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Friday, December 2, 2011

Purple Daze

For some two weeks now, I’ve been suspended in the last surreal phase of the emotional lockdown that characterizes final law-school exam season. That means I shove my feet into faded-blue terrycloth slippers and pull on what is now known as my finals sweater, a bright purple rectangle of chenille fabric constructed for utilitarian purposes with no nod to aesthetics at all. I can’t remember how it came into my possession, but it’s the kind of sweater people pad around in when they’re sick, a comforting, affirmative statement that whatever self-consciousness you might once have had is long dissipated, and it perfectly suited for the study of law.

The prolonged wearing of the purple sweater is proof that I have entered the final throes of final exams. I know, because I’ve been here twice before, and the progression goes like this: three or four weeks prior to the first exam, the internal momentum that’s been building all semester reaches critical mass and the stress manifests itself in some physical way, typically a toothache or a twitch at the corner of the eye. What follows is an intensified, vaguely agitated phase in which I alternately pace the kitchen floor and hover in the glow of my laptop over 12 weeks of cryptic class notes. It is shortly after this that I notify my non-lawyerly friends that I will be incommunicado until further notice and that I will make it all up to them in December (or May, as the case may be). This is the phase where I begin to dream terrible dreams of what should become of my grades in the event my toothache should devolve into abscess or I am befallen by some other misfortune or, for example, lose my sense of direction and become incapable of locating the law school again.

This, too, is when I begin to find the notes. We second-year students have endured two exam seasons already, and we’ve learned to recognize certain communal symptoms, principally the unshaven, myopic focus interrupted on occasion by the detached exchange and the uninhabited gaze. Aside from that, though, each of us bears his own peculiar indicia of pressure paired with unique coping mechanisms, and the writing of notes to myself is evidence of mine. I find myself writing them with increasing frequency since I started law school. Leather-bound planners, smart-phone calendars and beeping digital to-do lists are all for show. The real story of my wildly fluctuating emotional temperature is told in a scattered collection of sticky notes with lint where the adhesive used to be. I pull on a coat I haven’t worn since last winter, shove my hand into the pocket and draw out an expired coupon or the torn corner of an oil-change receipt bearing words that must have meant something at the time I reduced them to writing. Positive energy, one might say. Find out what this is, demands another, with a bold arrow pointing to a faded pencil sketch of what could be anything from a formula for calculating punitive damages to a drawing of some insect I spied on the front step. Perhaps I fear all the new information going in will cause some of the old to slip out, that the firmly rooted hearsay exception now firmly rooted in my brain will dislodge some less-consequential fact, like, say, the password to my iTunes account. Perhaps I fear that crumbling in the gray matter that will put me on the receiving end of the disconnected look I’ve given to certain members of my family, on the side where the strain of undiagnosed mental illness tends to run. I can’t be sure. Self-analysis is a luxury a law student can ill afford.

Finals season can work on you and work on you like that if you let it, until you finally give in and resort to living in the unlaundered purple sweater with the toothpaste smear on the shoulder and console yourself with the knowledge that there are many, many ways of making it in this world that do not involve the practice of law.

I’ve yet to take a law-school exam in which I didn’t pause about 100 minutes in and flirt with the idea of crushing the thing under the toe of my shoe, packing up my belongings and strolling into the sunlight, leaving the law to wend its own way out of whatever hypothetical gridlock our professor has invented. Invariably, I dismiss the thought and soldier on. We all do. For all their emotional brutality, exams roll around infrequently enough for the pain to subside and for you to think, after another season on the ropes, you might just have another one in you.

I am now down to one – Evidence – or, as I will be calling it until 9 p.m. Monday, The Beast. This weekend, I will gin up the stamina to pull on the purple sweater once more, for I am on the ropes, but I believe I have another one in me. Hand me a paper napkin, so I can make a note of it. Then call a cab, hand the note to the driver and tell him to drop me off in mid-December.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Mock Trial is Your Life

My co-counsel hasn’t slept in five days and I haven’t showered in two. I glance around the room and conclude that no one has shaved in a week or more. My adversary glides toward the witness box, evidentiary rules tucked like a neat row of arrows in a quiver at his hip. I object. I strenuously object. But he is nonplussed. In a fluid motion, he draws Rule 801(c)(1)(d) from its sheath, the screaming arrow flies and my objection rattles in neatly split halves to the courtroom floor. Like that 1970s sitcom disc jockey whose reflexes only grew keener as he ingested more alcohol, my opponent’s precision is heightened when he is unencumbered by a need for sleep.

“From now until the second week in November,” our coach has announced with gravity, “mock trial is your life.” I quickly do the calculations in my head. If mock trial is to have my life, I must first barter it back from the splintered interests to which I’ve mortgaged it already.

It’s worth noting here that second-year law students lose a sizeable share of their sympathy stock. As demanding as the first year is, it’s all standard-issue stuff. Virtually every moment is accounted for, but every activity is required, mandatory, non-optional, de rigueur. There’s no way short of retreat to lessen your burden. After that, though, your wounds are largely self-inflicted, and the patience of those who once wished you well can begin to grow thin. But law-school resume builders appeal to that competitive streak that flares on some days and lies dormant on others and more or less defines us all. Perhaps you don’t need this thing or that, but you’re compelled to chase it nonetheless, for to do otherwise is to acknowledge limits, a thing law students are loath to do. We don’t like to lose, either, and that brings me back to the Intrastate Mock Trial Competition.           

I’ve tried out for the team with the partial aim of polishing my courtroom presence. Effective litigation is more than having good law and a modicum of truth on your side. It’s the casual gesture that is not casual at all. It’s the pregnant pause scripted to appear unscripted. It’s a process of animation, a thousand calibrated parts disguised as an extemporaneous whole. I watch my more-experienced teammates and I envy the controlled delivery of one and the dramatic choreography of another. If it isn’t Atticus Finch shooting arrows at the heart of your argument, it’s Jack McCoy indignant at this affront to justice. I lull myself into thinking that what looks easy in the hands of a master will be easy for me as well. Points marshal themselves into such seamless narratives in my head, and yet they are flawed in the execution. I deliver my opening statement and am reminded that I’m afflicted with nasal tonality and uneven breath. Curse these hollers and the dialectal havoc they wreak.

Weeks have passed since the eight of us received our mock-trial-is-your-life mandate, and there is no overstating the truth. Classes, clerkships, research, ancillary obligation and all manner of physical and emotional need have been little more than distractions pulling our attention from The Case. Even an early final exam and, for some of us, a first try at the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam were only temporary sojourns from our new, all-too-real homes in imaginary Marshall City in the sovereign state of Marshall. We travel to Lexington for the competition this weekend, and I suppose we’ll find out who’s guilty and who’s not. Win or lose, I’ll post it to the asset column. If law school has taught me anything, it is that any argument asserted with authority is a potential winner, and that my capacity for shamelessness is greater than I ever imagined.

