Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Two lectures at University of Edinburgh

Judge Mirjam Škrk, Vice-President of the Constitutional Court of Slovenia will deliver two lectures at School of Law, University of Edinburgh on 11 and 12 October 2007. Here are more details on the lectures:

"A Constitutional Court in a New Member State", 5pm, Europa Institute, School of Law, University of Edinburgh, Old College, 11 October 2007 Venue TBC

"The Agreement on Succession to the Former SFRY: Some International and Internal Legal Implications", 12 October 2007, School of Law, University of Edinburgh, L05, 6-8pm.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Escaping the Law

A couple of factors have put me in a contemplative mood this morning. The first is an outstanding article by Alec Scott, Exile on Bay Street, which details the life of lawyers in big North American law firms. Second, we arrived in Aberdeen two years ago today. In that time I've had a difficult time answering a common question. Why Aberdeen?

I wanted to escape, just like Scott did. His account focuses on Toronto, but surely echoes the experience of any lawyer in any large law firm in any large North American city.
Here’s what you won’t read in the glossy law school brochures, what many practising lawyers know, but deny: the practice of law has become a lousy way to make a living; it breaks all but the highest spirits. The profession can no longer lay claim to being a calling; it has become a soul-destroying business. The big downtown Toronto firms, which used to draw some of the country’s best and brightest, continue to draw its brightest, but no longer hold on to its best. The cynics flourish, while the ideal­ists lag, jump ship or, unable to beat the cynics, join their ranks.
Unfortunately I think that may be exactly right. The billable hour system has taken hold because it allows these large firms to make extraordinary sums of money.

Being a lawyer in 2007 means being a slave to the billable-hour system. Most downtown firms have actual or de facto billable targets for associates ranging from 1,800 to 2,000 hours per year. Not, seemingly, too high a bar, but usually you have to work three hours to produce two hours of billings. “Not long ago, billable at these levels would have been thought unbearable,” wrote Notre Dame law school associate professor Patrick Schlitz in a much discussed Vanderbilt Law Review article published in 1999. Before the billable-hour system became common, companies and individuals with ongoing legal issues would pay a retainer annually to firms for their counsel. Others without regular legal problems would be billed roughly on the thickness of their files—as good a measure as any of the quantity of work put in.

In most big firms now, partner salaries are linked to the number of hours they and associates assigned to their files log. And thus, partners have a financial incentive to drive their associates to bill long hours. A modest proportion of the profits earned is returned to the young lawyer. In blunt terms, what we’re talking about is a pyramid scheme.

Lawyers divorce, commit suicide (or think about it) and suffer from depression at unusually high rates. The legal profession “is one of the most unhappy and unhealthy on the face of the earth,” Schlitz wrote. Some 15 per cent of lawyers in a Washington-based survey were full-blown alcoholics. Over half the lawyers surveyed in a California poll said if they had to do it over again, they wouldn’t go into law. Forty per cent of North Carolina lawyers would never recommend that their children go into it.

Said one lawyer,

“If you want to be a success downtown,” New Father carps, “then go to U of T, take all the corporate law courses, work your ass off, go to Oslers, work your ass off again, and 20 years from now you can look around and say, ‘I have more money than God.’ But let me ask you something: what’s in your photo album?”
The indicators of success as a PhD student are much different than for those who took this path. Shifting gears was difficult for me. It took me a year to be comfortable doing my own thing, and learning to ignore bad advice and silly people. I decided to go in a different direction, but I couldn't do it without the support of Joni who saw how unhappy I would be working like many of my former classmates are now.

Without question all of this appears gloomy, and I do admit I could think of happier matters. In writing this I've been pulled this way and that by conflicting impulses. It's a personal post, which perhaps should not be inflicted on others.

