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.