Networking and gingerbread

Posted by Julia Belian
Julia Belian
Associate Professor Julia Belian, although less than a century old herself, find
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on Friday, 05 October 2012
in Faculty Blogs

This week, my Property class and I started a new unit.  This unit focuses on the study of possessory estates and future interests, and that study requires (and teaches) a kind of legal thinking that is very different from most of what first-year students learn to do.

Certainly, every area of law requires practitioners to read very carefully.  It is also true that when documents include complex language, they become more difficult to read carefully and accurately.  Studying the language by which we create the different possessory estates and future interests -- or "conveyancing" as we often call it --  ups the ante beyond all that.  The language of land grants has a certain mathematical flavor to it; although the grants are written with words, they are easily (and helpfully!) reduced to symbols that transform a sentence into something that looks almost more like an equation.  In addition, these grants are written in a highly stylized and rule-bound method that developed in the early centuries of the last millenium; as a result, the correct interpretation of that language is not intuitively obvious to our modern minds. At least, we hope they are written that way; when they are not, the centuries-old rules must be applied even more rigorously to ensure that the grant is interpreted in a way that is, as far as possible, consistent with both the grantor's intent and the rules of law.  Correct identification of the estates created in the granting language is the only way to determine your client's rights in the land; getting it wrong (in the drafting or the reading) can prove extremely costly.

Conveyancing is not an easy subject for many students.  Frankly, many of us ran to law school in part because we never took a shine to all that calculus and what-not. As a result, many students feel dismayed when they find out we have to read and use language in such a "math-y" way.  Even if we bring no such baggage to the task, learning to do this kind of reading and writing correctly is still fairly difficult.  Almost everyone understands it and follows along to a point; and almost everyone finds some point along the way where comprehension slip-slides away in a moment so small we don't even know where, exactly, we lost the thread.  If it doesn't happen sooner, that slippery moment often comes once we reach the most complex subject we learn in first year, the Rule Against Perpetuities.  Just saying that phrase to a 2L or 3L (or, often, to someone who graduated law school 35 years ago!) can induce surprisingly strong negative reactions (really -- go try it!).

I do everything I can to make this unit as palatable as possible to as many students as possible without watering any of it down.  This stuff is hard, no doubt about it, but so are many fun games, and this is a game I particularly enjoy.  Still, I do realize that I am in a rather small minority; some students will love it, but most will not enjoy it nearly as much as I do, and some will come to loathe it with every fiber of their beings.  I know that, and I know that, beyond a certain extent, I can't change that.

My response has been to develop an introduction that is, as far as I can make it, simple pure fun.  The first day of conveyances, I present a kind of multi-media retelling of the story of the Norman Conquest, which is the event that gave birth to this complex and sometimes maddening system of legal rules. I also try, those years I can spare the time, to whip up a batch of medieval "gingerbread" (which is nothing like bread, being more of a confection of honey, breadcrumbs, and spices that originally had no ginger in it) to bring to class as a treat.  I'll admit, you don't have to know the details of the Battle of Hastings (Oct. 14, 1066) to understand land grants, but I think knowing something about the culture in which these rules developed may give one a bit of an edge in the learning process.  You have to get medieval with this stuff, so I get medieval on it right away, and do my best to make that a fun opening to what I know will be a challenging subject to learn.  If nothing else, I am determined that everyone will have at least one pleasant memory of estates and future interests.

Why bother with all that?  Why not just do what must be done whether anyone likes it or not?  Soldier on, muddle through, pip pip and all that - isn't that enough?

This brings us to the subject of networking.  Law students have many opportunities to attend receptions, seminars, and other events at which they are assured they will be able to "network."  Law students are uniformly and frequently exhorted that they should attend such events, that they should learn to "network," which will help with the inevitable job hunt.  In this day of social media, I think it becomes easy to think that "networking" really is something like facebook or linked in, something to which you just "plug in" and then wait for the connections to magically "ding," like a social vending machine.

But real networking is very different.  "Networking" itself is a rather misleading word, with its verbification of what is the most basic of human nature, i.e., the desire to establish relationships with other people.  The real networking, the kind that can lead to professional opportunities, is really just about being present and being human to other human beings. If we attend these events thinking that we can insert our business cards into other people's hands and the "network" will dispense us an opportunity, we are wasting our time. 

What happens at "networking" events is exactly the same thing that happens in class, or at the gym, or at your place of worship.  You go.  You meet some people.  You like some of them.  Others rub you the wrong way.  You talk.  You hear things.  Reputations resonate, and you listen, for no other reason than the sheer human interest of it.  Then one day, your car breaks down, or your refrigerator stops running, or your dog gets sick, and you think: Who was that guy I met at that thing the other day?  Doesn't he do this for a living?  He seemed like a decent guy.  Maybe I'll call him.  If he can't do it, maybe he knows someone who can. 

When that happens, I'm pretty sure "that guy" was someone you enjoyed meeting and talking to.  He probably wasn't someone who simply shoved a business card in your hand before running off after the drinks tray.  But if you have a friend who does the same work, I would bet you'll still call your friend first, even if you have no idea whether your friend is actually any good at what she does.  Why?  Because relationships are based on trust, and trust is based on relationship.

I don't have any delusions that gingerbread or a mildly entertaining Power Point presentation will cause students to like conveyancing exercises, or property class in general.  There is no "coin" I can shove into a student's mind to make them "dispense" interest in this material, any more than there is some way to attend a reception and pick up a job.  But everything I do builds relationships with my students; if those are good relationships, then they may be more willing to trust me and try my methods, even when there is no evidence (yet) that they will work.

This does not mean the networking events do not matter.  They do, but not because they let you plug in.  They matter because they are places to make new acquaintances, who might later becomes business associates, and just might someday find themselves thinking, Who was that guy at that reception?  Doesn't he do this sort of thing?


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About the author

Julia Belian

Associate Professor Julia Belian, although less than a century old herself, finds deep satisfaction in learning and teaching the ancient roots and contemporary twists of Property Law and Estates & Trusts, which are also her primary areas of scholarship. Before joining UDM in the fall of 2008, Belian served as a Visiting Associate Professor of Law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City from 2006-2008, where she was given the Tiera Farrow Faculty Award by the Association of Women Law Students and was also named Most Outstanding Professor by the Graduating Class of 2008. From 2002 to 2006, Belian was on the faculty at Creighton University School of Law in Omaha, Nebraska.

Belian’s higher education began in her native Texas, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy cum laude in 1980 from Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. She worked as an editor at a mid-sized daily newspaper for nearly ten years before earning a Master of Divinity degree at Yale University in 1993 and her J.D., with distinction, at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1996. At Emory, Belian served as Editor-in-Chief of the Emory International Law Review, received the Clark Boardman Callaghan Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Law School, and was elected to the Order of the Coif. She has practiced in both Minnesota (Faegre & Benson, LLP) and California (Morrison & Foerster, LLP), with most of her experience in the fields of estate planning and exempt organization law.