanked me for giving the matter additional consideration.
–From Ari Johnson, College of William & Mary Law School, Date of event: Fall 2004
Some law professors use the Socratic Method as a teaching device. Others use it to make sure their students are awake. But some professors play the Socratic Method as if it were a game of chess. My Torts professor was one of those. You could never win this game with him, of course. One day, he walked into class and the first words out of his mouth were “Mr. Johnson,” and he didn’t let up on me for fifteen minutes, hammering me with questions about the 1853 British case of Lumley v. Gye (in which a person was held liable for damages caused when he induced an opera singer to break her exclusive contract with an opera house).
Seeing that I was prepared, he threw me a curveball: “Mr. Johnson, who is your favorite singer?” Not having any authority to cite, I didn’t answer this question out of a fear that I’d somehow get it wrong. Of course, there is no wrong answer in the non-Socratic world to such a question, but there’s no such thing as a “reasonable law student” when it comes to irrational fear.
The prof finally asked my classmates to select a favorite singer for me and they decided on Bob Dylan. The professor continued to play the game out to its conclusion. This might be why some people choose boxing over law: 12 rounds can’t possibly be as bad as 25 minutes of the Socratic Method at its finest.
–From Jeremiah Jarmin, Appalachian School of Law, Date of event: Spring 2005
It was during Contracts II when the class was discussing mental incapacity to enforce a contract. The professor brought up the concept of volitional impediment when dealing with a person suffering from a particular mental disorder. He asked the class, “What does volitional impediment mean?” One of the students raised his hand and began as if he were going to deliver some sort of long intelligent explanation of the words. He responded, “Volitional impediment is when … your volition is impeded.” The class lost it.
Then the professor asked what exactly the term “manic” meant, as when one is in a “manic” state of mind. A second student adopted the same line of deep reasoning used by the first student, saying, “Manic, you see … is the opposite … of depressive.”
The class lost it again. The professor then kindly removed the student from his seat, and had him switch seats with a student who was sitting next to the first student. He essentially created the peanut gallery.
When the professor asked again, “What does manic mean?,” both students raised their hands in unison. It was hysterical.
–From John Schrier, University of Maryland School of Law, Date of event: 1980
The discussion of Socratic moments reminded me of a funny moment during Contracts I with Professor Young, back in 1980 at University of Maryland–Baltimore. Professor Young was grilling my classmate and apartment-mate on the facts of one case or another, trying to elicit some of the more basic principles of how a court will interpret the terms of a contract.
Having observed my buddy on a date the preceding evening, it came as no surprise that he was less than fully informed about the case under discussion. Pressing the point that contract terms will be construed against the drafting party, the professor asked: “And please tell us, Mr. F., who did draft the contract?”
While my apartment-mate was struggling to think of the answer, I couldn’t resist joking to another classmate, “The lawyers.” Unfortunately, I hadn’t expected that my desperate apartment-mate would overhear my joke and blurt it out in class as the answer to the question! He got a loud roar from the class and I got bathroom-cleaning duty for a week.
–From Debby Toland, University of Oklahoma College of Law, Date of event: circa 1983
It was Income Tax I in the fifth semester of law school. I was sitting in Professor’s Teselle’s class, totally and utterly clueless as to: (1) Why was I in law school?; and (2) Why in god’s name was I in a tax class?
Of course, on that day the worse thing that could happen in tax class did happen. I was called on to answer a question. And, of course, it was a question that I had absolutely no idea how to answer.
The question was: “If a client came to you asking XXXX (X = some arcane question on the tax code) … what would be your advice?” In my best and most professional voice, I said: “I would acknowledge that the question was an interesting one outside my realm of expertise and refer them to Mr. Phillips who offices next door and who specializes in that area (in this case, my seat mate). Luckily Professor Teselle laughed and turned and said “Mr. Phillips, so how would YOU answer the question?” Needless to say Mr. Phillips was not as appreciative of my wit as were the professor and the rest of the class!
P.S. I did pass the course and have employed CPAs heavily from that day forward!
–From Susan M. Harrelson, UNLV School of Law, Date of event: Summer 1999
Although I was responsible for my own share of funny law school moments, the best one I ever heard happened to a friend. During Property I, the professor was going all out, writing on the board: O conveys to A for life, and then to B and the heirs of his body, but if B ever drinks alcohol in a barn, then to C, D, X, Y and Z, etc.
When called upon to answer, “Who owns Blackacre?” my classmate asked, “May I please buy a vowel?”
–From Caleb K. Aguillard, Louisiana State University Law Center, Date of event: Fall 2003
My story is from the fall semester of 2003. As it was my first semester, my section was taking Criminal Law and happened to be involved in a complicated discussion of sexual assault. In the instant case, it was explained to us that while perpetrating the crime in question, the would-be perpetrator was unable to “perform.” One of the more intelligent 1Ls in our class asked if that could be considered attempt. Seizing the moment, another chimed in, “Wouldn’t that be like pulling the trigger of an unloaded gun?” But before the stunned class could react, our professor replied, “Oh, it was loaded, just not cocked.”
McClurg footnote: Obviously, there’s nothing funny about sexual assault. The professor’s remark doesn’t strike me as making light of the crime, but let me know if you feel otherwise.
–From Robert Campbell, Pacific Coast University McGeorge School of Law, Date of event: 2002
A funny Socratic moment occurred in our California Community Property course, when a classmate was briefing Boggs v. Boggs 520 U.S. 833 (1997).
Parties to the litigation were Sandra Boggs, widow of Isaac Boggs, and Isaac’s sons, Thomas F. Boggs, Harry M. Boggs, and David B. Boggs, who were the offspring of Issac Boggs and his first wife, Dorothy Boggs, also deceased.
This case held that ERISA preempts a state’s community-property law which might otherwise allow a non-participant spouse to make a testamentary transfer of an interest in an undistributed pension plan.
After an analysis of the facts, issues, rules and applications, our classmate was getting to the end of his recitation and declared, with relief: “In conclusion, Boggs won!”
–From Janet Rae Montgomery, Stanford Law School, Date of event: 1973
By second semester, the demented students had been sorted out by the grades from the first semester—the demented ones were the ones with the As. The professors had also sorted out the ones it was safe to call on and the ones best left alone.
A visiting professor from the University of Chicago was teaching Civil Procedure, taking us through the federal rules of discovery. Usually this professor would have about five of us dangling in his Socratic questions, bouncing from one to the next of us.
The question of the day was: why were the written documents of the defendant readily available in discovery when it took a specific court order for blood or other corporeal evidence to be taken? Isn’t a diary recording our most secret thoughts at least as important as a blood sample? Why should Mr. Smith’s personal thoughts and records be at the mercy of a fishing expedition, when his DNA wasn’t?
Class was winding down. The five of us were wriggling on the line struggling to satisfy the professor’s demands, and all of us were failing. The bell rang. Books were being packed up but we weren’t going to be allowed to leave until this question had been answered. Then a hand went up.
Jonathan, a smile on his face and a gleam in his eye that I could see even from ten chairs away, decided to give it a shot.
“Well, professor, I guess the people who wrote these rules thought it was more important to be able to get into a person’s papers than into his pants.”
The Socratic method was never used in that class again.
–From Susan Parkes, University of Tennessee College of Law, Date of event: circa 1980
I guess you could call this a socratic mishap.
In my third year at the University of Tennessee, I was taking Decedent’s Estates. The professor went up and down the rows of the class calling on us. When she got to the fellow sitting next to me, the questions and answers went very well and no problems were obvious. But I could tell my classmate was getting angrier with each remark.
As class ended we walked out of the room together and he exploded, “I can’t stand it when someone doesn’t look at me when they talk to me!”
I responded, “She was doing the best she can. She’s cross-eyed.”
–From Vera Beretvas, Albany Law School, Date of event: Oct. 2002
In our Legal Profession class, Professor Connors was discussing situations in which a lawyer may withdraw from representation of a client.
He turned to me as it often happens when one sits in the first row, and said: “Could you, Vera, specify such a situation for us?”
He caught me in a moment when my thoughts were around an egg-salad versus a tuna sandwich for lunch. And I definitely wanted cucumbers on the side …
Out of at least five plausible answers, all I could think to say was: “Well, when a client doesn’t want to cooperate, and showers the lawyer with annoying phone calls …”
“Yes!” he said enthusiastically. “If, for example, I am a pain in the ass …,” and he paused, expecting me to carry the ball from there.
