The Case That Almost Kept Me Out of Law School

I have spoken to a lot of people that are starting law school in the coming weeks. Those conversations got me misty-eyed reminiscing over my own pre-law school days. In fact, I remember quite clearly the first case I ever read for law school. It was the week before law school and after reading the case for my Legal Process class, I almost dropped out.

Not only do I remember the case I read, but I remember where I sat while reading it. Two weeks before law school I bought myself an Ikea desk. I dedicated one corner of my apartment to be my work area. I even spent a day drilling holes in the wall and installing shelves for the large number of books I assumed I would soon possess. A fact my landlord was less than pleased about when I moved out. But I digress.

There I sat at this poorly assembled desk, and I opened my Legal Process book to the first assignment. Like many incoming 1Ls, my professor had assigned us Pennoyer v. Neff. I had to not only read, but brief the case (whatever that meant), and gain some kind of understanding from the case. Imagine my frustration then, when I confronted paragraphs like these:

Except in cases affecting the personal status of the plaintiff, and cases in which that mode of service may be considered to have been assented to in advance, as hereinafter mentioned, the substituted service of process by publication, allowed by the law of Oregon and by similar laws in other States, where actions are brought against non-residents, is effectual only where, in connection with process against the person for commencing the action, property in the State is brought under the control of the court, and subjected to its disposition by process adapted to that purpose, or where the judgment is sought as a means of reaching such property or affecting some interest therein; in other words, where the action is in the nature of a proceeding in rem. As stated by Cooley in his Treatise on Constitutional Limitations, 405, for any other purpose than to subject the property of a non-resident to valid claims against *734 him in the State, ‘due process of law would require appearance or personal service before the defendant could be personally bound by any judgment rendered.’

It is true that, in a strict sense, a proceeding in rem is one taken directly against property, and has for its object the disposition of the property, without reference to the title of individual claimants; but, in a larger and more general sense, the terms are applied to actions between parties, where the direct object is to reach and dispose of property owned by them, or of some interest therein. Such are cases commenced by attachment against the property of debtors, or instituted to partition real estate, foreclose a mortgage, or enforce a lien. So far as they affect property in the State, they are substantially proceedings in rem in the broader sense which we have mentioned.

Pennoyer v. Neff, 95 U.S. 714, 733-34 (1877). I spent at least two hours pouring over this case. I was determined to grasp everything from this case. Right before my eyes started to bleed I gave up, closed my book, and cringed. Had I signed up for three years of this? Was I completely doomed?

Of course Pennoyer is not indicative of the rest of law school. But I couldn’t predict that at the time, and it scared the heck out of me.

Apparently I’m far from the only one that was subjected to this hazing ritual. In fact, months after this assignment, our Legal Process professor told us a story about Pennoyer. He was in New York’s Central Park and encountered a homeless man. Upon learning that he was a law professor, the man informed my professor that he had gone to law school. He then went on to recount the facts and relevance of Pennoyer with gusto.

So, to those of you starting law school in the coming weeks, take heart. It gets better. And there is worse hazing you could go through.

Do you remember the first case you read in law school? Or the one you hated the most?



  1. Avatar Paul Godfread says:

    Wow. Thanks for reminding me about the text of Pennoyer v. Neff. I don’t think I’ve read it since law school. Even after gaining familiarity with the terms and concepts, passing the bar, and practicing for a while, that passage is still unreadable.

    I know there were others in Property law that were just as unreadable, but perhaps I’ve repressed those memories. Pierson v. Post was kind of fun though.

  2. Sherwood v. Walker, 66 Mich. 568, 33 N.W. 919 (1887)
    We were told to read it before an “accepted students” visit to the school. Then Linda Rusch, a contracts professor (who co-wrote a very helpful book called ABCs of the UCC which helped me ace my Sales class) came out to Socratically slaughter the sheep. She was referred to as The Intimidator for her classroom style. Reading the case was difficult, but the discussion part was fun. At that point I was excited about law school. It didn’t last long.

  3. Avatar Chris Bradley says:

    Inspirational post, but the bit about the homeless law school grad might not inspire too much confidence in this year’s entering class. ;)

  4. Avatar Erick Rhoan says:

    Incoming 1Ls had to read BMW v. Gore. Read easy enough (it was written in the 90’s, I think), but I still couldn’t wrap my head around some of the concepts. I’m not sure I can still read a SCOTUS case without saying “Huh?”

    • Avatar Josh C. says:

      I was saying to a friend when the healthcare decision came down, I couldn’t be happier to be out of law school. Otherwise I would have had to read that thing.

      • Avatar Geoff Detweiler says:

        I read that case for fun. It was actually quite easy to read, mostly because you could tell Chief Justice Roberts took great pains to explain simple concepts in the opinion.

  5. Avatar Rich Victoria says:

    OK, now we need to get to the bottom of this homeless man story. In 1993-94, my law school professor, at Vandy (Prof. Hal Maier) told us the very same story about the homeless man and this case, which, he claimed, happened to him while he was a visiting prof in NY.

    Oh, and my case from hell is Marbury v. Madison, back when Con Law was a first year, first semester class. First case, first class, and I was the first one called on to discuss the case. My response: “I have read this at least 10 times and I have no idea what happened.”

  6. Gyi Tsakalakis Gyi T. says:

    Bush v. Gore – 531 U.S. 98 (2000)… Election law elective gone wrong…

  7. Avatar Elizabeth says:

    I too remember reading Pennoyer for my very first law school class, so this piece really resonates with me. I thought I had it figured out (after an intense Google session of course) but when I got to class I realized I had no idea what the case was about. Thankfully, I did not get called on for over a month in Civil Procedure but even then I had no idea what was going on. As I passed the bar with flying colors I must have picked up this knowledge somewhere along the way.

  8. Avatar Gordon Firemark says:


  9. Josh: I am sure Kasey will appreciate the thoughtfulness of this post. Gives her an idea of what she will be in for! I’m just glad those days are far behind me!

  10. Avatar Brian Smith says:

    Day v. Caton. Our contracts professor thought it might be funny to teach us about contracts by starting with not contracts.

  11. Avatar John Primeau says:

    Kirksey v. Kirksey . . . and then lot’s of talk about “officious intermeddlers.”

    The first few weeks of law school made me feel like I was dropped in a foreign country.

  12. Avatar Bea says:

    So the story about the homeless guy is further hazing? Doesn’t really seem necessary!

  13. Avatar skram says:

    The story of the homeless man who correctly recounts the facts and holding of Pennoyer v. Neff was first reported, as far as I can tell, in Linda Silberman, Shaffer v. Heitner:
    The End of An Era, 53 N.Y.U. L. REV. 33, 33–34 (1978).

Leave a Reply