I consider many folks here great colleagues, and I'm fortunate to count many of them as friends. There are others for whom I've had to reserve an empty smile and little else. But even on my worst day as a PhD student when the weather and Aberdonians are doing their worst, it makes for a much better life than the soul-crushing plight of many of my law school classmates. Law teaching is a loophole in life. I don't think many here realize how lucky they are to live in Europe, and in some cases to get paid to think and write about whatever they find interesting.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Blackwater USA, Extraterritoriality and International Law

US diplomats in Iraq are currently unable to leave the Green Zone in Baghdad. On Wednesday Prime Minister al-Maliki complained about killings of Iraqi's in "cold blood". What has prompted these reactions? The shooting of at least eight Iraqi civilians (Iraqi officials estimate the number is closer to 20).

Blackwater says it was acting defensively in protecting a diplomatic convoy. They were responding to a car bomb which was nearby a diplomatic convoy, and the contractors opened fire on a car which mistakenly entered a traffic circle. Iraqi officials acknowledge there was a bomb, but argue the contractors shot wildly. This is only the latest in a long line of shootings.

Blackwater has been hired to provide security for diplomats, and there are a number of troubling accounts of overzealous contractors. NPR has a good story, and Terry Gross has an outstanding interview with Jeremy Scahill back in March. As an aside, the company's activities are not just limited to Iraq, Blackwater provided security in post-Katrina New Orleans in a no-bid contract.

Since the renaissance, wealthy states have hired mercenaries to fight. But the use of them has increased dramatically under the Bush administration. This strikes me as especially troubling. First, these private contractors are forced to sign secrecy agreements so their family members never know how or why they may have died. Family members of 4 deceased contractors have brought a suit seeking information regarding the deaths. Also, these contractors are paid substantially more than American GI's, some earning six-figures. Most importantly, casualty numbers are unclear and the rules of engagement for these forces is unregulated. In this way, the ordinary costs of a conflict, grieving families, numbers of dead, limits on the use of force, are minimized and hidden which helps the executive perpetuate the conflict.

Without getting into the broader debate about the Iraq conflict, I'd like to tie this problem into the rule of law. This and the other shootings present an interesting legal problem; is Blackwater subject to tort laws, criminal law, or international law? The answer is unclear.
These contractors are in a legal vacuum, and though Congress is pushing the Department of Defense to issue regulations that process takes time and should have taken place much earlier.

Broadly speaking there has been a real reluctance on the part of the United States to engage in international treaties in the last couple of decades. But international legal problems still exist. During this time I think we have seen a sharp rise in extraterritorial lawsuits (EU actions against Microsoft, the Alien Tort Claims Act, etc.) which use the courts of one nation to govern conduct which occurred wholly outside that state. The international problems still exist though, and courts are faced with difficult decisions and interpretation of foreign law. The US cannot continue to withdraw from international law-making without serious consequences. I'd argue these problems will be played out in suits far after the US leaves Iraq; and a better engagement with international law could have alleviated many of these problems.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Top of Pollutions

In a week where the highlights from the environment side of the legal research area count goods and bads including the ruling by a federal court in Vermont, US, approving state regulation aimed at curbing carbon emission in lack of federal initiatives; new outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease in Surrey, UK; and the publishing of the IUCN’s (the World Conservation Union) annual report sounding the alarm bell over the state of worlds wildlife, inter alia, pointing out that 188 further species are in danger of extinction compared to last year, yesterday’s list of the World’s most polluted places only seems to add to the list of bads. The list, compiled by the New York based environmental group The Blacksmith Institute, list the ten most polluted places in the world and includes sites in Russia, Azerbaijan, China, India, Ukraine, Peru and Zambia. Compared to the list from last year, this year’s new entries include Tianying, China and Sukinda in India. The site of Tianying in China, for instance, affects more than 140,000 people through one of the largest lead productions in China. The average lead concentration in the air and soil of Tianying is 8.5 times and 10 times, respectively, the national health standards. The Sukinda Valley area in India, for instance, contains 97% of India’s chromite ore deposits and one of the largest open cast chromite ore mines in the world. Twelve mines continue to operate without any environmental management plans and over 30 million tons of waste rock are spread over the surrounding areas and the Brahmani riverbanks. The mining operations in the valley potentially affect around 2.6 million people.

