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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?