The MPRE: my experience sitting the American legal ethics exam as an English lawyer

The Multi-state Professional Responsibility Exam, or “ethics exam” (MRPE) is one of three exams required in order to practice law in an American state (more on that here). Having just taken the exam, here are my thoughts as an English-trained solicitor currently practicing in London. 

🌟 UPDATE: I passed the exam! I exceeded the score I needed for California.

For more information on how the United States and English legal systems compare, read my post “Lawyering in America and England”. 

Introduction to the MPRE

The MPRE tests a prospective lawyer’s understanding of professional ethics regulation in the United States. The questions are based on the Model Rules of Professional Conduct (MRPC). The MPRE is a 60-item (50 scored questions and 10 non-scored questions), two-hour multiple-choice examination administered three times each year at established test centers across the country. You must pass the MPRE before you can be admitted to practice in the United States, but you can take it anytime after completing their first year of law school (including after sitting the bar exam itself).

I chose to sit the exam in New York City because: 1) it’s easiest to get to from London and 2) my husband works for a NY headquartered company, so he was able to meet up with colleagues while we were there. My score will be sent to my jurisdiction of choice, which happens to be California.

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I took the exam at Pace University in Manhattan. My only complaint was that the individual desks were really tiny, but other than that, it was a good test day experience. 

Test day

On the morning of the exam, I woke up at about 5AM: this was due to still being on “London time” and somewhat jet-lagged! I bought some coffee and brought it back to the hotel room, and spent about an hour doing some last minute cursory revision.

At 8AM, I walked the three blocks to the testing centre at Pace University. The reporting time was at 8:15, and there was already a massive queue of students and prospective lawyers outside. We were held in the queue for about 30 minutes, and I enjoyed chatting to a few people about our various career stages. I even spoke to a young guy who was resitting the exam after failing it previously. It’s important to maintain some perspective: failing isn’t the end of the world!

At 8:45AM we began to stream into the building, where people were turned away for having backpacks (the rules clearly state NO BAGS). At one point a test invigilator said, “if you have cellphones, don’t tell me about them! Just make sure they’re turned off and hidden away!” Phones, like bags, are also forbidden – but I suppose there was a slightly more lenient approach to having them on this occasion.

We then went through the process of having our admission tickets checked against our ID, and sent into our testing rooms. At Pace, we sat in small classrooms with about 20 people per room: there wasn’t any assigned seating, it was simply done on a first-come, first-seated basis.

By 9AM, everyone in my room was seated and the door was closed. The invigilator read instructions about the exam, and we had a few minutes to fill out the various bubbles with our names and other bits of information. At 9:10AM we were permitted to break open the seal of our papers and begin.

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The day before the exam, I spent a few hours studying in the famous Rose Reading Room at the New York Public Library

Preparation

I probably invested about 50 hours in studying for the MPRE over the course of two months. That time also includes “passive studying,” such as listening to MPRE lectures while on the tube, for example.

  • I first familiarised myself with the subject matter breakdown of the exam itself, available here on the NCBE website.
  • I listened to and read the BarMax lectures, which are free for the MPRE.
  • I did a lot of practice questions, using BarMax as well as AmeriBar.
  • I read through the MRPCs on the ABA website.
  • I identified which questions were tripping me up and what Rule they related to. I then read the explanatory comments for those particular rules, also available on the ABA website.
  • I read through all of the test day instructions at least one week prior to the exam itself, so I knew exactly where to go and what to bring (for example, a passport photo in addition to ID!)

Final thoughts and tips

  • Do focus your energies on practice questions when studying! This exam is not about understanding the theory or philosophy of professional ethics. You will not be writing essays about the merits of client confidentiality!
  • Do review the commentary for rules that you want more clarity on. The commentary is far less vague than the rules, and often includes practical examples.
  • Do not underestimate this exam. Especially as a foreign lawyer, I found some of the rules a bit counter intuitive. Don’t be tempted to cram the night before: I strongly recommend dedicating 20 hours to studying for this exam if you’re an American law student, and more if you’re a foreign lawyer.
  • Do feel free to contact LSAC ahead of time at MPREinfo@LSAC.org if you have questions, including questions about test center assignments. I originally registered to take the exam in Seattle but then changed my mind. LSAC staff were very helpful and the change only took one email to initiate.
  • Do not bother trying to memorise the rules!
  • Do not worry about drinking too much coffee on the morning of the exam. You will have plenty of opportunities to use the toilet – at least I did at my centre!
  • Do manage your time. You will have two minutes per question. Some questions only took me 20 seconds to answer. My advice? Go through the exam answering everything you can on a first pass. If you come across anything that requires a bit of contemplation, write the question number down on the test booklet, and return to it later. When you go through the exam for a second time, cross off the difficult questions from your earlier list.
  • Do not be afraid to guess, if for whatever reason you can’t come up with the answer. There are no penalties for wrong answers, so just give it your best shot!