As all of the countries on the list are developing countries, according to the World Bank’s definition, the chart highlights the importance of exporting technical and scientific assistance and knowledge to these countries in order to secure that the affected populations, and the environment, are not left behind in the strive towards economic development.

You can read more about the Blacksmith Institute here:

and the report here:

Photo courtesy of Madhavan/MMP-India/Blacksmith Institute

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Advice for Grad Students

I came across a really helpful, but sometimes off-color list of advice for graduate students. I found them to be really excellent, and I wish I would have had some of these in mind the last couple of years. Here they are, from the total drek blog:

(1) It is important to realize as soon as possible that you are not an undergraduate any longer. In fact, you're not really even a student. Grad school is more like an apprenticeship program than traditional schooling. As such, you're here to learn by doing. Stop thinking about what you do as "school" and start thinking of it as "work" and particularly as "your career." You're no longer practicing for your future- you're doing it right now.

(2) Along these lines, keep in mind that nobody is impressed with your ability to get by while doing as little as possible. If you didn't want to do the work, you shouldn't have come to grad school. The idea here is to work hard and accomplish a lot, not just to pass classes.

(3) Grad school has a short game and a long game. The short game is about a year long- passing classes, taking comprehensive exams, finishing a master's thesis, and so on. The long game is about four to five years long and involves positioning yourself for success. The short game is important- you have to pass your classes to keep playing- but the long game is your real path to success. Don't get so wrapped up in the short game that you forget to pick your head up now and then.

(4) Ultimately, as long as you pass, hardly anyone cares about your classes. Don't obsess over them. That said, keep in mind that your classes are taught by faculty who you are going to need to sit on your committees and write your recommendation letters. Don't be rude, don't be obnoxious, and don't be a goof off.

(5) Remember that faculty members are people too. They have lives beyond the department, spouses and children and hobbies and a need for leisure time. When they give you their time, be grateful. When you ask for time, make sure you don't waste it. Also keep in mind that faculty have personalities the same way grad students do. Some of theirs won't mesh with yours, no matter what you do. This can be an exercise in professionalism but, more often, is a signal that you need to work with someone else.

(6) Like it or not, some advisors suck. Some are really hands-on and will help you a lot, but may be very controlling. Some are totally hands-off and will leave you flailing, but give you freedom to follow your own path. Be prepared to figure out what you need and find a way to get it. If you can't work with your current advisor, switch to a new one. You'll make your advisor and yourself happier. Additionally, remember that the person with the greatest stake in your success is you. Don't expect your advisor to run after you with a whip to get you to do your job.

(7) Get to know your faculty. These people will have a lot of control over your life and can help, or hurt, you substantially. Additionally, a lot of them are genuinely fun. If all goes well, you're going to be a colleague of folks like these before too long, so start getting ready.

(8) Remember that your faculty's needs do not always match up with your own. Senior faculty have been busting their asses for twenty years or more to get where they are. They will not be impressed by grad students who miss deadlines. Junior faculty are in the process of busting their asses and don't have time for dead weight. When working for or with faculty make sure that you're meeting their needs if you are going to expect them to help you meet yours.

(9) Most faculty are pretty good people. They're smart, energetic, and often fun. At the same time, a relatively small number are exploiters and will suck you dry if you let them. Figure out who these faculty members are and stay away from them to whatever extent possible.

(10) Get to know older grad students in your department. They've been around the block and can point out potholes that you'd be wise to avoid. They can also be a source of information about which faculty are good to work with. At the same time, keep in mind that grad students have interests of their own. They may not want to share their advisor's attention with someone else. Likewise, take all advice with a grain of salt. Beyond a certain point it's worthwhile to ask why an old grad student hasn't become young faculty yet.

(11) Get to know your own cohort. You're going to spend a lot of time with these folks and they're good study partners and potential collaborators. Social isolation is a near death sentence, so avoid it.

