The Coyne Verdict

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Coyne Verdict

By: Darryl Caffee

When I decided I would pursue a faculty interview for the inaugural issue of The Verdict, there was no doubt in my mind who would be featured, Associate Dean Coyne. He was chosen not only because of his prominent role within the MSL community, but because of his willingness to openly speak on a variety of topics. And it was precisely that willingness that ultimately lead to a rather lengthy interview. Consequently, this interview was substantially reduced for the print copy so I urge readers to both read and listen to the full interview which is posted on The Verdict’s companion website. Time markers are listed next to each question for audio reference. Enjoy!

Which role do you prefer the most at MSL: Associate Dean, Professor, or Director of the trial team? (.18sec)

Answer: I prefer teaching over anything else. I enjoy everything I do, I love being associate dean; I love being a professor here and I love being the director of the trial advocacy program. I love all of the various roles I have, but the role I enjoy most is being the teacher, in classroom where I can help students find their path in the law.

You’re from Dorchester, what does that mean to you? (1:37)

Answer: It means quite a bit to me. My origins are like many of our law students here. I grew up in a working class and diverse neighborhood. What it meant, and what I think it means to a lot of people who are from that area is that we were taught lessons early on, that if you work extraordinarily hard and didn’t make excuses for why something couldn’t be done, but attempted to do what you could everyday and upon every opportunity, you could achieve quite a bit.

What first attracted you to the practice of law? (3:48)

Answer: The skills of a lawyer are things that people can draw on. You can provide comfort and assistance to people. It really attracted me because helping people are my observations of what my father did as a lawyer. Whether it was Uncle Jimmy, or someone who was in trouble who needed his assistance and I thought that would be a way I’d enjoy spending my professional life.

Your brother is also an attorney, so who’s the best attorney in the family? (5:20)

Answer: He is, he clerked for Supreme Court in Maine for a year; he was also the District Attorney for a couple of years. He’s a trial lawyer as well. He tried a few very significant cases. He’s tried more criminal cases than civil. I would differ to him because he’s my older brother.

When you were in law school, what were your aspirations, the first day of school? (6:05)

Answer: I was always torn between being a teacher and a lawyer. My sister is a teacher; my mother was a secretary in Boston public schools; my sister-in-law teaches as well. I never thought about teaching law until sometime after school when I was practicing law in Boston over a coincidental exchange. I thought maybe I could combine the two things I love, teaching and law, and it all just fell together very nicely.

When you were in law school, what was your most challenging subject and how did you manage to overcome those challenges? (7:35)

Answer: I had two believe it or not, both of which with similar results, one of them oddly enough was evidence and the other one would have been UCC.

For evidence we had a great, great guy, nice guy, who was our professor but he wasn’t really a good teacher at all. The reason it was difficult was because it was a course you were going to have to teach yourself if you were really going to learn it. In the process I learned it better. Instead of simply learning in class and looking at the notes, I had to learn it more thoroughly. Evidence as you know is a real love of mine.

The other course was UCC. With all due respect for Professor Sullivan, I hated the course, I hated the teacher, and more often than not I couldn’t even sit for the full class. It became a real chore and I worked at it enough to pass the course with a C . The students at MSL are fortunate to have a teacher as interesting as Professor Sullivan to teach it here.

How many years have you been practicing law? (9:55)

Answer: 27 years since 1983.

Was there ever a time you wanted to quit? (10:05)

Answer: No, but with a caveat, I had one case in particular that I felt very strongly that we were on the right side of the case. I said if we didn’t win I would absolutely consider leaving the practice of law, because that would mean there really is no justice, because if you don’t have faith in the system to do the right thing and I knew it wouldn’t always, it gave me serious pause as to whether I could continue to advocate. (Referring to MSL v. ABA)

Describe the most memorable moment or greatest achievement in litigation? (13:03)

Answer: Well I’ll give you two, one in part is monetarily because in part that’s what we’re about. I tried a case with the Dean in Philadelphia for 90 days. We represented C.D. Ambrosia Trucking Co. of New Castle Penn., Erie Penn. Port Authority from Erie PA., and the Rainy Dot Company. We represented them against the four major railroad companies in the country. We were able to obtain at that point in time what was the largest anti-trust verdict ever back in 1990, 700 million. Now our clients had a relatively small piece of that because there were fifteen different plaintiffs and we represented three, so their damages weren’t 700 million.