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“The Wife” and rights of attribution: an intellectual property perspective

“The Wife” and rights of attribution: an intellectual property perspective

* * * CONTAINS SPOILERS * * *

In The Wife, Glenn Close plays Joan Castleman, the steadfast and amenable wife of celebrated novelist Joseph Castleman. But when Joe wins the Nobel Prize in Literature, things start to unravel between them. Is there more to Joan’s support than meets the eye? In this post, I consider the merits of a hypothetical intellectual property dispute between the couple, and an often-neglected right in particular.

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The Wife is a 2018 film from Swedish director Björn Runge, starring Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce. The script by Jane Anderson is based on Meg Wolitzer’s novel of the same name.

 

We first meet Joan Castleman – The Wife – the evening before her husband, celebrated novelist Joseph Castleman, wins the Nobel Prize in Literature. Praise and adoration for Joe’s prolific and highly acclaimed body of work are subsequently lavished upon him, while Joan and their two children watch on. But when the family arrives in Stockholm for the award ceremony, we begin to realise that Joe Castleman’s success rests on secrets and sacrifices.

Through the use of flashbacks to the 1950s and 1960s, we learn that Joan was a promising writer. While at college, her then-professor Joe Castleman encourages her writing, and the two eventually become romantically involved. But Joe is not content with merely lecturing about novels: he seeks to prove himself in the literary world as an author himself.

During a heated argument about his poorly written first attempt at a novel, Joe threatens to leave Joan. Desperate to keep him happy and aware of his deep desire for publication, Joan offers to “fix” Joe’s draft. Her amended version of The Walnut is published under Joe’s name, and becomes a literary sensation. For the next forty years, Joan continues to write as Joe gets all of the credit.

In Stockholm, Joan revisits The Walnut and considers the personal sacrifices she’s made in her marriage.

What makes The Wife so delicious to watch is the way in which Joan’s character transforms and gains a sense of agency. Having grown up in the sexist environs of mid-century America, Joan at first appears to have dutifully accepted her fate as an ignored, pushed-aside woman whose only roles have been “wife” and “mother.” The announcement of “Joe’s” Nobel Prize in 1996 serves as a catalyst, and through a series of small events Joan eventually gathers momentum and power – like a storm – to unleash her torrential anger. The Roger Ebert review perhaps puts it best, noting that Glenn Close’s Joan “undergoes a quietly powerful transformation from self-deprecating spouse to fiery force of nature.” The film ends on an uncertain yet quietly optimistic note, and we get the sense that Joan will reveal the truth – not only to her family, but to the public – in due course.

As I left the cinema, I found myself ruminating over Joan’s legal position. As the author of the novels, would she stand a chance at winning a copyright lawsuit?

Copyright arises automatically in original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. This means that from the moment an author expresses something unique in a tangible way – for example, by writing it down using a typewriter – the author obtains an intellectual property right in the work.

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A young Joan (played by Glenn Close’s daughter Annie Starke) supports her husband Joe in his literary ambitions (played by Henry Lloyd).

It’s pretty clear from the story that Joe did infringe Joan’s intellectual property. Unfortunately for Joan, even if she wanted to bring some sort of copyright lawsuit against her husband Joe, is is doubtful that she would win. Whereas a “negative defense” seeks to factually disprove an element of the plaintiff’s case, an “affirmative defense” defeats or mitigates the legal consequences of the defendant’s otherwise unlawful conduct.

