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My law school experience
Each of us sat at our desks feeling glad, with what I feel safe to assume a hefty dollop of arrogance. By then, we had sat through two orientation sessions. There, we had been given an overview of what we could anticipate during the next 3 years. Still, though serious in its tone, there had been a sense of community, starting this segment of life as a whole. We were told that the grades for most first-year courses would be entirely based on performance on one final exam, with a small percentage depending upon the grade earned via the midterm.
This felt a bit daunting. A second shock lay in the view on a chalkboard of a typical law school exam question. Unlike most areas of education where a specific question is asked and a discussion expected, as one of the professors said, “You will need to ask the questions, and then answer them yourselves.” She went onto explain that a “fact pattern” would be presented. Having read and evaluated its content, the student must then posit a question as to issue. The rule of law must then be defined, and each element discussed. After this, an analysis must be given, and a conclusion provided, justified upon the intricate interweaving of facts and law.
A jolt of reality
Wow! While most of us had done our utmost not to look scared, I doubt there were few who, like me, did not feel somewhat shaken. And yet, Coffee and pastries had made these sessions, despite their mandatory attendance, feel festive. At the end of the final session, a champagne toast to our future success as a class had lent it an ebullient sense of a party. There, we had all sat at long tables. Now, on this first day of actual school, each of us was confined to a desk, with a seat attached; we were each our own individual unit.
Aware of its being our first lecture, our professor, a youngish woman, her hair pulled back, but wearing small diamond earrings, asked us each to give a brief self-introduction. When my turn came, I stated, after saying my name, “Writing has always been my first love, but my plan is to develop an equal passion for law.”
“Good.” She smiled. “I like people whose first love is writing. We'll teach you how to write like a lawyer.”
I felt startled, irritated, annoyed. What could she be saying? Teach ME about any aspect of writing? I had earned a Master’s Degree in literature, been chosen to give poetry readings, and had published short pieces of work in small but respected magazines. In response to her encouragement, I smiled with some degree of politeness.
The terror of truth
After a break for lunch, our second lecturer, a man nearing middle age, balding a bit, with the beginnings of a paunch, set forth, in essence, “Probably all your friends envy you for having gotten into law school. They shouldn’t. Why do I say that? It is because almost each of you in this lecture hall will have a hard row to hoe. Assuming you are like most classes, a few of you will coast through, hitting only a few potholes.
For most of you though, and despite my position here behind this prestigious podium I was one of that number, you will write something you believe to be the finest, most brilliant thing ever written, only to have it returned with either a low C , D or even an F. “But then, studying, becoming completely confused, the concepts and ways of presenting will start to become a bit clearer to you. At the end of two semesters, a few of you will flunk out or give up, but the rest will continue. Now, having reduced you all to a puddle of miserable, terrified sludge, I will begin my lecture.”
The first midterm
As October began, the word “midterm” began to loom with ever-increasing bleakness and gloom. By then, my glibness had dimmed, at times almost to a flicker. Talk in the student lounge had become more subdued. The legal research course, a major requirement, absorbed at least as much time as did our other 4 courses combined. More than one of us said, “I could really like law school if it weren't for the research.” At the same time, we each understood, with reluctance, the ability to conduct fruitful research was likely to comprise our early years as both interns and attorneys, our effectiveness in that area might well influence our later contact base and future career opportunities.
The first 3 papers were not graded, as they were viewed as practice exercises. Despite this mercy, the comments and the use of the red pencil to indicate errors had become disquieting.
Still, I went into my first midterm having studied and learned the relevant rules of law, believing I had grasped the correct analysis system.
During my drive home from this test, I awarded myself a B. While wishing for something higher, I bridled my hopes in order to avoid disappointment. After that, it seemed eons before our grades were available. When mine came, I found it was; it could not be-a C minus. I read and reread it; what could I have done to warrant such degradation? Most humiliating of all, at the close of what I believed to have been my most profound argument was the words: “Who wins this Ping-Pong game?"
It was that which decided me; this could not be. I made an appointment to speak with the professor. I had heard talk that some professors turned their first-year students’ exam papers over to teaching assistants for grading. It had even been said, “They will be out to get you”, but this had struck me as approaching the paranoiac. Now, I did wonder.
