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Friday, November 16, 2012

Viewed in the Light Most Favorable

I don’t need a calendar. I know the season, more or less, from the undefined ache that flares along my jaw line in the weeks leading up to final exams. It must be November, for that’s when I curse myself for taking on too much, for denying my own limitations lest someone else tell me what they are. In another week, I’ll be convinced that my grasp of the law is far too tenuous to survive any sort of scrutiny. But I’ll still be a third-year law student, which means I’ll be operating on the sweet fumes of apathy and resignation. I’ll find solace in the common third-year notion that if law school were going to break me it would have done so by now, character inquiries and bar examinations notwithstanding. My attention will have turned to real-world concerns, like whether there’s a real-world job trading real-world currency for a student-loan slave in an economy that’s in the toilet. I don’t require excess, but I require enough.

I’m fresh off one of my semi-annual tirades on postal abbreviations when I consider my own tendency to escape the overwhelming big picture by focusing on detail. To understand that, you need to understand that third year can be a lonely enterprise. You scan your classroom and encounter a sea of unfamiliar faces. You never know whether you’re the only one who has days of going through the motions and nights when the whole heaving continent closes in. In those moments, lost in that broad gray landscape that separates the truth from a lie, you retreat to those things you know to be true. And one of the things I know to be true is that big honking two-letter acronyms may facilitate the delivery of mail, but don’t do a thing for the flow of a sentence. The old professor who said never yield to the U.S. Post Office on that score also said never, under any circumstances, to use the word “enhance.” And I never have. But law school has a way of eroding even the brightest of your bright-line rules. My speech today is peppered with double negatives and twisted phrasing. Hey, I could venture, that protrusion in the middle of your face is not inconsistent with a breathing apparatus.

I know I digress. It’s not about the odd neuroses that defined us before law school, or the new ones that have supplanted them. It’s about a vague craving for certainty and the rambling thoughts that occur to you when you understand there’s no such thing. We should go for a drink sometime, Two-Thousand-Nine Sharon and I. We could talk about this law-school thing and linger for a time over the prospect. She could tell me the way she thinks it will be, and I could tell her the way it is. Knowledge is power, she would say. Contracts are hard, I would counter. And on it would go like that until she said something trite like it’s all in the attitude, and I would punch her right in her breathing apparatus. And then I would feel badly, because I would know she is right. I would help her to her feet, tell her to gather her senses, and get herself to law school. View it in the light most favorable to you, I might say in my newfound lawyerly nomenclature. You will mostly love it, I would say. There will be days you will hate loving it, but you will love it nonetheless. Uncertainty takes care of itself.

            Two-Thousand-Twelve Sharon and her classmates are thumbing through a stack of paper handouts and listening to a bar-admissions panel remind us that we need not only pass the bar exam, but be adjudged of fit character to practice law. We’ve heard this numerous times and, without fail, we leave the forum convinced that every past misdeed is the one that will doom us. Every glass of spilled milk is the one that renders the past three years moot and precludes our entry into the ranks. Only when we’re good and paralyzed are we assured that our failings will be viewed in the light most favorable to us. Experience does, after all, weave itself into the tapestry that makes us who we are.

I could go on about the bar exam itself, its essays and its multiple-choice questions crafted with an intent to deceive, but there will time to ponder all that. I have final exams to study for, and the Real Housewives of Wherever to distract me from time to time. Two-Thousand-Twelve Sharon is still a third-year law student, and her nerve center has restored itself to a default setting of basic function: Eat. Sleep. Think about postal abbreviations. Don’t fight her on this. She’s a volatile third-year law student, equal parts trepidation and bravado, and that’s all the stress she needs.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Year of Living Arrogantly

Suppose you have a mannequin in your trunk, she begins. Say it’s a nude, a male, and say you can’t close the lid without you tie it down with twine, and so you’re driving down the road with mannequin privates showing out your trunk. Can you get arrested for that?