In my confused state, I just repeated after him: “Yes, you are a pain in the ass …” Unfortunately, my intonation accidentally dropped there, ending the sentence prematurely. It was too late for me to add something else to save the situation.
When the burst of laughter died down in the room, he looked at me with surprise in his eyes, and answered in a meditative, yet fully resigned manner: “Well, I guess, we can say I am …”
–From Lara Gardner, Lewis and Clark Law School, Date of event: circa March, 2002
Last spring, in my Entertainment Law class, Professor Newell asked the class a question, Socratic style.
When no one answered after several moments, Professor Newell said, “Oh hell, I’ll just answer it myself. Sometimes that’s how this Socratic crap works.”
–From J. Stephen Donovan, University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law, Date of event: 1989
I was in the frat man/jock contingent in first year. When we got to a case about flammable pajamas in Torts, the professor asked, rhetorically, “On whom should we call today?”
I blurted “Falbo” at the same time the four guys behind me, including Falbo, knowing I had not read the case, announced “Donovan.” The prof, somewhat dismayed by this response to his clearly rhetorical question, chose me. After 45 minutes of Socratic back-and-forth during which I managed to hold my own, the prof finally asked something fact-specific about the case.
I responded, “I don’t know, I haven’t actually read it. That’s why I suggested you call on Mr. Falbo.”
He replied, “Too bad, you were doing quite well. You had me fooled. Very well … Mr. Falbo, please address my last question.” Then he proceeded to hang Falbo for the last 15 minutes.
McClurg footnote:Out of professorial curiosity, I wrote back asking the author, J. Stephen Donovan, how he managed to fake out the professor for 45 minutes when he hadn’t read the case. He replied that he wasn’t sure, but speculated it might have something to do with his being Irish.
–From Ryan Arnold, Thomas M. Cooley Law School, Date of event: Fall 2001
This is a socratic story from Thomas M. Cooley Law School. It was my first term. I had almost made it through the first semester without getting called on until my prof called me out. After I had answered questions to most of the relevant facts, the prof began pushing me up in the corner by asking me irrelevant minute details. With the pressure building, without hesitation I said very calmly. “I MAY HAVE TO PHONE A FRIEND ON THAT ONE.”
The class fell out laughing. The prof told me I had better be ready next week. When I didn’t get called on, several fellow students thought the prof just forgot about it. When I received a low grade in the class I told the prof I thought he/she got the last laugh. The prof denied it to the end. Who knows?
–From João Teixeira Freire, University of Lisbon College of Law, Date of event: 2001
This one happened last year, on a final exam of European Community Law, at the University of Lisbon, Portugal.
The professor, after asking a few simple questions that the student—who was very nervous—failed to answer, asked an even simpler one: “Where was the founding treaty of the European Community signed?”
The student tried to remember, but nothing would come to his mind, so the professor, almost desperate, said, “Okay, I’ll give you a hint. Do you like soccer?”
“Yes!” the student replied enthusiastically, as if grateful for a topic he could finally comprehend.
“Okay, great. Where does Batistuta play?”
The student answered promptly: “For Lazio!”
“So, then, the answer is …”
“The Treaty of Lazio!!!”
(The right answer was Treaty of Rome. To those less familiar with European soccer teams, Lazio is from that city.)
–From Monica “Nic” Monroe, Catholic University School of Law, Date of of event: August 2000
Today is the first day of school of my second year. Looking at all the wide-eyed First Years wandering around the building I am reminded of my First Week one year ago.
We all find law school rather tense those first few days. Everyone is sizing up their classmates, wondering who will be the top students. One can’t help it. We all got good grades in college and most of us came here believing we were smart, articulate, and even witty. We live in fear of two things: BEING CALLED ON and (a fate worse than death) GIVING A DUMB ANSWER.
Our Lawyering Skills professor, Michael Koby, was speaking generally about the structure of law and government. He turns to a student, “Quickly, what are the three branches of the U.S. government?” She stares, blinks, and stares some more. Finally she shrugs, “I was a Biology major.”
The whole class lost it. Professor Koby smiled and stifled his own laugh. Finally, we settle down and he tries again. He talks her through the answer he wanted. Bless his heart, he even sang part of the “School House Rock” America episode—the song called “Three Ring Circus” describing the branches and their functions.
Looking back, this was the ice-breaker for Section B. Yes, some teased her about it. But, this was the first time our section laughed as a group, our first shared “funny law school story.” Her response and especially the professor’s response finally took the edge off. It set the tone for a demanding, yet never dull year-long course with an exceptional professor. One who taught us to “write like a lawyer” but also to Believe In and Laugh At Ourselves.
Professor Koby left Catholic for Washington University in St. Louis. For any of his students who might read this, I hope you appreciate the rare treasure you have in this professor.
–From McClurg, University of Florida College of Law, Date of event: circa 1980
I decided to add a couple of my own stories from law school in the hope that you—the loyal website visitor—will be stimulated to send in your own stories.
Here’s a Socratic happening that many law students have perhaps dreamed about, but few would dare to implement. It occurred in my last semester of law school at the University of Florida. We were being taught criminal procedure by Professor Gerald Bennett.
Professor Bennett was conducting class in typical Socratic fashion one day when my seatmate and close friend, Mac McCarty, turned to me and whispered: “I’m sick of the Socratic method. If he calls on me I’m going to tell him that if I have anything relevant to say I’ll raise my hand.”
“Yeah, right,” I whispered back.
As fate would have it, at that second, these words boomed across the room: “Mr. McCarty, please state the facts in Betts v. Brady.”
It was all I could do to keep from choking on my laughter. I expected Mac’s bravado to dissolve quickly and sat waiting for him to begin reciting the facts. But he didn’t do it.
“Professor Bennett,” Mac said, “I feel I’ve reached the stage of my law school career where if I have anything relevant to say, I’ll raise my hand.”
As you might imagine, stunned silence and dropped jaws filled the room. We all sat perfectly still waiting for Professor Bennett’s response. Would he explode? Storm out of the room? Throw his casebook at Mac? To his credit, he did none of these things. He said calmly, “Well, Mr. McCarty, the exam is in two weeks. Let’s hope you think of something relevant to say by then.”
Then he looked at me and said, a bit more confrontationally, “Mr. McClurg—the facts of Betts v. Brady.”
A moment of truth had arrived. Should I risk my GPA to back up my best buddy in his act of civil disobedience?
“The petitioner was charged with robbery,” I said. “His request for counsel was denied by the trial court … blah, blah, blah.”
I got a better grade in the course, but always admired Mac for his guts. I don’t recommend his approach, especially to my students.
–From Lynn Lisk, University of Arkansas School of Law at Little Rock, Date of event: unknown
One of my former students sent in this story about the legendary Professor Robert R. Wright, a former colleague of mine, now retired, at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock School of Law. Professor Wright, a leading property and land use expert, was the law school’s “Professor Kingsfield.” The students were terrified of him:
In first year Property, Professor Robert Wright called on someone to answer a question. The person told Professor Wright that they were sorry, they had not read the assignment and didn’t know the answer. So Professor Wright called on a second student. That person also stated they had not read the assignment and didn’t know the answer either (apparently this was the day after an important basketball game). Completely frustrated by now, Professor Wright “nominated” a third person to answer his question. This third person, obviously destined for greatness due to his ability to think on his feet, stated “I’m sorry, professor, I was studying with them last night.”
According to my source, Professor Wright shut his book and told the class it was dismissed for the day and to be ready for the next assignment on the syllabus since he would not be discussing this subject anymore in class. However, the issue did appear, in substantial part, on the final exam that semester.
–From Tanya Stankunas, Harvard Law School, Date of event: Spring 2003
We have an annual Moot Court competition at Harvard Law School for 1L’s in which we all have to write briefs and present oral arguments in teams of two. At the end of it all, our section of forty people, all of whom had worked on the same case, held the “1st Annual Ames Briefs Awards,” which consisted of several pairs of white men’s briefs, with categories written on them.