Friday, September 30, 2011

No River in Egypt

“How’s law school?” she chirps into the phone.

“Not bad,” I murmur.

What my friend doesn’t know is that I have partaken of too much law again and awakened with a throbbing head full of hearsay. The sun is still low on the horizon, but I’ve been up for hours already, gulping French Roast and struggling to recapture the flow of a judicial opinion that has unfurled with seamless lucidity in my sleep and is now so much nonsense in the morning fog.

I once confined these overindulgences to certain nights of the week in the name of maintaining balance, but the second-year slate of classes and clerking and ancillary obligation has run routines more disciplined than mine right off the rail. The odd thing is that, despite all the dense reading and the circular logic and the resume peddling and the schedule with the 30-hour appetite and the 24-hour budget and the unspoken mandate to conduct oneself like a lawyer, whatever that means, law school is, by and large, just as I told my friend: not bad at all.

Veteran accounts of the first-year experience are largely in sync: transitions of volume and pace, and adjustment to the notion that a law-school project is never truly finished, only tamped down to a smolder, for there is always a smaller nesting box to open and a tangential path to explore, all conducted against a background hum of fear that, despite your best effort, you will turn out to be more chaff than wheat.

But year two is the year of the individual, the year of tailoring the experience to fit one’s own needs. Yes to this project, no to that one, try out for this team, let that one go, careful, now, your eyes are bigger than your stomach. It’s a convenient system for those who know where they’re going, and mildly disturbing for those looking to cut their suits to fit the cloth of whatever employer comes down the pike. This is also the point at which you let down your guard long enough to see that your colleagues have let theirs down, too – if indeed they ever had them up – and are transforming from fellow boots into fledgling counselors with their own agendas and idiosyncrasies, their own peculiar strengths and weaknesses. I’m of a mind that there will be a seat for most all of us at the table, for virtually every human endeavor is, at some point, a legal one.

Law school can be a place where wildly divergent worldviews find common ground, and the kind of lawyers we will be depends in some measure upon character bent and whatever cross-section of the populace we represent. You have your showy blowhards, your wise observers, your peacocks and your Pied Pipers, your unassuming scholars, your chameleons, your hybrids, and so on. On occasion, you have your petty flamethrowers whose incendiary rhetoric says more about a desperate desire for relevance than some vile and isolated window on the culture. But this is law school, no field of shrinking violets, and those rare shows of bigotry rarely go unchallenged, even where the speech is so pedestrian, so utterly devoid of fact that swatting it down is like shooting a gnat with an elephant gun. Say your peace and cut your path far and wide from the source. That sort of thing tends to foul its nest all by itself, generally sooner rather than later.

The point is that the law is another of those occupations in which the line between what you do and who you are is blurred at best. It’s a phenomenon readily apparent to those who have watched us go from well-rounded conversationalists to insufferable one-trick ponies. It starts with the casual exchange over the uncharacteristic Scalia dissent and escalates until there you are, at 3 in the morning, scrolling for a fix on You try to keep it social and convince yourself you can, until legalese is the only arrow left in the quiver of your vocabulary. The price of curry powder at Kroger is shocking to the conscience. The take-a-number, take-a-seat system at the DMV is arbitrary and capricious. It goes on and on like that, until the civilians in our lives shrink to the sidelines and seek solace in one another’s company while we votaries of the law crave our own one-dimensional kind.

There are days when I think an intervention is in order. The trouble is that the people with whom I spend most waking moments are as much in need of one as I am. There has to be a 12-step program at the end of all this, with higher powers to acknowledge and some sort of amends to make. But all of that comes, if at all, after the bar exam, which is out there gathering force like a baby hurricane in the Atlantic.

One of my professors suggested recently that J.D. candidates would righty undergo four years of full-time study rather than three. “There is just,” he says, “so much law.” There is so much of it and yet, increasingly, we find there is never enough. We still think we can put it down whenever we want. And we still think denial is a river in Egypt.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

All the Shiny Things.

I’ve read a lengthy Supreme Court decision that includes two concurrences and a dissent when I glance back at some notes I have penciled into the margin.

“He can’t be serious,” I have written, drawing a bracket around the comment and bisecting it with a bold arrow that encroaches onto the words of Clarence Thomas, who thinks a state should be free to make its own rules (or not) when it comes to things like guns in schools and animal cruelty. If you’re of a mind, then, to grab a puppy by its hind legs and fling it under the wheels of a tractor-trailer, better to be in Mississippi and risk a $10 fine and 100 days in jail than to face a Colorado felony.

I stand by the sentiment, but I’m startled at the violent nature of my own hypothetical. Such thoughts do not occur naturally to me. But all the reading has given me a green-apple bellyache that tampers with the temperament.  I dwell on it for only a moment, because it has randomly occurred to me that I’ve never been able to parse the distinction between an alligator and a crocodile. Best put aside the puppy and consult Wikipedia.

I think about law school and how it does roll on with a fullness that rises in the throat in a way that can mimic the sensation of drowning. Suddenly, I’m gripped with a morbid curiosity as to the mechanics of drowning. In just what order do the organs shut down and is it true that the last moments are not unpleasant at all? Google only knows.

This bent to distraction is not uncommon among second-year law students. First-year assignments are so voluminous and one’s grasp of the art so rudimentary that there develops a hyper-vigilance against what could otherwise become a fatal flaw. But we are faster now, better at distilling our cases down to their vital components, and with that comes a slight loosening of the reins that must nonetheless be kept in check, lest the stamina wane and the once-rapid pulse slow to a belabored thump.

Generally, the biggest distraction in law school is law school itself. That is to say, one’s laser focus on dissecting the hearsay rule and its myriad exceptions is prone to the intrusion of a nagging sense that there is a missed deadline lying undiscovered, a research project in an upturned hourglass drained of its last grain of sand, a whole body of work potentially lost to an undefined but ticking statute of limitations. By and large, these are the necessary and useful distractions. The danger lies in the trivial pursuit, the pull of the intellect toward what is known in some circles as “shiny-object syndrome.” It’s the trail of useless knowledge that begins with the Washington Post link on the Facebook page and ends with a rundown of Vladimir Putin’s workout routine. If it’s not undue interest in the dust bunny behind the fridge, it’s whatever happened to the Season 1 Project Runway winner.