Having spent the summer clerking for a criminal-defense attorney, I know that when the question is whether you can get arrested, the answer is always yes. But I also know there are times when it pays to be selective in one’s inquiries. And so I opted for the middle ground, responding with some vague speculation about whether mannequins are patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community and following it up with the disclaimer that trills as easily off the tongue as name and address: Can’t give legal advice.

I dismissed the exchange shortly after it occurred midway through the summer because I hadn’t yet entered the profound existentialist funk that generally ushers one into the third year of law school. But then I started to wonder whether the skill it takes to answer that question and myriad others like it is the skill I’ve been working to master. It was a momentary sense of uneasiness coupled with the realization that that caveat about not being qualified to give legal advice, a hallmark of professional responsibility among law students, does not hold water forever. I don’t know why I thought I should document my symptoms, but I tore a sheet of paper from a legal pad. Sluggish, I wrote. Suffer from apathy of unknown origin. I consulted an attorney I know, who diagnosed me with an acute case of third-year malaise. Take two milligrams of suck it up and don’t call me in the morning.

It’s the year that bores you to death, they say, that final year of law school when you grow numb and disgusted with the whole affair and prickly at the suggestion that all those dire reports of anemic job markets and inflated placement statistics and visions of student-loan slavery might just have some relevance to your life. By all accounts, it’s the year we phone it in, the year we’re entitled to take offense when our names are called in class, turn to some second year and say take this one won’t you, and, while you’re at it, make me a sandwich.

But that’s not the whole of it. This is also the year we presumably experience a renewed sense of forward momentum fueled by a reuptake of oxygen into bloodstream and brain. It’s the year we load up our plates with last call for opportunity in the event we don’t eat again. The mandatory sessions on managing stress and coping with increased predisposition to alcoholism are behind us, and the only things standing between us and a license to practice law are two sets of finals and a little detail I like to call the bar exam. Humility will have its day, but these are heady times.

And so we’ll shrug off the lethargy for a while longer and indulge ourselves another year in a law-school cocoon that is alternately terrifying and safe. Should your affairs grow complicated in another 14 months or so, look us up. With any luck, we’ll be qualified to dispense legal advice.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Nancy and Them

We met them in the summer of 2010, which was either a day or a decade ago. It’s hard to say when you live in that strange time zone peculiar to law school and the armed forces, a suspended reality in which connections coalesce and dissolve at the mercy of intense temporary assignments.

They had survived that intimidating first year of law school and thus seemed infinitely wise. By and large, they still do. Tonight’s fresh crop of graduates from the Brandeis School of Law will always be a year farther down the road than we are and hence a shade more seasoned. This is significant even though, in real time, a year is no time at all. In this context, where the not-so-subtle pressure of indoctrination triggers seismic shifts in perspective within a matter of weeks, a year is all the difference and then some. In time, we would come to understand that their secrets were not so much secrets as time-tested strategies handed down through generations of law-school culture as surely as that threadbare maxim that the first year of law school scares you to death, the second works you to death and the third bores you to death.

And so we who were scared to death latched onto their coattails, hoping to learn from their missteps lest we make them our own, and adapting their recipes for success to fit our own ingredients. We listened to their assessments of this professor’s penchant for toying with first years and that one’s predilection for brain-twisting fact patterns on final exams. We tracked their progress for harbingers of what was to come. Now they’re moving out to study for the bar and pound the pavement for jobs, and we newly minted third years are moving in. I’m told each year’s crop of students bears its own unique stain. This newly graduated class -- or at least those members of it that I know well – possesses varying degrees of brilliance, generosity and self-deprecating humor, which is just the way I like my mentors, generation gap or no.

Law school threatens to break you down at startling intervals. If you’re as lucky as we were, someone with a whole two semesters more under his or her belt will come along to reassure you that it’s not as bad as you think it is, that you are not in your right mind and that all that doomsaying is just law school doing what law school does. I made a mess of class actions, I lamented.  I totally tanked the Erie Doctrine last year, one of them shrugged.