Among the many categories were: “Most Likely to Mention Starving Orphans in Her Brief,” “Looks Best in Briefs,” “Most Mentions of the George Foreman Grill in her Oral Argument,” and, last but not least, “The Pubic Safety Award,” given to the team whose first draft of their brief concerning the “public safety exception” to Miranda v. Arizona contained a slight typo …
–From Ray Pierce, University of Arkansas School of Law at Little Rock, Date of event: circa 2000
It’s the first night of class in Reasoning, Writing and Advocacy II (our legal writing course). The professor distributes to the class a tremendous amount of photocopied reading material handouts (about a 3 or 4-inch stack). Leaving class, buckling under the weight of the handouts, one of my classmates jokingly asks another when he planned to read all of the new materials. The student responded, “Hell, I never read any of the (expletive deleted) she gave us last semester.” At that point, he turned around to find none other than the diminutive writing professor standing behind him. “I guess I shouldn’t have said that,” he said meekly.
–From Dan Harayda, Massachusetts School of Law, Date of event: Fall 2003
This is funny in retrospect and became the stuff of legend at Massachusetts School of Law. It was during our first final of the first year: Civil Procedure. We all knew it was going to be a hard test.
At the beginning of exam, the professor made it quite clear that all cell-phones must be turned off. Less than a half-hour into the test, a phone started to ring, then stopped. About 10 seconds later it began to ring again. Everyone was looking to the back where the sound was coming from, including the professor, who looked mad.
Then it rang again! This time the prof says, “Check and turn off your phones! I’ll give everyone five minutes extra on the final.” He made it clear that he definitely DID NOT want to hear that phone ring again.
With everyone checking their bags, the same ring-tone starts again. So the phone has gone off at least four times now. You would think everyone would have finally checked and turned off their phones, but about a minute later it rings again. By this time, the professor is pacing the room trying to pinpoint the sound. He yells (and I mean yells) that if he finds out whose cell-phone that is, not only are they failing his final, but they will sit in front of the disciplinary board. He hovered in the area, just waiting for it to ring. He was ready to pounce. Luckily the cell-phone did not ring again. I am sure if it had, the professor would have kept his promise and failed that student.
Looking back I always wondered how that student did on the final. I know it would have scared me stiff. I do know that several students complained and blamed their grade on the test on the ringing.
I wondered if one of those people was the owner of the infamous ringing phone!
–From Laura Steel, University of Tennessee College of Law, Date of event: circa 1997
During my first year of law school, we were strewn about the campus for classes while our new law school building was being constructed. This, of course, meant we had to have contact with the undergraduates of the university. Our Property class met in a building that was close (too close, actually) to one of the dorms. The two buildings did not have air conditioning, so the windows had to be open during the spring. Class was from 9:40 to 11:55, and with open windows we could hear the alarm clocks waking up the undergrads. One of the students had his alarm clock set to play Cat Stevens’ “Wild World.” We got a kick of out this the first ten or so times it happened. However, toward the end of the semester, we (including the professor) were very weary of the song.
Construction on the new building was completed before final exams, so we were privileged enough to take our Property final in a swanky new classroom. The final was daunting—multiple choice, short answer, and essay questions. About 1 hour into the 3 hour exam, we hear the faint melody of “Wild World” playing. We couldn’t figure out where it was coming from, and the music was gradually getting louder. Finally, one of my classmates realized it was blaring from the credenza in the front of the room, where our professor had placed a clock with a CD player. She had set the alarm to go off during the middle of the exam, then she taped the doors to the credenza shut so that it would take a little effort to get them open. At the time, we didn’t think anything about it was funny. Looking back, I guess it was—I’ve always used that interruption as the excuse for my Property grade!
–From Jennifer Henson, Wake Forest University School of Law, Date of event: Fall 2005
First week of law school: Our Civil Procedure professor was affectionately known as Mad-Dog and had a reputation for scaring the 1Ls. Our Torts professor, Professor Green, on the other hand, seemed like a really nice guy. Don’t get me wrong, he did his fair share of the Socratic method but I don’t think any of us were “afraid” of him.
It was the third day of class and Torts was almost over when Prof. Green called on one last student. The student was already packing up his books. The student’s response amounted to “What?” So Prof. Green asked the student the question again. At this point I think the student responded with something to the effect of “I don’t know.”
Prof. Green launched into a tirade. “You don’t know? Didn’t you read? etc., etc.” The student was getting really flustered and stood up and shoved his Torts book over the edge of the desk and onto the floor. The whole room was staring, petrified. The student got up and headed to the door. Prof. Green told him to leave law school, leave the city, leave the state! We were all horrified. We couldn’t believe it. We were almost prepared for something like this from Mad-Dog’s class, but we all just sat shocked and couldn’t believe what had happened.
Within a few minutes Prof. Green let us in on the joke. The “student” was his son who was in graduate school somewhere else. His classes hadn’t started yet so Prof. Green had gotten him to come to class for the first three days. He told us he made his son do all of his own class prep. This kid had been answering questions in class the whole three days.
I think maybe Prof. Green had hoped he’d scare us into never being unprepared for class. We all agreed that the joke would have been funnier if he’d let it go a little longer and really led us to believe he had scared someone out of law school. But I think that would have been far too cruel to do to 1Ls. Prof. Green turned out to be a great guy.
–From Jennifer Henson, Wake Forest University School of Law, Date of event: Fall 2005
I spent a lot of my fall of 2005 semester studying in the library cubicles. One evening, during exams, I was working on a paper when out of the corner of my eye I see someone jump up and shout and scare the people at one of the nearby tables. One of the students had climbed into a large green recycling bin and had stayed in there for who knows how long before popping up and scaring the nearby students. The funny thing is that I hadn’t been more than 30 feet away for several hours and I never saw anyone climb into the bin. I guess we all end up in our own little worlds when studying for exams or drafting papers.
–From R. Kelly Jordan, Florida International University Colleg of Law, Date of event: Fall 2004
First year Con Law at the Florida International University College of Law introduced us to Professor Thomas Baker, a serious and studious man who once served as chief administrative assistant to former Chief Justice William Rehnquist, is author of the West Nutshell book on constitutional analysis, and knows more about the U.S. Constitution than anyone I have ever met or known.
Everyone had tremendous respect for Professor Baker, and most lived in fear of being called on by him. I was no exception. However, I also have a background in theater and enjoy doing impressions of people.
The next case up to bat was U.S. v. Causby, which I had agreed beforehand to present to Professor Baker and the class. The case, which I affectionately termed “The Angry Chicken Case,” involved some military planes flying over a farm and panicking the chickens. It was a “takings” case.
I told Professor Baker that I had prepared some visual aides to help the class understand the case, and asked if I could stand at the podium. He agreed, and once up, I proceeded to present the case as Professor Baker.
For about ten minutes, I held his trademark coffee cup, scratched an invisible beard, and asked skewering questions of students who were “in on it.” Meanwhile, I flashed slides of an angry chicken, the type of military aircraft that made the chickens angry, and a geometric representation showing flight altitudes, etc., mimicking Professor Baker’s use of diagrams on the board to highlight his points.
Professor Baker was sitting in my seat the whole time, watching with quiet bemusement. When I finished, I thanked Professor Baker for the time “in his place,” and proceeded to make my way to my chair with the class roaring and clapping (I’m sure more for the distraction for than my performance).
Professor Baker said, “Not so fast Mr. Jordan. It’s my turn. Now, for my impersonation of you.” With that he leaned back in my chair, stretched his legs, tilted his head back, and pretended to go to sleep.
The class loved it.
–From Brian Abramson, Florida International University College of Law, Date of event: April 2003
The date was April 1st, 2003. The class was Civil Procedure, taught by Professor Foley. Despite her general Southern congeniality and wry sense of humor, Professor Foley did not tolerate students coming unprepared to class. While students were allowed to “pass” by leaving a note on the professor’s podium, being caught unprepared without having taken a pass meant an automatic drop to the next lower letter grade.
I was one of those students who volunteered frequently enough that I almost never got called on cold, but on this day I did. Professor Foley called my name and asked me stand up, as she always asks students presenting cases to do. I was expecting her to begin asking me for the facts of the next case, but once I was on my feet she said, “Mr. Abramson, please explain the meaning of the term ‘nemo turpitudendum suam allegans auditur.’”
I was completely stunned. The phrase meant absolutely nothing to me. I did not recall having ever heard or seen it before, so I stalled, asking for a moment to check my notes. The assignment for today’s class had contained an unusually large amount of non-case materials, but Professor Foley generally lectured on such materials instead of having a student present them. As I scrolled through my briefs, I asked if this was in a case.