Should you find yourself in such a circumstance, it’s best to gin up a little of that first-year discipline. When the brain repels its steady diet of evidentiary rules and dense constitutional text, allow it to settle and devote the interim to identifying and improving your weaknesses. It may be law-school anathema to admit it, but we all have them. My verbal sparring, for example, needs work. I like to think I’m better on my feet than I was that Saturday in spring when we delivered the tremulous oral arguments that are a first-year rite of passage. The past 12 months notwithstanding, I’m still prone to the occasional stammer, to leap great synapses of logic and unleash a string of disjointed words in the hope they will coalesce on their own steam. Reading and arguing are the twin components of law school, and so there is no shortage of opportunity to practice. The idea is that you will be trained to indulge opposing viewpoints and become facile in your responses to those who would throw you off your game. In an occupation that demands frequent shape shifting, there is always another hand raised, another head shaking, a constipated grimace accompanied by an “I disagree,” and suddenly you’re in danger of folding like a two-dollar lawn chair. Sometimes I disagree with myself, sometimes in the same inner exchange. No matter. Symptoms of schizophrenia in one setting constitute self-assuredness in another. This, too, must be checked, however, as the swollen law-school ego invites puncture and the cocksure strut is the harbinger of death.

By the time you reason through it all and strike your own delicate balance, it will be time to start reading again. Focus because you must, even though it isn’t always easy. There are so many shiny things.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

As Your Attorney, I Must Advise You.

“Negotiable Instruments and Secured Transactions,” he said, drawing bold red circles on my copy of the spring-semester course listings. “You need both. But do not, under any circumstances, take them in the same semester.” The attorney who gave me this advice paused for effect and drew his bifocals to the end of his nose. “You will die.”   Because he said it with the gravity of a pharmacist warning against a lethal cocktail of drugs, I recorded the admonition in my own shorthand: Negotiables + Secured = Die.

This has become my new pastime, soliciting advice from lawyers on how to navigate the remainder of my law-school career so that I might emerge, if not unscathed, at least with scars in places that don’t show. If I can cobble it all into something of a roadmap that will lead to my passing the bar exam on the first try, I reason, it will have been worth the effort. Were I able to assemble these shreds of wisdom into tangible form, I would fashion myself a shadow box like the one I once reserved for a collection of shot glasses, stand back and regard them as a whole in the hope that a singular truth might reveal itself.

“Evidence!” my boss cried with no hesitation at all. “Most important class in law school.”

Yes,” his new associate added urgently. “Pay attention!”

As second-year students, we are afforded an autonomy that still feels unwieldy to the grasp.  Our presence no longer demanded at structured study sessions and mandatory forums on managing stress, our movements no longer restricted to the conformity of the two-section pack, we roam the halls like nocturnal drones in a building that feels like nighttime even when it isn’t and the faint smell of first-year angst lingers like napalm on the air currents. The leash can feel long indeed, and I find myself craving direction from time to time.

I struck up a conversation with a lawyer while running errands at the courthouse. When I mentioned I was a law student, he leaned in as if he were about to give me the pass code to his online banking account and said in a conspiratorial whisper: “Trial Practice.”

In his novel “The Trial,” Franz Kafka introduces his protagonist to a corn merchant who has risked everything on the outcome of a court proceeding, has retained five lawyers and is negotiating with a sixth. “I need them all,” the merchant replies gravely when asked why one should need so many lawyers. “I don’t want to lose my trial, that goes without saying. Consequently, I can’t afford to ignore anything that might help me.”

After a time, though, this begins to feel like an exercise with no discernible point, like recording license plates as you peel down the highway purely for the sake of compiling a list. Michigan, Indiana, Florida.  Show-Me State. Show Me What?

When I regard that imaginary shadowbox and its odd collection of advisory knickknacks, what stands out is not a singular truth, but a cumulative generosity that grows from the willingness to share a whole set of hard-won truths bought and paid for with experience. What emerges, despite the adversarial nature of the beast and the incessant crossing of swords that powers the justice machine on a daily basis, is an overriding sense that, at this peculiar intersection of time and space, at least, we are all individuals, all rowing the same boat.

That’s when I come to understand that success in law school is of one’s own making. You are handed the same tools of the craft as everyone else, but the sculpture you create will be your own, will bear little if any resemblance to the others. And there exists a certain comfort in the knowledge that it doesn’t have to. In the end, if a lawyer lives within, she develops independently and ultimately finds her own way.

That’s not to be construed as legal advice, mind you. I am a second-year law student wholly unqualified to dispense such a thing. But I’ll accept it all day long.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Dream, Baby, Dream

In the dream, it is always exam day and I am hopelessly late or lost, if not both. I am slogging up from the Third Street lot, limbs leaden and breath coming in short rasps. Somehow, the pages of my outlines have become loosed and are fluttering in all directions. I chase one into the street and bend to retrieve it just as it flies out of my grasp. This goes on and on, me pivoting and bending and clawing at the air as the pages scatter more widely. In the strange illogic of the dream, it does not occur to me that it is too late for them be of use. I finally reach the law school and discover that my classroom is not where it was the day before. I duck into a warren of offices, one mute dean after another looking at her wristwatch and slowly shaking her head. They keep directing me into a byzantine brick hallway, where I spend the rest of the night looking for non-existent classrooms.

Every law student has had the dreams, which generally crop up at exam time. An attorney I know whose bar card has been snug in his wallet for years vividly recalls a law-school dream in which he had been exiled to a remote outpost to take his Civil Procedure exam and lost all his time plodding through quicksand to get there. My own subconscious once conjured up a troika of professors in tattered Civil War garb, slowly twisting toward me on broken hips, heads swathed in bloodstained bandages. I chose not to delve too deeply into the pathology of that one.

What puzzles me now is not that I have the dreams, but that they should resurface here in the waning days of summer, with classes not to resume for another two weeks. And then I remember the bar exam, which was administered in recent days and which has worked its way lately to the forefront of my thinking. For one thing, not all of those who underwent that grueling two-day process are faceless would-be attorneys, but people I actually know and root for. One called a week ago seeking the return of a study aid he had loaned me for a summer course. When I inquired after his state of mind, he responded in a thin voice. Of his jumble of unintelligible words, I could make out only two: “medical school.”

As you might expect, the format mirrors that of the law-school exam, for which a career in, say, journalism may or may not be adequate preparation. Where the news abhors redundancy, the law finds solace in its embrace. An effective law-school essay explains beyond all rational need for explanation, states the obvious and then states it again. The tapestry must be unraveled one fiber at a time and rewoven into a seamless analytical whole. Throw in a nuanced observation here and there. Be brilliant and original and thorough. Your time starts now. In the new dream, I am the Susan Lucci of the bar, more renowned for serial failures than for a single success.

The thing about the dreams, though, is that you wake up in the gray light with your life just where you left it and you discover that what you thought was true is not true at all. Such is the nature of law school.

A year ago, we wandered around as the strangers that we were with our free highlighters and our flash drives and our fists full of popcorn and split into teams for an awkward round of Brandeis trivia. I reflect on the composition of that group today and recognize some folks I’m reasonably sure would help me hide a body without asking a lot of questions, in the unlikely event the need should arise, and I’d do the same for them. This is so, despite our disparity of gender, race, sexual orientation and socioeconomic background. Oh, and age. Intensity of shared experience overshadows the rest, I suppose. That, too, is the nature of law school.

