Tuesday, July 21, 2009

One L - Scott Turow

I've been thinking about law school for about three years now. This is finally the time that I'll apply to it. Each year has brought increasing seriousness to the pursuit. It hit its full realization when I applied for a $7.75/hour job at Barnes & Noble and saw an interesting book in the legal section called Lawyer Boy. I read some of that on Google Books and it is about going to DePaul in the early to mid 2000's. I would say it is pretty up-to-date and accurate, and probably a lot more applicable to the majority of applicants than One L. That said, anyone who is considering law school should read One L because apparently all of the pain the book describes is going to happen no matter where you end up.

One L takes place at Harvard Law School (HLS) in 1975 and 1976. It is a memoir by Scott Turow, who now lives in Wilmette, I believe, and works for a loop law firm. He is just about the greatest role model someone from the North Shore who wanted to be a writer and decided that it was too hard without a good back-up option so he decided to be a lawyer instead could have. He writes novels and he practices law, and he seems pretty successful at what he does. If I end up like him in thirty five years, I won't be upset with my accomplishments. However, he is not the greatest role model for two reasons:

1) He was teaching Creative Writing at Stanford before he started law school. If I were doing this, despite its undoubtedly lower pay, I would have stuck with it. Plus I'm assuming he got his MFA from Stanford. Something I tried to do but yeah I wouldn't even have bothered with Stanford and it didn't work out anyways.

2) He went to fucking Harvard.

So, one opens up One L and automatically takes a negative attitude towards its author. He is obviously one of the smartest people in the world, or at least one of the luckiest, but one could hardly claim that he didn't put in hard work to get there. Still, he does well on the LSAT (then scored on a scale of 800) and figures he could go to Harvard, so why not? (For someone that didn't score, oh, 175, it's automatically frustrating too).

Once he is into law school and done with all of the magnanimous introductions, however, the story becomes much more human and relatable. Oh wait, he is also already married and "old" at 26 (if I go, I will be starting at 27, and relentlessly single). He begins by describing his courses, professors, and classmates, and this is the majority of the "action" of the book. This is not a novel--this is a memoir--but the names have been changed. He kept what I have to say is a very detailed and impressive journal during the first year that is the basis of the book. His first classes are in Contracts (a year-long course), Civil Procedure (also year-long), Criminal Law (one term) and Torts (one term). Each of the professors--Perini, Morris, Mann (!), and Zechman--become major characters. So do his wife, Annette, his friends Stephen, Terry, and Aubrey, and Karen Sondergard who is always mentioned in conjunction with crying.

There is a fair amount of suicidal depression that occurs in the context of stress associated with first term exams and judging from what I have heard about present-day practices, it hasn't changed. It makes law school seem downright masochistic. And it may in fact be masochistic. But that doesn't change the fact that Turow is excited by the law and enamored with it. So basically, what this book accomplishes is a fair warning to anyone thinking about the major commitment that is three years of intense scrutiny, endless studying, and what basically amounts to public humiliation. If you still think you want to go after reading it, you have been warned. I personally still want to go. I'm not afraid of it. Especially since certain things seem to have changed in the last 33 years, and certain things would be unique to HLS and not other law schools.

I know that the admission process is insane enough as it is, and the first year is the most "intellectually traumatizing" experience one can have (as one friend described it to me). But One L does take a bit of the mystery out of the law school experience and gives one a better idea of what to expect. However, it is dated. Harvard costs $3,000 a year in 1975. Who knows what that equates to, inflation-wise, but still, thirteen times the price? Law school is one of the most ridiculously expensive things there is in this world (perhaps it is not as bad as a $10,000 bottle of wine). But salaries are also higher, thankfully:

"I was accustomed to teachers' salaries. At Stanford, in the English department, a full professor, well respected, after a lifetime of successful teaching and scholarship might have been earning $22,000. That is the starting salary for Harvard graduates at many firms in New York. (101)

"A poll taken during interview season and published in the law school newspaper showed that the 1Ls responding hoped for an average income of $28,000 in their twentieth year out of law school and a starting salary of $13,000." (102)

Turow does have some intriguing suggestions for law school reform, and the book mainly serves as a soapbox for exploring those incidents that merit consideration in changing certain policies or traditions. One of them that I found intriguing was the practice of grading exams blindly--that is, the student's name is replaced by an ID number while the professor grades them. First of all, I would say that basing a student's entire grade for a year-long course on a single exam is messed up as it is, but that is something that seems fairly established no matter where you look. But doing it blindly, without any consideration to a student's in-class accomplishments seems even more unfair:

"And there were also a number of people who'd demonstrated real insight into legal problems in class but who somehow had not done well on the exams. Ned Cauley was one. In a case like his, I was left wondering if the law school's system of blind grading--with a student's entire mark based on a test identified by a number and not by name--was worth it, or if it forced professors to ignore knowledge obviously relevant to their evaluations." (239)

