Back Into the Fray

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of pieces sharing the experiences of a 30-year-old going back to law school after years away from the academic scene.

My 30th birthday was perfect. My girlfriend and I went to New York, and my brother and his girlfriend flew in from L.A. to meet us. We went to shows and museums, ate at fantastic restaurants, rode around on the Staten Island ferrythe whole bit. Thirty felt great.

It wasn’t until I got home and went back to work that the misery set in. This particular misery wasn’t newI’d been unhappy at work for a whilebut being 30 and miserable was unsettling. I realized that I was finally out of time. My glittering coach had turned into a pumpkin.

Before I went through it, I’d always imagined college graduation as a magical time when exuberant young people with perfect teeth threw their mortarboards into the air and then dashed off to serve in the Peace Corps for a year or two before grad school. My graduation was not like that. Depressed and apathetic, I slouched through the ceremony for my parents’ sake, and then moved back to my hometown for a year and worked in a bookstore. Things gradually improved, at least outwardly; I got out of my hometown, found a better job, and spent the next four years making incremental progress from slightly better job to slightly better job. I worked at a publishing house and a regional magazine, jobs I loved but couldn’t afford to keep. Dream jobs almost always come with a catchlike your boss is nuts, the pay is awful, the hours are long, whatever. I supplemented my “nonincome” at my dream jobs by working at coffee houses, teaching SAT prep classes to snotty white kids from the suburbs, temping at the local university, and other, even more menial jobs. The only good thing about working 70 or 80 hours a week is that you don’t have any time to spend your earnings or participate in interpersonal psychodrama. Life was relatively peaceful: I was exhausted.

Finally, I got off the hamster wheel and took a good job that I did not love. For once, the pay was adequate, and I worked a regular 40-hour week. The plan was to work there for a year or two until I had the wherewithal to apply to graduate school.

Years later, I was no closer to school. Going to school was a great idea, but what should I study? I kept waiting for inspiration. Maybe I was hoping for a bolt of lightning, or something less violent, like a page from a course catalog sticking to my windshield as I drove down the street. I waited and waited for the answer to come to me.

In the week after I turned 30, I realized that the answer was not going to come. Or that I was not content to wait any longer. I made my own answer and decided to apply to law school.

Law school was not my first thought. I’d been struck by a different idea when I was 26: linguistics. For a while, an advanced degree in linguistics seemed just the thing. Further reading on the subject, however, dampened my enthusiasm: most branches of linguistics led into the thorny world of academia, and I’d heard too many horror stories about departmental politics and the intense competition for tenure-track positions. I wanted my advanced degree to be useful and portable. If I could be underemployed or bossed around geographically because of my current career options, then why get another degree?

The best chance for nonacademic employment with a linguistics degree lay in the field of computational linguistics. Unfortunately, I suck at math. The whole reason I took linguistics in college was to satisfy the math requirement. I ended up loving linguistics, but in the end it was just another vocational heartbreaker.

That left law. For a long time, I resisted the idea as uncreative. English Major Goes to Law School is not an attention-grabbing headline. But my dissatisfaction with the direction of my career, added to my desire to find something I’d be good at and multiplied by my fear of unemployment, equaled a three-year hitch at the best law school that would have me.

I made up my mind to go to law school just when applications were due for the 2004-05 school year. For some disciplines, that might not be an insurmountable obstacle: you scratch out an essay, beg a few letters off tolerant old profs, wrap up the package, and send it off. Law school, however, is not quite like that.

First, I had to register with LSDAS. This is an organization that will allow you to send them your letters, transcripts, and LSAT scores, along with about a hundred bucks, and in exchange, they will mail that stuff to schools for you. I’m not kidding. They should renegotiate their deal with FedEx, because I could have done that myself for a lot less. Law schools, however, will only accept those crucial application elements from LSDAS.

Next up was the LSAT. After 50-plus hours of study and a dozen practice tests, I felt like I was ready for this arbitrary and relatively punishing experience. I don’t remember much about taking the testwhat the room looked like, whether it was hot or cold, if the questions seemed harder or easier than expected. I do remember the oppressive silence. As we waited for the exam proctors to arrive, no one talked. A few people scanned test-prep books even as we lined up to sign in and be fingerprinted. I didn’t hear a peep out of my fellow test-takers until the break; some people gathered for subdued chatter outside the test room, but I wandered the deserted halls alone, trying not to think about anything. Afterward, I went home and took my dog for a long walk.

