Worked to Death

This is the most bizarre thing to happen to me in a while.

I was leaving the parking ramp and walking toward Walter F. Mondale Hall, the bunkerlike building that houses my law school, when I was addressed by someone at least 15 feet away. Startled, I looked around, but no one else was in sight. That’s how I knew that he must have been talking to me when he called out, “Is that some gray hair I see already, Miss?”

My first thought was, “Who says that to a total stranger?” immediately followed by, “And is he actually trying to strike up a conversation at this distance?” The man was youngish and grinning through a scruffy red beard. He wore a well-used work jacket and carried an industrial-looking bucket. His other hand was fastened securely to the mittened paw of a three-year-old. I smiled lamely and gestured at the little boy. “Wait a few years, and you’ll have gray hair too.” The man continued on his merry way, swinging his bucket and his child.

I was mystified. I’m a student among a group of younger students; only 8 percent of my classmates are over 30, and I just turned 33. Sure, I have gray hair — most of it attributable to my parents — but I’m not bothered by it and I never thought it was particularly noticeable. For the rest of the day, as I related this little story to my friends and family, I wasn’t angry or suffering from wounded vanity; I was simply puzzled. What had he meant? That I was prematurely graying? That my gray hair was visible for miles? What? What?

Maybe this chance remark hit a nerve. I feel like I’ve aged 10 years in the last six months. I’ve even started to tilt my head back to read things, peering through the imaginary bifocals I didn’t think I would need for another decade or two. Like most of my classmates, I feel jaded and exhausted all the time.

The first-year students, or 1Ls, look incredibly young. Last year I wondered why I had almost no contact with 2Ls and 3Ls, but now I know: 1Ls are annoying. They talk too much and too loudly about their classes, buoyed by the novelty of law school and their new status as proto-lawyers. They are focused on adjusting to school. But the luxury of full-time studenthood doesn’t last beyond the first year of law school. This year, we are all concerned with the future, rather than the present. We are choosing specialties, making connections, and looking for jobs.

When I started talking to my dad about law school, he said he’d only heard one thing about the experience, and he shared it with me: “The first year they scare you to death. The second year they work you to death. And the third year they bore you to death.” I’ve since heard this aphorism many, many times from well-meaning people who want to warn me about what I signed on for.

It’s comforting to know that at least I can look forward to being bored to death. Being worked to death is unpleasant. The first semester of second year is the worst part of law school, but nobody mentions that when you’re applying. In addition to the heavy academic workload, the third semester of law school is stuffed with on-campus and off-campus interviews, journal and moot court assignments, research assistantships, and other distractions. If 1Ls can be identified by their textbooks and self-important chatter, 2Ls are marked by their haggard looks and general fog of depression. 3Ls stand out because they are rarely on campus and are likely to be wearing suits when they are there. I don’t know what the 3L secret is, but they don’t seem overly concerned with classes or grades. Perhaps the luxury of having a job provides some security. When they do appear in class, they seem to be on their way to their part-time jobs at law firms (hence the suits).

That is less true for 3Ls on Law Review. They live in the Law Review office suite. As a 2L on the staff, I’m a grunt, charged with racking sources (physically bringing books, magazines, and other sources to the office) and cite checking articles. It’s labor-intensive, but not as much work as managing the actual publication, which involves soliciting and reading submissions from students and professors and preparing selected articles for publication. I can hardly wait to join the Law Review Board next year as a managing editor, if only to see how on earth I am going to find time for the extra work. That, and we get separate offices, unlike the poor, disenfranchised 2Ls.

I knew law school would be stressful, but that stress has manifested itself in very unpredictable ways. It’s probably like hearing that childbirth will hurt. You know it’s going to hurt, but you can’t imagine how or how much. Yes, I know that childbirth can’t be compared to law school, but I can’t think of another experience that people volunteer for that’s quite so agonizing.

The 2L year has been personally stressful in a lot of different ways. It’s taken a huge toll on my relationship with my girlfriend. During my last checkup, my doctor prescribed antidepressants. When my uncle died, I took two days off to attend his funeral and spend time with my family; it took me two weeks to catch up on the work I missed. All that, and I don’t even have a job lined up for the summer yet — another stressor.

There are bright spots. I’m doing research for my favorite professor, which is a genuinely interesting experience. The law school musical was hilarious; I was glad to see my classmates’ and some professors’ hidden talents and willingness to satirize themselves. Fatigue and depression aside, law school is full of brilliant, funny, nerdy people, and I feel at home in this environment of perfectionism and detail-obsessed analysis. I’m not at the top of my class, but I’ve never before been in a place that forces me to bring my “A game” every single day. Law school demands the absolute best of me, and it turns out that my best is pretty good.

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