September 1976, I drove into Austin, Texas and pointed my $300 1963 Ford Galaxy toward the famous Tower. After finding a parking spot, which happened to be on the famous “Drag,” I walked to the University of Texas Law School, which happened to be on the opposite side of the famous “40 acre” campus. Later in the day, I found a sleeping room a couple of blocks off the Drag.
Although I was driving a $300 car, I wasn’t poor. I had strung pipe all summer for Northern Pipeline of Bemidji, MN. We didn’t have a single rain day, and I averaged over 70 hours a week at $4 an hour, plus time and a half for overtime. A couple of months later, I would sell the Galaxy to a friend, Mikel Vigus, for $300, and I would buy a 1969 red MGB convertible for $1,500 from a law-school classmate, Robert Brownrigg, who had married and needed to settle down. His loss was my gain.
When I matriculated, there were more than 500 kids in the UT Freshlaw class. (Only Harvard had more.) In an effort to create a more collegial atmosphere, the law school administration randomly assigned the Freshlaw students into six sections of almost 100 students each. The principal technique applied to create collegiality was to have all of the kids in a section take their first-year classes together. In most respects, the sections were identical, except for the sixth section, called the Special Section. As a lucky guy, I ended up in the Special Section.
The main difference with the Special Section was that there would be less focus on grades, a bane of law school. In the three core first-year courses – Property, Torts, and Contracts – there would be no testing or grades until the end of the year. Only Civil Procedure would be tested in December because it was a one-semester course, and then it would be replaced in our curriculum by Constitutional Law.
I assume the Special Section was a grand academic experiment, but I don’t recall what we were told about that. Other than the absence of testing, I don’t recall anything unique about the Special Section. The professors – Alan Rau for Contracts, David Filvaroff for Torts, and Cohen for Property – did not seem particularly popular or unpopular, but their personalities and teaching styles were exceptionally unique. Rau was socially uncomfortable and given to mumbling; Filvaroff was a passionate proponent of socio-economic mobility; and Cohen came off as an urbane elitist. Their only shared interest was a willingness to teach first-years students with a lessened focus on tests and grades.
The professors’ involvement with the Special Section academic experiment was voluntary (I believe), but ours wasn’t. Perhaps to ameliorate any potential grievance that we might feel, the UT Law administration provided us with the most popular professor in the entire school, Charles Alan Wright, for our second-semester Constitutional Law class.
How did the academic experiment work out? Not well for me.
Although I studied relatively hard and earned solid grades at the University of North Dakota, I had an inordinate confidence in my ability compete intellectually with others. While the other kids at UT Law were smart and hard-working, I thought I had an ace-in-the-hole, my 703 LSAT. This meant that I was in the top 3% of those who took the test and was higher than all but a handful of my classmates. (We quickly shared this information during orientation. My son, who attends medical school, assures me that medical students don’t share their MCATs.) My LSAT, I assumed, would lead me to the upper ranks of my class. Thus, while my classmates obsessed about study groups and mastering the materials, I stuck to myself, read my assignments, and expected to do well.
The first sign of danger in my assumptions occurred at the end of the first semester, when I took my first test and received a low grade in Civil Procedure. But everyone said that Civil Procedure was unlike any other law-school class because the focus was on black-and-white technical rules instead of gray-shaded legal concepts. (A good analogy would be figure skating with its less important compulsory technical skating followed by its more important free-style program.) Any nascent concern of mine was further ameliorated early in the second semester when Professor Cohen gave us a practice exam, which was intended to give us some exposure to what a real legal test looked like. Even though the practice exam wasn’t graded, Cohen did provide us with comments, and he also told us that he placed “very good” on about 10-15 of the exams. I received a “very good,” so everything seemed fine.
Then we have the final exams in May, and I have a rude awakening. I performed slightly below average on all of them. Although I was disappointed and a bit embarrassed by the results, they didn’t alter my conduct, and I’m not sure if receiving this feedback early in the first semester would have made a difference. I was going through a phase of believing that government and big corporations (the establishment) were the cause of many bad things in the world, and I was not inclined to conform to their dictates or respond to their incentives.
I did make some great friends in the Special Section, and several turned out to be prominent. Rene Oliveira serves in the Texas House and is currently the chairman of the Way & Means committee. Barbara Radnofsky recently ran for the U.S. Senate as the Democratic candidate against Kay Bailey Hutchison and is currently running for Texas Attorney General. But the most prominent is Ron Kirk, who is currently serving in President Obama’s cabinet as the administration’s Trade Representative.
Ron was a nice, quality guy. After my second year in law school, I made notations in the Class of 1979 directory to rate each classmate’s personality/character, with ++ the highest and — the lowest. I gave Ron the second highest rating, ++0. Very few classmates rated a ++. (Rene rated + and Barbara rated 0+.)
Other than being a nice, quality guy who did not sound intellectually gifted, Ron enjoyed surprising success in athletics. Special Section had some great athletes (and eventually won the Law/Grad intramural championship for basketball), but Ron Kirk was not one of them. Although he was tall and fit, he was not particularly coordinated. So you can imagine our surprise when he was asked to be a part of the Legal Eagles intramural football team. The team was coached by legendary professor Charles Alan Wright, who was progressive locally, but served for a time as Nixon’s lead Watergate lawyer. Wright looked and coached like Alabama’s Bear Bryant, and his teams regularly won the Law/Grad intramural football championship by recruiting college-quality football players in the class. So what was Ron doing on the team? We watched him play, and he brought minimal skills to the team. Our only thought was he was politically connected to Wright. That seemed to be confirmed when soon after graduation Ron went to work for Senator Lloyd Bentsen and then Governor Ann Richards. And since graduation, I have learned that Ron’s working-class mother was very active in Austin politics.
Ron’s story sounds a lot like that of San Antonio’s Castro twins. They were raised by a politically-active, working-class mother and attended Harvard Law School through affirmative action. The Castro twins claim to be living proof that affirmative action works, but I question whether they are idealistically the proper beneficiaries of such largesse. I am quite confident that the Castro twins and Ron Kirk (I am guessing that Ron was admitted to UT Law through affirmative action) would have succeeded even without affirmative action because they are talented and were raised to succeed. All affirmative action did for them was to punch their tickets at an elite school, which enabled them to make connections and to add that gilded credential to their resume. Sounds like Barack Obama, too.