The cliché goes like this: the first year of law school scares you to death, the second works you to death and the third bores you to death. I am months removed from the vision of the wounded professors and am no longer fearful, but I am hardly bored. Early in the summer, I would dash from a morning class to the car and head to my downtown job as a law clerk, a drive that conveniently matched the length of time it takes to consume a cinnamon-raisin granola bar. Nights and weekends not devoted to study fed the needs of a professor hungry for research assistance. Soon there will be more class work and a journal article to conceive and bring to fruition. Perhaps you, too, have spent a summer with one foot in the past and the other in premature apprehension of the future. We must now pull both into the present for what shall, absent a better suggestion, be known as The Year of Working Feverishly. We can be bored next year.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Net Operating Losses

She was allotted more time than her contemporaries, so those who mourned her passing were mostly acquaintances of the second and third degree. They know her stories only through us, a clutch of middle-aged cousins who spent no small amount of time wedged shoulder to shoulder in the passenger seats of her two-toned Chevy. You should have seen her back then, breeze lifting the dark waves framing her Jackie Onassis shades, chin lifted at a dignified angle. Houses may always be cleaned tomorrow, but the carnival is in town just today.

That was my Aunt Edna, who introduced me to microwaveable meals and fake Christmas-tree snow and the rewards of low-maintenance pet ownership with her series of fungible goldfish. That was Edna, too, whose worried, angular face leaned into my peripheral vision every time I stirred on a sickbed, and Edna who procured for me both ear piercings and a 64-count box of crayons when I wasn’t supposed to have either.

That she was childless is nothing more than a technical accuracy, as she ushered the children of her six siblings into adulthood as surely as anyone who was ever biologically entitled to call herself a parent. We were the spokes of a rattling family wheel that would have shattered long ago if not for her presence at the hub.

She cherished her civil-service job on the Fort Knox switchboard because it was her ticket out of the tobacco field, and she never lost track of technology when it came to telecommunications. It was easy to deem her calls too frequent and her inquiries too probing until the day she could no longer make them. Perhaps the only thing that pleased her more than the telephone was to be taken for younger than she was, which is the reason her medicine cabinet was stocked to the day she died with L’Oreal hair color, shade 6½-G.

That was Edna, who says “are you all right” and who means “are we all right,” because we are of the same stuff, you and I, and my contentedness is conditioned upon yours.

She was beyond the age at which death can be called unexpected, but losing her turned out to be the first blow of a double punch. The second I never saw coming.

Advances in medicine have lulled us into believing even delicate surgical procedures eminently survivable. And so, when a friend contacted me a few days before he was to undergo heart surgery, I followed his lead and deemed it a low-level threat, a surmountable barrier to be anticipated in a guy with bad genetics and a lifetime of bad habits. I realize now he might have been spinning the truth, a skill he honed to a fine edge, thanks to a lengthy career in public administration. He told me he was thinking of a simultaneous hair transplant and sought my advice on whether he should go Elvis or Fabio. Setting aside his near-unhealthy obsession with white-jumpsuit Elvis, I recommended a circa-1978 Meat Loaf and he seemed to love the idea.

If he knew it was goodbye, he didn’t let on. Had I known, I might have offered something more profound than thoughts on Meat Loaf’s locks. Then again, I might not have changed a thing. This was Charlie, after all, who knew as much about the Chinese Boxer Rebellion and the Rocky Horror Time-Warp dance as he did about land use and economic development. This was Charlie, whose prized possessions once included a Washington Redskins jacket he got from a street vendor for fifty bucks and who is indirectly responsible for my having added to my DVD collection a copy of Plan 9 from Outer Space. He may also have been the least pretentious man I ever knew. When Charlie the corn-fed Midwesterner migrated to South Florida to live among the polo players and manage the tony village of Wellington, he promptly called to report his self-conferred status as the ugliest man in town. He endeared himself to every journalist he ever worked with, not least because his city halls leaked like sieves. It’s an effective strategy when your employment is subject to the whims of bickering local officeholders. “Sunshine is the best antiseptic,” he’d grin, handing over a sheaf of papers. “This one ought to blow up good.”

To differing degrees, each of these people occupied the margins of my life in recent years. Losing them renders me untethered in different ways, stripping the structural supports from different rooms of an emotional house. My tax professor says the books must always balance. But such absolutes seldom hold when life meanders off the black-and-white ledger and into the gray. My account with Aunt Edna is especially unbalanced. It always will be.

If I’m to relate these events to law school, it’s to offer a reminder that no journey proceeds without its potholes. A law student’s cloistered existence is still prone to interruption now and again. With luck, it will be nothing with the gravitas of death, but it will be something, more likely an intermittent series of minor setbacks that spoil the concentration like sour notes in the symphony. Fractured relationships, professional miscalculations, mechanical or physiological failures all intrude to remind you that, despite all the sympathetic nose powdering a law student attracts from his loved ones, life is not necessarily all about you. The key is to keep your back to the wind and keep moving. Adopt a platitude if it helps -- n with the positive, out with the negative, or something along those lines.

If the New Age theorists are right and the release of energy that accompanies death somehow shifts the balance in the universe, then the axis tonight is tilted toward uncommon love and generosity of spirit. Somewhere the phones are ringing again. The department-store shelves are relieved of L’Oreal 6½-G and the spirits are doing the Time Warp.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Dear 1L:

Maybe you’re out there the way I was, thrilled at having been admitted to law school and daunted by the gaping unknown maw. Maybe you harbor a dangerous sense of entitlement and view law school as a mere tollbooth on the road to destiny. Either way, congratulations are in order. Either way, they’re ready for you. Or, I should say, we are ready for you. Yes, the material is dense and the pace demanding. Yes, first-year students are subjected to a sort of low-grade hazing inherent to the weeding-out process. But you have the benefit of a first-class faculty and staff whose collective goal is to see you succeed. Moreover, you have those of us who just stepped out of your boots. Don’t think of them as hand-me-downs. Think of them as fragrant heirlooms. We’ve covered a lot of distance in a short period of time, but the creases are soft and the leather still good. We’ve dodged a landmine or two, thanks to those who preceded us. We repay our debt to them by offering our support to you. Law school is an intensely personal journey, but it’s possible to benefit from another’s experience. Call my contribution the Seven Commandments of Law School:

Thou shalt have no false expectations
Well into your first semester, after the deadline for requesting a tuition refund but before you understand that there may be instances in which you are not the smartest guy in the room, someone will circulate a New York Times account of the dire employment prospects awaiting a crop of newly minted lawyers. It’s a grim prediction that routinely works its way through the news cycle in no small part because it glosses true. The economic crisis has spared the legal community no more than any other, meaning, for example, that jobs once reserved for lawyers are now farmed out to paralegals and accountants who can perform some functions on the cheap. And while projected job growth for lawyers is about the same as for other professionals, the greatest potential gains lie in specialized practice areas like intellectual property and environmental law. This is not news, nor is the fact that the job market is an elastic concept that may or may not hold its shape for another three years. The point is that you should be prepared to retool your expectations, particularly if you’re of a mind that only the top 10-percent class ranking and the six-figure job will do. Competition is keen. The prettiest girl in Ottumwa is just another waitress on West Palm Beach, and your 4.0 GPA from undergraduate is no placeholder in law school.

