New Yorker illustration by Brian Rea.

New Yorker illustration by Brian Rea.

It was not the plan to make this a magazine-appreciation week. Really.

Yesterday, I pointed you to our own evocative “Call to Authors” house ad that we occasionally publish in Arizona Attorney Magazine.

And then, on Sunday, I was leafing through the newest issue of The New Yorker. (If you’re a writer, I recommend it highly, especially when it comes to profiles and intriguing feature stories.)

There, in a section called “Shouts and Murmurs,” I came across a hilarious piece of short fiction called “Apocalypse,” by author Jack Handey. Here is part of how it opens in the world of 2042, noteworthy for its “marauding bands” of cannibals:

“The mail comes only about once a week, twice if you’re lucky. It is mostly junk mail. Somehow I have a subscription to a horrible magazine, Cannibalism Today. It features gruesome photographs and recipes. I have written to the magazine’s circulation department, asking them to please cancel my subscription, but every month I get the current issue with a note that says, ‘Welcome, New Subscriber!’ Nothing makes any sense anymore.”

As a magazine editor, I have sent exactly that type of missive, so my radar shot up pretty quickly.

Pretty fast, though, I realized that what at first glance was a riff on end times was really a love letter to that most compelling of communication channels—the magazine.

I’ll shut up and let you read the whole thing here.

Does LSD -- or the medical profession's treatment of it -- hold any lessons for the legal profession?

Does LSD — or the medical profession’s treatment of it — hold any lessons for the legal profession?

If all goes according to plan, as you read this I will be standing in a spot where LSD made history.

No, I am not in Woodstock, N.Y. (close to where I grew up). Instead, I’m in Boston, Mass., for part of this week. And amidst the lobster traps and the Freedom Trail, there is a small bit of druggy history—which may hold lessons for how we do things in the legal profession. (Bear with me.)

Marsh Chapel is a beautiful structure on the Boston University campus. Besides being a (I think) non-denominational spot to relax and meditate, it also was the site of an LSD experiment co-led by the now-notorious Dr. Timothy Leary.

Boston University's Marsh Chapel

Boston University’s Marsh Chapel

Back in March, I recounted the experiment to an audience at the American Bar Association’s Bar Leadership Institute. I explained how the Leary experiment was one of a number across that nation that sought to determine if the drug had solid medicinal uses (beyond those experienced in a Woodstock meadow).

The experiment had its challenges. For instance, the researchers tried to blind themselves as to which subjects had taken LSD and which had been given a placebo. But even an inattentive researcher could immediately spot the college students who were lying prone on the floor, or standing and marching on the pews, or even wandering from the building in a manic daze (one student was found on Commonwealth Avenue claiming to channel the Messiah).

More about the Marsh Chapel Experiment is here.

Timothy Leary's death on the New York Times front page, as modified by artist Nancy Chunn (her book is at http://www.amazon.com/Front-Pages-exhibition-catalogue-Nancy/dp/0847820815)

Timothy Leary’s death on the New York Times front page, as modified by artist Nancy Chunn (her book is at http://www.amazon.com/Front-Pages-exhibition-catalogue-Nancy/dp/0847820815)

As I told the ABA audience, my goal was not to advocate for LSD use. It was to explore ways that every profession may have learned valuable information, only to hide those very lessons from itself due to political or other reasons.

As an example, a terrific New Yorker article by Michael Pollan explains the waxing and waning of LSD research. Between 1953 and 1973, the federal government spent $4 million to fund 117 studies of LSD, involving more than 1,700 subjects. The benefits that flowed from the drug could be significant, and they applied to a wide variety of ailments. LSD looked to be on a path of becoming recognized as a useful tool in medical practitioners’ toolbox.

The work was necessarily inconclusive, though, because it was brought to an abrupt halt from the 1970s forward when federal and other dollars grew squeamish as the War on Drugs was ginned up. The developing body of research was shelved and placed in very deep drawers. It’s probably safe to say that many doctors today would be surprised to discover that substantial LSD research ever conducted—so deeply secreted is that work. It is typically thought of today (even among medical doctors) as a criminal drug.

Your should read Pollan’s complete article, titled “The Trip Treatment,” here.