Turow's most compelling single statement, however, concerns the practice of number-crunching law school applicants and law school students to the degree that the cycle becomes truly vicious, and one might say, unjust:

"But one thing nags which does not bear directly on me anymore, but is worth mention. Right now admissions at most American law schools are based on predictions of how well applicants will do in school, which is to say how high they will rank on exams. Those forecasts, based on statistical formulae that combine LSAT scores and college grades, are often quite accurate. But that amounts only to saying that American law schools admit people who will be good test-takers rather than good attorneys. Correlations between exam success and worthwhile achievements in the practice of law are speculative at best. Until that connection is better established, the narrow and arbitrary nature of exams will continue to dictate a narrow and arbitrary means of selection for training for the bar. And that is a peculiar state of affairs for a profession and an education which claim to concern themselves with rationality, with fairness." (199)

For moments like these, where Turow's rhetoric rises above to the level of a nearly profound articulateness, those in the field of legal education will benefit from a perusal of this text. But this post is probably an unnecessary prescription--it seems as if One L has attained pre-eminent status amongst law school hopefuls and pre-1Lers. But the depictions of classroom conduct by professors, as well as the competitive nature of the classmates (a necessary evil of the system, it seems) will remind the reader what it means to be a decent person in a sea of indecency. Even when Turow himself cracks and claims he doesn't give a damn about anybody else, he wants the advantage on the last exam, the reader may be inclined to agree with him. But not before he comes to his senses and realizes that he may be taking everything just a little too seriously (emphasis on little).

Maybe there are attendant memoirs about going to med school and going to business school and going to a PHD program and an MFA program, but if they are lacking, Turow's accomplishment can point the way for others. This book is occasionally dry, but so is the law, and anyone interested in reading it should be expecting that and so it is obviously forgivable. It's not the greatest book I've ever read, but I haven't read many suspense stories about going to school, and it is probably the best in that genre that I have noticed. But maybe I am just biased and self-serving.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Pitchfork Music Festival - 7/17/09, 7/18/09

I forgot to bring my camera with me this year, so I won't be able to include any pictures. This is the 4th Pitchfork Music Festival that I have attended ('05, '06, '07, and now '09)--I would have gone last year, which I think had the best line-up yet, but I was in L.A. I read in the Chicago Tribune this year that they had to scale back their ambitions for big name performers and go for more up-and-coming talent. But that has always been the case with this event. Lollapalooza has been occurring two weeks afterwards for the same period of the last 5 summers and while sometimes great bands play that other festival (last year had a similarly great best line-up ever) it is SO not worth it.

While Grant Park is THE outdoor space of Chicago and a badass place for a music festival, it is ultimately TOO BIG and so Union Park, where Pitchfork occurs, is a much more welcome respite. You do not have the whole of the skyline as your backdrop, but you do have the Willis Tower (!) in close view. Beer is cheaper by a dollar or two, I think. The food options are similar, but I still think Lolla is more expensive on that front too. The ticket price difference is frankly absurd. And the line-up this year is way lame. The only bands I would see would be Lou Reed and Deerhunter--and they play at the exact same time, so sorry, but I would see Lou Reed, but I feel like I would be crestfallen at the end of the set for missing that other band in their prime.

I didn't go last night to see Flaming Lips, and Sunday probably had the best line-up of any single day. And I don't have pictures but I will relay a short narrative to deliver my central thesis: the best moment of the summer has passed, unfortunately! (at least in this city).

Friday night I went in hoping to see Yo La Tengo, Jesus Lizard, and Built to Spill. I arrived, having purchased my tickets through will-call, and proceeded to wait for ONE HOUR outside the gates while Tortoise finished up and Yo La Tengo started. Their organization at the will call window was a total disaster and made me feel that I was in for a horrible weekend and that all the money I blew was going to be a total waste. Well, I got in, and was very grateful that it worked out, and I stood pretty close to the stage waiting for Jesus Lizard for about 45-50 minutes. I saw Yo La Tengo playing in the distance and they looked like they were tearing it up (though they didn't play "Too Late" which would have been on my request list).

