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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.

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