Thou shalt not commit assholery
This is one of those intangibles covered in the Honor Code only by implication but emphasized with regularity here at Brandeis. Entire courses are devoted to the concept, as are intermittent forums on the myriad ways in which a less-than-vigilant attorney might sink his own ship. You must, in fact, demonstrate an ability to navigate ethical pitfalls before you will be allowed to sit for the Kentucky bar exam. There are rules peculiar to the practice of law: Don’t cook the books. Don’t spend your retainer at Wal-mart before it’s earned. For now, you are held to more general directives: Treat your colleagues with respect and your time like dollars and cents. Don’t let the booze get the better of you and don’t rely on grades as a measure of your worth. Run the Facebook status through the discretion filter. Like Justice Stewart’s shifting standard for what constitutes pornography, it’s the kind of thing you know when you see, and an error in judgment can follow you around like a bad debt. As a rule of thumb, if it sounds like assholery, it probably is.
Love thy gunner …
Every incoming class has at least one gunner, a figure both revered and reviled and in large measure unique to the law-school setting. The gunner reveals himself early in the semester. He is the student with one elbow planted in the other palm, blood draining from the forearm and hand waving like a flying jib. The gunner cannot, indeed should not, be deterred, running on iced latte and a deep blue flame of motivation. There is no remote pocket of law to which the gunner might not offer insight, no complex hypothetical upon which he might not cast his own arcane spin. He may alternately annoy and amuse, but the point is this: embrace your gunner, boys and girls, if for no other reason than that he is yours.

… and Honor thy Marcosson
The letter came a year ago, tucked inside a slick folder. Scrawled in blue ink in the margin was a personal note from the admissions chair, the professor whose Criminal Law exam I would later blame for an ungovernable twitch at the corner of my eye and who, at this moment, is rolling his copy of the U.S. Constitution into a baton with which he intends to beat me bloody in August. Your Marcosson will not necessarily be my Marcosson, but will be the professor who does not gaze thoughtfully into the middle distance as your flawed argument unfolds like a crippled origami swan. Your Marcosson will look directly into your eyes and smile broadly, as though the depth of your naivete is too delicious to be gulped, but must be allowed to linger on the palate. Your Marcosson has much to teach you, not least of which is an ability to advance your best argument even as he flicks it off his Yale-educated shoulder. In the weeks leading up to his Criminal Law exam, I imagined the professor huddled in his garage under a flyspecked light bulb like a malevolent character from one of his own hypotheticals, gleefully cobbling murder, conspiracy and extreme emotional disturbance  into a Frankenstein’s monster of a test just so, come exam day, he could touch together two exposed wires and watch his students explode. And it happened just that way.

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s binder
It is an oft-repeated truism that the individual student must find the study method that best suits his or her learning style. The search for what works for you can be an elusive one riddled with trial and error and sometimes derailed by failed experimentation. What makes life easier for one might be a source of anxiety for another. One student clacks out copious notes on a laptop, while another makes meticulous marks in a massive three-ringed binder. Many arm themselves with an arsenal of highlighters, a different color reserved for each of the elements to be drawn from an assigned reading. I tried this and found myself distracted by the potential chaos that could arise were the lavender marker to run dry before the blue. Your approach, like mine, will evolve over time and likely remain subject to periodic tweaks. The point is to find your own.

Remember the multistate bar exam and the fact that it is unholy.
When you’re still trying to find the restrooms, it’s easy to forget that this is all boot camp for the bar exam, which is out there on the horizon doing pushups as we speak and upon which I prefer not to dwell.

Enjoy thy summer
Early last fall, a friend compared being in law school to being in the army. Ten months on, it’s still the best analogy I know. Soon enough, you will find yourself entrenched alongside people whom you do not know and whom, a year from now, you will not remember not knowing. You will come from widely disparate walks of life, damaged in peculiar ways and motivated by varying definitions of success. You will be exposed to the pitch and sway of one another’s moods under conditions that do not always lend themselves to dignity or humility. Enjoy your summer not least because you will, over the coming year, occasionally have to dig deeper, try harder, keep going a little longer.

Then again, I might be guilty of hyperbole. The young attorneys for whom I clerk at the moment recall past summers toiling in hot tobacco fields and hoisting sticky bales of hay onto idling machinery. “That’s work,” one said the other day. “Law school is just a lot of reading.”  

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Excusable Neglect

What started as a light pulsing at the jaw line had devolved into a dull throb. The trouble was a swollen red pillow shot through with a jagged black streak in the spot that had once accommodated a wisdom tooth. When it ruptured into a bloody river filling the gulley between my cheek and gum, I called my dentist, his vacation notwithstanding.

“I need antibiotics,” I announced. “I’m in law school.”

I’ve taken to punctuating virtually every sentence with that statement and have found it useful in a number of settings. Miss a wedding? You’re in law school. Late turning over the rent check? Law school. I passed you on the highway and you didn’t even wave. For God’s sake, man, I’m in law school. 

The semester is drawing to a close, the staccato pulse of the study routine quickening every day. Review sessions for final exams are largely on the books. Our white board is streaked, our professors down to the red marker, having drained the ink from the black, green and blue. If we turn to this always versatile, dog-ate-my-homework, mother of explanations for curious behavior over the next couple of weeks, I say we’re entitled.

Law school can be an exercise in self-discovery, a series of triumphs as you push yourself beyond what you thought were the limits of your capability. Just as often, it’s a self-gathering force threatening to spin off its own axis. In those moments, some of your own marginal needs – and those of others to whom you would be obligated -- necessarily fall away.

We’re preparing for five exams, as opposed to the four we faced in the fall. We’re trolling thin summer job markets. We’re seeking membership on law journals or moot-court teams or one of the myriad other resume-building activities open to upper-level students and application deadlines are nigh. We’ve completed the intricate fall-registration process, exercising the new latitude we’re afforded as soon-to-be rising 2L’s.

Where the first-year curriculum is standard-issue crew cuts and fatigues -- basic research and writing skills, coupled with two semesters of fundamental doctrine -- second year allows a measure of choice. We can appreciate the flexibility, even if the strategic nature of crafting a schedule makes us lonesome for the days when they told us what to do. We’re sleep-deprived and we smell like a combination of fear and our too-familiar classroom, whose temperamental thermostat is governed by some faceless force in the ether. The stakes are high and the flashpoint dangerously low.