“No,” the professor replied. “It was in the reading. You did prepare some notes on the materials for today’s class, didn’t you?”
At this point, I was absolutely mortified, certain that I had carelessly overlooked something of vital importance in the reading. I was frantically flipping through the textbook, looking for any long string of italics that would signal the presence of such a phrase.
“Yes ma’am… I just can’t find it in my notes.”
Seeming exasperated, the professor said, “Well, Mr. Abramson, sound it out. What do you think it means?” She neatly wrote the string of words on the board, and then underlined each word:
I froze for a second before I began trying to sort out the possible meaning of this strange phrase.
Since we were in the middle of a chapter dealing with juries, I finally stammered out a guess, “It means that you can’t allege something that will cause turpitude when the jury hears it?”
“Mr. Abramson, I’m very disappointed to see you so unprepared for class.” My classmates recall that at this point, my body was shaking, my face was turning red as a beet, and I looked generally dismayed.
Then, still shaking her head, Professor Foley planted her hands on her hips, let out a disappointed sigh, and said “Mr. Abramson … April Fools.”
It turned out that a committee of my classmates had approached professor Foley earlier in the week and set up the entire thing, even going so far as to find an obscure Latin legal term – one which I will for the rest of my life remember means that under the old common law of England you could not require members of a jury to testify against themselves.
I tried to get her back the next year by mocking up a CNN news report of a fake case in which the Seventh Circuit ruled that personal jurisdiction could reach anyone with Internet service. I put the mock-up in her box and enlisted three other profs to stop by her office that day to express outrage at the opinion. But she didn’t bite. She just thought CNN got the facts wrong.
–From Casey Holland, University of Kentucky College of Law, Date of event: Fall 2003
I’m a current 1L at the University of Kentucky College of Law, and have an amusing story from my first semester. Our Torts professor, the learned Mary Davis, frequently brought up provisions of the proposed Restatement (Third) of Torts on the assumption that by the time we graduate it will have supplanted the current Restatement.
However, during class one wintry day she asked us all what the Restatement (Third) has to say about proximate cause. There was dead silence in the room, as she had never even hinted that we should read it. She began to get irritated, and asked us again if anyone could answer her question.
Sweat breaking out on our brows, even the gunners started slinking lower in their seats hoping they wouldn’t be called to task. Finally, when tension had reached its maximum, a voice rang up from the back of the class and exactly quoted the relevant portion of the Restatement.
We all turned around to see which helpful soul had saved us all from certain doom, only to find a grade school age girl with a coloring book in front of her. Our heads snapped back around and Professor Davis, now smiling, introduced us to her daughter. It seems her classes had been cancelled due to weather and the professor decided to have a little fun with us.
–From Name withheld on request, University of Washington School of Law, Date of event: circa 1991
First semester of law school was pretty scary. We had a few profs who taught in the “you’ll be lawyers soon, so I’ll pick on you in front of everybody and force you to advocate for yourself” mentality, and it was having the desired effect of scaring the hell out of many in my class. My Torts professor was actually the dean of our school. Dorsey Ellis is his name, although he has retired as dean. His style was as follows: if he called on you, you had to stand to answer him; if you didn’t stand, he would often say “I can’t hear you.”
Once he decided which student would answer, the student would “own” the case, meaning the student would orally brief the case for everybody and answer all questions about it. The dean would call on you throughout the semester if anything related to “your case” came up in discussion. The dean was a tough, brusque guy on the outside to some, but you could tell that he was genuinely trying to train us. Truth is, he was a nice guy with an old-school style and by the end of the semester we all liked him very much. But during that first month everybody was pretty terrified of him.
The dean unknowingly aided me in this story. Three weeks into the semester, at the end of a class, I actually raised my hand and commented that something one of my classmates said related well to our next case, which was one of those classic old cases dealing with assault with a gun and whether the assailant had intent. I enjoyed the case and made the mistake of referring to it with five minutes left in class. The dean promptly said he was pleased I had volunteered to “own” the case next class, much to everyone’s amusement except mine.
The night before the next class, my section had a potluck dinner where everyone voiced their nervousness regarding school and the professors, and commented how it would be nice to turn the tables on the profs. And then the awful idea came to me to do just that—the dean had given me the opportunity by letting me know that I was “up” next class.
So I called three of my best friends in the class and told them I was planning something a little unusual for the next class. I told them I would be asking them some questions and told them what to say in response. Then I went to Walgreen’s and bought a green plastic ping-pong gun for $2.95 and plotted my insane plan.
On cue the next day, Dean Ellis began to drill me. I was scared as hell and my heart was beating hard knowing the lunacy I had planned. I sat in the back row of the large classroom. He called on me for some answer and I said something like “Dean Ellis, I’m glad you asked that question,” and started walking down the stairs toward the front.
Unbeknownst to me, on my way down the stairs the dean mumbled loudly enough for the people in the front rows to hear, “This better be good.” It was deadly silent as I ambled down front. I became more scared as it was now apparent that I had now numbed everyone in my class because they probably envisioned my murder in front of them at the hands of the dean. Thank God I hadn’t heard the dean’s comment.
But I persevered and briefed the case about one person bringing out his gun on another. At that juncture I whipped out my tacky ping-pong gun. Not looking at me, the dean said “Don’t you shoot that!” in that voice fathers use on sons when the next screw-up means big trouble. I never shot the ping-pong gun, but did manage to have some fun after that.
One of my best friends sat in the second row. I called on him, as we had scripted the night before, and asked a question. When he didn’t stand up, I said “I can’t hear you.” He promptly stood up as if the dean had said it. He was terrified that I had brought him in on my plan and looked like he had just peed in his pants.
Luckily he retained the presence of mind to answer the next question (again, as scripted) and my other two friends answered the questions I posed them. This continued for 15 minutes, during which the dean mellowed as I led the class discussion without him. Then I bounded back up the classroom stairs and it was over, although my heart kept racing until the end of the class.
I had tried my best to alleviate the terror that is “first year.” Although not everyone appreciated my “skit” at the time, by the third year it was a story that everyone liked to tell and retell. As for the dean, we bonded from that class and I always felt close to him after that. Although he seemed perturbed at the time, apparently he liked the whole thing and at graduation told me so.
I still own the ping-pong gun.
–From Ross C. Hart, Law school: University of Virginia School of Law, Date of event: 1974
In 1974, I was a first year student at the University of Virginia School of Law. I was taking Family Law (now more politically correctly called “Domestic Relations”) with Prof. Walter Wadlington. Class was the first class of the day at 9:00 am.
One Monday morning, at about 9:05, we were discussing the requirements for a valid marriage. The professor said “Consummation of a marriage is actually not part of the requirements for a valid marriage. Frankly, and I hate to say this so early on a Monday morning, ‘consummation of marriage’ is not a legal term, it is a, well, lay term ….”
–From Edward M. ‘Ted’ McClure, Campbell University School of Law, Date of event: Spring 1980
It was half-way through our second semester, and Professor (later Dean) Pat Hetrick was running us through some truly obtuse Property II issue. He is a wonderfully entertaining teacher, but it was after lunch and after mid-terms and we were all brain-dead.
He fires off a question and looks for a volunteer to answer. Nothing. Silence. A hundred blank expressions. He asks again, with no better result. After a moment, he dashes out from behind the podium, sits in an empty seat in the first row, and starts jumping up and down yelling “I know, teacher! I know, Professor Hetrick!”. After about 20 seconds of this, he dashes back to the podium, looks over at the (now empty) seat, and says, “I think I’ll call on that smart kid in the first row.” Then he dashes back to the seat, sits down, stands up, and starts “reciting” the answer, while we laugh madly.
–From James Un, University of Kansas School of Law, Date of event: 2006
I attend the University of Kansas School of Law. Second-year Constitutional Law was taught by a professor known for asking endless series of hypothetical questions about cases. One day, he was doing lectures on obscenity. He apparently enjoyed doing these lectures because it gave him an opportunity to say certain four-letter words.
The unfortunate victim of his “rolling boulder” method of questioning on this particular day was a person who everyone except the professor knew was devoutly religious.
On a screen, the prof had projected a link to 2LiveCrew lyrics, as well as a list of songs from one of their albums.
So he asked the deeply religious student, “So what do you think about this song title? Is this obscenity given the test in Miller?” And the student replied, Well, that depends. In my opinion, yes.”
