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The Real World – Property 102

April 30th, 2011

“If you want it, here it is, come and get it, but you better worry ’cause it’s costs some cash.”

I was a first year law student attending my first day of class at the College of William and Mary and espoused with a thirst to for knowledge – to learn “the law.” Socrates would have been proud.

The course was titled, Property 101. Professor Pompous stood before the class. “Who among you,” he queried, “believes that possession is 9/10th of the law?” I raised my hand. So did many of my classmates; the rest wondering if it was a trick question. “Put down your hands,” he said with a smile. “By the end of the year you will learn that ‘possession’ is meaningless. The rule of law prevails.”

And so we journeyed through the course – from real property to personal property:

  • Leasehold rights passed from lords to knights.
  • Title chains lost and gained.
  • Adverse possession? An ownership obsession.
  • Riparian rights about the water? Does it matter – cash or barter.
  • Who owns the air? Sometimes its shared.
  • The statute of frauds; decisions narrow and broad.
  • Equitable conversion and ownership reversion.
  • Inter vivos gifts and partnership rifts.

He went on and on.   

By May, I was convinced. Later, imbued with confidence and my knowledge of “the law”, I emerged from the ivory tower of learning, passed the bar exam and began to practice law. It took about a month to learn that everything Professor Pompous taught me was a fairy tale. If John’s tool shed is on Jane’s land, she needs to pay a lawyer to sue him to have her day in court. That takes time and money. If she wins, he can appeal. If he loses the appeal and he still doesn’t remove the shed, she’s got to sue to enforce the judgment. If she doesn’t have the patience or the money, she loses.

My world was shattered. It was like learning that there was no Santa Clause, that the Easter Bunny didn’t eat the carrot I had left the night before.

I looked it up. When Professor Pompous graduated from law school, he worked for a “white shoe” corporate law firm long enough to have a cup of coffee. Then he decided to teach. He didn’t know jack.

In the real world, possession may not be 9/10 th of the law, but it’s better than half.

  1. Chris Paul
    May 2nd, 2011 at 15:24 | #1

    Don – May I share this? Good stuff. Chris

  2. May 3rd, 2011 at 16:12 | #2

    Sure. Glad you liked it. I remember you were there when he tried to make us drink the Koolade! @Chris Paul

  3. RJ
    May 12th, 2011 at 14:50 | #3

    I have no JD, but I do know that possession is “9 points of the law” not 9/10.
    How the hell are you?

  4. May 12th, 2011 at 16:00 | #4
  5. Mark Walker
    November 3rd, 2011 at 12:02 | #5

    Loved the story. Learned that lesson the hard way three years ago and I have yet to recover my passion for hte law. I need help getting that back. Anyone out there have a suggestion?

    mark walker

  6. November 17th, 2011 at 13:49 | #6

    Is this a true recollection? You’re a little harsh on the professor, Don. Do you know many lawyers who are not pompous?

  7. Don Kiley
    November 17th, 2011 at 17:29 | #7


    It’s a true story. BTW, theoretically, he was right. It’s just that he ignored how things apply in the real world.


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