The pictures and the clock are mementos from two other cases. Well the pictures and the clock are the entire fee for those two cases but it wasn’t about money. I represented two groups of foster parents who had been promised that the two children would be in pre-adoptive homes. However, later in the process the state decided that they would rather take the children away from them and give them to another family. And they both were very, very difficult cases to fight but ultimately the children ended up in a place where my clients wanted to keep them.

They were completely different ends of the spectrum because one has everything to do with money and the other has absolutely nothing to do with money, but it had to do with being right, and being just.

Do you typically take mementos, from you victories? (18:01)

Answer: [laughs] You know I do. I like to remember the small victories and the pleasures along the way. I take a lot of photographs and I have little things that remind me of things. Not that you would not have them in your memory otherwise. But I think with the practice of law and our life in general that were going to suffer enough defeats along the way and you have to be ready to celebrate the small victories, the milestones, and to appreciate them and to slow it all down to enjoy the moment. So I like to take little mementos of things.

How does the man you are in the court room, affect that man you are in the classroom? (20:03)

Answer: I think that may be closer to the same person. Now that person may be different from the person who is at home and around others and things like that. I think as a teacher you do many of the things you do when you’re teaching to a judge or a jury. You need to project; you need to be organized; you need to think about the material your trying to present and convey; and figure out how to reach your audience.

What is your proudest moment of being a part of MSL? (21:18)

Answer: Again, there is not one, many, many times, with the trial advocacy teams and with professor Malaguti’s appellate advocacy teams. My proudest moments as both a professor and administrator in the law school is to see our law students work so incredible hard and then go compete against students from other law schools who believe they are better than we are and to be able to kick their butt. Those are my proudest moments because what it says is we haven’t wasted 20 years of our lives building a program that has a faulty foundation.

What do you believe is the biggest misconception about MSL? (23:04)

Answer: I think too often it is the issue of ABA. I do think it’s changing, but people too easily rely on “well their not ABA accredited” but what’s funny about it is people don’t slow it down and really take a step back and think about why that is and what that might mean. […]Low cost affordable accessible law schools that allow students to leave school and compete with the established market are disfavored and they are disfavored because they present competition. So I think the whole notion that the ABA is an unbiased accreditor of law schools is just hocus. It’s distressing that, that perception is at times still out there.

Name one thing the student body does well, and one that the student body must improve upon? (26:38)

Answer: Good- I think they really support one another well. They really care about each other’s success. I think it’s incredibly important to have an environment where students respect one another. That’s not the way it is at many other law schools.

Better- This will go more into the classroom and this is a more recent focus of mine, I think there’s a good understanding of the law but I don’t think students take that understanding as well as they should to the next level and really work at articulating in really well thought out comprehensive sentences that are eloquently expressed.

I’ve heard you wanted case prep to be the first class started here why is that? (27:52)

Answer: Because I think too often law schools have taught law that is completely divorced from the actually practice of law, so it was important for me when I came here and helped start the law school that is wasn’t a purely academic experience of teaching you to think like a lawyer. If you want to make a better lawyer then don’t just teach them how to think like a lawyer, you teach them how to act, analyze, and strategize like a lawyer. And case prep allows you to do it under the tutelage of practicing lawyers and judges who can tell you what mistakes you made. It’s much closer to adopting the medical school model in a law school.

How/What can students do if they would like to get involved? (29:14)

Answer: I think it starts from day one. It starts with coming to class early on in your law school career, every class prepared ready to stand up and speak about the cases and defend your position even when challenged by the professor or other students. Also, do really well in your first year of law school. I look at academic records, I look at your GPA’s, I look at the students who I think are not just excelling verbally in the classroom but who have done well academically and maybe just haven’t found their voice yet and just draw on them as well.

