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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Sounded Like a Train

Sirens were blowing, clouds spat rain.
And as the thing came through, I swear, it sounded like a train. -- Drive-By Truckers

I once toured what was left of a neighborhood in the aftermath of an F-5 tornado.

I mention it only because it’s not wholly unlike the brief respite that follows one’s first semester of law school. You swing open the cellar door and, yes, everything looks like hell, but the sun is shining, the birds are chirping and the shops are transacting business as always. You’re disoriented, but you think with a few adjustments, a little paint applied here, a little chainsaw there, you might restore your own version of order and resume your place for a time among those whose noses are not buried in weighty texts of 19th-century judicial opinions.

Still, you’re aware of a fundamental shift in the chemical makeup of the atmosphere.  

With the fall semester behind me, I can allow myself a guiltless stroll through the mall, but not without wondering whether the man selling homemade soap from a cart is there by virtue of license or lease and what recourse might be available were he forced to trade his spot outside the sporting-goods store for one in front of Bath & Body Works.

Back at home, I draw a two-month-old issue of Vanity Fair from its shrinkwrap and start to read an excerpt from a book about the NBC debacle involving Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and the showdown for dominion of late-night television. The whole hostile mess centered on shrewd contractual provisions and costly reliance on withdrawn promises. Hey, I think, newly energized, that’s a clear case of promissory estoppel if I ever saw one. I have four entire months of law school under my belt and, by golly, I think I could really do something with this.

All right, I’m kidding about that last part, although it wouldn’t have surprised me had that turned out to be one of the pitfalls of going to law school. Gain a hard-won shred of knowledge and suddenly think you’re Clarence Darrow. Mercifully, though, I’ve witnessed little, if any, of that. We are a fairly grounded lot on the whole, grounded enough to recognize that our ostensible grasp of the law at this point bears direct relation to the ease with which our friends and family are confounded. These are the people who are compelled by holiday spirit to take us in, remember, assuming we don’t bore them to death first.

Anyway, I have more stories, but I’m plagued by a vague sense that something is left undone, a gnawing perception of an undefined and yet unfulfilled commitment, a faucet left running or some burner left aflame.

“Oh, yeah,” chuckled a friend, reliving his own law-school experience. “They didn’t tell you about the postpartum depression? That’s next, all right. You won’t know what to do with yourself.”

 I wouldn’t call it depression, just an unshakeable sense for the past several days that wherever I am and whatever I’m doing, I should be somewhere that isn’t there, doing something that isn’t that. And then it occurs to me that perhaps the tornado has formed not outside the cellar but within. Old thought patterns are stripped from the hinges, ingrained approaches to analysis twisted out of the mud and exposed at the roots.

Before long, it will be time to shut the door again and resynchronize our internal timing mechanisms to operate on accelerated law-school time. For now, though, we are suspended in a halcyon moment of post-exam, pre-grade posting satisfaction at having cleared a significant hurdle. I’m thinking I might mark the occasion with another trip to the mall, where I will march past the man with the soap cart and shop for a pair of boots. That’s right, boots. A nice, sturdy pair, especially suited to weathering tornadoes.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Train A Comin'

When it’s 4:37 a.m. and and you're staring down a barrel at law-school finals and the caffeine is pulsing in the bloodstream and the downstairs neighbor with the speaker that goes to eleven is finally in bed and you no longer know your res judicata from your res ipsa loquitur, it pays to pause and reflect on that for which you’re thankful.

There is, for instance, my disparate yet oddly cohesive circle of old friends, most of whom have refrained from writing me off in spite of my absence from their lives. There is my equally disparate cluster of new ones, unified in some cases by nothing more than common experience, shambling around in an unkempt finals-week stupor. There are other things – shoes on my feet, blankets on my bed, Jell-o pudding cups in my refrigerator – but I can’t think anymore. I’m in law school, my default excuse for everything I both do and neglect to do these days, and I endured my first exam today.

The term “final” in the law-school context is misemployed. The word implies there was something prior to it, some militating factor aside from your performance on a three-hour smackdown that might tip the scales in your favor. That isn’t the case, though. A syllabus might make noise about class participation, but it’s really all about the exam.

