Spending the Summer in ‘Journalist Law School’
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What do you get when you cross a lawyer and a journalist? Most of the time, of course, you get a lawyer. You know: The kids who worked so hard on the college paper but jetted off to Boalt when the prospect of years of unpaid internships scared them off. Most journalists remember a few people like that. (I know a dozen or so.)
Sometimes, of course, you end up with a journalist: Take Adam Liptak, the New York Times lawyer who started writing book reviews and ended up covering the Supreme Court for the Grey Lady. The Fox News crowd has their own Liptak in Brooklyn Law School grad Geraldo Rivera. Michael Kinsley started working at the New Republic during his third year at George Washington Law School. But not every journalist who covers legal issues has the time (or the money) to get a law degree. That’s where John Nockleby comes in.
Journalist Law School
For the past five years, Nockleby has been trying to construct a third breed of reporter/attorney hybrid: the journalist with a crash course in the law. To bring this new beast into the world, this avuncular, bespectacled, aggressively friendly law professor is prepared to push the limits of what you can teach someone about the American legal system in three and a half days.
Every summer, Nockleby’s Journalist Law School (JLS) brings several dozen reporters to Loyola Law School in Los Angeles for 84 hours of lectures, seminars, and discussion panels on the law. This June, my colleague at Mother Jones, Stephanie Mencimer, who attended JLS in 2009, suggested I apply. That Stephanie found the program useful was a shock: She literally wrote the book on tort reform — it’s called “Blocking the Courthouse Door” — and I never imagined that she had much more to learn about the legal system. On the other hand, it would be very useful to me to have a bit more of a background in the law. Covering civil liberties issues for Mother Jones, I run into a lot of legal documents — habeas petitions, Office of Legal Counsel memos, and so on. So I applied and got accepted. Next thing I knew, I was in L.A.
Learning and Schmoozing
The JLS program is centered around what are essentially miniature versions of standard first-year law classes: Constitutional law, criminal law, civil procedure, criminal procedure, torts, and so on. I had heard a lot of the basic concepts because my girlfriend (not a former journalist) is a law student. You might think a basic familiarity with the concepts would make the classes boring. But Nockleby, knowing that journalists are an “especially critical” audience, did an excellent job of assembling an engaging group of professors to teach the core classes. Even the most jaded of my fellow students seemed engaged.
The core JLS classes are supplemented by a series of small-group sessions focusing on more specific topics. I attended two on terrorism-related issues, and got a number of story ideas (and contacts) that made the entire program worthwhile in and of themselves. In addition, JLS offers a series of talks and schmoozing sessions featuring practicing judges and attorneys. The schmoozing includes one’s fellow journalists, too, of course.
The “fellows” (that’s what they called us) were a diverse crowd — television, radio, Internet, and print journalists, with everything from a few years to a few decades of experience in the media. Our beats ran the gamut from local crime reporter to the New York Times’ Mexico City bureau chief.
Why does Nockleby even bother to do this? At first, he just got tired of the complaining. Nockleby kept hearing complaints that people didn’t understand the legal system — and that the media did a bad job of explaining it.
“You guys keep going on about how the media doesn’t get it,” he told potential funders. “Put your money where your mouth is.”
They did. The American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA), which represents top plaintiffs’ and civil defense attorneys, wrote a big check. It has kept on writing them.
Ideally, the goal of the program is to provide an overview so that the particular legal issues journalists cover “can be placed in broader perspective,” Nockleby said.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a New York Superior Court beat reporter who doesn’t understand how that court works. But she might not know how that court’s procedures differ from others, or how to find out.
“It’s not that we can provide a legal education in three and a half days,” Nockleby said. “We can’t show journalists how to go about investigating a particular problem. But we can give a systemic overview so that problems get placed in a context where they make a lot more sense.”
Is Nockleby’s experiment succeeding? The reviews of the program are certainly positive. Then again, most journalists I know appreciate any opportunity to meet new sources and gobble up some background information — especially if there are open bars involved. My fellow “fellows” appreciated the experience. If our reporting gets even a little bit better or more informed, that’s what counts, right?
Nockleby’s ambitions aren’t limited to half-week fellowships, however. Longtime New York Times Supreme Court reporter “Linda Greenhouse had a year of legal education and that helped her tremendously,” he said. “If everybody reporting on law had a law degree, that would be great.”
But not every journalist can be Adam Liptak, or Geraldo. And while the Pentagon may sometimes wish that more military embeds had prior military experience, and scientists may wish more reporters had lab experience, that won’t always be the case, either. Even Nockleby acknowledges that there’s more to journalism that subject-matter expertise.
“All that is great, but more important is the ability to explain things in simple terms,” he said. “A lot of lawyers don’t have that.”
Nick Baumann is an assistant editor at Mother Jones. He covers national politics out of the Washington, D.C. bureau. Nick’s writing has also appeared in the Economist, the Washington Monthly, and Commonweal. Email tips and insights to nbaumann [at] motherjones [dot] com. You can also follow him on Twitter.