I’m going to provide you with 3 quotes from, please tell me which best identifies you? (33:35)

Answer: Disclaimer prior to answer I’m not, we’re not (referring to other professors) are going to be everyone’s cup of tea. When you’re trying to push students and get them to the next level and you’re going to have some people that don’t like you, I learned a long time ago that I’m comfortable In my own skin. As my friend Clynetta once said, “There’s always going to be haters out there” and I can live with that.

“There's only one reason people don't like Mike: he's a demanding teacher. He sets high standards and he expects you to meet them. If you put in the effort, he will provide all the tools you could need to succeed. Yes, he's got an ego, but he has damn well earned the right to have one. I will take him above any other instructor for any class.”

Answer: I like that, obviously who wouldn’t like that, except the ego part but listen I had a trial lawyer tell me recently In respect to a case he was going to handle for a family friend, that in this business from trial lawyers, you can either be ego or no ego because there really is no middle and unfortunately I have an ego. I like to win and I like to be competitive. I’ll accept that criticizing because the rest of it is complementary.

“Excellent, professional, demanding. Professor Coyne engaged the class in the subject every time he entered the room. Students not only responded but became enthusiastic about being involved in a challenging subject an exceptional educator.”

Answer: That’s very nice and very kind.

“Hands-down, best professor I had at MSL, excellent at teaching the material which still resonates with me. However, the previous posters are on the money about him appearing not to care about anyone but his favorites. He will look right through you, arrogant and cocky beyond belief.”

Answer: I would almost agree with the arrogant and cocky, it’s the beyond belief that I would take exception. Though I do believe I’m confident rather than arrogant. I think there is a big difference. And I would hope people don’t see me as not caring or singling out some for special treatment because that charge is really worrisome. I think I can see where it comes from because I have such a close interaction with an awful lot of students who I work with on the trial teams and who are with me maybe as much as 20 hrs a week. Really they are not just deserving of my additional attention and respect they are deserving of their fellow students attention and respect because they are working extraordinarily hard not just for their own benefit but for the benefit of their fellow students and the institution.

So which quote best represents you?

Answer: I’ll be honest to some extent I think all three describe me, so I can see some truth in each of them. I’d like to think its just number two because number two doesn’t say anything bad. But I do recognize that there’s some plausibility in number one and number three so I don’t know. It’s not up to me to decide which one represents me the best it’s up for your guys to say which one represents me the best.

You recently published an article titled “Law School for the White and Wealthy. Why did you choose that title? (40:10)

Answer: Because that’s a title that will grab people attention, and I also think it happens to be 110% true. I don’t think a lot of people recognize or maybe they just don’t care that our profession is becoming more and more exclusive and its becoming the province for the wealthy and its becoming the province of stupid rich white kids and I think that, that says a lot of terrible things about our profession when we don’t allow the legal professor to provide that ladder of opportunity that it historically has. It provided it to me, it provided it to my brother, and it provided it to a lot of people we know that didn’t have that much money.

Why should students register for classes with you? (44:00)

Answer: Because I will train them to not only know the law but how to apply it and how to think like a lawyer and how to be a lawyer. I don’t except excuses for why something can’t be done and neither should they. I will work as hard as they do in trying to make sure they achieve what the set out to achieve when they came to law school.

How do you want the graduating class to remember MSL? (44:51)

Answer: I hope they think about it as being a really good experience. Meaning they really enjoyed their time here and enjoyed all the professors. Although that may be unrealistic, and that they really appreciated the efforts that we go to try and make sure they have every opportunity to both pass the bar and be great lawyers.

Where do you see MSL the day you retire? (45.25)

Answer: I don’t think I’ll be retiring, I could see some point slowing down a little bit but I don’t see retiring. More importantly where do I see MSL in twenty years? I really do see us actually having won this battle over the next twenty years to allow multiple models of legal education to exist, and then allowing those graduates to take the bar exam wherever they chose.

The Coyne Verdict Audio


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