Here at Brandeis, the Academic Success office does a marvelous job of preparing first-year students for this stress-inducing battery of tests. So diligent is it at drawing your attention to distant whistles and flashing yellow lights that, at some point, you just want the train to go ahead and roll. And then it does and you stagger to your feet emboldened and brace your chin for the next one. I met the first with guarded optimism, secure in the belief that I knew just about all I was going to know for the time being about subleases versus assignments, regulatory takings as compared to exactions. There are points I know I captured and others I suspect I lost, but there’s no time for second-guessing. There is smoke on the horizon. Another train approaches and her name is Civil Procedure, the Emily Post of the American judicial system.

For big-picture thinkers, the Federal Rules are bothersome details, traffic signs impeding our otherwise free-spirited peel across the judicial landscape. But navigate them we must, and I am under the tutelage of a brilliant legal scholar who traverses them with the ease of a figure-skater, executing bored triple axels while the rest of us wobble on our blades and cling to the rails. He’s an artist, you might say, and Civil Procedure is his medium, a street magician fanning out cards, goading tourists to pick a rule, any rule. The best always make it look easy. But I submit to you, brethren, that this man is toying with us, him with his eloquent speech and his unthreatening demeanor and his hypothetical bequeathments to our newly christened Paris Hilton School of, Like, Law. I tell you we are lulled into false confidence by his policy allowing students to use “anything nonliving” as an aid in completing the exam. Google, hornbooks, Ouija boards, as long as it isn’t breathing, it’s all fair play. I say it’s professor-speak for “Scream as loud you want. No one’s going to hear.”

Then again, this could all be the sleep deprivation talking. So, back to that list of things I’m thankful for. Green tea. November sunshine on my face. Oh, and my Ipod. Especially my Ipod. In its honor, I’m assembling an official 1L playlist to usher my classmates and me through the remaining three finals. Should you have recommendations, they’ll be given all due consideration.  

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Lisa Marie and the Half-Bat Boy

I’m standing in the supermarket checkout line, idly considering the Erie Doctrine the way people shopping for groceries generally do, when I spot a tabloid headline, something to the effect that Lisa Marie’s pals are predicting she’ll end up as fat as Elvis. It was just the kind of lowbrow literary heroin I used to blame for spoiling the public appetite for real news. But standing there months removed from the last time I read something just because I wanted to read it, from anything that didn’t contain passages like “the lower court’s reasoning is not wholly inconsistent with the conclusion with which we now decline to concur,” I am overcome with the need to know. Precisely what is Lisa Marie Presley eating and in what quantity is she eating it? Moreover, what do inside sources close to the couple make of the Ashton Kutcher cheating scandal? And what of that half-boy, half-bat born in Brazil? I want, no, need, to know, and yet I am precluded from knowing, which makes me need to know all the more. I can’t explain it, except to say that law school is all vegetable and no dessert and a girl craves a sugar fix now and again.

Back at the law school, we turned in our 3,000-word open memos, (2,933, to be precise), a project that accounts for 20 percent of one’s final grade in Basic Legal Skills and which occupied roughly 92 percent of my time in the days leading up to the deadline. In the meantime, we received the first scores of our law-school careers, returned along with mercilessly defaced copies of the closed memos we turned in last month. Talk of grades is generally discouraged in law school, and for good reason. It’s a form of locker-room preening that tends to pit the haves against the have-nots in a psychologically destructive way. Still, at a time when you have so few hooks on which to hang your self-worth, it’s tempting to compare one’s socks and underwear to another’s shiny new bike. That being said, we have, by and large, done a yeoman’s job of keeping that in perspective. In other words, we’ve moved from stoop-shouldered therapy sessions into a post-memo malaise. We can’t afford to linger here, though. Reading assignments are letting up. Professors are scheduling review sessions. We’re on the brink of a full-bore lurch toward final exams. We must collect ourselves, must reflect and review. We must grapple with half-absorbed concepts from three months ago.