When I got my LSAT score, it was time to start the application process. The $50-$90 application fee (plus the extra $12 per application for LSDAS) banished any notion of applying to schools I couldn’t afford in places I didn’t want to live just to see if I could get in. The state’s top law school is 15 miles from my house, and it’s dirt cheap, too. Never mind that I was in love with a school in Washington, D.C.; that kind of love will break your heart. It will also bankrupt you and take you away from your family and friends. Was it worth three years away from my girlfriend to stroll the venerable halls of a school that was ranked a notch lower than my humble little state school?

Rankings had become my new obsession. I pored over my copy of the graduate-school rankings issue of U.S. News & World Report. I felt like I had something to prove: having delayed postgraduate education for this long, I should be going back to something very grand. But ratings weren’t everything. I applied to the state school and the D.C. school; when coworkers and relatives asked me where I was applying, I mentioned both, though by that point the D.C. school was a fantasy. Saying its name elicited a solemn head bob and a comment about its caliber. The state school triggered no reaction at all. “It’s a really good school,” I’d say desperately.

Both applications required standard elements: application form, essay, letters of recommendation, test score, transcripts. The form and the transcripts were cake. The test score was set in stone. That left the two elements I’d been dreading.

The idea of soliciting letters of recommendation was so daunting that it had actually prevented me, on some level, from pursuing an advanced degree. I was convinced that none of my professors would remember me after 10 years, and that the memories they did have might not be entirely positive. So I went with work contacts, against all prevailing law-school application wisdom. My old and new bosses liked me; it was a lot less nerve-racking to get letters from them than it would have been to send my old profs copies of papers or head shots or whatever they would have needed to jog their memories.

The essay was no picnic, either. I actually wrote four of them. After scrapping the first two, I showed the third to my girlfriend. She tactfully suggested that it needed work, and spent 15 minutes writing out an outline that was much better than my previous attempts. The fourth essay went out with the application forms.

After two months of agonizing suspense, during which I constantly felt as though I’d ingested a live octopus, I received an acceptance letter from the state school. I sent in my deposit the next day. The acceptance letter from the D.C. school arrived a week later. I didn’t keep it.

Classes begin two weeks from tomorrow. I feel impatient but totally unprepared. The stack of books on law school sits, impressive and largely unread, on my bedside table. The books’ contentshow to brief a case, how to study for examsare mystifying; I tell myself that the problem is lack of context. What can I do, really, to get ready? Until I am sitting in a classroom or grappling with an assigned case, the idea of law school will only be an idea.

I worry about a lot of things. I worry that I’ll find the classes baffling and dull. I worry that the stress will transform me into a huge asshole and my friends will stop speaking to me. I worry that all of the other students will be 22 and perfect and soak up all of the material like perky little sponges.

I am taking a few weeks of vacation time to relax and accrue relationship points. Law school is notorious for being hard on relationships; I can foresee lots of strained nerves around the house that will lead to increased irritability on both sides. Stress will probably make me hell to live with, or at least heck. So I’m being very agreeable and doing things that my girlfriend likes to do; we are celebrating the last days of our fiscal solvency with an orgy of spending. I am trying to be perfector as perfect as my admittedly defective character will allowso that she has something to look back on that may prevent her from leaving me when she has to do all the grocery shopping or take the dogs to the vet alone because I am locked away in my study, growling and wild-eyed.

Worry keeps me awake at night. (Actually, insomnia is what keeps me awake at night. The bad thoughts are just filler.) My biggest fear is that I will suck at law school. I’m not too worried about the intellectually demanding nature of the programI’m no chimp. What worries me is my own daydream-prone, attention-deficit-plagued nature. I can’t even read fiction or commentary about the law for more than five seconds without my attention wandering; what will happen when I’m sitting in front of a four-inch-thick textbook? When I decided to go to law school, I congratulated myself on finishing A Civil Action and figured that this feat was enough to qualify me for legal study. Now that I’m faced with three years of dry-as-dust coursework, I feel myself coming down with a terminal case of the fidgets.

Then again, it could just be nerves.

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