The professor continued, “I’m going to read some lyrics from the song.” And he began to spout out, much to the student’s chagrin and embarrassment, lyrics laced with sexual references and more four-letter words. That was amusing in of itself, seeing a balding white guy in a black turtleneck reciting 2LiveCrew lyrics.
Let’s just say that the student was not enjoying this line of questioning, especially when it continued in this vein for about ten minutes.
The class was cracking up and laughing and the professor was not exactly sure why. Why was it so funny? I guess you could say that it was a little bit of everything. A white professor rapping offensive lyrics to a prim and proper student who was wishing it was all over.
–From Troy Pickard, University of San Diego School of Law, Date of event: Fall 2004
In our first semester Criminal Law course, we were discussing Regina v. Dudley, the infamous case where three men adrift on a lifeboat cannibalized a 17-year-old cabin boy. My classmates and I still talk about a very simple, yet incredibly profound statement made by our Criminal Law professor, Kevin Cole, that forever cleared up the meaning for us of the term “prima facie”:
“Prima facie,” Professor Cole said, “it’s bad to eat a person while they’re still alive.”
With such pithy insight, it’s no wonder Professor Cole is now USD’s law school dean.
–From Steve Cumbie, Southern Methodist University School of Law, Date of event: Fall 2003
As those who are familiar with his casebook on bankruptcy law already know, Professor David Epstein is always good for a few laughs. Two years ago in my first-year Property class, we were discussing the dreaded Rule Against Perpetuities.
Professor Epstein asked for a volunteer to determine whether a particular conveyance was valid. “Anyone? Anyone?” he asked a room full of people desperately trying to avoid eye contact.
After several seconds of very awkward silence in which it became quite obvious that no one had a clue, someone’s cell phone rang. Without missing a beat, Professor Epstein quipped, “Didn’t realize this was a call-in show. Maybe they know the answer. Put it on speaker.”
–From Jody R. Nathan, University of Oklahoma College of Law, Date of event: 1982.
I started law school at the University of Oklahoma in 1982. One of the crusty old law professors was George Frazier; nicknamed “the Tiger.” He taught civil procedure (and was instrumental in getting Oklahoma’s new pleading code drafted along the lines of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure) and Remedies. He was a great guy with a deep gravelly voice. In Remedies one day, the subject of loss of consortium came up. One of my classmates asked him “How do you figure loss of consortium damages? Is it the cost of comparable services?” He laughed and said, “Well, (pause) yes, (pause) I guess that’s one way you could figure it.” (McClurg note: Traditionally, a primary component of loss of consortium damages was loss of a spouse’s sexual “services.”)
In the first week of Civil Procedure, demurrers were being discussed. I asked a question and mispronounced demurrer as demure. He responded, “Well, (pause) Ms. Nathan (pause) demure is, (pause) well, what young ladies OUGHT to be.” Needless to say, I never mispronounced the word again.
My Torts professor, Peter Kutner, also had a sly sense of humor. One day, he was explaining the idea that the law does not provide remedies for slights — and gave us a Latin phrase de minimus non curat lex. To help us remember it, he also provided a limerick:
There once was a man named Rex
Who had a very small sex
He kept his composure
During indecent exposure
De minimus non curat lex.
I have remembered both the term and the limerick ever since.
–From Andy Martinez, University of Wisconsin Law School, Date of event: Fall 2003
During a lecture in my first year Civil Procedure class at the University of Wisconsin, my professor, who had a reputation for being slightly wacky, received a call on her cell phone. She stopped mid-sentence, looked through her purse, pulled out her cell phone, and answered the call and then hung up. She apologized, saying she didn’t know how to turn the phone from ring to vibrate.
Later in the semester, she was giving another lecture, and the cell phone goes off again. She took it out, and looked at it. She said she had to take the call, and everyone in the lecture hall looked at each other, thinking “Is she serious?” So the professor goes out of the room and starts talking.
What she apparently forgot, or didn’t care about, is that she was wearing a wireless microphone so that she could be heard in the lecture hall. So everyone in the class is listening in on her side of the conversation. It turns out that the phone call that was so important she had to take it during class wasn’t about some important case or anything like that, but about her dog’s visit to a vet! She came back, and the class sat, stunned.
–From Name withheld upon request, Michigan State University College of Law, Date of events: Fall 2002
Here are two stories about our Contracts professor. The first situation was in Fall 2002, and the professor was talking about offer and acceptance. He used the example of college house painters who knock on your door and ask if they can paint your house. The professor gave several examples of what your response would be if it were your house and what that response constitutes.
For example, if the house painters say they’ll paint your house for $200, and you say, “OK, paint the house,” that constitutes an offer and acceptance. If the house painters say they’ll paint your house for $200, and you say “How about $150?”, that constitutes a offer and counteroffer.
He was using this quiz method on a girl in my class and when he got to the third example, the professor said, “The house painters come to your house and say they’ll paint it for $200. You say ‘Screw you!’ What does this constitute?” The girl said, “counteroffer”, and the class broke into laughter. The professor just stopped until the laughing subsided and while he laughed a little himself. He said that he wasn’t going to call on her for the rest of the semester. I’m not sure he followed through with that offer, though.
The second situation was in the same class with the same professor. Throughout the year, the professor liked to use a “panel” where three or so students would be called on for the entire class. There were a few students who he later put onto “permanent panel” if they weren’t prepared.
On this day, he was explaining how the system would work, and a kid walked in late to our lecture hall. The way the hall is designed is there are two doors that separate the middle of the room with a walkway –it’s stadium seating. The kid walked in late through one of the doors, and the professor said, “Well, it looks like you’ll be on the panel today.” The kid just shook his head and walked right through the other door.
The class started applauding, and the professor asked what his name was. No one told him. The professor just shook his head and continued with class.
–From John Schrier, University of Maryland School of Law, Date of event: 1982
I’m not sure if its in the realm of “you had to be there,” but here’s a story from Advanced Constitutional Law, taught by “Wild” Bill Reynolds, author of a Nutshell book. This was my third course with him, in my last year and last day of law school back in 1982. Wild Bill had long been known to sketch a picture of a rabbit in a hat whenever a student brought an argument from out of left field.
I’d often reminded him that I hadn’t yet pulled a rabbit out of my hat. Unbeknownst to Wild Bill, I’d been working my way through college and law school as a magician. So on the last day of school, I made sure to bring a point from left field. He laughed, sketched the hat and rabbit, and pointed out that I’d really pulled a rabbit out of that one.
I smiled, removed my cap, and produced therefrom “Buck-Buck,” the baby white rabbit I’d been using in some magic shows.
–From Susan M. Harrelson, UNLV Law School, Date of event: Spring 1999.
Professor Joe Thome taught Contracts II to the charter class at the William S. Boyd School of Law, UNLV, in Spring 1999. We went to school in the former Paradise Elementary School, where the classrooms had the most horrible acoustics in history. One night, Professor Thome put down his microphone to take a drink of water, and apparently forgot to take it back up. He walked around speaking into that water bottle for a good five minutes, his lecture completely inaudible, before he needed another drink. When he saw the microphone sitting on the table where his water should have been, he finally realized his mistake.
–From Kelly McQueen, University of Arkansas School of Law at Little Rock, Date of event: 1994
While quietly daydreaming in Land Use, a small upper-level course taught by the venerable Robert Wright, author of not only our textbook but also the Nutshell on Land Use Planning, I was surreptitiously passed a small folded note by one of my classmates. He was looking intently at me. He appeared to be choking. Perplexed, I carefully opened the note in my lap, not wanting to attract attention, reading the words “check out Professor Wright”.
So I did – obviously for the first time since I’d sat down for class –for he had a long piece of toilet paper tucked into his suit pants. It took real force of will to keep quiet, watching Professor Wright walk back and forth at the front of the class, lecturing in solemn tones on serious topics, with nary a clue that a full two feet of white tp followed in wake. It quickly became apparent that it was easier to stifle our laughter than it was to get someone to tell him.
Respected, aged, and in no small measure intimidating, he was just not the kind of guy one wanted to tell that he had brought something back from the john with him. Ultimately our training to be tough, fearless and hardened lawyers failed, and we did nothing. He went the whole class that way – finally exiting the class into the hall full of people.
Maybe one of them would tell him.