But keeping your head in the midst of chaos, filling in the fissures in the emotional façade, is part of being a lawyer, and there are as many coping mechanisms as there are law students. Some turn to yoga and some to chocolate. Some chant life-affirming slogans and arm themselves with talismans. I personally adopted an unsettling and mercifully short-lived habit of referring to myself in the third person:  Sharon thinks the Supreme Court is entirely off the mark in this case. Sharon has nothing to add to this analysis of the summary-judgment process. Sharon is going for coffee now.

I can’t explain it, but maybe I don’t have to. I am, you know, in law school.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Judges and suits and ties, oh my.

We had what is known in legal lexicon as a “hot bench.”

The term refers to a judicial panel that peppers an appellate attorney with overlapping questions, interrupting her carefully calibrated roadmap for a detour into rocky hypothetical terrain and then dumping her back on the highway with a flat stare.

When it was over, I sat down and glanced across the aisle at opposing counsel, who flashed an encouraging thumbs-up sign. The judges were bent over their scoring sheets, writing and writing and writing. I looked down at my four-page argument with its color-coded bullet points, fabulous points asserted with authority in a practice setting and then desperately abandoned in the heat of inquisition. Eyes back to the bench. God, please make them stop writing.

“Lose the pen,” one advised. “It’s distracting.”

“When your time is up, stop talking.”

“Less swaying at podium,” wrote another.

This third criticism I’d heard once before, from the third-year student who presided over our practice round last week. I like the podium. I feel it anchors me. By all accounts, however, all I’m missing is the pianist and the three-quarter time.

Oral-argument day is a milestone for first-year law students. The psychological pressure to perform well is wholly out of proportion to its pass-fail worth, but the idea is to expose students to a setting that mirrors the environment in which they would argue on behalf of real clients with real liberty and prosperity at stake. For purposes of this exercise, we were advocating for the parties to a fictitious stalemate in which we have invested months of labor and which formed the basis of a brief that accounts for 70 percent of one’s final grade in Basic Legal Skills. For our clients, the whole thing ends with a question mark. For us, it’s an exclamation point.

My opposing counsel and I were assigned to what we later learned were three of the more heavily credentialed panelists of the day, their resumes thick with achievements in oral advocacy, and I’m glad it worked out that way. A hot bench can expose your weaknesses, but tearing tissue is what builds muscle. And it’s valuable instruction for someone whose traditional approach to argumentation is a three-step process that goes something like this: 1) prop feet on nearest table, 2) roll eyes at opponent’s ridiculous position, and, 3) cut opponent off at knees with sarcasm. You have to presume that judges who find ballpoint pens distracting will not take kindly to that sort of thing.

For good or ill, Basic Legal Skills is finished. The only thing standing between me and my yet-to-be-secured summer employment is a month of lockdown studying for five final exams.

Feels good. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Spring Break & Oral Fixation

        You could say a law student on spring break is not unlike a firefighter who is momentarily without a fire and so collapses in full gear to nap in the bunkhouse. You could say it, but it wouldn’t necessarily be true. Whether you retreat to cerulean coastal waters or labor to recover ground lost to the all-consuming spring brief, the law-school blaze is never really extinguished.

         Much of my break went to corralling notes that, upon review, reflect some early cohesion, but grow more fragmented as the deadline for the brief approaches. Scrolling through the pages, I recognized concepts I will be expected to apply with some authority in coming weeks, but which now trigger only a vague memory of fingers and keyboard thudding out words. Torts, for example: Should oysters be the same as fish, for legal purposes? Or, Contracts: Think of botched nose job. It once made perfect sense. In Criminal Law, rape is interrupted by spring break and presumably resumes on Monday. Otherwise, I found my thought process disrupted by the slightest stimulus, my brain a scratchy FM radio scan of Japanese nuclear reactors, Libyan air strikes, Charlie Sheen developments and, once, a brief consideration of just how many Walgreens stores one city needs before it reaches critical mass. 

         And yet I am possessed of an odd tranquility. It could be the milder climate and the reappearance of the sun. Just as possible is the notion that one can sustain a state of apprehension for only so long. At some point you cross into that realm Pink Floyd called comfortably numb. 

         The brief is done, but not really behind us. Behind are the research, the composition, the painstaking adherence to citation rules and the Machiavelian quirks of Microsoft Word, without which human communication by all accounts would come to a halt. What still lies ahead are the oral arguments we must make in support of our fictitious clients, who are embroiled in an all-too-plausible legal clash. The last time I spoke in a public setting, my audience was a classroom of 12-year-olds who were easily impressed and not at liberty to question my reasoning. Nevertheless, it remains my policy that, if you are to fail, you must fail spectacularly. There must be none of this tentative, what-will-they-think reticence. You must fail in such a way that the sheer magnitude of your failure becomes its own legacy and eclipses the boring deficiency of your performance.

         Call it your parting shot at winter.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Just Briefly

Question Presented:

         Is a middle-aged refugee from the decaying empire of American journalism entitled to recover for emotional distress sustained in pursuit of a law degree?

Statement of Facts

         Claimant once reasoned that telling true stories was a more or less unobjectionable way to make a living and spent a number of years telling stories of tragedy and corruption and natural disaster, greasy summer festivals and farmers whose gardens occasionally yielded a turnip that looked like either Jesus or Elvis, depending on the light. And then two things happened. First, claimant grew weary of telling the same stories with interchangeable names. Next, people who used to buy expensive newspaper ads recognized that one could read about senators and mutant turnips in a digital language of ones and zeros without paying and without getting ink-smudged fingers and could sell their bicycles on Craigslist for free. Claimant concluded that if one is to recast oneself from a role of casual observation into one of genuine advocacy, one had better do so while one still has some daylight.


         Claimant has worked pretty hard on a brief, which is not merely a brief, but is The Brief, the unholy badass of the spring semester and the basis for a hefty percentage of a first-year student’s final grade in legal writing. Claimant has consequently suffered distress. Severe distress. Emotionally, that is. To send her away empty-handed would shock the conscience, would violate society’s evolving standard of decency and be altogether unreasonable.



* * * * * * * * *
         That’s a truncated and highly imprecise illustration of the way in which I communicate these days. As it turns out, a legal argument is a story told according to formulaic construction, conveyed in a language of buzzwords handed down from high court to low and repeated only with precision. The perfectionist who normally dwells within me (but with whom my relationship is now estranged) likes that part of the law, the recognition that no two words mean exactly the same thing or evoke the same visceral response. In a non-academic setting, you might call it plagiarism. Around here, we call it research.

         The aforementioned brief has consumed our lives in recent weeks. The doctrinal professors have indulged our inadequate preparation and our lackadaisical class participation with knowing nods and transparent stalling techniques so that we cover less material than we ordinarily would. The legal-writing course with the deceptively simplified name of Basic Legal Skills spans a full year. In the fall, you write memos predicting what a court is likely to do under a given set of circumstances. The spring is devoted exclusively to the brief and is your chance to unleash your inner, pre-disbarred F. Lee Bailey and try to convince the court that the only just result is the one that favors your client.

