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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.

1 comment:

  1. Your friend Greg Bilbrey sent me a link to your blog... very enjoyable and I will stop back. For those who are interested in what it is like in grad school in the Humanities (history), you can check out I am finishing a Master's and am applying for PhD programs, so this could be a six year labor of love... We'll see.