–From Cullen McVoy, Hastings College of Law, Date of event: 1969
In 1969, my first year at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, I had the privilege of studying torts under the renowned William Prosser, known as the “King of Torts.” He was getting on in years, and could be seen popping his nitro-glycerine heart medication before class. But he got himself to work every day, driving a bright red Mercedes sedan across the Bay Bridge, commenting that the risks involved in that trip exceeded most of those he discussed in class. He was a great teacher–vital and animated. You could feel his deep love of the law, and life-long commitment to the development of its principles.
[McClurg note: For laypersons, Prosser, who died in 1972, was the main author of the most widely used Torts casebook in law schools.]
Prosser taught that tort principles had to be carefully crafted to balance two objectives: They had to be broad enough to compensate the deserving, but narrow enough to avoid a “flood of litigation.” He often spoke of this “flood of litigation” in dark tones that made it sound like the end of the world as we know it.
Hastings followed the rule that in the first year they scare you to death, the second year they work you to death, and the third year they bore you to death. This being my first year, I tried to keep a low profile, and seldom asked a question in class. But this “flood of litigation” captured my imagination, and one day I got up the courage to raise my hand and ask, “Professor Prosser, has this ‘flood of litigation’ that you are so concerned about ever actually happened?”
His response was very long and involved, and I cannot claim to remember or understand all of it. But in the end the answer seemed to be no, it had not happened, at least not to any significant extent. Having surrendered my anonymity and survived, I pushed the question a little further, “Is there any particular reason why not?”
Prosser was not known for his humility. The word at school was “Prosser thinks he’s God, and he may be right.” His answer this time, in so many words, was that it hadn’t happened because he was guiding the courts to make sure it didn’t happen. Astounding as this may sound, he may have been right.
McClurg note. Bless Dean Prosser, one of my all-time heroes. Most people aren’t aware that Prosser was one of the earliest, and funniest, legal humorists. His classic piece, “Needleman On Mortgages,” about a practical joke played on an obsessive law student in search of the ultimate (and nonexistent) law school study aid, is really funny. It made the cut for one of the top 25 funniest law journal articles in my co-edited book Amicus Humoriae: An Anthology of Legal Humor.
–From Christine Preta, Albany Law School, Date of event: 2002
My Contracts professor—a very smart guy who, unfortunately, recently passed away—was rather eccentric. He often came to class in Hawaiian tee shirts and sandals (even in the winter, and I go to school in upstate NY where there’s lots of snow). Anyway, he had been teaching for a number of years so he had quite a reputation with the student body.
He was extremely Socratic and barely lectured or even answered questions. He always ended up throwing them back at the class. Needless to say, by the end of the year we were all rather frustrated by his teaching (gotta love that Socratic method!). So he agreed to do a review session for three hours before his six-hour Contracts exam.
Everyone—and I do mean everyone—showed up for it. The classroom was packed. It was standing room only. He started the “lecture”—taking questions and actually answering them. Mid-way through answering a question one of his teeth flew out and landed on the desk. He just continued to speak, barely noticing that it had fallen out. The class was mortified—should we tell him? Did he know and was ignoring it?
Finally, I think he realized that no one was paying attention and casually picked up the tooth, washed it off in his coffee mug (which we think was filled with water), stuck it back in his mouth (it must have been a crown or something) and without missing a beat continued answering the student’s question.
It was one of the funniest things ever. Of course, we held our laughter until the review session was over!
–From Tanya Stankunas, Harvard Law School, Date of event: Fall 2002
We were studying Civil Procedure with the irascible Professor Arthur Miller, and discussing counterclaims and crossclaims. We’re deep in the intricacies of compulsory and permissive counterclaims, when a student poses the question: “Can you do a permissive counterclaim, to the compulsory counterclaim, to the crossclaim?”
Miller’s response: “I love it when you talk dirty …”
–From Professor Ken Chestek at University of Michigan Law School, University of Pittsburgh School of Law, Date of event: circa 1977.
Our first-year Contracts professor was notoriously more “mysterious” than most of our other first-year profs; we generally had to work pretty hard to fathom what he was asking us. One day in the winter semester he began a class by wandering down an unusually long frolic-and-detour that seemed to bear little, if any, relevance to the subject of Contracts.
We strained to see where he was going; nobody, however, dared to interrupt him. Finally, after about twenty minutes, a student meekly raised her hand and asked, “Professor, could you, um, tell us what case you are talking about?”
The professor looked at her for the longest time, with a blank expression on his face. The rest of us sat dumbstruck, waiting to see what kind of tongue-lashing was forming behind those impenetrable eyes. Finally, without saying a word, the professor closed the book on his podium, and gently laid it down on the desk. We cringed. He then opened up a different book, thumbed through it, and finally looked back up at us.
“I bet you all want to hear about Contracts today, don’t you?”
–From Janet Subers Heydt, Temple University School of Law, Date of event: Fall 1998
On the first day of Criminal Law class at Temple University, our professor (a great prof) was going around the class asking each of us who we were and for a few statements as to what we were all about.
He got to one gentleman in the class, whose name I forget, but who the whole class knew worked for a “gentleman’s club” (a/k/a, a strip joint) as the manager or bouncer. Well, the professor looked at him and said, “Don’t I know you from somewhere? I’m sure I know you. You look very familiar.” He was rather insistent that he knew the gentleman.
Most of us left class that night still chuckling! At the end of the year, after I had gotten to know the professor better, I clued him in as to the laugh we had at his expense!
–From Jonathon Harwood, St. John’s University School of Law, Date of event: circa 1985
In the mid-1980s at the St. John’s University School of Law in Jamaica Estates, New York, Dean Fagen was our Torts I professor. He was one of those classic imposing law professor figures whose authority was never challenged. If there was ever any doubt about who was in charge, it was put to rest the day someone questioned him about a difference between his lecture and something in the legendary “Prosser On Torts” hornbook.
“Prosser’s dead,” Dean Fagen said, “Listen to me.”
–From Travis Smith, University of Oklahoma College of Law, Date of event: 1976
I began the University of Oklahoma Law School in the fall of 1976. I had a professor named Elmer Million for property law both semesters of my first year. Prof. Million had retired from the NYU law school and returned home to Oklahoma to teach. Among other things he is noted for, Professor Million has a son named E.Z. Million.
Professor Million taught us about dower and curtesy, both of which had been abolished in 1907, but not about abstracts. Another useful thing he taught us was a poem to help you remember, “The name of that little star shaped thing you see in print sometimes,” referring to the asterisk.
The poem is:
Mary had a little plane
In which she loved to frisk.
Now I tell you Mary loved
Her little _____________ (McClurg note: I couldn’t really figure out what the heck this poem means, but there’s some possibility the last line could be offensive. So I’ll leave it to you to try to figure out the last three words of the poem with the hint that they rhyme with asterisk).
–From David Keller, University of Florida College of Law, Date of events: circa 1977
Those of you who went to schools with big-time college football programs will appreciate the following story sent to me by David Keller, a former high school classmate who graduated from the University of Florida law school the year I arrived there. (I’m not sure exactly how he did that, since we were in the same high school class and I went straight through college to law school, but David was a really smart guy. Maybe they let him skip college.)
I remember on the first day of law school, our criminal law professor, Robert Mann (since deceased), called the roll. He got to Don Gaffney, my classmate who had been the starting quarterback for the Florida Gators for the past 3 years. Don said “present.” The professor asked Don if he had a wife named _______? (maybe Mary, but I don’t remember her name now nearly 25 years later). Don said yes. Professor Mann asked if she sold lawn mowers at Sears (or something equivalent). Don said yes. Professor Mann said, completely deadpan, “I thought I recognized your name from somewhere.”
On another occasion, Professor Jeff Lewis called on a guy in our class who was always raising his hand trying to get noticed and attract attention to himself. After the guy answered a question with an obviously wrong answer, Professor Lewis sad, “Put your head down and rest a little while.” We thought that was pretty funny.
–From name withheld by request, University of Arkansas School of Law, Date of event: circa 1976
I attended law school at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville beginning in the fall of 1976 and graduating in the spring of 1979. Naturally, during my freshman year I took Torts and was privileged to be instructed by the legendary Dr. Robert A. Leflar, who at that time had come back to the University of Arkansas and was teaching for free.
Dr. Leflar was a gentleman of 78 years at this time and he taught well up into his 90s. In fact, the law school today is named for him. He was an outstanding instructor, but he was likewise the kind of instructor who instilled fear and trembling in students. One of Dr. Leflar’s requirements that was strictly adhered to was exact punctuality as far as class attendance was concerned. The class was to begin at the precise time prescribed, at which time the door to the classroom would be closed and it was not to be opened. He gave us that understanding at the very first of the year and it was adhered to.
