A law professor takes the edge off first-year jitters with the ultimate mnemonic device.


SUNG TO THE TUNE of the theme song to The Brady Bunch:

Here’s the story
of a law prof named Mark
who was merrily teaching contract law.
He favored the Socratic method,
asking tough questions and
pushing students to think them through.

Here’s the story
of a first-year student
who in 1980 handed Mark a poem about a case.
It was a bold move,
and it set off a creative spark in the class
that continues to this very day.

  • Image about mark-pettit-jr-the-brady-bunch-law-school-sumeet-ajmani-americanway
Mark Pettit Jr. is not a natural performer. He didn’t get the nod after tryouts for his college glee club, and he admits that he doesn’t have much rhythm. As for his singing voice? Well, if it were put to the American Idol judging panel, Randy Jackson would probably say he’s a little pitchy, Paula Abdul would dance around the issue and say he’s a likable guy, and Simon Cowell? He’d probably pull out one of his comments about bad karaoke. But, luckily, the only people judging Pettit’s singing performances are his students at the Boston University School of Law. Actually, they’re also his most enthusiastic songwriters.

A faculty member since 1977, Pettit is well known for (at least) three things: his enthusiasm for teaching, his ability to push his students to really think, and the songs he performs throughout the school year, especially in the yearlong contracts class he teaches for 1Ls (that’s first-year law students to the rest of us).

Before joining the Boston University faculty, Pettit specialized in consumer protection law at a University of Chicago–­affiliated legal-aid clinic on the city’s South Side. As a professor, he wanted to add a first-year class to his roster, which already included classes in evidence, commercial law, and consumer law. “Contracts were right up my alley,” he says.

His teaching style is, as he describes it, intimidating (but caring). It’s “sort of a modified Socratic method, which is teaching by asking students questions,” Pettit says. “They know that one very scary thing is that they will be called on to answer difficult questions in front of their peers without having volunteered. That’s very frightening for a lot of people. But that’s something lawyers have to do. Lawyers have to speak up in contentious situations, so we start that on day one. The more they do it, the more comfortable they become. So the atmosphere is somewhat tense.”

AS THE BRADY BUNCH–INSPIRED stanzas above say (and we apologize for the unfortunate fact that the song will probably stick in your mind for the rest of the day), an unexpected submission from one of his students back in 1980 steamrolled in to an add-on teaching method that tempers the tension quite a bit.
The student handed Pettit a poem he had written called “Thoughts on Mills v. Wyman.” The poem is based on an 1825 case.

A moral obligation
is a good consideration
to support remuneration
for a benefit received.
But should somehow obfuscation
serve to cloud articulation,
is the promisor’s relation
to the promisee relieved?

The court’s interpretation
leads at best to litigation,
should the promisor’s negation
of his duties be construed
to have been an affirmation
of this bankrupt corporation
Left with the usual situation,
the promisee gets screwed.

“I wasn’t expecting it at all,” says Pettit. “It was completely out of the blue and not solicited by me in any way.” With the student’s permission, Pettit read the poem to the class. Students took to it, and then the case-inspired poems began to roll in.

About five years later, Pettit faced a new challenge. While studying a pair of cases about champion boxer Jack Dempsey and the Brady Bunch dad’s portrayer, Robert Reed, a student presented him with a poem that came with this daunting direction: “to be sung to the tune of The Brady Bunch’s theme song.” “I said, ‘Whoa, wait a second. Reading poems is one thing, and singing is another,’” says Pettit. But, he wondered, would a bit of singing break down classroom decorum? The tune was familiar and seemed pretty easy, so Pettit gave it a go. “I tried, and it went over very big,” he says. “That’s part of the fun, of having the professor look a little ridiculous up there.”

He adds: “I think the main benefit of it is how it affects the atmosphere of the class. Law school can be a pretty scary place, a pretty intimidating atmosphere. I think students are more willing to play, more willing to volunteer, and less concerned about looking ridiculous themselves when their professor has just made himself look ridiculous by singing a Britney Spears song.”

Over the last 20-plus years, Pettit has amassed an extensive collection of what he calls “creative submissions.” While his modified Socratic method is still in full force during most of class time, he ends the study of many cases with a student-penned tune. “My rule is that I’ll try to perform any creative submission from a current member of the class, if it’s at all well done,” says Pettit. “And then I will select from the greatest-hits collection.”

While he describes his own musical taste as eclectic, Pettit favors classic and alternative rock. So quite a few of the tunes that have rolled in have forced the professor to do some studying of his own: He has to get to know -- really know -- the originals. Aware of his musical-knowledge limitations, students used to hand in CDs along with their submissions. But now Pettit depends on iTunes for his studies.

So what do his students think of his singing? “It’s not professional, but it’s better than what I can do, so I probably shouldn’t comment on it,” says Sumeet Ajmani, 24. A budding songwriter himself (he recently wrote the ditty “I Want a Harrier Jet”), Ajmani says this of Pettit’s soulful stylings: “It just makes it a little less intimidating when you’re faced with those difficult questions, [knowing] that there’s this warm, singing happy side that will come out at the end of the day as well.”

And like any well-known performer, Pettit has a standard song that he uses to wrap up every concert, er, year. Sung to the tune of Don McLean’s American Pie, it goes:

And now I’m singing why, why did I ever apply?
Gave up nutrition cause tuition
sucked my bank account dry.
It’s eight months since I’ve had
whiskey or rye
Oh, why did I ever apply?
Oh, why did I ever apply?

The song’s sweet last stanza is guaranteed to bring a tear to the eye. But if you want to hear it, you’ll have to apply to law school. It’s for students’ ears only.