Monthly Archives: September 2014

A Polysynthetic Land

Greenland is a place of many dialects. Kalaallisu is spoken in the west; Tunumiisut in the East; and Inukun in the north. All three are very different – so different that a Greenlander from Nuuk, the country’s capital, would find it difficult to understand someone from Thule, in the north.

Regardless of dialect, as a recent visitor, I found the language impenetrable. The Greenlandic language is polysynthetic, meaning that words are created by adding multiple affixes. This results in long words that overflow with syllables – for example, “Paasisinnaannginnakkummi” (“I don’t understand”).

If you have ever wondered if you can sprain your tongue, try speaking Greenlandic.

Despite the danger of injury for foreigners attempting even basic phrases, the polysynthetic nature of the language allows for nuance and subtlety absent in other languages. In this respect it is a reflection of the country itself, a place where nothing is quite what you anticipate. This thought initially occurred to me when I was looking out the window of the hostel where we were staying on our first evening in the small community of Tasiilaq. At almost midnight, the sky was still bright, presenting a lustrous panorama from the hillside above the bay. Reverberating from the water below was the sound of a child’s joyous yelling as she was pulled behind a boat waterskiing – on thirty-degree water.

Nothing is as you expect in Greenland.


Along with two of my children, a friend, and a group of others adventurers, we kayaked and camped for two weeks exploring the seemingly pristine fjords and small colorful communities of the world’s largest island. Approaching from the water we discovered picturesque towns with buildings painted red, green, blue, and grey reflecting the country’s history of Danish influence. In most, drying fish hung from the rafters of porches like Chinese lanterns; occasionally, a polar bear skin would be stretched over a clothesline curing in the sun. But cultural influences of the west abounded as candy wrappers, plastic bags, and omnipresent empty Tuborg beer cans littered the landscape around these towns. (But what do you do with trash when you don’t have refuse pickup or even a dump?)

Again, I found that nothing is what you think in Greenland.

The evidence of climate change was striking. We would paddle for miles down fjords framed by towering ridges filled with countless glaciers. But most had receded 40 – 50% of the distance from their terminal moraines. Looking at the glaciers on our ten-year old topographical map, it was apparent that much of this decline has occurred very recently. For us, it was disheartening to see the rapid degradation of this spectacular wilderness. Yet, when I shared this sentiment with Axelie, an English speaking local, he had a different reaction. “The melting ice cap is good for us. I’m going to strike it rich in gold mining. As the ice recedes, I’ve found some good places to stake my claims.”

Yet another example of how Greenland defies expectations.


Over the course of our visit, we saw only a handful of ringed seals. Where were all the sea mammals? On previous kayaking trips in Alaska and the Canadian Arctic, seals, walruses and whales were a daily sight. In Greenland, the waters were silent. Axelie provided an answer: “The animals and people used to live in balance, but now we have speedboats, snowmobiles and long range rifles.” We witnessed this first-hand when two large boats retrieved us and our gear at the end of the trip. As our Greenlandic drivers drove through the fjords threading between ice floes, one of them spotted a whale spout and we came to a stop to watch. As we did, I noticed both drivers locking in the GPS coordinates and sending frantic messages. It wasn’t a leap to imagine a stream of hunters descending on the area after we were gone.

Nothing was as I expected in Greenland.

From escarpments above the fjords, the water provided an impression of quiet and solitude. Perfect stillness except endless miles of icebergs sailing slowly past pushed by the mild ocean breeze. Rarely have I experienced such silence. Viewed from a kayak, however, everything was different. For days we wove through icebergs of every shape and size imaginable – castellated points reaching hundreds of feet in the air; giant arches; an ice blue Pantheon; an aircraft carrier; an enormous toadstool. But the view was far from silent. Instead, we were bombarded with a cacophony of sounds: icebergs splintering and shattering with a booming sound like a firing cannon; water cupping under ice shelves; the sound of ice melts dripping into the water. All of this against the constant backdrop of small floating bits of glacial ice cracking and fizzing as it released air that had been trapped from a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth.