Put simply, in my imagined Castleman copyright lawsuit scenario, Joe’s lawyers could admit that Joe stole Joan’s work, but argue that he’s innocent in the eyes of the law. Here are three ways in which this could be possible:

  • Firstly, a lawsuit for copyright infringement must typically be filed within the applicable limitation period. The US Copyright Act requires a civil lawsuit to be filed within three years after the infringing action occurred. As such, a copyright lawsuit concerning Joan’s older novels would be practically impossible.
  • Secondly, Joan’s conduct may evidence acquiescence, or consent. This means that Joan knowingly watched Joe infringe her IPRs, but failed to raise any objection to the infringement at the time. In some instances, silence or inaction can be a form of “inferred consent.”
  • Thirdly, if Joe can prove that he infringed Joan’s copyright believing in good faith that he was entitled to do so, estoppel could apply. “Estoppel” as a term might not known by many non-lawyers, but the fundamentals are rather straightforward: a court may prevent (estop) a person from making assertions or from going back on her word, thereby preventing unconscionable conduct.

 

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While working on a definitive biography of Joe Castleman, author Nathaniel Bone (played by Christian Slater) discovers some striking discrepancies in Joe’s writing style.

Nevertheless, Joan’s cause is not a hopeless one. As evidenced by Joan’s emotional attachment and identity tied to her novels, literary and artistic work often mean much more than just the economic value they can generate. The creations can be very special to the person who first produced them, and often speak to immense emotional and intellectual effort. As a result, copyright works can be protected in ways that are different to traditional forms of property.

Moral rights are a type of non-economic rights which are considered personal to an author, in that they are inalienable and fundamental to the individual. Even if an author assigns the intellectual property rights to her novels to a third party, she will still maintain the moral rights to the work.

Chief among the moral rights is the right of attribution, which is the right of an author to be credited as the author of a work in question. Moral rights have a long history in international copyright law, and are set out in the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, which governs international copyright law:

(1) Independently of the author’s economic rights, and even after the transfer of the said rights, the author shall have the right to claim authorship of the work and to object to any distortion, mutilation or other modification of, or other derogatory action in relation to the said work, which would be prejudicial to his honor or reputation.

Moral rights are well established in European legal systems, especially in French and German law. By contrast, moral rights in the United States have been somewhat neglected, as American law traditionally puts more significance on protecting economic interests. This has been changing in recent years however. In 2017, the US Copyright Office commenced a study to review how existing American law, including provisions found in Title 17 of the U.S. Code and other federal and state laws, protects the moral rights of attribution and integrity.

The laws which govern intellectual property rights have been forced to change in the face of challenges posed by the internet, disruptive technologies and an increasingly mobile population. Might moral rights be next on the agenda for American copyright reform? For Joan Castleman at least – whose conflict focuses almost entirely upon her identity and recognition as a writer – it’s easy to see why moral rights could be so important.

UK regulator to investigate social media influencers

UK regulator to investigate social media influencers

A number of celebrities and social media stars are being investigated by the Competition and Markets Authority, which says it has concerns that some influencers are failing to disclose that they are being paid for their endorsements.

In the early days of social media, Instagram and Facebook were seen as ways to connect with those closest to us, and to provide an insight into our private lives. Today however, models and celebrities can make thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of dollars with every photo they post, simply by featuring a product in their image. This nuanced form of targeted marketing deliberately blurs the line between “advertising” and “personal” sharing, and it’s big business. According to the Financial Times, Instagram influencers earned more than $1bn (£770m) in 2017.

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Pictured here is Chiara Ferragni, Italian fashion writer, influencer, businesswoman; and the first-ever blogger to be the focus of a Harvard Business School case study. Is this post of hers an advertisement, or is she just sharing the love?

Under American law, companies who work with influencers (defined as “key individuals with significant social media followings”) to promote products, services, or brands must follow certain rules, many of which are set out in Title XVI (Commercial Practices) of the Code of Federal Regulations. In particular, when there exists a connection between the endorser and the seller of the advertised product that might materially affect the weight or credibility of the endorsement, such connection must be fully disclosed. (16 C.F.R. §§ 255.0-255.5).

In practice, this means that when a company pays an individual – either in cash, or through discounts, free travel, or products – the company and influencer should enter a written contract. The contract should oblige the influencer to both “disclose its material connection to the advertiser clearly and conspicuously,” as well as “refrain from making any false or misleading statements about the products and services.”