A few of us are already showing the strain. One of my colleagues published a Facebook obituary for a destroyed pair of sunglasses. A second-year student with whom I have little more than a nodding acquaintance stopped me in the hallway to recount a dream in which I personally tried to poison him. It has happened to me as well. I have thought fleetingly that, were I to resort to slitting my own wrists, I would try to maintain consciousness long enough to smear the words “Erie Doctrine” in my own blood on the linoleum. Yes, these are trying times, my friends, but soldier on we must. Lisa Marie and the half-bat boy can wait until Christmas break.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Senators, muffins and short-term memory loss

Before law school, I hadn’t much considered the possibility that a human brain might have a finite capacity and that, when it reaches the saturation point, the only way a new thing can go in is if an old thing comes out.  I am, for example, gaining confidence in my ability to navigate the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. But I forget the name for those stitched-together pieces of leather you put on your feet to keep from going barefoot.

I used to talk literature and politics. Try drawing your friends into a spirited debate on the drawbacks of applying the doctrine of promissory estoppel and you’re liable to end up shouting into the void that you needed new friends anyway. My reasoning is a scratched recording, moments of clarity interrupted at regular intervals by jarring confusion. 

Last week, a day or two after Chris Matthews interviewed Jack Conway in front of the law school, an attorney whom I know from my newspaper days and who is peripherally involved in Conway’s U.S. Senate campaign wanted to chat about the race. I’m digressing here, but I remarked with dismay that it doesn't look good. My observation was that, as cute brunettes go, Conway is as good as anything the Republicans have trotted out lately, but the Democrats just can’t seem to use lowball tactics with a straight face. Like all people who are good at one thing or another, the truly vicious and dumb make it look easy. Left to the unskilled, mud wrestling with Aqua Buddha just feels awkward and sweaty. In the meantime, Rand Paul gets a pass for deeming Medicaid “inter-generational welfare” and suggesting that the need for federal oversight of the mining industry is overstated, since nobody’s going to take a really dangerous job anyway. Right.

Anyway, I emerged bleary-eyed from the library just yesterday and fell into conversation with a pair of the deans. One of them mentioned some breaking news about a fire at Fort Knox. Naturally, I launched into a story about how I used to live in a town with a dog-food plant that on certain days smelled incongruously like blueberry muffins. At the time, it made sense. It’s only in retrospect that I recall the polite, vaguely disturbed head nodding generally reserved for people who just can’t help it.

It seems to me the onset of cooler weather has precipitated a climate change within the law school as well. Some days, the silence is palpable. As far as I can tell, it’s a low-grade anxiety that falls somewhere south of panic and north of that unspoiled sense of entitlement we enjoyed 10 weeks ago. There exists an increasing uncertainty as to our fates. There are idle murmurs of lost jobs that might be regained, alternative paths that might be explored in the event law school declines to deal with us favorably. There is pressure to draft course outlines, pressure to research and write 3,000-word memorandums, pressure to digest concepts of staggering complexity. There is pressure. And then there are those who have been relegated to the margins of our lives. “They don’t understand,” a colleague told me, “that it never ends.” It’s true. Law-school assignments are like zombies. Kill one and 10 more rise up in its place. And then the one you thought was dead isn’t dead after all.

Clouds have silver linings, though. At least one of my Section 2 classmates chooses baking as a means of relieving stress and the rest of the class benefits. I sat down to take a practice midterm in Contracts yesterday and discovered I knew more about that confounding topic than I had given myself credit for. Finally, I can’t explain it, but I’m filled with a sense of forward momentum I haven’t experienced in a long time.

Now, I’ll get out of here while I still remember where I live and hope I don’t lock my keys in the, uh, oh, you know, that thing with the wheels that go round and round, that thing that goes varroom when you start it up. Crap. It’ll come to me.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The First Punch is the Hardest

A friend of mine who earned his bar card some years ago insists that the first law-school exam is like the first punch in the boxing ring. The pain is blinding, but it numbs your face for the blows to come. After taking my first exam Friday, I hope he's right.

