Down the Rabbit Hole
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of pieces sharing the experiences of a 30-something going back to law school after years away from the academic scene.
I used to be a real person, but in the last few months I have disappeared down the rabbit hole that is law school. I tried to hold on to my individuality and humanity; within the first month of school, however, I reluctantly acknowledged the fact that those attributes are incompatible with success in law school.
My life as a law student began in late August, when I faced the first gauntlet: student orientation. Undergraduate orientation, as I recall, consisted of a 30-minute speech on dorm rules followed by several days of social events meant to raise our politically correct consciousness levels and introduce us to our new peers. Law school orientation was, of course, different. We were subjected to three solid days of information dissemination on everything from the honor code to exam tips to legal research methods. For the first two hours of the first day, the speakers had a rapt audience. We tried to absorb every word, listening for a phrase that would give us the key to success in this daunting new environment. But midway through the first day, the succession of speeches by administrators, peer advisors, and legal bigwigs became mind numbing. We suffered through those long days in stuffy classrooms and walked out feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. In that sense, then, orientation did prepare us for law school.
There were a few social events scheduled during orientation. I invited my girlfriend to one such event. “Will I be the only non-law student there?” she asked. “I don’t think so,” I said. “Lots of people seem to be married. There will probably be a lot of non-law students there.” As it turned out, I was wrong. The crowd was mostly law students, but I didn’t know my classmates well enough at the time to distinguish the students from the non-students. So my girlfriend, in turn, was not recognized by my classmates as a non-law student. No harm, no foul.
I wanted her to come along for several reasons. First, if we could both meet some of my classmates and match names to faces at this early stage, we’d have more and better opportunities to make fun of them later on. Second, I am a bit shy. All of the socializing and first-impression-making was wearing me out. I needed her there for moral support, and to provide a respite from the stock getting-to-know-you conversational exchanges, consisting chiefly of reciting one’s C.V. in 30 seconds or less. Third, she is an excellent judge of character. She has well-developed instincts, and can sense trouble like some people can sense rain coming. It’s almost eerie. As we mingled with my classmates, we communicated in muttered staccato exchanges that went like this:
ME: Well, he seemed really nice.
GIRLFRIEND: Maybe, but I had a bad feeling about him.
ME: Really? Why?
GIRLFRIEND: Did you notice that he said he wasn’t going to drink with the law students, and then five minutes later he came back with a beer?
ME: Maybe he was just loosening up.
GIRLFRIEND: I don’t think so. He was talking like an alcoholic.
In that case, as in others, subsequent developments proved her right. Another example: Several weeks into school, I introduced her to someone I thought she’d really like; they had a few common interests. When the meeting did not go well, I was surprised. “I had a bad feeling about her,” my girlfriend explained. Several days later, the person in question alienated everyone by making a remark that was so blatantly racist that I was shocked when the ground didn’t open up and swallow her whole. It might have been better that way; as it was, everyone gaped at her, and then edged away.
That was not my first intimation that not all of my classmates were enlightened souls. In fact, the diversity among the 1Ls—good and bad—has been quite unexpected. There’s a rocket scientist, an actor, a fighter (a for-real fighter, UFC style), and probably some firefighters and ballerinas as well. Eight percent of the class is, like me, over 30; the oldest person in my class is 48. The youngest person is 19. Nineteen. Nineteen? When I was that age, I didn’t know anything. (I thought I knew a lot, but no.) The median age is 25. That seems pretty young to me.
I know that my law school experience is profoundly different than the experience of my 25-year-old classmates. They find time to play basketball, go to the bars (even on weeknights), and engage in casual affairs. I, on the other hand, am simply and profoundly grateful that I can go home every day after school. Not only do I have a snug refuge awaiting me at the end of the day, but I can go there and talk about something other than law.
Not here at school, though. Law students love to talk about law. In the hallways and common areas, all of the conversations revolve around law and legal studies. I’ve never been in an environment in which everyone is so engaged in one subject. This is very stimulating, but it also serves to isolate law students from the larger world even more; when you spend the whole day talking about case law, it’s hard to switch gears and discuss other thing—like the movies you don’t have time to see, or the books you don’t have time to read. It’s an understandable phenomenon, though. Law school provides students with all of the conversational topics they will ever need. For example, a classmate in this morning’s Contracts class could not seem to get his mind or his mouth around the difference between “executor” and “executer”. Humor! Drama! It’s like Greek theater, only indoors and in English.