If’ you’re interested in reading more about Greenland, here are a few books I highly recommend:
– Arctic Adventures/The Arctic Year by Peter Freuchen;
– This Cold Heaven by Gretel Ehrlich
– An African in Greenland by Te’te’-Michel Kpomassie.

Here are some more photographs of Greenland  that you may enjoy. (And, if you do, help my son to get off the “Daddy Dole” and earn money for college by going to the products page and purchasing something.)

Qujanarsuaq (Thank you)


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Reinventing Law School

(I’m posting an op-ed that appeared in the Huffington Post on September 18, 2014. I  promise that I will get off my butt and start blogging again in the near future.)

Law school was once considered a ticket to prestige, job security, and career satisfaction. Not anymore. According to a new analysis by the National Law Journal, applications to U.S. law schools have declined by more than 37 percent since 2010.

It’s easy to see why. Today’s law students face a contracting job market, massive student debt, stiff competition from abroad, and low job-satisfaction rates.

Law schools must rethink their approach. Like medical schools, they should offer specialized, practical training that ensures students are career-ready the day they graduate.

The nation’s current crop of aspiring attorneys has plenty to worry about. The average student at a private law school will graduate with about $125,000 of debt. The job market for new lawyers is worse than it’s been in two decades, according to a new report from the National Association for Law Placement. In fact, the employment rate for recent graduates has fallen for six straight years.

Making matters worse, most law students leave school ill-prepared for real-world work. For instance, a second-year law student I mentor loved interning at a technology company this summer. Yet she doesn’t think she’ll be able to get a job there, as her school doesn’t offer the specialized education she needs to even apply.

Her problem is hardly new. When I graduated from Santa Clara Law in 1984, I had no training in areas like intellectual property law, contract negotiation, or SEC filings. And I received no training that would help in the business world, like how to deal with HR disputes or handle basic accounting. I was, however, required to spend countless hours studying the intricacies of community property law, civil procedure, and countless other subjects that had little relevance to my chosen career.

Fortunately, I was able to learn on the job. But in today’s environment, most companies are reluctant to invest in the extensive training that even the most brilliant new lawyers require. Instead, many recent grads end up at established law firms, with the hopes of receiving more specialized training and pursuing their real interests once they’ve paid off their loans. Such transitions, however, are hard to pull off, because attorneys trained at large law firms often require retraining once they come in-house.

Compared to attorneys at big firms, in-house lawyers need to understand business basics, be comfortable with risk, and have strong communication skills. Elaborately-worded, five-page emails might be fine at a big law firm trying to cover its bases. But when you’re answering a legal question for a time-crunched CEO, brevity and clarity are far more important. The Digital Age has also hurt job prospects for recent U.S. law school graduates, as legal work has become increasingly portable. Today, companies are able to move work to more cost-effective locations. Some work can even be handled abroad.

Fortunately, law schools can address these challenges by adopting a more practical, career-specific approach to training. Consider the “ReInvent Law Laboratory” at Michigan State. The program was created, in part, to mix technology into the law school’s curriculum. Today, the Law Lab hosts conferences across the world that have been called “TED for lawyers.” The creators hope that by combining tech and law, lawyers will eventually revolutionize their services to better serve the public. At the University of Colorado, the law school offers a four-week Tech Lawyer Accelerator program. After the program ends, students spend a semester working for a startup. As with Northwestern University, the school is working to integrate law with business and technology.

A revamped American system might take its cue from medical schools. Under this model, second and third-year law students would choose a specialty track focused on classes relevant to working in-house, at a law firm, in the public sector, or at a nonprofit. Students would also spend time with a range of practicing lawyers, learning on-the-job in several subspecialties of their chosen field — similar to the rotations of a surgical resident. At the same time, law schools could offer classes in practical business skills like public speaking, corporate management, or even spreadsheet basics.

None of these proposals will be possible, of course, without dramatic reforms by the nation’s bar associations. Indeed, the bar examination’s emphasis on theoretical issues is a chief reason law schools fail to prepare students for the actual practice of law.

A legal-education overhaul of this sort would leave law students better equipped to realize their professional goals, while also making them far more attractive to potential employers. Until law schools and bar associations recognize the need for reform, legal education will remain a risky investment.

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