So generations of doctors are unaware of the extensive experiments and a growing body of positive results that were developing and then squelched. Today, Pollan explains, a small group of doctors is excavating that decades-old research, developing new experiments, and seeing how LSD may become a useful tool in limited circumstances. What they are learning is that a wide variety of ailments may be alleviated or improved through that demonized drug.

So what, say lawyers? What is the takeaway for the legal profession?

There are always cool new lessons for cooler lawyers. Far out!

There are always cool new lessons for cooler lawyers. Far out!

First: No, I don’t have a vested interest in seeing LSD return.

But every profession has its blind spots, and few of us have an archival memory. We each may have forgotten or nerver learned hard-won lessons that could guide our profession.

For instance, the ways we deliver content, teach CLEs, train lawyers—each of them—who knows?—may be atop the pinnacle of human achievement. But it is more likely they lack important lessons that once were learned and then put away—either because they were considered unimportant or because someone’s ox was getting gored. Revisited, those lessons could transform lives for practitioners and the public who need them.

Smart bar associations, law schools, and attorneys are willing to look at everything and revisit lessons we thought we had learned. What could those lessons be? Well, let’s hope we start re-discovering them together—sooner rather than later.

As I enjoy some shellfish and Boston history, I wish you an illuminating—and not necessarily pharmaceutical—weekend.

Arizona Attorney ideas

Yes, I found the Scrabble tile in the street. The “I” just spoke to me.

Last week, I promised a conversation about strategy as it relates to law practice. Here we are.

You rarely hear magazines singing the praises of other magazines. I suppose that would be a little like a law firm crowing about the terrific work another law firm does.

Despite that, I have to mention an article I read in Law Practice Magazine the other day. And the fact that it was written by an old friend of mine is immaterial.

LPM, in case you don’t know, is a publication of the American Bar Association. It typically has good content. Their July/August issue caught my eye right away, though, for a few reasons.

The first is that they had the good sense to put Richard Susskind on the cover. Any magazine (for lawyers) that has the good fortune to publish the legal futurist Susskind had better have the sense to put him front and center. And so kudos for that.

The second thing that caught my eye? It’s their “Big Ideas Issue.” Their inaugural Big Ideas Issue, in fact.

Well, I’ll be.

Let me tell you how I know that’s a great idea. We did the same thing in Arizona Attorney Magazine, way back in September 2010.

We loved the content (well, I did, anyway). But ultimately we decided we were in the Ideas business every month, so restricting the concept of Ideas (or the idea of Concepts) to a single month seemed self-defeating.

But now that I see how well LPM has done with the theme, I may steal borrow it back.

In any case, back to that article I enjoyed so much.

Attorney Mike Ostermeyer would like to see more strategic thinking in BigLaw.

Attorney Mike Ostermeyer would like to see more strategic thinking in BigLaw.

It’s titled “A Big Idea for Biglaw? Just One Word: Strategy.” The title’s a bit cumbersome, but there’s gold in them thar hills.

The author is a BigLaw partner himself. Mike Ostermeyer works in the Milwaukee office of Quarles & Brady.

(He and I were in English graduate school together at Notre Dame back in the ‘80s. He then realized law was his future before I did. The best-dressed we ever were together was when I was a groomsman in his wedding.)

From his Midwestern perch, Ostermeyer offers a hard look at some of the central challenges facing big law firms today. His writing is good, but his prognosis is not rosy.

His article’s foundation begins with a seminal definition:

“What is strategy? For Michael Porter—the Harvard Business School professor who largely created the field, and who today remains its most prominent figure—strategy is the purposeful definition of differences. Indeed, for nearly 20 years since his seminal article ‘What Is Strategy?’ appeared in a 1996 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Porter has consistently emphasized that strategy is about only one thing: fundamental difference.

Definition set, Ostermeyer then asks and answers a compelling question: “Why is strategy so hard for BigLaw?”

If that seems ouch-worthy, you should read his entire article here.

Among the lessons he imparts, he tells a story that is worth reprinting in full:

“Many years ago, on my very first day as law clerk to a federal judge, my judge told my highly impressionable 27-year-old self: ‘You’re a professional now, and the best thing about being a professional is’—and here he paused for effect—‘that you’ll know what you have to do, but nobody will ever tell you how you have to do it.’ Now, you may fairly disagree over whether that approach suits partners in a business organization—even if that organization is a professional services firm. What you cannot argue, though, is that strategy simply doesn’t work that way. Rather, it rises or falls on what strategists call “fit”—as Bamford and West define it, ‘tight coordination and internal consistency of action across the company.’ Without fit, strategy fails.”