Legal Research is the Rodney Dangerfield of the first-year curriculum. It’s the law-school equivalent of Library Science and, according to our academic-success coordinator, is also the course most frequently failed. Its low-priority status is unjustified, considering that effective research skills are crucial if one is to become an effective lawyer. Aside from the fact that it’s a one-hour credit, I think the trouble is that it suffers from an abundance of clarity. Where the doctrinal and writing classes require a maddening degree of analytical thought, Legal Research is a more-or-less orderly plod through what is nevertheless a daunting array of resources. But because it is so straightforward, makes such utter sense within the nebulous context of everything else we do, it would be easy to lull oneself into thinking it can be committed to memory at the last minute. But one would be wrong. The volume is too great. It’s too easy to mix your slip laws with your session laws, mistake your Supreme Court Reporter for your U.S. Reports, and, before long, your wildcards are in bed with your truncators and it can make for an ugly scene. Like the rest of law school, it’s like standing in a confetti storm, grabbing what you can while the rest of it spins out of your grasp. In addition, there is little room for ambiguity on a Legal Research exam. A faulty answer is incapable of redeeming itself through the application of sound reasoning. A wrong answer is just wrong.

It might have been the stress, but something else began to happen in the days leading up to the exam. Our immune systems began to fail. Lectures became punctuated with coughs and sneezes of indeterminate origin. The student who sits next to me in Property spent an entire class period blowing his nose and building a pyramid of used tissues as he clacked away on his laptop. Three days later, I developed my own case of the sniffles. 

It was within this context that I spent the weekend prior to the test crafting what I thought was a useful outline and consulted it repeatedly in the following days. Many of my classmates made flashcards. By mid-week, we had gathered in hastily formed study groups and proceeded to quiz each other mercilessly. By Thursday, the sessions acquired an undercurrent of desperation and fatigue. We kept it up until the exam was a couple of hours off, then we shrugged and adjourned to either pace or play Ping Pong.

The closest thing I have to a good-luck charm is a triangular hunk of pewter with the word “hope” carved in fanciful script on its face. I picked it up at a mission in the Appalachian foothills, a place where hope is in short supply indeed and where I might have devoted a year of my life had law school turned me down, but that’s another story. The point is that I usually keep this substitute rabbit’s foot tucked in my pocket and made sure it was there Friday. Luck is no substitute for hard work, but, all other things being equal, it is not a bad supplement. And, should you encounter good fortune and wish to attribute it to something, I find a hunk of pewter is as good a thing as any.

I don’t know whether the exam met the legal definition of what one of my study partners indelicately called a “brain rape,” but it wasn’t far off. I have no idea how I did and won’t know until grades are released at the end of the semester. In any event, I can’t afford to dwell on it. Legal Research is behind me, but I have five other classes to tend to. It’s what I imagine it would be like to have six children. Give one more than it’s share of attention and you find the other five playing in traffic in their diapers.

So back to work it is. We have a practice midterm in Torts on Friday. Anyone need a chunk of pewter?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Tennis balls and Vivaldi

Stress: a physiological response to something you perceive as a threat

Maybe it’s what a 2L friend of mine calls the “lawyer eyes” I’ve developed over the past six weeks (traffic lights after dusk are vague splashes of color at this point), but some of us are looking a little frayed at the edges these days.

Closed memos were assigned a couple of weeks ago and are due Oct. 4. There are outlines to draft, structured study groups and continuing orientation workshops to attend, at least one practice mid-term and a Legal Research final to study for. Meanwhile, there are daily reading assignments and case briefs to tend to, along with any individual conferences we schedule with professors. August seems like a long time ago.

So the timing of our mandatory workshop on stress management was just about right.

During the break we have between Torts and Civil Procedure, a woman with a lilting voice breezed into our classroom, dimmed the lights and slid Vivaldi into a disc player. When she asked us to define stress, some of my classmates identified sources of stress instead: time demands, exam anxiety, family responsibilities, financial woes and so on. Someone even found the Socratic method itself worthy of mention. Our guest nodded sympathetically to each response and then offered us a working definition of stress: a physiological response to something you perceive as a threat.

Over the course of the next hour, she taught us to banish negative thoughts from our minds, to fashion homemade massagers from tennis balls and orphan socks and to use a handy technique for progressive muscle relaxation. After that, she distributed thermometers and hand sanitizer, reporting with caution that campus health officials had noticed a correlation between the study of law and incidents of the flu.

