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Saturday, May 11, 2013

Trust Me, I'm a Doctor

Sometime in the fall of 2010, I dropped a stack of first-year law books onto a scale, then fetched the second armload and dropped it on there too. The idea was to calculate somehow the degree and duration of pressure the bad disk in my neck could withstand before it burst. But I’m no good at math, and so I bargained with the disk instead. Three years, I told it. That’s what I need from you.

Thirty-three months later, the disk is intact and so am I, more or less, even if the gaping breaches in the gray matter are fully exposed, and virtually everything I thought to be true is cast into doubt. But that’s law school.

Prolonged stretches of boredom punctuated by seizures of panic that a single misstep might cause the whole house of cards to collapse. That’s law school. A vague sense that this might just be a colossal scam, that there may never be adequate return to wipe out unspeakable debt and make the whole enterprise a wash. That’s law school. Rare bonds of friendship, the kind common among old campaigners who exist to assure one another that all perception is skewed in here, after all, and that we will live to tell about this. Maybe we’ll even laugh about it. That’s law school, too.

Law school is a long moment of desperation from which you might emerge whole in spite of your own self-sabotaging efforts to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Law school is wounded ego soothed now and then with a thin balm of success. Law school is arrogance in the rightness of your position, inflated in direct proportion to the hard-won realization that there is no black and white and that sometimes your hubris is all you have.

Law school is furious vicissitudes of judgment in which you conclude on an alternating basis that this was either the best or the worst thing you ever did. Law school also is the prelude to what, by all accounts, is The Worst Summer of Your Life. I have had more summers than some, and the coming weeks will tell whether the one spent preparing for the bar exam eclipses the others that were less than perfect.

I can contemplate all that tomorrow. Because I get what passes for a sheepskin until the real thing is in my hands, today can be one of the days on which law school was the best thing I did. Whatever it turns out to be, it’s all right. Trust me. I’m a juris doctor.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Wash Teeth, if any, and Draw Milan

January, even a good January, can be merciless. January pokes at the sediment until it finds the motionless mass that is you, rousts you out off the ocean floor and drags you wincing back to the surface. January went and did it again, pulled me and my third-year colleagues back for the second half of what conventional law-school wisdom holds is the year that bores you to death.

I am less bored with law school than inured to its attention-seeking whine. A 3L has things to do.  Time is elusive and patience is thin. There are bar applications and job applications, forms and photographs and all manner of mysterious fee, and yet law school whimpers for its due. We are more done with law school than it is done with us, but the feeding tube is out and the morphine drip is in.

Whatever ground is left to cover, I am changed in fundamental ways. I catch an old Twilight Zone, the one set in a gentlemen’s club at a time when that meant cigar-chewing men in book-lined dens and overstuffed leather. An old colonel annoyed by a young man’s incessant chatter promises him a half-million dollars if he will refrain from speaking a word for a solid year. Time was, I would have marveled at the masterful storytelling both for its own sake and for what it said about human nature and desperation and the pull of the dark impulse. Today, I switch off the set thinking breach of unilateral contract and shake my head at the detrimental reliance at the heart of the whole affair. This is where law school bows out and the world takes over. We’re inexperienced as hell and equipped with just enough knowledge to be dangerous, but there are things we won’t know until our boots are on the ground. We know, for example, that the Uniform Commercial Code was authored by the devil himself, but the full depravity of it is a mystery until then.

Those of us who suffer from competing streaks of perfectionism and indecision know that when the twin traits intersect they can produce a deadly philosophy that says until it can be done perfectly, it cannot be done at all. I resolve to improve, and begin to experiment with lists. I turn to the Internet for inspiration, the way one does, and run across two lists of interest. One is a 1490 to-do list culled from a small leather notebook purportedly carried by Leonardo da Vinci: “[Discover] the measurement of the Castello,” “Get the master of arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle.” “Draw Milan.” The other is a 33-item list of New Year’s resolutions compiled by Woody Guthrie in 1942: “Wash teeth if any.” “Help win war – beat fascism.” “Love everybody.” “Dream good.”

My list reflects neither the erudite aspirations of Leonardo da Vinci nor the sweet humanity of Woody Guthrie. For 30 days or more, it was a series of tedious tasks capable of distillation into just one: gather up the shreds of paper that document your existence on earth, shove the whole of your life into a nine-by-twelve envelope and dispatch it to an omniscient force empowered to assess the suitability of, if not you, then at least the paper you, for the practice of law. Now that my bar application is submitted, however, I have renewed hope for this list thing. With the bitterness of January gone and the number of weeks in this final semester diminished by four, the list could channel chaos and uncertainty into something that resembles order. If nothing else, the list can be a way of re-centering oneself. The things we deem important say a lot about who we are. I will start the Great 3L List with borrowed ideas that constitute something of a Woody-Leonardo hybrid: Study hard. Be kind to people and animals. Live with integrity. Dream good.

If you’re seized by third-year apathy, remind yourself that it’s only law school talking. Should you reach the point where you no longer care, tell yourself it means you’re good and ready to move on. Make yourself a list. While you’re doing that, I’ll be washing my teeth and drawing Milan.