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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.