One might argue that a mandatory workshop on managing stress defeats its purpose. And I can think of less stressful things than having a college athlete hurl a tennis ball in the general direction of my head. Still, it’s comforting to know the faculty is cognizant of the escalating pressure. I gave away my tennis ball, but I’m definitely giving that muscle-relaxation thing a try.
It beats what I’ve been doing, which is to entertain fleeting thoughts of violence and then go for a drive until the temptation passes. Last Sunday, after spending much of the day studying contracts, I went to the refrigerator to look for food and discovered that I owned 10 eggs, three of which were broken on the way home from the store. Instead of making an omelet, I stood there with the door open, fighting off an urge to break the other seven.

A lot of things about law school can be perceived as threatening. Chief among them is the fear of failure, of crawling away poorer but wiser, forced to live with the knowledge that the best you had wasn’t good enough.

I now know that when those thoughts creep into my mental space, I have to find a way to gently nudge them out. And so do you. So put on some Vivaldi. Stuff some tennis balls into a sock. Break some eggs. We’re going to be just fine.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Free Speedy and other dispatches

“It’s not a system where we get together and hug.” – Professor Smith, on the adversarial nature of litigation

One of the frustrating things about law school is that you live or die in any given course on the basis of your performance on a single exam.

With four weeks’ worth of material swimming around in my head, I’m a gardener tending newly planted seeds. You fertilize, you cultivate, you do what you can to coax them out of the earth, but in the end you find yourself praying for rain. In my case, there’s an added layer of pressure in that the stakes are higher for me than for the 23-year-olds who occupy a majority of the other seats and who can still afford themselves a margin of error. Still, judging from hallway mutterings and classroom inquiries prefaced with the words “So, for the test we’ll need to know . . . ,” the youngsters are as cognizant as I am of those gathering thunderheads known as final exams. So I guess I’ll get my rain, one way or another.

Until then, there’s no real barometer to tell me how I’m measuring up, aside from my grades on two brief research assignments and general feedback on some ungraded exercises in Basic Legal Skills. As an aside to all of you who left me standing alone on my side of the Speedy Gonzales matter, I still say he’s not guilty of speeding. Reckless driving, maybe, but we can leave that discussion for another day.  My position is that what’s right isn’t necessarily what’s true. Clients don’t come swathed in seamless cloaks of guilt and innocence, full liability and flawless conduct, and a lawyer doesn’t always have the luxury of turning up her nose at an inconvenient fact pattern. But the real nugget of truth I gleaned from that experience – what my torts professor would call the “takeaway” – is that neither conclusion is right or wrong. In law school, it really is journey over destination.
Meanwhile, the consensus seems to be that Civil Procedure is the most confounding of the first-year courses. I can see why. It’s a byzantine set of rules that governs the way judicial proceedings are conducted in this country but that makes little sense in the abstract. Every rule has exceptions and even the exceptions have exceptions. Here’s the rule, but it applies only on every other Wednesday and only if the respondent is wearing green socks when the sheriff hands him the summons. All right, that last part isn’t in there as far as I know, but sometimes it seems that arbitrary.

That being said, I’m going to break from the pack again and call Contracts my hardest class.

Like so many elements of the law, the contract has a misleadingly simple face. Two parties hash out an agreement in which each gains something and each gives something up. But unlike civil procedure, which is a dense but relatively static body of rules, the contract is a shape shifter governed by myriad, often contradictory, principles. The point at which you can be held to a promise, for example, depends largely upon whether the judge who decides your case looks to what you said, what you meant to say or what he thinks you meant to say.

So that's about where I stand at the moment and now I'm signing off. I have many contracts to read and it's starting to look like rain.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Quote of the Week:
“Why are you nodding your head ‘yes,’ when the answer is clearly ‘no?’ – Professor Cross

I don't remember who was in the hot seat when the professor asked that question, but it could have been any one of us.

