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.”