Dr. Leflar was likewise the kind of instructor who had no fun and games as far as his repartee with students was concerned. On the occasion of one particular class session, there was one student who was just about to be late for class when he hurriedly came in the classroom. Noticing that the door was still opened, he promptly closed it behind him assuming Dr. Leflar to already be in the room. As it turned out, Dr. Leflar was out in the hall just beside the door talking with another faculty member. As Dr. Leflar turned to come in the classroom, he proceeded on remembering the door to have been open the last time he saw it, as he had just come out the door to talk to the other faculty member.
Without looking up at the door, Dr. Leflar walked square into it breaking his rather thick glasses and cutting his face. For the entirety of the class, Dr. Leflar never mentioned the incident, acted as if it had never occurred, and taught the class without any interruption whatsoever. He did this despite the fact that his face was continuously bleeding, with blood all over same, and his eyeglasses were terribly fractured. How the man read his notes was absolutely amazing. I could only conclude that he knew them by heart.
No one dared to utter even a snicker while Dr. Leflar was in the room. However, the instant class was over and Dr. Leflar departed the room, the class broke up in entirety in laughter. No one was laughing at the fact that Dr. Leflar had been injured. They merely laughed at the point that his absolute closed door rule had actually caused him problems as opposed to someone else. I guess this stands for the proposition that rules apply to everyone. One might also say that “no one is above the door.”
–From Kathi Simpson, University of Pittsburgh School of Law, Date of event: circa 1976
I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in 1978. We had a professor who was very cerebral, to the extent that he neglected many things that most people find routine—wearing matching socks, properly buttoning his shirt, and repairing the glasses that perpetually bore a safety pin or piece of tape on the earpiece. There are many stories about this distinguished professor but there are two that occurred in classes I attended.
The first was a Criminal Law class—the last class before the Thanksgiving break our first year. Our classroom was strangely configured in Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning (the new Law School building was only weeks away from completion).
The “room” had been, in an earlier era, a suite of offices for the dean of women (when that position existed) and entry was through some very fancy french doors flanked by glass panels. The entry was not visible from the front of the room where the professor stood. It was visible, however, from most seats in the room.
The professor brought his two young sons to class and sat them down with crayons, paper and other diversions to last the lecture (many of the students were insanely jealous). As soon as the professor assumed his position, the crayons were abandoned and the real work of the boys began. From somewhere, they produced a ball of string and some scissors (that was a scary thought). They set to work to “spiderweb” the doorway, a task they completed to the amusement of the students. Their father, however, was totally unaware of their activities even as the class collectively turned to watch the construction, paying not one bit of attention to the lecture. When he did discover the handiwork, he fumed at the culprits to remove the offending web and we all were eventually able to depart and begin the holiday.
In our second year, the same professor taught Constitutional Law. It was the much awaited lecture on obscenity and pornography that packed class that one day (being second year students, we knew that class attendance was generally harmful to your academic success). However, the chance to observe the discourse between our very liberal professor and some conservative members of our class (“but they’re ONLY amendments”) proved a big drawing card.
Our professor was given to physical gestures to emphasize his point and, as he stepped from behind the podium, he waved his arms to illustrate some sage point (now long forgotten). It became immediately obvious to those in the front rows (where people had to sit—it was that crowded) that the professor had forgotten to “zip up” that morning. The laughter rippled through the room and the professor retreated to the safety of his podium to make the necessary adjustments.
McClurg note. Coming to class unzipped is a professor’s worse fear. Most profs check their zipper at least 10 times before every class. When I first arrived at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock a long time ago, the legendary Professor Robert R. Wright pulled me aside to share an important tip: “If you’re ever teaching a class and discover your zipper’s open, just say ‘The rule in Arkansas is …’ Everyone will immediately look down to start writing feverishly and you’ll have complete privacy to correct the problem.”
–From Michele Quattlebaum, South Texas College of Law, Date of event: circa 1978
When I was in law school, I clerked for a personal injury defense firm. One day I was asked to pick up a long haul truck driver at the airport and shuttle him to the courthouse for trial. He was a stereotypical East Texas good ole boy type. I was young, 22ish, and drove a sports car with a stick shift. The driver was apparently nervous, as I was, riding for over 45 minutes in the car with me. He chattered continuously about what appeared to be his subject of choice—road kill—or, more specifically, armadillo meat. Apparently to some this is a delicacy. He went on for almost 30 minutes about the “different” types of meat in an armadillo, i.e., tastes like fish, chicken, beef, etc. At some point, when reaching for my shift, I grabbed his leg by accident. His conversation abruptly changed to his wife—the subject that he chattered about the rest of the trip. He apparently thought his armadillo conversation had me turned on.
–From Jennifer Bogart, University of Utah College of Law; Date of event: April 2007
The last day of my first year at law school had finally dawned, and I was happy to have survived relatively intact. I even dressed up for it: wore Doc Marten sandals with jeans and tee-shirt.
The day went well until around ten minutes to 4 pm, when panic struck. I remembered I was supposed to meet my boss at the company that had given me a fellowship—at 4 pm!—along with a student from a competing school who had also received a fellowship. I crammed everything into my rolling backpack and tore as fast as I could down the stairs through the breezeway and toward my car (which was naturally parked a good ten-minute walk away).
There I was, slightly overweight, dressed for a baseball game, quite a bit older than the usual law student, dragging my luggage behind me, wheezing (having developed asthma recently), trying to dial information with a hand that was also holding a water bottle and car keys, when all of a sudden the sole of one of my sandals came undone and started flapping every time I took a step.
I stepped out of the shoes, put them into the hand that was pulling the backpack and ran on through a gauntlet of hot pavement, what seemed like acres of glass-sprinkled asphalt (even hotter), all the while dodging cars, dog droppings, and other random unidentifiable stuff. I finally got to my car, took off for downtown and prayed to hit the green lights. Too bad, so sad; I hit all the red lights possible.
Fortunately, I found a parking place right in front of the place. I got out of the car, and started to put money in the meter, but realized I had given my last change to a friend for a soda an hour prior. Yikes, no time to spare (I was 15 minutes late by this time), so I ran up to the door of the building, through the foyer and into the elevator.
I got to the right floor and emerged to see a crowd of well-dressed people in suits all looking very calm, cool and collected, including one younger guy who I disliked on sight because he was the other fellowship student and was dressed for success.
After we had met the people we were working for, and were alone with the woman who was running the fellowship program, we were given a very pointed lecture (accompanied by very meaningful glances in my direction) about being on time and dressing professionally.
I was surprised we were not specifically told to make sure to comb our hair and WEAR SHOES to meetings like this! About a week later I got a job offer from another firm doing something I was very interested in and so never had the opportunity to prove that I own a suit!
Oh, and I got a $10 parking ticket.
–From Jim (last name withheld on request); University of North Carolina School of Law; Date of event: Fall 2004
Three law students, all guys, lived together. They had similar GPAs and were getting interviews from a lot of the same firms. Two of them decided to gang up on the other one. They started intercepting his mail at home; specifically, his law firm rejection letters. They would steam open the letters and add “personal” handwritten notes from the interviewer at the end.
“You may want to consider getting a better haircut.”
“You had a weak handshake.”
“You need to sit up straight and not cross your legs.”
“Don’t look me straight in the eyes. That makes me nervous”
“Need to look interviewers straight in the eye.”
“You should use better deodorant.”
“Were you hitting on me?”
Etc., etc. The best part was that the other two guys also put personal notes on their rejection letters so that the roommate thought it was a normal, common practice. Enough of us were in on the joke that we would also talk about our own personal notes.
This went on until December when a drunken classmate, at an end-of-semester party, walked up to the joke victim and said he couldn’t believe how funny the rejection letter practical joke was. The guy said, “What rejection letter practical joke?”
The good times were over.
–From Christen Millard
My boss tells of the story of the rejection letter he got from Big Law Firm X here in Columbus, Ohio. It read as follows: “We received your resume. We need not pursue this matter any further.”
That’s why we at Big Corporation A can’t hire Big Law Firm X to do anything.