Three weeks in, the welcome banners have been ripped down and wadded into trash, the door prizes long distributed and I’m sitting here with my Civil Procedure book and a companion volume of federal rules. To one side are the last two issues of my favorite magazine, still in the shrink wrap, along with an arsenal of brightly hued highlighters and Post-It flags that are not yet fully incorporated into my note-taking strategy.  On the other is a shoebox containing the remnants of a care package from my friend the organic gardener, who resorted to mailing the cherry tomatoes I requested when it became clear I couldn’t work a trip to her house into my schedule.

And something tells me they’re still taking it easy on us.

But while law school is taking on an unmistakable resemblance to work, I'm aware of an odd contentment I haven't experienced in a long time, a sense of momentum that comes with letting up on the throttle and allowing that needle in the brain to quiver in the red.

Whether by design or some kindly alignment of the planets, I ended up with a nominal amount of work for the weekend, a circumstance which gave me some time to reflect upon what I’ve learned. At this point, my body of legal knowledge consists mainly of some disjointed concepts, threads of what I’m told will eventually acquire some cohesion and weave themselves into a tapestry.

With that in mind, say you covet a piece of property.  My evolving grasp of adverse possession would suggest that you could throw a fence around it and, in the event no one notices for 15 years, claim it as your own, provided you’re willing to live with the stigma of being a land pirate. You wouldn’t want to try that just anywhere, though, and that’s one of the things about the law. What stands in Georgia doesn’t hold water in Minnesota. Then again, I could be wrong about the whole thing. Like I said, the concepts are all swimming around up there and my contracts are bleeding over into my torts.

And that brings me to my runner-up for Quote of the Week, courtesy of Professor Tomain:
“That’s the problem with the law -- there’s so much of it.” 

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Do the math

Because I believe it’s more effective to quantify one’s condition than to report some general state of being, I’ve compiled a few figures from my first week of law school:
  • Combined weight of the books, binders and luggage-like conveyances that are either slung over my shoulder or trailing behind me for what amounts to several hours a day: 38.5 pounds (That does include a couple of arguably non-essential items like my water bottle and my Red Delicious apple, but does not include the 12th-edition torts volume by Prosser, Wade & Schwartz, which I did not have with me when I weighed the rest and which, incidentally, is the centerpiece of a potential claim involving a third-tier locker and a bruised hip.)
  • Distance from the Third Street parking lot to the Brandeis School of Law, including the Eastern Parkway crosswalk I half-jog so the motorists at the stoplight will know I’m mindful that the light could turn green before I reach the curb: I’m calling it two blocks, even though it seems longer because it’s partly uphill.
  •  Number of steps from the foyer of my building to my second-floor apartment: 16
  •   Depth of each step: eight inches
In matters more directly related to the study of law:
  •   Number of pages read: 339 and counting         
  •   Number of amateur case briefs completed: 18 and counting
  •   Number of near meltdowns: two 
  •   Number of actual meltdowns: one 
Minor frustrations aside, I now hold the distinction of having been the first incoming Section 2 student subjected to the Socratic method this semester. Perhaps because I was first, my Property professor lobbed me the softball questions – identify the parties, recite the facts of the case – before he moved on to someone else. His having mocked my nervous enunciation of the word “inviolability” notwithstanding, my performance emboldened me to try for similar affirmation in Torts.
“Foreseeable risk!,” I volunteered. The words had barely escaped my lips before my professor made a face and dismissed them with a wave of his coffee mug.
Turns out that’s the way it is in law school. One day your professor nods approvingly, the next he swats you away like you're a gnat.
We spent a day or two considering the case of Garratt v. Dailey, a case commonly taught in first-year law classes for its usefulness in illustrating the nuanced meaning of “intent.” In that 1951 case, an elderly, arthritic woman named Naomi Garratt sued Brian Dailey, a 5-year-old boy who pulled away a chair in which she was about to sit. I won’t go into detail. I will say that, having once made a living as a wordsmith, I’m used to parsing subtle distinctions in language. But analyzing myriad variations in syntax and applying them to a sliding scale of subjective terms like “reasonable,” “substantial” and “ordinary,” is something new.
I’ll also say that all this heavy lifting means I could develop some impressive biceps by semester’s end. I hope so. It may be too late to get even with Naomi Garratt, but Brian Dailey could conceivably still be among the living. If he is and if I ever find him, I intend to beat the daylights out of him.