Humiliation: conference with a professor
The professor was that dismal soul who had sought to warn us, on our first day, against too much bravado. Since then, I had come to like him a lot; he was often friendly and jovial. The humor of his hypothetical illustration of legal points glued them into the memory. Once seated across from his desk, each of us sipping coffee from plastic cups, he said, “I assume you have come here about your grade.”
In response, I passed him my paper. After a rapid read-through, he said, “So then, what is your question?”
I must have flushed. After a long sip of coffee, I said, “Why did I get that C minus? I did think I made several valid arguments.”
Glancing down at it again, he said, “So you did. The grade you got reflected the fact that you argued like an intelligent layperson, rather than like a lawyer.”
“Is there truly so much difference?” I asked, distracting myself with a strong, throat-scalding gulp of coffee.
“There is.” He said. Then, tapping my paper with his forefinger, “I can see potential here-quite a lot. What you need to do is stop being a pretentious know it-it-all.”
As I reached towards his desk to retrieve my paper, he touched my wrist, then said in a quieter, almost kind tone, “Look, I know you can cut it. To some extent, that was why I was so barbaric. When you go home, don’t mope over this paper. Toss it in your trash-bin and study. View this as a part of your learning and benefit from it.”
Benumbed, I hope I thanked him before leaving his office. Indeed, I owe this man my unending appreciation.
Having put his comments to use, I did begin to do better. In early November, I got a B plus on my first graded research paper, and felt some relief. By that point however, I no longer allowed myself false elation. Come December, with final exams on their way, I felt a more genuine sense of readiness than I had prior to the midterms.
Student grades and numbers
Given the competitive nature of law school, grades are a highly sensitive ground. Still, the zeal to know one’s grades at the exact moment they became available proved overwhelming. Thus, each student was assigned a number, under which grades were posted on a large, prominent chalkboard. Later, grades would be posted to each individual student.
During orientation, we were warned that, unless any of us felt prepared to allow our grades to be generally known, we must not reveal our number to anyone. A cautionary example was given of one young woman who went to the dean in tears on the basis that “Everyone knows my grades, and I don't know why.”
When asked, “Did you give anybody your number?” the girl had replied, “Absolutely not Well, I guess I did tell my roommate.”
Enough said; one person too many.
A sense of betrayal
Even refusal to reveal one’s number to anyone was not entirely snoop-proof. While all first-year students were forced to take the same required courses, later, more latitude was allowed in terms of electives. Therefore, a seemingly friendly question as to which courses a fellow student was taking could result in tracking of grades by comparing course titles with numbers on the chalkboard I tried to dismiss this as mere rumor until I got a phone call from an acquaintance with whom I had enjoyed an occasional coffee, lunch, or studying session.
She lived in the law school dorm, while my apartment was around 20 miles from the campus. At around 9PM, she phoned me to say, “The grades have been posted; I thought you might like to know, and if you will trust me enough to give me your student number, I can check your grades, and then get straight back to you.”
Boom! My Darwinian instinct kicked into gear.
I hesitated a moment, then said, “I appreciate that offer so much. The thing is, I've got this fetish about knowing my grades before anyone else does.”
She assured me she understood perfectly. She and I then agreed to meet for a glass of wine just as soon as we both knew our result. I sensed our semi-friendship had ended. I was right. Her reaction proved somewhat extreme. After that conversation, she never spoke to me again.
A leap in the air
And so, law school continued, with some days of exhilaration and others with tears. At the appropriate time, I graduated with a healthy grade point average. The day my mail held the information of my having passed the bar exam, I jumped into the air with the shout, “I will never have to go through this misery again-not ever, ever.
And so it would have been. Given how work was progressing, I seemed destined for entry into partnership with an attorney for whom I was researching cases and writing briefs in exchange for the use of his conference room for my private clients. Then everything changed. I met a man anchored in England, raising two sons. In order to be together for the rest of our lives, the logical choice was for me to move-to relocate to England where he and I could develop a legal as well as an emotional partnership. This I did, in retrospect, never would have done otherwise.
Still, my shout of delight at bar exam freedom proved premature. In order to qualify for law practice in the UK, I was compelled to take the British version of the American bar exam-more-or-less shifting from hell into hades.
So here I am, after trials and travels, both an American lawyer and British solicitor.
Once in a while, I ask myself if it was truly worth all the work. The answer comes, before the query is finished, yes, oh yes!
© 2013 Colleen Swan