Law School Makes Gumbys of Us All
My first year of law school has twisted and shaped me like everyone’s favorite green rubber guy. Paging through my journal, I’m struck by the ways in which law school has affected my worldview and even my day-to-day habits.
04.04.06: Thinking Like a Lawyer
The reprogramming of my thought processes (teaching me to “think like a lawyer”—a phrase used pejoratively as often as not) has been almost imperceptible. I’d say that, at this point, one of my major handicaps is that I don’t think enough like a lawyer. But the proof is in the way I comport myself in my daily life, and in the way I communicate. Where before I’d shut down or evade debate, I now engage in it without even realizing that I am doing it. My girlfriend pointed this out to me; she was delighted.
It seems like second nature now to dig into a topic and examine its premises, its assumptions, and its implications. I clung for so long to certain cherished beliefs, to the point where I saw attacks on those beliefs as attacks on me. Objectivity, however, is the first requirement of any decent debater. As I’ve gotten older (and, I hope, attained wisdom and maturity at least in proportion to my age), I’ve come to see more and more shades of gray. I no longer have the luxury of fierce conviction—there’s another side to almost any story, and finding that other side is where things really get interesting.
04.17.06: A Day at the Office
Here’s one thing I love about being back in school: no bullshit office politics. In every workplace situation, some people will be easier to work with than others, but there are always those unavoidable cranks that make life more difficult for everyone. If you’re lucky, the cranks—meaning coworkers who are finicky, talk too much about irrelevant (or, worse yet, too personal) issues, lack the basic skills to do their jobs, rely on you to accomplish menial tasks that they are too lazy or incompetent to do themselves, and so on—will be relegated to the uncoveted offices at the perimeter instead of occupying plush managers’ suites.
As a student, I am only responsible to and for myself. I set my own schedule. I don’t have to worry about accounting for my time. If I want to spend a half hour searching the Internet for information on the history of glass, I can. (And yes, I have actually done so.) Even better, I don’t have to rely on anyone else to get my stuff done. No one will take credit for my reading. No one will monopolize my time or strong-arm me into doing their work for them. I’m the boss around here.
05.05.06: The Finals Edition
The succession of Pyrrhic victories continues. While it feels great to get through an exam, each one leaves me so drained and spacey that I can’t imagine getting back to the business of studying. With the next exam only a few days away, though, there’s no time for leisure. On exam days I allow myself to rest and relax for the balance of the day (all of my exams are in the morning this semester), but that’s not enough time to restore any kind of equilibrium.
Today’s exam was particularly punishing. It was an eight-hour take-home. A take-home exam that lasts less than 24 hours is more of a take-to-the-library, though, and that’s where I spent my day.
After laboring for seven and a half hours on what I hoped was a really solid exam, I settled down to edit my essay and discovered that I had surpassed the 3,000-word limit by, oh, about 1,800 words. At first, I nibbled away at the surplus verbiage by hyphenating and contracting all words or phrases that could survive that kind of treatment. As the clock continued to wind down, I panicked and began hacking out entire paragraphs, scanning the pages for weak or redundant arguments.
Finding a printer in the library that was not out of paper or swarmed by my similarly frantic classmates was another challenge. When I arrived, gasping for breath, at the information desk to turn in my exam, the proctor smiled calmly as I gabbled about printing problems. At the time, I found her attitude reassuring; maybe being 11 minutes late would not result in a significantly lower grade. Maybe I was freaking out for no reason.
Now that I think about it, though, perhaps the proctor’s pleasant smile meant, “Fry, bitch, fry.”
05.17.06: Recapping Year One
Finals wrapped up a few days ago. I am finished with my first year of law school! Well, almost finished. I still have to spend two weeks (starting tomorrow) writing a case comment that will, with any luck, secure a spot for me on one of the school’s journals. If I don’t get one of the coveted spots, I will spend next year on a moot court. Because I don’t like public speaking too much—my degree is in literature, not speechifying—I am really hoping that my petition opens the required doors.
Maybe I should have studied acting. If I had, not only would the prospect of moot court seem less daunting, but I would’ve been able to feign some emotion when I walked out of my last final, something like: I did it! I survived the first year of law school! I am flooded with joy and relief! As it was, I knew that my face registered only numbness and exhaustion. My classmates stood around in dazed little groups, sipping warm beer from cans distributed out of some guy’s locker.
Even now, days later, I don’t feel quite right. I’ve been experiencing some weird symptoms since I left my last exam: disorientation, crying for no reason, inability to drive competently or concentrate on anything. My girlfriend assures me that I was like this for about a week after last semester’s finals ended, too. Wow. I must have been a real treat at Christmas.
It’s hard to adjust to having free time. I am walking around among the living again, with ordinary worries and responsibilities. I’m not locked away in my study, reading cases and taking notes on the cases and reading extra stuff about the cases in my hornbooks.
Law school is an intensely individual struggle. Nobody can do anything for me. As much as my family would like to help, there’s nothing they can do except tolerate my blank stares and law babble. The feeling of isolation was tempered throughout the year by the fact that all 260-some of my classmates were going through the same set of challenges. At my school, all 1Ls (first-year law students) take exactly the same classes. My section of 55 people was combined with one of the other four sections for most of our classes, so I’ve been in at least one class with every person from my year.
Before this year, I would’ve said that the phrase misery loves company was first uttered by a sadist and repeated by a series of bitter shrews around mouthfuls of sour grapes. But now I think there might be something to it. It was oddly comforting to see my classmates buried in the same textbooks I was lugging around, complaining about the same professors that appeared in my nightmares, and going through the same cycles of stress and sleep deprivation that I was experiencing.
One of my law school friends called it the “Potter Principle,” comparing it to the school-related tribulations of the famous boy wizard. My friend summed up the Potter Principle in this way: “Maybe it sucks or it’s really scary, but as long as everyone is going through it at the same time, it’s not so bad.”
That kind of solidarity was part of what hauled me through my first year of law school. The other part was an exceptionally patient, understanding, and supportive girlfriend. I felt very lucky all year that I could go home to her. My unattached classmates seemed, by contrast, dangerously adrift and lonely. Some of them found solace in each other, with varying degrees of success; some of them started the year in relationships or marriages, but not every relationship survived.
Oh well—at least we all have each other.
Copyright 2006, Sarah Petersen
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