    Friday, August 13, 2010

    Mind Your Own Chattel

    Today was Community Service Day, the final component of orientation week at the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law. My contribution was to spend a few hours clearing trash from the riverfront.
    As it turns out, the organization responsible for maintaining the waterfront does a fine job, so the challenge for a time was to spot something other than a cigarette butt we could classify as trash (for the record, you can pick up a lot of cigarette butts and still have nothing but a tiny lump in the bottom of your trash bag). But that was before the nice man who power-washes the concrete barriers below the River Road overpass collared me and a couple of my colleagues and took us to the real trash. He pointed to a heavily traveled bend in the road and offered to buy us pizza if and when we made it back.
    OK, it wasn’t that bad. But it was a good lesson for a handful of would-be lawyers to learn: the way things look on paper isn’t necessarily the way they play out in practice. The best you can do is react to the curve and remember what it is you’re there to do.
    Law-school orientation was not unlike indoctrination into a cult, and I mean that in a good way. Not only were we welcomed with enthusiasm, praised for our politeness and reassured as to our potential for success, we were introduced to a formality of conduct, a certain respectfulness we’re expected to employ in our dealings with people. We also have been equipped with practical tips for developing good study habits and strategies for coping with stress (Among the printed material we received this week was a slip of paper bearing the phone number for a local scooter service, just in case any of us are prone to excess).
    We were still clutching our new law-school coffee mugs, our T-shirts and backpacks and flash drives, when they slipped a little castor oil into the ice cream and asked us to read and brief our first two cases. The first turned on whether dust qualifies as a tangible object (according to a 1999 Michigan appeals court, the answer was a qualified no), while the second posed a similar question about electronic computer signals (one federal judge in one 13-year-old Ohio case says yes).
    They say it happens to all law students eventually, but I’ve already noticed a subtle shift in my thought process. By Thursday, when I had a frustrating encounter with a well-meaning friend, my fleeting inner monologue went something like this: “Do my frayed nerve endings qualify as chattel (that’s Biblical-sounding legalese for personal property) and, if so, does your traipsing on them constitute an act of trespass for which I might recover for the diminished enjoyment of my life?”
    At least I know the answer. I’m learning that, in law school, the questions are hard, but the answer is always the same:
    It depends.
    I don’t know how I’m going to finish all the reading I have to do this weekend. But the number of cigarette butts on the waterfront tonight is something less than it was this morning, and I’m feeling pretty good about that.

    Friday, August 6, 2010

    First, we kill all the lawyers

    By this time next week, I may or may not have cut the price tag off the first suit I’ll have had on in 10 years. I’ll have submitted for scrutiny my first attempt at a case brief, loaded my new rolling backpack with the most expensive books I ever expect to own, vowed to uphold an established code of conduct and, at about this time of day, expect to be picking up trash along the riverfront to demonstrate my commitment to public service.

    After that, so I’m told, things get busy.

    I will be what’s know in law-school parlance as a 1L, my feet soundly planted on the first rung of a ladder that, barring unforeseen complications, each of us is hoping will lead to our being licensed to practice law.

    When I consider the arduous nature of it all, I think of an encounter I had over the summer. I mentioned to a friend I was going to law school and he looked at me as if I were holding a knife to a puppy’s throat.

    “You would do that?” he whined.

    To be fair, my friend was fresh off the heels of an especially contentious divorce. But it set me to wondering why the legal profession is so often vilified in the public psyche and, given that it is, why any of us would want to be part of it. As someone who spent a couple of decades as a newspaper reporter, another job that often elicits a what’s-that-smell face from people who ask what you do for a living, I can draw a couple of parallels.

    In both cases, people generally encounter you during the most stressful times in their lives. Secondly, for people who parse language with such fine distinction, practitioners of both professions have been known to muddy the waters a good bit. But that’s because asking hard questions and refusing to settle for surface, black-and-white answers is bound to stir up a little mud. Or, to employ another water-related metaphor, a boat that’s never rocked is bound to rot. It’s true that attorneys and journalists are among those in a position to effect positive change. It’s also true that to do so is to risk a certain degree of backlash.