I wonder what becomes of us now that we no longer share the day-to-dayness of dwelling in the law-school foxhole. Are the new graduates so finished with law school that they are also finished with us, along with our relentless one-more-year chatter? Or are we done with them first, smug in our new status as the most battle-scarred students in the house? My hope is that neither is true, that those two overlapping years somehow cemented a relationship or two and that we will reconvene periodically to show off our law-school scars and bore the daylights out of anyone and everyone who wasn’t there.

Congratulations, boys and girls. If nothing else, we’ll see you in court.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Paper

I called it Ayatollah for a day or two, and then abandoned the urge to give it a name at all for want of one that reflected its truly sinister nature. It was just as well, as a name would have granted the thing an unearned voice apart from my own and a power with which it might have seized even greater control of my life. After that, I just called it The Paper.

The Paper is a treatise on an obscure and all but doomed provision of the Affordable Care Act that would have offered cheap long-term care insurance to people who might eventually have used the money to stay at home and delay the need for an expensive government-funded bed in a nursing home. More importantly for my purposes as a law student, it represents an opportunity to fulfill my upper-division writing requirement.  It has also robbed me of my even temper, temporarily displacing my congenial disposition with an uncharacteristic surliness.

As a houseguest, The Paper was not altogether intrusive in the beginning. It slept a lot. Occasionally, it would stir and rise up blinking with a certain listless hunger, but then it would curl back onto itself and resettle into a gray mass with its face against the wall. In three weeks, though, it started to smell. In four, it turned on me in earnest. I would come home to find it had eaten my food, rummaged through my closets and rearranged my furniture.

 I procrastinated, and then I tried to bargain with it. When that didn’t work, I procrastinated some more. And then I went back and tried to kill it with kindness. But it had these antennae that were sensitive to fear. It would curl a lip up over its fangs and grin, knowing that each day it was gathering a strength and intelligence that outmatched my own. At night, I would chain it to the kitchen table. It would chew through its restraints and wake me with a boot on my throat.

As legal discourse goes, 26 pages (33 if you count endnotes, and why wouldn’t you?) is nothing. But it’s not the kind of writing where you invent people out of whole cloth and leave them to spin out their destinies on the page, nor is it the rough draft of history that constitutes a news story. Here, there is no truth without accuracy, and close enough is not nearly close enough. The endnotes alone demand a precision of format that would challenge a watchmaker. In the end, there is nothing to do but to accept the fact that it must be done. You wade in and wrestle back the tentacles until only one of you is standing.

I admit I am given to hyperbole. I understood I might have employed an unwarranted degree of melodrama when people with whom I have little more than a nodding elevator acquaintance in the building where I work started to inquire as to how The Paper was going. That can mean only one thing. At some point, in a desperate moment that didn’t even commit itself to memory, I have pinned a virtual stranger to an elevator wall and articulated the injustices of law school.  I decided to keep it closer to home. I took to texting a friend who was embroiled in her own writing project. We exchanged progress reports several times a day, making vague promises to pop corks on fine champagne in the event we managed to meet on the other side of our papers.

It all reminded me of a past life cobbling cryptic notes into what used to be described as a magazine-length piece and the angst that would always accompany the process. The memory dates to a time before law school, if there really was such a time, peopled with journalistic ghosts who still occupy the fringes of my life, but whose disengagement from all things law-related renders them momentarily irrelevant. My habit when I sat down to write was to stare at the blinking cursor for a time, and then turn to the colleague who occupied the desk just to the left of mine and plaintively call his name. “Let me guess,” he would mutter with a mouthful of bologna sandwich. “This is the one that’s going to kill you.”

As it turned out, this was not the one that would kill me. The day has come, as it always does, when you fling open the windows, wave a little sage around the room, breathe in the sunshine and find that all is well again. The Paper is fully formed, or as fully formed as it is likely to be, ready to go forth and either stand or fall on its own merits. For now, it lies in the hands of the professor and the three classmates he assigned to critique it. For all I know, they are at this moment yanking down its pants and stuffing it into a locker. After the way The Paper treated me, I am not even sure I will leap to its defense. That’s what I call justice.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Defending Those People and Sleeping at Night

I’ve seen my share of courthouses and haven’t walked into one yet that didn’t smell of a complex blend of antiseptic and morning breath and standard-issue misery. Even the new ones acquire an odor that seeps into the pores of that low-bid government tile and is one of the peculiarities of practicing law that they can’t recreate in law school. A trip to one courthouse is more or less a trip to them all, all places where lawyers stride in and out of conference rooms and clients shamble aimlessly at their heels and jurors loiter in hallways checking their watches.

