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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.