My new life as a student is not without other compensations. I have:
discovered heretofore unknown reserves of strength and self-discipline;
met some funny, smart, and interesting people;
survived challenges that have pushed me to my limits; and
lost 10 pounds.
On the other hand, I have also:
become accustomed to physical and mental fatigue as a way of life;
all but lost contact with friends and family;
begun to resemble the living dead—staggering, muttering, pale, and incoherent; and
forgotten what it was like to read novels, sleep late, enjoy food, watch television, exercise, and, in short, live like a regular person.
Law school has officially taken over my life. It’s like having a new job, an engrossing new hobby, and a new set of friends all at once. It reaches all areas and permeates all thoughts. I am now a machine. I am a shell, filled with legal ether.
There’s a theory held by some weightlifters that you have to break the muscles down before you build them up. That seems to apply here; I often feel like I’m being reduced to my essential elements. I live school. I don’t study all the time—sometimes I do regular human things, like go to movies or play with my dogs—but when I’m acting like a normal person, walking around the mall or chopping vegetables for dinner, I feel like I’m taking a vacation.
This is the opposite of working life. Working life means you are paid to go to work, but The Man doesn’t own your mind. When you leave work, you go back to your real life. Law school is different. It’s a rapacious leviathan that eats up all of existence.
That wasn’t what I planned. Against all prevailing wisdom, I went in fully expecting to maintain a separate life. I thought that people who were consumed by law school simply had poor time-management skills. I thought that I’d approach school in a professional way—8 a.m. to 5 p.m., good self-discipline, good boundaries. That approach didn’t even last a week.
The fact is that going to school is nothing at all like working. Income is an obvious difference, but not a key difference. Not even in the top ten. Going to school—law school, anyway—requires a commitment of all of your available resources. You have to put your best self into it, or you might as well skip it altogether. Unfortunately, there are only so many best selves to go around. If you put your best self into school, then your loved ones are getting a more mediocre version of you. Shockingly, this can cause some friction.
In addition to affecting my interpersonal relationships, school has had a profound affect on my internal cosmology. School has forced me to let go of feelings and failings I didn’t know I had. For example, I’d gotten used to the idea—reinforced by peers and authority figures for 30 years—that I was usually one of the smarter people in the room. For the first few weeks of law school, just sitting in class and hearing my classmates answer questions was incredibly humbling. They were synthesizing information in ways I wouldn’t have imagined. I was paralyzed. Were they reading all of the assigned material more closely? Were they using study aids? Were they all brilliant? When did I suddenly become so stupid? If only I’d known I was so dim—I wouldn’t have attempted law school!
Those feelings of inadequacy persisted until I realized that the chief edge my classmates had was confidence. Many of them were overachievers: champion debaters, holders of advanced degrees, professionally and academically distinguished people. They were used to thinking on their feet and processing information quickly. I, on the other hand, was accustomed to achieving a reasonable degree of success (both academically and professionally) with minimal effort. Clearly, that approach wasn’t going to work anymore.
I redoubled my efforts. I slaved over my briefs. I read assignments two and three times. I practiced making and countering arguments in my head and in the margins of my casebooks. Gradually, I felt less like a person who had wandered in off the street and more like an actual law student who had earned a chair in the classroom.
All of these changes were not made without costs, though. Remaking oneself from a comfortably idle person into a workhorse is not easy; I wish I had some sort of Rocky-style montage sequence to attach as a video clip, but you’ll just have to take my word on this. The montage sequence would undoubtedly be pretty boring, anyway. Here I am reading a book. Here I am reading a different book. Here I am turning a page. Here I am reading the same book, but in a different location. Here I am listening in class. And listening. And listening.
Exams begin in three weeks. The prospect is utterly terrifying. I am not sure that alien tripods vaporizing my neighbors would be substantially more frightening than the prospect of confronting a fact pattern and spending four hours analyzing it. The best part about law school, the richest joke of the whole experience, is that we spend 14 weeks cramming our heads full of jargon and rules and restatements and exceptions, and in the end it all comes down to one exam. Of course, the richness of that joke pales by comparison with the hilarity of the bar exam…
Copyright 2006, Sarah Petersen
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