That was an aha moment for me. Reading Mike’s story, I recalled a compelling New Yorker article I read last fall. It was written by Atul Gawande and was titled “Big Med.” His question was, What can medicine learn from the Cheesecake Factory? (you read that right)

Arizona Attorney September 2010

Yes, we’re always on the hunt for great ideas, too.

Gawande’s point was not that medicine should be rote—neither is the restaurant, he found. But he was struck at the amazing variety of approaches medical professionals take to complete often routine care and procedures. Lost amidst the sense among doctors that “We are professionals and cannot be told there is one best procedure” is the fact that there may actually be one best procedure for many ailments. But the pros refuse to be streamlined into a consensus.

And that’s what Ostermeyer was told by his federal judge. But whereas Gawande bemoaned it, the judge—and most lawyers—revel in their individuality, even when it comes to techniques easily unified.

Gawande spoke with many doctors, finally finding one who understood the value of a best way whenever possible. That doctor said:

“‘Customization should be five per cent, not ninety-five per cent, of what we do,’ he told me. A few years ago, he gathered a group of people from every specialty involved—surgery, anesthesia, nursing, physical therapy—to formulate a single default way of doing knee replacements. They examined every detail, arguing their way through their past experiences and whatever evidence they could find. Essentially, they did what [the Cheesecake Factory] considered the obvious thing to do: they studied what the best people were doing, figured out how to standardize it, and then tried to get everyone to follow suit.”

That may be tough medicine for lawyers. But as revenues are driven down by international competition by lawyers and non-lawyers, streamlining wherever possible may be part of a success story. After all, law may not be a commodity; but some of the tasks lawyers perform are exactly how we define commodity.

Here in Arizona, is there a big-firm partner who is similarly willing take to a steely look at the profession as it is (rather than as we wish it were)? If so, I’d love to talk with you. Perhaps there should be a magazine column in your future.

Write to me at arizona.attorney@azbar.org.

David Remnick, The New Yorker editor in chief who carves out time to write

David Remnick, The New Yorker editor in chief who carves out time to write

The role of magazine editor ain’t exactly digging ditches, as a sometime-friend has advised me. And he’s right: My work tasks never involve picks, hoes or laying pipe. A fellow appreciates that, especially when the Phoenix temperatures hit 116 or so.

But (you knew a “but” was coming) sometimes when I face a stack of documents requiring close scrutiny, or when I have to somehow trim a lawyer’s sentence that is as long as a page, or when I must decide whether an attorney’s success on the tennis court is really (really?) worthy of inclusion in the People column … then, I begin to gaze out the window into the shimmering heat island and think, That’s not so bad.

Of course, that’s just temporary insanity, because I’m always able to remind myself of an important fact: Despite an ever-flexible list of “Other Tasks as Assigned,” I am, to a large extent, paid to write. So, dammit, stop gazing out the window.

That fantastic job benefit comes to mind on this Change of Venue Friday, as I think about the recent new-President profile I was privileged to write last month. And I am reminded every year that although that annual profile holds its challenges, it never fails to be a rush to interview people about important matters, and then to transform those conversations into something—occasionally—revealing.

The “revealing” part of the profile-writing job can make you feel you’re on a ledge, let me tell you. For it is straightforward enough to put someone’s resume into narrative form—and I’ve done that, when on a short deadline. But to go beyond, and to say something essential and insightful about a person, requires a large investment of time and energy. It requires that a writer become so conversant about the subject that she or he can confidently draw some conclusions—conclusions that may not be inked in the four corners of a notepad, or uttered in the stream of anecdotes from secondary interviews.

Besides the views into Bar leaders, I’ve gotten quite a few chances to write profiles, and I always feel like I have more to learn. And one way I aim to learn is by reading as many profiles as I can. One of my favorite spots to locate fantastic, rip-out-and-save profiles is The New Yorker. I routinely find myself drawn into a profile on a topic or on a person for whom I have had zero interest before I opened the magazine. But before I know it, I’ve encountered a new favorite “true story.”