(12) Some departments foster a lot of competition between grad students, some don't. My view is that you're usually better off being helpful and decent to others than not. It's always good to be owed favors and, frankly, a lot of academia runs on goodwill. Don't be a sucker, but don't be an asshole either.

(13) Some grad students realize in the first few years that they've made a horrible mistake in coming to grad school. This is normal. Unfortunately, some of these folks will continue to plod through the program because they don't know what else to do. This is, generally speaking, bad. If this is you, don't do it- you're just wasting time. If this isn't you, don't get too close to these folks as they can be a motivation suck.

(14) Find what works for you and do it. Grad students are different people and, while some of them might work 9-5, others will prefer quasi-nocturnal schedules. In the end, it doesn't matter as long as you get things done.

(15) You're a really smart person. You probably spent most of your college career near the top of your classes. This is good but, when you get to grad school, you will be surrounded by people like yourself. You're all smart, you were all at the top of your classes, and you're all small fish in a big pond. Get over the shock of this as quickly as you can. Being surrounded by smart people is a good thing and will ultimately help you succeed, if you let it.

(16) Grad school is sort of like a marathon crossed with a steeplechase. This is to say that it's a long-ass race with intermittent barriers that you're going to have to clear. Sometimes you will be running with wet feet. Don't try to run grad school like a sprint, doing everything at once- you'll just exhaust yourself. Instead, work steadily throughout your years. And don't forget: when you become faculty the workload will only increase.

(17) The time scale in grad school is really, really long. The publications process can require several years to get one paper from a "final" draft to appearing in print. Other times you may get a paper into print- start to finish- within a year. Be prepared for these long time scales and start early. Any paper you write for a class should be done with an eye towards turing it into a publication later. The sooner you start on this, the better, because you will need these things for the job market.

(18) Learn how, and when, to cut your losses. Some papers are just craptacular and will never get better no matter how much work you put into them. Painful though it may be, let these papers go. Every hour you sink into them is an hour you could have been spending on a paper that actually has a chance.

(19) It's almost more important to work consistently than it is to work long hours. Given the long time scales of grad school, regular consistent performance will mount up rapidly. Don't wait til the last minute to do things.

(20) Remember to have fun. For at least the next few years, grad school is your life. You have to decompress and relax periodically or you'll burn out. Play sports, work out, see movies, hang out with friends... whatever. Just make sure you have a way to unwind.

(21) Fun is good. Too much fun is bad. Remember: you're being paid to be a grad student because the department thinks that there's an outside chance you might turn into a respectable Ph.D. someday. They're going to give you time and space to develop, but this isn't a decade long pass to screw around.

(22) Don't spend too much time reading the blog of some asshole online. His opinions aren't necessarily correct in your case. We're all different people with different styles of working. Find what works for you, do it, and don't feel guilty.

Good advice all around I think, and much different from the advice I was given when I started my research degree. The best advice always comes from your peers I think. There's more helpful advice at tenured radical. It's geared more for newly hired faculty, but I found a lot of good advice for research programs as well. Some pieces of advice I found helpful:

Your department Administrative Assistant and any other office staff are your lifeline to success. This is perhaps the most important thing I could tell you. You think it is your chair who runs the world? Ha. Your chair doesn't even want to be chair, most likely, and since graduate school has never taught administrative skills, half of us who are chairs leave as much of the technical side of running the department in the hands of the office staff as we can. Go in and introduce yourself to the staff, learn their names and remember them.

Do distrust someone who tells you to your face that your intellectual interests are unimportant or wrong. This person wishes you no good, and wants you to go away. Stay away from her, and cultivate a bright, empty smile for hallway encounters.

Whenever someone does something for you, say "Thank you." Saying "thank you" is perhaps one of the most underrated academic skills I know. You are not automatically owed service by anyone. No one -- I repeat, no one -- works for you.

Having someone dismiss your research is always a bummer, but there's nothing you can really do about it. In the end, do your work, write your thesis, publish early and often, and be a good colleague and the results will take care of themselves. Any advice you folks have? Please post them in the comments.