One difference from this year was that there were no announcers or Thax Douglas reading poems before the sets would start, which I have to say was sort of fun in a way. But Jesus Lizard started, and they played "Puss" as their opening song, and David Yow immediately jumped into the crowd and sang the first words of the song while being held aloft, and I was in serious pain. I almost lost my glasses. It was without question the most violent show I have ever experienced. Their sound was excellent and David Yow proved that he is one of the best frontmen in all of rock, even during a reunion tour. Some of the other highlights were "Then Comes Dudley," "Boilermaker," "Gladiator," "Blue Shot," "Monkey Trick," and "Bloody Mary." I was surprised that there were about three or four songs I didn't recognize. I had to leave during their last song because I was so beaten up. Then they played a two-song encore, which I missed too. I needed to get a water, I was dehydrated. (Jesus Lizard will play the Metro around Thanksgiving and I hope to be there. I also hope not to die there, but something tells me the crowd-surfing will be more contained at the Metro.) It was a cool weekend (probably the coldest in the history of the event) but there was plenty of sweating anyways. Built to Spill played, and I watched them play "Liar" and "Stab" and decided that the place was way too crowded and it wasn't worth it for me to stay. Don't get me wrong--I love BtS but I have to admit that they can be a boring live band.

The next day was much more fun for me because I decided to drink. The first set I saw was Fucked Up, and this was almost as violent as the Jesus Lizard, but the crowd was not quite as crazy, probably because Fucked Up are a regular working band, though I am sure many would argue that each set was just as wild. This was the second best set of the weekend for me. They played about half songs from The Chemistry of Common Life and the other half from Hidden World, at least as it seemed to me. Pink Eyes was the Tim Harrington of this year. Ideally both of them could play back-to-back next year.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart were next, and I have not heard their record, and I only saw them from a distance, but I have to say, they were pretty cool! However, they sound EXACTLY like My Bloody Valentine. This is not a bad thing. However, it led me to theorize that, okay, they like MBV, I like MBV, we all love MBV--why not start a band that sounds just like MBV and then everyone will love us, and we can be the new MBV? That was what I feel went on in those band members' heads two years ago or whatever. Their male singer sounds just like Kevin Shields and their female singer sounds just like Blinda Butcher and their guitar sound recalls the Isn't Anything-era. Maybe Loveless is next? Regardless, I liked them. I'd get their album on the basis of the live show.

Ponytail were next, and I liked them alright, but not as much as Pains of Being Pure at Heart (as these were the only two I had never previously heard). They were like a combination of Yoko Ono, The Go! Team, and Deerhoof. They were interesting. I don't know if I'd go out and get their record. I think I would have liked them more if I was closer to the stage.

I waited around for Wavves next, and they were about twenty minutes late starting their set, which started to draw ire from the crowd, thinking that another meltdown might be in store for us. Half the people wanted there to be a meltdown actually. When he finally started, he played "Nervous Breakdown," which was wonderfully unexpected and awesome. Then he turned in what I have to say was a very solid performance. I really enjoyed their set. It wasn't a disappointment and hopefully he has redeemed himself and will prove the haters wrong.

I saw parts of MF Doom, but I had gotten more beer and a snack before. I saw about three songs by them. It was okay I guess. I just feel like hip-hop is a lot more predictable when it comes to the actual performance aspect than rock because you are not worrying about the band playing. You just have to remember your lyrics. Regardless, the Tribune said Doom had lip-synched his lines, and I couldn't tell if that was true, or if that was just hyperbole (one of the vocab words he tossed off near the end).

I saw part of Matt & Kim, by this point really drunk and getting free beer because a friend knew someone at one of the tents. (Another girl at the tent played drums for TV on the Radio and Spoon during live shows and I was like, oh my God that's the coolest thing in the world!) I compared them to Fiery Furnaces but they are nothing like them. My friend told me he threw "Widow City" out of his car window during his recent road trip and I was shocked and offended. Fiery Furnaces should play Pitchfork festival because a) they never played before, b) they are from Chicago, c) they rule. Matt & Kim have nothing on them, but they are interesting for being super happy people--I wish I could be like them!

Black Lips closed out what I saw (I missed the National, sorry)--and while I haven't heard their recent record, their last record, I just couldn't get into, sorry. "Cold Hands" and "O Katrina!" are O.K. as far as the best songs on the album, but happily, Black Lips are a good live band. I kept saying I didn't like them and they would only be redeemed if Bradford Cox came up as a special guest which I said had a 1% chance of happening--but overall, they sounded pretty good live. If I were closer, I'm sure I would have gotten really into it. But by that point the alcohol had turned me into a disinterested half-zombie, spewing bile about whatever crazed topic entered my mind.

Yo La Tengo: 8/10
Jesus Lizard : 9/10
Built to Spill: 6/10
Fucked Up: 9/10
Pains of Being Pure at Heart: 7/10
Ponytail: 6.5/10
Wavves: 8/10
MF Doom: 5/10
Matt & Kim: 5/10
Black Lips: 7/10

Regardless of my personal situation, which has deteriorated greatly from the excellent times of 2005 and 2007, this is still the best event in the city of Chicago. Period. Let the summer wind down, bring on the pain of winter, and start counting the days until they announce next year's line-up. Boycott Lollapalooza until they bring ticket prices down to, oh, $50 a day ($60 with service fees...).