         For a conceptual thinker like myself, the meticulous work of ensuring the accuracy of the citations, merging roman and Arabic numerals in the same document and taking care to italicize the word but not the comma has been as difficult as crafting the argument. It is also instructive to know that, in the practice of law, a deadline really is a deadline. There will be no vaguely frustrated judge to rip the document out of your queue 20 minutes after the deadline has passed and no law clerk whose job it will be to fix your mechanical errors. It’s hard out here for a would-be lawyer.

         There were last-minute printing errors and technological gaffes, but I’ll spare you the details. Before I turned the thing in, I told it I had done all I could for it, that it would now have to go forth in this Rand Paul-icized world and either stand or fall on its own merits. When the professor took it from my hands, she gleefully pronounced it a rite of passage.

         I went home and poured myself a drink.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Buddy, Can You Spare A Lawsuit?

I used to know a lawyer who had money displayed on the wall behind his desk.

I don’t mean money in the abstract, commercial sense you would have with, say, a valuable work of art, nor do I mean one of those quaintly framed dollar bills you see on the wall in mom-and-pop stores. I mean the guy had a broad still-life portrait of U.S. currency – stacks of coins and bills in all denomination -- suspended above his head. If you could get past the decorum issue and the depravity of it on the whole, you had to admire his candor. If I’m suffering at the hands of a deep-pocket insurance company, I know right off the bat he’s in my corner. If I’m suing the dog groomer for giving my emotionally traumatized poodle a bad haircut, I’m at least afforded the dignity of giving myself the bum’s rush.

I like money, too, or, rather, I imagine I would, in the unlikely event I were to acquire it. I toiled for some time in an industry that placed a lower premium on my time and emotional stability than I did, so my definition of success is to keep the lights on without playing that endless round of bill roulette we refugees of journalism have come to know. That’s why the altruist yields to the establishment when the loans fall due. It can be a tricky balance to strike. A lawyer’s got to eat. But a lawyer’s got to sleep at night, too.  

I’m not sure what brings all this to mind. Maybe it’s the cynic who lurks within, and, despite my efforts to keep her tranquilized, rises up now and again to cast her gloss all over my landscape. It could also be the spring rites of law school – the feverish preparation for on-campus interviews, the mass purchasing of black suits and wristwatches, the subtle sabotage of the scurrilous few who seem harmless enough but who leave you with the vague urge to check your valuables. Then again, it might be that the second wind many of us have been expecting since classes resumed a month ago has yet to kick in, except in a savage, literal way.

The law-school beast is always hungry. It wants and wants and wants, and then continues to impose designs on the time you would spend fulfilling its needs. But time rolls on with or without you and sometimes you just have to latch on and let the self-analysis wait.

In terms of workload, the fall semester in retrospect seems like a practice round. Law school is extinguishing one fire after another and time is a luxury we’re rarely afforded. I don’t have time to nurture old friendships. I don’t have time to stock the pantry. I don’t have time to write this sentence. The twin fires ablaze at the moment are the requirement to complete a 4,500-word brief and the search for a summer job that bears some resemblance to the practice of law. All money-grubbing jokes aside, the reality is that paying gigs for first-year students are hard to come by, especially if you’re expecting top dollar.

Against this backdrop, even the logistics of getting to class have devolved into anarchy. The University of Louisville employs what appear to be the only construction crews in civilized society that do not suspend work in the dead of winter. The worksite at the corner of Third Street and Eastern Parkway has mushroomed into what the Kentucky League of Cities might consider a fourth-class municipality.

For several weeks, we pedestrians relegated the sidewalk closure to suggestion status, snaked around the orange cones and just kept going. I’m not your traditional college student, but I can adopt a pack mentality when circumstances dictate and proceed on the prevailing theory that a single wayward vehicle won’t kill all of us, even if the margin of error is reduced to virtually zero. But now the school has put its foot down and offered us two alternatives. One is to take a more circuitous route, which extends the journey considerably and demands an up-hill lean into a high-level wind shear and a gamble as to whether an extra 40 pounds of book weight will equalize the competing forces of wind and body mass. The other requires a double jaywalk across four lanes of traffic. To its credit, the university has fashioned something of a crosswalk at the entrance to the Third Street parking lot. The rub is that it consists of white slashes of paint with no corresponding signal, which is really the key feature of a crosswalk.

Not to belabor the point, but creating an additional obstacle for a first-year, second-semester law student seems a little like gilding the lily.

And now I return to the aforementioned brief, which is not brief at all and which feeds on the flesh of little children and fuels itself on my tears.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Long Division, Look at Me Now

Conventional wisdom has it that law school attracts the sort whose brain is weighted to the right hemisphere, whose thought process runs to the abstract as opposed to the linear and who might have pursued a lucrative career in medicine, had it not been for that organic-chemistry thing. It’s a self-deprecating joke that enjoys its share of play around here, and, like many clichés, might contain a fiber of truth.

I don’t mean to paint with too broad a brush. Yes, I know lawyers who need technological help to calculate the tip at Applebee’s, acumen for instant computation of a 30-percent contingency fee off the top of any given figure notwithstanding. But I also know that certain of my classmates possess equal facility in the realms of art and science. I am not, however, among them, and I make that observation so that I can make one more: we have turned a dangerous corner.

As if to counter the oppressive weather conditions under which we trudge to class these days, our lectures have strayed from the gray dimension we were promised, spinning off the “it depends” axis into territory that demands black-and-white analysis. In Torts, we are no longer concerned with the aisle-sweeping schedules of supermarkets and the sequence of events that led to the presence of the squished grape on the floor. We’ve moved on to the mechanism by which the downed customer is to be compensated. Contracts class is a variation on the same theme, a study of the pecuniary consequences of broken promises. In other words – spoiler alert – it’s about the money. It turns out that restoring an injured party to pre-injured status involves a determination as to who pays how much and by what equation the dollars are divvied up.

As I said, this is challenging turf for some, especially those of us accustomed to scanning statistical evidence for the sole purpose of spotting subjective trends. If this were a courtroom, I would want to elicit the testimony of one Mrs. Cunningham, who once tried to teach me long division and induced a fourth-grade meltdown that for a time was the stuff of lore at Burkhead Elementary. I suffered a flashback last week when my Contracts professor listened to my overly analytical approach to computing expectation damages and looked at me as if I were a rat building its own maze when all she wanted was to hand me a gift-wrapped wedge of cheese. As an aside, I have to hand an honorable mention to her marvelous hypothetical contracts between Aunt Bee and Floyd the Barber, notwithstanding their inherent flaw, namely that Floyd would never breach a contract.

All right, if you have to know, it’s a fairly straightforward formula – subject to permutation and human touch, but straightforward at its core -- and I’m beginning to catch on. I exaggerate only because one who undertakes a courageous endeavor like law school has to maintain a sense of humor. And I’m sticking to my account of the long-division incident, not least because Mrs. Cunningham, who was in her early hundreds when it happened in the 1970s, is unlikely to refute it today.