I know this by virtue of a previous incarnation as a journalist, but mostly I know it because I am a second-year law student with one foot in the classroom and the other in the courtroom, where I carry the coat of a criminal-defense lawyer and soak up the subtleties I always missed from my place in the cheap seats. It’s what I do with some 20 hours a week not spent enumerating the advantages of a revocable trust or parsing the intricacies of healthcare reform. If you’re a law student, regardless of where your proclivity lies, the criminal-justice system is not a bad window on how all this academia works on the ground. As fields of expertise go, it is the law the most closely situated to the heartbeat and it is also the law that most closely resembles a street-corner shell game. Or at least that’s the way it looks from my vantage point, unjaded by years of dreary deal cutting and more than a little prone to outrage. People who will need fulltime work in the not-so-distant future should be wary of carving out niches, but I do like it when the stakes and the adrenaline are high, and my limited exposure to criminal law affords me at least that much.

I’m idly running all this through my head as my boss and I pull onto the interstate and head for some county courthouse where he is to try a DUI case and I am to observe. He thinks it will be good experience for me. Now the law is crafted to cover all contingencies, and generally does until some aberrant set of circumstances demands it be tweaked or scaled back, broadened or honed to a finer point. But there are contingencies from which no artful language can save you and for which the legislature is of little use. These are the stalled engines and the vomiting toddlers and, in our case, the expert witness clutching his chest on an emergency-room stretcher an hour prior to trial. The lawyer hangs up the phone and rethinks his strategy aloud. There is reason to believe the court will not take kindly to a continuance and so the defense must prepare to go forward, witness or no. If our client has followed direction, he is waiting hat in hand to have his day in court. I can see the gears turning in that lawyerly head as he articulates his stance, and then takes up the government’s racket and nimbly returns his own serve. Jesus, I ask him, how did that even occur to you? Just thinking the way they think, he shrugs.

As a person accustomed to taking two adverse positions and carving some truth out of the middle, I have had to work at this notion of aligning myself with one side or the other, using strategy to accentuate the positives and eliminate the negatives, whatever they may be. It’s important to know the other side so well that you could turn on a dime and argue their wrongheaded, unfounded position for them if you had to. It’s a technique I have the luxury of honing in the undistracted solace of the law library or at my kitchen table. To watch it done behind the eight ball in rush-hour traffic and against a ticking clock is to marvel at the skill of, say, an accomplished skater, when you’re still clinging to the rails.

That’s when it occurs to me that, at some point in your second year of law school, there is a subtle shift in the dynamic between the law-clerk you who is dispatched to the courthouse to fetch this or file that, and the would-be lawyer you, who is not a lawyer at all and who nonetheless has developed a sort of plucky hubris that says you get the idea and can take it from here, thank you very much. But this is the moment for which the law has been biding its time, the moment in which it gets to remind you that you don’t know one damned thing about one damned thing.

I’m learning, though. I’m learning the fine distinction between innocent and not guilty. A person who is not guilty is perhaps not innocent in the traditional sense of the word, but is culpable in a lesser way or for a different lapse in judgment than the government would maintain. A criminal-defense attorney is not always in a position to defend his client’s actions, but he has to defend his rights. It’s a maudlin sentiment more fitting for the pageant runway than for life in general, but a sovereign that wants to put a person in jail should at least be required to prove its case. And society deserves as much protection from overreaching prosecutors wielding a machete where a scalpel would do as it does from its own criminals.

