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Test Drive the Book!

JJ photo by Christina Kennedy.  Visit her at ChristinaKennedy.com.


Joel Jacobsen is the author of two books. For the Sake of Argument: A Life in the Law is a book of advice for young lawyers, law students and anyone contemplating a legal career, written in the form of a memoir because that's the way the publisher ordered it up.

My organizing principle was to include everything I know now about the law that I wished I'd known when I was making my career decisions. My hope was to save my readers from some of the mistakes I made.

Most of the advice comes in the form of anecdotes and jokes, which some people enjoy and others (I've discovered) find just a little too close to the bone. Among the latter, sadly, is my publisher, Kaplan, the test-prep people, who commissioned the book, paid me handsomely up front, and then declined to promote it, apparently in the belief that it might discourage applicants for their LSAT and bar exam courses.

(But if you're seriously thinking about taking either exam, by all means take a prep course, whether Kaplan's or somebody else's. Like all standardized exams, they are ripe for gaming and you're being a bit of a fool if you treat either as a serious measure of your talents and promise. They primarily measure your test-taking savvy, and you can only acquire that by practice.)

You can sample For the Sake of Argument here.

If you really want to know the lowdown about violence and the rule of law, and want something with a livelier narrative than my boring life - say, a fast-paced book with another vivid episode in every chapter, most of them either violent or exposing political corruption and all of them contributing to an epic story arc - look no further than Such Men as Billy the Kid: The Lincoln County War Reconsidered. The Old West wasn't lawless, as the cliche would have it. If anything, there was an excess of law, or at least an excess of lawyers and judges and writs and counter-writs. And gunfire.

Biographical stuff

I graduated in January, 1986, from Northwestern University in Chicago (not Evanston, that pretty suburb - the professional schools are on the north side of downtown).  I also studied law at two other universities, my hometown University of New Mexico and, on a Fulbright Scholarship, the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Bonn.

In Germany, I met a woman who'd gone to my junior high school in Albuquerque. We bonded over chilling tales of mistreatment in that horrible place, its dank and fetid dungeons hidden behind a deceptively-cheerful WPA exterior. After we got engaged, we discovered we were fifth cousins once removed, our most recent shared relative a contemporary of George Washington. Fate that insistent can't be denied. We have three sons.

Unlike my wife and kids, I'm not a native New Mexican, though it's been my home for most of my life. My family moved out west when I was 11. Before that I lived in a suburb of Cleveland, where (in those last days of the old steel mills) I learned that snow turns gray in about the same number of days it takes a ripe banana to turn brown.

Northeastern Ohio and north-central New Mexico are pretty close to opposites in all the ways that matter to an 11-year-old: visually (this versus this!), culturally, ethnically and economically. Also culinarily - I couldn't eat the local food when I first tried it, in an adobe restaurant on the plaza in Taos.

That first summer, a sightseeing car trip to Los Alamos and Santa Fe, billed as a treat for us kids, taught me all I ever needed to know about altitude sickness. There's nothing quite like realizing, in earliest adolescence, that you're now sentenced to live in a place with insufficient oxygen to breathe. (One does acclimate quickly, at least to a point - my ceiling is several thousand feet higher now, though still not nearly as high as the highest points in the state.)

I'm sure national homogenization and the availability of information on the web, not to mention the spread of Taco Bells, would make the same move a little less disorienting to a kid today. But it would have been easier for my young self to move to another country altogether. I would have been prepared for the sense of utter strangeness.

My undergraduate degree in literature was from the College of Creative Studies of the University of California, Santa Barbara, where I was lucky enough to study with Robyn Bell and the late Marvin Mudrick, author of Books Are Not Life, But Then What Is? (I've never heard a satisfactory answer to that question.)

I also spent a year studying Anglo-Irish literature and Guinness at Trinity College, Dublin. I've published scholarly articles in New Mexico Historical Review, Oregon Law Review, Akron Law Reviewthe New Mexico Bar Journal and New Mexico Lawyer.

Other pieces of varying types have appeared in various journals. Years ago I reviewed movies for the New Mexico Independent, which was a blast but paid like something that was fun to do.  But I'm still one of those people who stick around until the last credits have rolled.

As a lawyer I've practiced in a large corporate firm, a small firm and for the government, and taught paralegal studies. I've spoken at dozens of continuing legal education programs and update the Crawford outline for the National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse. (If you don't know what Crawford is, cherish the happiness of your innocence.)

My current job title is Assistant Attorney General, which I mention because (I've learned) that's taken by many as proof of my bias - it's curious how people whose own views aren't subordinated to the institutional interests of their employer assume other people are less three-dimentionsal than themselves - but please note the disclaimer at the bottom of every page of this blog. The blog is a personal project, with no government affiliation or sponsorship.

Because most violent crimes are prosecuted in state rather than federal courts, and because New Mexico traditionally has the highest violent crime rate among non-Southern states, my cases – many hundreds by now – have included all of the obvious violent acts one human being can commit against another and many of the more obscure ones.

I also work in a court system with a strong ideological devotion to the libertarian ideas of Ron Paul and his ilk, which hold that it is almost always wrong for the government to interfere in the human relations organized by such natural means as violence, economic coercion and the like.

I'm pretty sure that most of the judges most opposed to government intervention in social hierarchies based on violence think they're being liberal - one of the many peculiarities of this isolated, insulated world, or simulacram of a world, known as the law.

By this point I've probably handled more than 100 appeals involving various types of homicide and several times that number involving nondeadly violence, much of it against women and children, because that's the type of violence most readily accepted in our society - or at least in our courts, because I've lost many more appeals than most lawyers handle in their entire careers. I've won a few, too. 

Politically, I'm a Democrat, like so many made a little more liberal by the Bush Administration. On the hot-button issue conventionally used to separate the sheep from the goats, I don't support capital punishment and I don't handle death penalty cases, but New Mexico's death penalty was mainly theoretical even before it was recently abolished, anyway.

I think my views on democracy and the criminal law are far more consistent with the values of modern liberalism than the views of most professors who write about those topics, many of whom have very little real-life experience and consequently much little insight, substituting for it simiplified schemas that exist nowhere but in their minds, lectures and articles.

The United States is several times more violent than any other developed nation. One reason, I believe, is that we've tolerated so much violence over the past 50 years.

The American judiciary's policy of requiring citizens to tolerate ever-greater levels of violence in their society has been terrific for social scientists who study such things, and who have long since established the association between victimization and subsequent victimizing.  (Here's an informative slide show, from comparatively peaceful Australia.)

Our judges, like our professors, have been prepared to tolerate increasing levels of violence, I believe, because the victims are demographically so unlike themselves.  Victims of violent crime are overwhelmingly the poor, members of minority groups, the disabled and the mentally ill.

Violent victimization is the single most reliable mark of social status in the United States.  People at the high end of the economic and social scale are very nearly immune from criminal violence. That's why it's man-bites-dog news whenever a well-to-do white middle-aged man gets murdered.

As Richard Hofstadter demonstrated half a century ago, social Darwinism remains the template for American attitudes about the proper role of government.  Social Darwinism remains the most common political attitude encountered in our criminal courts, all the more potent because judges - the enforcers of the status quo - tend not to question received wisdom.  After all, the law is received wisdom.

The Judging Crimes thread of this site's blog (the entries prefaced by a number) explores the strange paradox that the social Darwinist -- or, to phrase it more politely, the libertarian -- view has come to be considered "liberal" in one isolated area of American public life: the administration of the criminal law.