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nearly identical post to Chiara’s above, but Victoria at inthefrow here has included #ad. Is that clear and conspicuous enough?

Here in the United Kingdom, where influencers are paid to promote, review or talk about a product on social media, the law requires that this must be made clear. The use of editorial content that promotes a product –also known as “advertorials” or “native advertising”– must clearly identify that the company has paid for the promotion.

Earlier this month, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) launched an investigation into whether consumers are being misled by celebrities who do not make clear that they have been paid, or otherwise rewarded, to endorse products online. In its press release, the CMA announced that it has already written to a range of celebrities and social media influencers to request information about their posts and the nature of the agreements they have in place with brands. This comes just weeks after Made in Chelsea star Louise Thompson was slapped on the wrist for failing to disclose an Instagram post as a paid-for advertisement for watchmaker Daniel Wellington.

The regulator is also asking consumers to share their experiences, and says it would “particularly benefit from hearing from people who have bought products which were endorsed on social media.”

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Notice that this post says at the top, “paid partnership with.” Is that better than #ad?

The investigation is being carried out under Part 8 of the Enterprise Act 2002 in respect of potential breaches of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. If an influencer ignores the CMA’s requests to comply with the law, an enforcement order in court. As for next steps, breaching such an order can lead to an unlimited fine or a jail term of up to two years. However, examples of meaningful penalties are still almost non-existent.

What do you think? Are influencer adverts easy enough to spot, without the hashtags and caveats? Interestingly, a study by Bazaarvoice and Morar Research found that nearly half of the 4,000 UK consumers polled are “fatigued” by repetitive influencer content. The majority also said they felt influencers were publishing content that was “too materialistic” and “misrepresented real life.” Notwithstanding this, the World Federation of Advertisers reported that 65% of multinational brands plan to increase their influencer investment. Perhaps there’s truth in what Chiara herself once quipped: “some loved me, some hated me—but they all followed me.”

 

Interested in this topic? Be sure to check out The Fashion Law’s Annual Brand and Influencer Report: The Good, Bad, and Highly Problematic. Featured photo above is Lena Perminova at Paris Fashion Week Autumn/Winter 2018 | Source: Getty Images

Lawyering in America and England

Lawyering in America and England

George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.” As an American who chose to pursue my legal career in London, I really enjoy considering legal issues from both an American and an English perspective, as I’ve done with Taylor Swift and defamation lawsuits, or the concept of celebrity “publicity rights”. But what about the differences in the legal system itself, or the education and training needed to become a lawyer? I’ve answered a few common questions below…

England and the United States are both “common law” jurisdictions. What does that mean and why does it matter?

Most legal systems are based on either Civil Code or Common Law. The system in which a lawyer practices can tell you a lot about their approach to their job, or legal philosophy more generally.

There are four main legal systems, including Civil (shown in blue) and Common Law (shown in pink). The other two systems are Religious law (Muslim, Jewish, etc) and Customary (indigenous, tribal, etc).

In Civil Law jurisdictions, which are also known as “Napoleonic” or “Roman” systems, the core principles are codified into a written collection of laws and procedures set out in the civil code. Lawyers are inquisitorial rather than adversarial, and it is the judge (or judges), who ask questions and demand evidence. In a civil law system, lawyers present arguments based on the evidence the court finds. The judge’s role is to establish the facts of the case and to apply the provisions of the applicable code.

Common Law, by contrast, puts great weight on court decisions, which are considered “law” with the same force of law as statutes. As such, common law courts have the authority to make law where no legislative statute exists, and statutes mean simply what courts interpret them to mean. In most scenarios, the two sides of a dispute argue before a neutral judge, who then makes a decision.

The United States, like most Commonwealth countries and former colonies, is an heir to the common law legal tradition of English law. Of course, certain practices traditionally allowed under English common law have been expressly outlawed by the American Constitution, such as bills of attainder and general search warrants. Practically speaking however, most Americans and Brits will have the same understanding of the roles of lawyers, trials, contracts, and much more.

Fun Fact: “Common law” derives its name from being common to all the King’s courts across England following the Norman Conquest of 1066. 

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