Speaking of turning dangerous corners, I do have a couple of thoughts with regard to the construction projects that have rendered the law school virtually inaccessible by any means other than snowshoe or helicopter, but I’ll have to save them for another day. Suffice it to say that traipsing over snow-covered lengths of rebar on the way to school, while not the safest of endeavors, did engender a sense of triumph in those who survived to tell the tale and was definitely fun while it lasted. I’ll only point out that we are lawyers in training and we know a case of negligence when we see one. And we armed with calculators.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Long, Cold Winter

Winter is not my season. I see snowdrifts and envision not postcards but ominous possibilities of famine and isolation. Ice is not the thrill of the frozen pond on the back forty, but a harbinger of bruised tissue and fractured bone that complicates my already marginal driving skills, which, incidentally, are legendary in some circles. Above that, I chill easily and tend to lose gloves.

Spring semester at Brandeis is under way, but it bears none of the characteristics of spring. Classes resumed for the most part days ago, although some of our professors canceled to attend a conference scheduled sufficiently early for most law schools but without regard to the uniquely Louisvillian mindset that all human activity must be coordinated to accommodate the Kentucky Derby.

And so, as it happened, the first snowfall of the semester coincided with the full onslaught of a loaded schedule. First-year students attending full time are up to 18 credit hours now, thanks to the addition of a fifth doctrinal class. The legal-writing class, the single course to span a full year, is now devoted solely to crafting a brief supporting one side or the other of a fictional lawsuit and advancing oral arguments in a setting designed to replicate an appellate courtroom. I’ve drawn what is, in my view, the honorable side of the issue, but is also the side with arguably the steepest uphill trudge in terms of existing state law. There is much work to be done. 

And yet, while I can’t speak for my classmates, I’ve been slow to embrace this second round. My reflexes are slowed, like some sea creature that drifted to the ocean floor and burrowed into the mud over Christmas break and now must be stirred into action again. At this moment, law school and I have settled into the cordiality of companions whose faces have grown too familiar, whose once-charming habits are, on certain days, not all that charming. That’s the nature of law school, though. It’s a virtual game of table tennis in which you’re constantly scrambling to return your own serve, and the patience can thin. It could be what one of my colleagues called the life of the mind, a strange measure in which one scales great longitudinal heights without covering much latitude at all.

It could also be that we’re resuming this journey in a climate that has grown temporarily oppressive in ways that have nothing to do with the weather. Politicians that would have been late-night punch lines even to conservatives a decade ago have somehow achieved a dangerous mainstream acceptance. We choose our representatives like we’re casting an episode of The Jersey Shore and then are chagrined when the fringe element interprets their examples to be baseline models for acceptable conduct. On a personal level, I have swaths of  pain that run the length of my scapular muscles and don’t know whether it’s the book bag that is slung over my shoulder or the one that rattles at my heels like a toddler’s pull toy.

That being said, we here at 1L blog headquarters – and by that I mean the laptop and the coffee pot and I – try to maintain a policy of placing a positive spin even on the frustrating moments. To that end, I remind myself that I am exposed to challenging material and brilliant professors by virtue of an opportunity not extended to everyone. I love the new core class, Criminal Law, not least because our recent discussion of actus reus – the Latin term for the wrongful act that justifies societal punishment – reminded me to put the Johnny Cash version of “Johnny 99” (along with its reference to taking a man’s life for the thoughts in his head) back into the I-pod rotation.

Yeah, I anticipate an upturn in the collective disposition when the new semester’s engine is fully engaged. And spring is just around the corner.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Crime, Punishment and Christmas Break

We’re standing on the 26th floor of the Brown & Williamson Tower in downtown Louisville, two floors above the suite accessible only to the real lawyers and then only with a kind of credit-card key.

Donald Vish, death-penalty abolitionist and professor of Law & Literature at Brandeis, is pointing out the tobacco-leaf motif in the carpeting and the silver sconces on the wall. “They told us these were sterling silver and we said we were glad to hear that,” Vish laughed and ran his hand along the dull finish, “because we wouldn’t have accepted anything less.” It is his way of telling us this is all window-dressing and that we are here for a purpose that transcends the trappings of success.

We are a half-dozen law students with not a day of Criminal Law under our belts, far removed from any circumstance in which another’s liberty – much less his life – would be entrusted to us. We are distracted by the imminent release of first-semester grades, too timid to touch the pretzels and cashews arranged for our benefit and vaguely concerned that the soles of our shoes might leave imprints on the tobacco leaves. But a man who asks for volunteers takes what he gets, and we are what he has got.

Brandeis students are required to complete a minimum 30 hours of public service and we have volunteered to spend a portion of Christmas break crafting an amicus brief urging the state’s highest court to reconsider the death penalty. 

You need not be an abolitionist to be an acolyte in the Vish cause. My own stance undergoes scrutiny from time to time. But, having come closer than comfort allowed to being drafted to witness the last electrocution the state of Kentucky carried out, I have an interest in dissecting the rationale underlying what seems to me a primitive practice. Too much is left to officeholders whose fates rise and fall on the shifting tide of public opinion and Bible-Belt juries empanelled by virtue of a willingness to dispense frontier justice, as long as they are safely removed from the distasteful mechanics of it. I know why people embrace it in theory, but I still say capital punishment in practice is a gruesome lottery nobody really wins.

In any case, we finished the work and, while I’m reasonably certain the experience will prove to have been of greater benefit to us than to our generous taskmaster, I’m richer for having had the experience. Vish has achieved that mark to which all great educators aspire, striking that tenuous balance between destroying the spirit and inflating the ego, leading the student to believe success is not within his grasp but is dangling just beyond.

I spent much of the remainder of my break reading, not in the indulgent way I typically read, but with urgency of one who is allowed candy for a fleeting moment and can’t choose between the coconut macaroon and the caramel chew and so swallows both of them whole. A law student on break has a dwindling account of hours and his choice of how to spend them suddenly takes on great import. I spent three of mine of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.That’s when I wasn’t napping, and I napped a lot.

The day before classes resume, I am still half-asleep, having been stirred awake on the sofa to the TV blaring an advertisement for a personal-injury law firm, the one where the blond attorney morphs into a raging tiger and bares her claws at the uncooperative insurance executive.

Perhaps all this conflicting exposure to crime and punishment and the wildly divergent approaches to the practice of law will acquire more clarity tomorrow when that Criminal Law class convenes for the first time. If our syllabus can be trusted, the first two cases up for discussion involve shipwrecked cannibals and the social value of confining sexual predators not for what they have done, but for what they are virtually certain to do.

I’m frequently reminded of a moment last fall when a classmate of mine sent his attorney brother a text message grousing about the inhumane pace of it all. His brother dispatched a reply containing just two words:

“Gets worse.”