–From Jeff James, Ohio State University School of Law, Date of event: Fall 2001
During the fall 2001 interview season, I had scheduled an on-campus interview with Large Firm X. I didn’t know much about the firm before I got the interview, but after it was scheduled other students told me horror stories about the firm and its attorneys. I went to the interview, but I had already decided not to take it too seriously as I REALLY didn’t want to work there.
Just before the interview, I researched the interviewing attorney’s bio. It noted that he was a member of a philosophy club, so I remembered that little fact in case I needed to make any small talk.
The interview was extremely tense; this guy was a real stiff. Toward the end, I asked him about his involvement in the philosophy club. He told me, “We are a group of about forty who get together twice a month on Saturday nights to have dinner. After dinner, one member gives a lecture on a topic and defends it to the rest of the group.”
For some reason, I said, “Well, I can’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday night!” He looked at me sternly and said, “Well, I enjoy it.”
The interview ended soon after and it was not long before I got a rejection letter from the interviewer I insulted.
–From Thomas F. Blackwell, Associate Professor at Appalachian School of Law, Duke University School of Law, Date of event: circa 1985
McClurg note: Professor Thomas Blackwell was shot and killed in January 2002 at the Appalachian School of Law by a disgruntled student. The dean and a student were also killed. Three other students were wounded. With permission, these funny law school stories of his are left up as a tribute:
During the fall interview season, our school had a large bulletin board near the downstairs vending machine area dedicated to “tube letters” (you know, the letters that firms send you to tell you that you’re “down the tubes”). Anyone could post any rejection letter they received that they considered funny, outrageous, poignant, etc. The letters often also included a short commentary from the student. Being next to the vending machines, by the placement office, and just down the hall from some of the offices where interviews were conducted, we occasionally had interviewers discover the board—and they were usually chagrined to some extent to discover that their own letters might well appear on the board.
Some examples I particularly remember include:
The “de facto” tube letter from the Honolulu District Attorney’s office that explained to the student that they didn’t have the budget in their department to fly anyone out for an office interview, but if the student ever happened to be in Honolulu, to please drop in for an interview.
The cruelest tube letter, to a student who had taken the federal civil service exam seeking a government job. They received an envelope containing a photocopy of the front page of their exam with the word “REJECTED” stamped in huge red letters across the middle.
And my favorite: Several guys lived together in a house off campus and had created their own “tube letter” board in their living room. One of them received the standard two-sentence “you were a great candidate, but you really don’t fit our current needs” tube letter from a firm he had interviewed with. Several weeks later, apparently through an administrative oversight, he received a duplicate tube letter (identical text but different date, signed by the same hiring partner) from the same firm. This pair of letters made the wall as the “we really mean it” tube letter.
Ironically, one of this student’s roommates in the house interviewed with the same firm, and was hired for a summer clerkship. He shared the multiple tube letter incident with the attorneys in the firm, and with their help created a third letter to the original student, along the lines of “In case you hadn’t figured it out from our first two letters, we really, REALLY don’t want to hire you — so don’t ever bother us again” and sent it on firm letterhead. The set of three letters made a return appearance the following fall at the school letter board.
–From Jim Redeker, Washburn University School of Law, Date of event: 1998
One of my classmates, who was ranked in the top ten of the class, was interviewing constantly but with no success. Having landed a job on my first interview, I offered to share my interviewing techniques with him. So he shared with me the following interview quagmire he found himself caught up in:
You are being interviewed by a senior partner and an associate of a large, out of state firm. During the interview, the associate cracks a joke at the expense of the law firm. The senior partner and the associate get into an argument as to whether the comment was appropriate and the senior partner gets up and leaves during your interview. What do you do?
I admitted that I didn’t hold a high enough class rank to interview with such high quality firms and, therefore, couldn’t answer his question.
As a side note, my classmate went on to NYU for his LLM and, I hope, better interviewing experiences.
–From Tia M. Hudson, Law school: unknown (believed to be Harvard), Date of event: unknown
Thanks to Tia Hudson, a legal secretary, for sending in this classic job rejection story told to her by her former boss:
At his law school, the best rejection letters from law firms were posted on a bulletin board for everyone to read. The one he liked best was the absolutely correct, prim, standard rejection from a large national firm. Unfortunately, someone forgot to take the yellow post-it off the letter before sending it, which said “Send this ******* the kiss-off letter.”
–From McClurg, University of Florida College of Law, Date of event: circa 1980
Here’s one of my funny law school memories, which I hope stimulates you—the loyal website visitor—to send in your own stories.
Legal job interviews, I learned in my very first one, are not always the best time to audition your sense of humor. In my third year of law school at the University of Florida, I interviewed with a Tallahassee firm that had split off from a firm in Jacksonville where my older brother, Doug, was a partner. Unfortunately, the interview essentially ended before it started.
I entered the interview room and one of the two lawyers stood to greet me.
“Andrew McClurg? McClurg? Don’t tell us you’re related to Doug McClurg.”
“I am,” I said, happy to have this “in.” “He’s my brother,” I added proudly.
“Well, your brother must have told you all about our firm.”
“Yeah,” I said, “but I decided to come anyway.”
This was intended as a joke, but I knew I was doomed even before I finished the sentence. Dead silence. No smiles, and certainly no laughs. The interview proceeded perfunctorily and I received a perfunctory rejection letter–which I deserved–shortly thereafter.
Read McClurg’s Top 10 Dos and Don’ts for Using Humor in a Professional Setting in Andrew J. McClurg, The Risks of Being Funny, GPSolo, Apr. 2003, at 60 (magazine of the ABA’s General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Section).
–From Michael Severe, Barry University School of Law, Date of event: 2010
During a summer class in Advanced Appellate Advocacy, the eleven us who were enrolled were sitting there listening to another riveting lecture on TREAC vs. IRAC when out of the blue one of our classmates thrust both his fists into the air, pumped them up and down like he just scored the winning touchdown in the Superbowl, and hollered “YES!” As you can imagine, the rest of us were slightly bewildered, the professor included. She looked at him and haltingly asked, “Is… there… a problem?” to which he responded “Oh sorry. I’m watching the World Cup and my team just scored.”
On one hand, I give the gentleman credit. There was not even an attempt to hide the truth, although, after his display, coming up with an explanation such as “I love this TREAC stuff!” would only have insulted our intellects.
After being kindly asked by the professor to leave, he demurred, and promised to be quiet. Rather than stage a scene, and disrupt class even further, our Professor went back to her lecture. I give her credit as I’m fairly sure you would have needed to peel me off the ceiling, if I’d been in her shoes. Not surprisingly, when grades were released, there were 10 As/B+s/Bs and … 1 F. No way to know the cause, but the soccer outburst couldn’t have helped.
–From Jim Pikl, Gonzaga University School of Law, Date of event: Fall 1982
When we arrived for the first day of Orientation, we got a talk from a third-year. He told us a story about when he was a first-year in which he asked a third-year student: “Can you tell me where the library is at?” The third year rudely and pompously answered: “We here at Gonzaga do not end sentences in prepositions.” So the first-year rephrased the question: “OK, can you tell where the library is at, a******?”
–From Erik Reverón, Florida A&M College of Law, Date of event: Fall 2006
So what does one wear under the kilt? Sometimes the lack of humour in a law school environment surprises me. Taking it upon myself as the good 1L student that I am to liven up the atmosphere, I wore my kilt around the hallowed halls of the law school.
I’m called upon in Contracts, and I stand up and give a dutiful response regarding unconscionability with all sub-elements. Silence ensues.
My professor then asks me in a completely normal voice: “So what is worn under the kilt?”
Hilarity ensues, and I respond: “Everything is in good working order this morning when I checked, Sir.” It got me a laugh, but also earned me the unrelenting attention of the rest of my professors that day.
Now every Friday, they check to make sure I’m wearing my kilt for class!
–From Charles Hillestad, University of Michigan Law School, Date of event: circa 1972
Back in law school, I lived in the “LAWYERS CLUB,” a dorm reserved for law students in part of the Quadrangle comprising the University of Michigan law school buildings. One of my roommates decided he needed to cash in one of his bonds and contacted the stock brokerage company back east which handled his assets. He showed me the envelope containing the check when it arrived. It was addressed to him with just his name and the words, “LIARS CLUB, Ann Arbor, Michigan.”
The most startling part was not that the brokerage company managed to screw up the address, but the post office’s apparent opinion of the legal profession in deciding it still knew the right place to deliver it.