The idea of the best profile being a “true short story” is an ideal, and it comes from a terrific magazine editor. If you have a few minutes on this Friday, watch this brief video with David Remnick, New Yorker editor in chief, on “The Art of the Profile.” I have to agree with his assessment of how fortunate the profile-writer is. For, as he points out, writing is an opportunity to carve something artful from what is almost always a mundane task-list of a day. Much better than ditch-digging.

If you’re in a hurry, here is some of Remnick from the video:

“Let me be honest with you: You’re failing all the time, all day long, all week long, all year long. And when you can write something, and publish something, do something out of the ordinary, that is a little funny, or a little insightful, or more artful, maybe—maybe maybe maybe—you don’t disappoint. I think constant disappointment is a very good spur to sometimes doing something halfway decent.”

“If you’re really self-satisfied all the time, you probably are a lousy writer.”

Or a lousy lawyer, chef, or ditch-digger, I would guess.

(Remnick reminds me of writer David Rakoff, who passed away this week. Among many things, Rakoff was the author of Half Empty, a paean to pessimism.)

Let’s hear it for the creative power of disappointment! I wish for you an unsatisfying—but creative—weekend.

On this Change of Venue Friday, I’d recommend a few articles that look at the criminal justice system.

First, surf over to the New Yorker. That’s where Jeffrey Toobin examines what’s happening to the death penalty in Texas. Once the nation’s leader in capital punishment, it is now talking a decidedly different tack. There may be a few reasons for that, but one of them may be the more sophisticated use of mitigation by defense lawyers. And Toobin adds that changes in prosecutors’ offices have played an important role too.

Jeffrey Toobin

So good is Toobin’s article that I am linking to it despite the fact that much of it is behind a paywall. Like many print publications, the New Yorker offers some content for free but really wants you to subscribe to get the rest. I read the whole thing, but the free abstract they provide is long, substantive and worth your time. And who knows: You may like it so much you’ll head over to a newsstand to pick up a copy.

The second article I’d recommend is E.J. Montini’s Arizona Republic column today on the law case surrounding the 1991 Buddhist Temple Murders.

E.J. Montini

We reported yesterday that the Ninth Circuit once again ruled to overturn the conviction of Johnathan Doody, based on the length and nature of the interrogation of the then-young defendant. (We also ran a book review of “Innocent Until Interrogated” by Gary Stuart, which examined the case. A portion of Gary’s book was a winner in the Arizona Attorney Creative Arts Competition in 2008.)

Montini spoke with a juror from the trial, who continues to aver that Doody was guilty. He says that the jury based their verdict on more than just the confession.

We might expect a juror to hold to that position. But the man’s comments are thoughtful and provide valuable insight into the process. Whether the State of Arizona decides to appeal again or prosecute again, insight into the system of interrogation and confession is always welcome.

Have a great weekend.

John Jay College of Criminal Justice logo 2014This morning I posted some photos from a recent phenomenal criminal justice conference. It was held in New York City (and I mentioned it here and here).

The conference was aimed at members of the media who cover law and policy. The idea of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Guggenheim Foundation was to bring great sources to us, all in one place. Great idea.

Jeffrey Toobin, New Yorker writer and CNN analyst, Jan. 31, 2011

Some of the highlights from the two-day event:

  • A keynote by Judge Jonathan Lippman, New York State’s Chief Judge
  • A panel moderated by Jeffrey Toobin, New Yorker writer and CNN Analyst, which included ACLU President Susan Herman and Hon. Sue Bell Cobb, the Alabama Chief Justice
  • Panelists on challenges faced by the courts, which included Judge Robert Russell, whose visit to the State Bar of Arizona we covered before (here and here)
  • Speakers on criminal justice trends
  • Reports from the nation’s prisons
  • Special presentations on gun violence and cybercrime

Susan N. Herman, ACLU President

As part of my invitation to attend and be named a John Jay/Guggenheim Fellow, I committed to write a story on some element covered by the conference. A brief story on an Arizona criminal sentencing debate appears in our April issue (available in hard copy now and online April 1). A longer story on sentencing will appear in an upcoming issue.

More photos are available on the Arizona Attorney Magazine Facebook page.