    The well-known line from Shakespeare’s “Henry VI”—“First, we kill all the lawyers.” – has evolved into an aphorism for what may or may not be a general frustration over the complexity of the law and the people who practice it. Viewed in context, though, the phrase can be interpreted as a paean to the legal profession. The character who utters the phrase, the villainous Dick the Butcher, recognizes that those who would guard the public trust are those most likely to derail his scheme.

    I’m not naïve enough to think my high-minded ideas about the good things I can do with a law degree won’t be obscured time and again over the next few years by the arcane and tedious nature of actually studying law. But I like to think I’ll bear in mind the reason I wanted to do this in the first place, which is that, every now and again, you might get the chance to right a wrong. Occasionally, you might even get to do something bold, like, say, work to overturn an archaic definition of marriage.

    So, if my friend still wants to know whether I would actually do that, here’s my answer: You bet I would.

    Tuesday, July 27, 2010

    Let'er alone and see what she do

    The public swimming pool in my hometown had a diving board that loomed so far over my 7-year-old head it seemed to soar straight into a sunspot. I’d crane my neck and shield my eyes and watch the daredevil kids crash into the water with one spread-eagle leap after another. For a whole summer, that diving board and, more precisely, my wariness of it, was the scariest thing in my life. I don't remember ginning up the courage to climb the rungs. I don't even remember the tentative step forward or the gravity of the fall. What I remember is the dawning realization that the best way to exorcise fear is to stare it down.

    I may have to reach farther back than most of my future classmates to tap into a childhood fear, but it's still not a bad analogy for what I've experienced in the 18 months since I started thinking seriously of applying to law school. After one career as a journalist and another decade or so as the primary caregiver for an elderly relative, it occurred to me that a dream delayed is not necessarily a dream denied. And so I approached the law-school admissions process in much the same way I approached that dive, as if it were a series of hurdles in which clearing one guaranteed me nothing about the next, sliding along an emotional continuum that still ranges from uncertainty and vague uneasiness on one end to guarded optimism and hope on the other.

    Now, with orientation less than two weeks out, I'm installed in a downtown apartment whose dimensions I badly miscalculated, thanks to a group of friends whose capacity for shoving furniture up a twisting flight of stairs on one of the hottest days of the summer I also badly miscalculated and whose affection for me may or may not return in time. I've studied books on how to study, had conversations with attorneys both aspiring and actual and gathered wildly conflicting advice on how to develop law-school study habits, note-taking and time-management skills. That being said, I still have no clear idea of what to expect. I don't speak Latin and could use a whole team from tech support to help me operate my iPhone. But I know a couple of things about a couple of things and I hope I can add something to my classes. I'm still careening along that continuum with no real feel for where I'll be at any given moment, but here I am, hovering for the moment on hope.

    I may not know with any precision what law-school life will be like, but the journey to this point has already delivered some humbling encounters. I've been awed by the generosity of a 2L student whose battle with catastrophic illness provided the impetus that led her to pursue her dream. I'm indebted to the staffer who conceded my dubious point that his having taken my sister to the prom a quarter-century ago obligated him to field questions on everything from laptops to living quarters. I'm still moved by the kindness of a friend who spotted an abandoned desk over the summer and threw out her back helping me drag it away from the recycling center.

    My grandmother liked to repeat something my father said as a toddler. He'd been playing with marbles on the kitchen floor and sent one spinning and wobbling across the tile. When she went to trap it under her shoe, he stopped her: "Let'er alone and see what she do." I don't know how the year ahead will unfold or what my ultimate contribution to the legal community might be. I know I'm drawn to the law by much the same thing that drew me to journalism -- the prospect of becoming a voice for those who don't have one. I don't mind admitting to a sense of intimidation. I'll even admit there are days I question whether I have the smarts and the stamina for the whole enterprise. But I'm ready to stare it down. If it breaks me, it won't be because I was too timid to take the plunge.