We get to the courthouse and he explains to the client that there might or might not be a trial, but that he is ready nonetheless. As it turns out, though, the universe craves balance. A prosecution witness is sidelined as well, and the judge herself is hospitalized with some kind of swollen eyes. A stand-in judge tells us to come back another day. My boss laments the wasted trip. He tells me it’s always a victory when your client walks out of the courthouse with untethered wrists, but it’s hard to settle for a rained-out game when you knew you had a home run in you. I have not gotten to see a trial, but, just as he predicted, it has been good experience.

The law may be black and white at the margins, but is altogether gray in the vast landscape in between. And if you don’t buy into that theory, just give it time. Before law school is through with me, I’ll be crawling up into your head and arguing with myself.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Mile 13

I have a sister who runs, and I don’t mean casual pre-breakfast jogs to stimulate the circulation. I mean the self-flagellating, carb-loading, whey-measuring, cross-training, run-til-you-puke-because-it-feels-so-good sort of running that to me is symptomatic of a personality disorder. She has the musculature of a cheetah and the discipline of a monk and, I have long suspected, a seamless panel in her torso that conceals only circuitry and wire. It’s a makeup that serves one well in a number of contexts, and I consider it now because a colleague has repeated the worn maxim that law school is a marathon and not a sprint. The best marathoners are built for the long haul and the slow burn. We second years have covered enough ground by now to work a permanent shift in the disposition, and yet there’s as much distance ahead as there is behind, and that’s if you discount one post-graduation mean season in which life consists solely of preparation for the bar exam and another on the ropes waiting for the results.

If that smacks of negativism, it’s only because a law student doesn’t feel the magic every day, and the days spent reanimating the brain after those idle Christmas weeks are among the least magical of them all. We’ve shown up for our first spring classes, albeit with bed heads and sleep in the corners of our eyes. Back, as Bob Dylan once put it, but not back all the way. I find that, in my zeal to upturn the overfilled plate of the fall semester, I have gotten too far out of my head. I neglected to pace myself as well as I might have last term, and, in my relief to be done with it, have cast my splintered interests too far afield. Reining them back into focus requires some muscle. Still, that vague sense of stolen time from a year ago is gone, and in its place is a happy resignation. Law school is the needle planted in my vein, and all that reasonable double-speak the fluid dripping from an unsightly pouch that swings from a pole and trails me wherever I go. I no longer bargain with law school over lost time or the propriety of its demands, and I’m surprisingly good with that.

I am good with it even when my head writes checks that my body can’t cash and I lose sleep over which commitment can best weather the short shrift. I’m OK with it even when I read another version of that perennial trade-journal story that says anyone smart enough to get into law school should be smart enough not to go. I’m OK with it because I can make the black and white arguments, but to navigate the gray space where the lion’s share of the law lives requires more than a surface commitment. I’m OK with it because the dogged nature of any given challenge more or less corresponds to the reward of knocking it down.

For those of us who tend to think of every moment as a weigh station on the road to something else, who are forever chasing some nebulous point on the horizon where all is well and we’re content to maintain the status quo, there’s nonetheless a satisfaction in conquering the here and now. My sister and her circle of running enthusiasts explain it this way: when the world serves up an amorphous, indefinable pain, long-distance exertion lends it a tangible dimension, something it’s possible to vanquish and overcome. I relate to that in the sense that I can do an hour on the treadmill if there’s a glass of pinot noir in the offing, but it makes more sense in law-school terms. The more intense the chase, the sweeter the victory tastes. And, even though humbling moments abound and straight answers are scarce, there are triumphs along the way. Last semester alone, I discovered a penchant for the courtroom and drafted a brief I like to think was instrumental in persuading a judge to rule the way my boss wanted her to. And, in all that time, I wished ill to be visited upon only one professor, and it was only fleetingly and only that one time, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t even mean it.

By all accounts, the genuine fatigue in a 26-mile marathon sets in around mile 20. That’s when they say you have to dig deeply for something you’re not even sure is there, the point at which you settle into a crippled saunter that might as well be a walk. Given that, mile 13 is not an altogether bad place to be, and another 13 is hardly anything at all. I can already taste the pinot noir.