Mar 31 2009

Empty Threats (Or: Introducing the “Entitlement Generation [of Lawyers]”)

A long while ago I wrote a blog entitled “A Culture of Complaining or Why Law Students Are Whiny Brats.” I argued that changing rules, deadlines, practices, and policies because students incapable of following them whine to you achieves naught but the following:

>>It sets everyone up to fail: the students will flop in the real world when the staggering realization of deadlines, fiduciary duties, inflexible senior partners, and even less flexible judges sets in; and the school will fail when the legal community realizes its churning out whiny toddlers instead of polished, professional lawyers.<<

Yet here we are a year after that brilliant missive, and again we find that rules are nothing but empty threats. Pandora’s Box is open once more, and this time, the issue revolves around the oft-doubted legitimacy of the school’s electoral process.

The gist of the story is this: during the recent elections, certain deadlines were made abundantly clear. They were stated in person to all candidates, as well as put in writing. This writing was signed by all candidates. One of the rules very clearly stated that failure to meet any deadline would result in removal from the ballot.

In an effort to jumpstart the process, a number of enterprising spirits decided to sign the Campaign Compliance Certification – a paper saying one had abided by all specific rules as set forth by the Elections Committee – and hand it in right there and then. Yes, this begs the obvious question: how can you affirm that you followed all the rules of a campaign that hasn’t yet started? On the basis of this seemingly obvious discrepancy, the forms of these enterprising spirits were refused. In constitutional terms, I believe we’d say the time for submission was “not yet ripe.”

Fast forward to harvesting time and the now-ripe (and oh-so-juicy!) forms are due by 5:00pm in much the same way complaints would be due at 5:00pm the day the statute of limitations runs. And in much the same way the courthouse would, the Elections Committee refused to accept said forms after 5:00pm, although those who sought extensions in advance of the deadline were granted them. As per the clearly stated, written, and signed rules, the names of those in total violation of this fairly simplistic deadline were removed from the ballot. The removal was by unanimous vote of the Elections Committee. And seeing as how these forms still had not appeared by 10:30pm, no one really felt too bad about it. (There were also issues regarding Facebook campaigning I decline to expound upon here; but suffice it to say the issues were resolved, again, by unanimous vote of the 5-person Elections Committee.)

The real-life grown-up lawyers with whom I have shared this portion of the story assume this is where the story ends. Not many folks with whom I have spoken (a small sample of humanity, I admit) understand that there would or should be more to the story than knowing a deadline, signing onto a deadline, missing a deadline, and dealing with the repercussions.

But ours is a world where there appears to be no real punishment for breaking clearly stated rules – rules from cheating to wearing business casual to “court.” And in such a world, all you have to do to get around any rule you like is put on your very best pouty face and whine that it’s just not fair.

And thus it came to pass that an emergency meeting was called; a debatable constitutional discrepancy was found (ah, loopholes); the once independent authority of a unanimous committee was made dependent; and those upon whom it was made dependent cast a wholly democratic and procedurally fair vote entirely consistent with the re-interpreted constitution and with an implied school policy that rules don’t matter.

All names removed from the ballot were replaced.

All names once on the Elections Committee removed themselves in protest.

And a name once on the student government roster removed itself as well: mine.

It’s as infuriating as it is disappointing that these precedents are so casually set. Why don’t rules matter to those who aspire to fiduciary positions? Why aren’t deadlines important to those for whom someone else’s life and property will depend on their ability to meet them? Why is personal responsibility a concept looked on with scorn and disfavor? Why are consequences run from rather than learned from? And where is the integrity to stand up and say, “You know what? I knew it; I did it; and I don’t deserve an exemption”?

I shudder to think that this is the legacy we’re leaving behind. I shudder to think that this attitude might actually follow someone into the legal profession, and what the consequences of that might be for some unsuspecting client. Will missing a deadline only become significant when someone’s claim for relief is denied because of it? When someone’s habeas petition is denied? When you’re sued – is that when it will be significant??

When Pandora’s Box is finally closed on this issue – a process being frantically attempted by those concerned over losing face – I very much doubt much will have changed. Attitudes are slow like that. But I sincerely hope that at least a few members of this, the “Entitlement Generation,” will have received a wake-up call. I hope a person or two yet to come of age will remember that rules mattered once, even if only for an hour or two, and that someday, they might not have the advantage of getting them overturned. Someday, someone with more clout than any of us might put his/her foot down, and a small whiny voice might be left squeaking from beneath it. Honestly, I hope it never comes to that. But if it does, I rest content knowing both that I tried to prevent it, and that I have absolutely no duty whatsoever to rescue them from it.

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