LESSON FROM LAW SCHOOL

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In England I believe it’s called “reading law.” Here in the United States, it’s just “going to law school.” But you need four years of college and an undergraduate degree in order to apply.

However, unlike most other graduate programs, and contrary to what you may have thought, law school is much more a glorified trade school than an immersion in complex higher thought.  It’s true that the J.D. (juris doctor),  when finally acquired after three years of supposedly learning how to practice law, does not yet entitle you actually to practice it.  (Except in one state — Wyoming or Montana, I forget which.)  There’s another hurdle ahead: you must take and pass one last big test in a state or states of your choosing.  And that’s what you really need the J.D. for.  It’s your entry ticket for “sitting for the bar.”

“Sitting for the bar” means you register to take, and then actually take, a two-day examination (three-day if you’re doing two states at the same time) — each day’s part being six hours in length, with an hour’s break for lunch and for standing in long bathroom lines. It’s administered in a huge aerodrome or covered stadium designated by the state in question as the place where its bloodless torture takes place twice a year.  [The size of the venue is driven by the fact that as many as 1500 newly minted J.D.s may be taking the exam at the same time. Plus the ones who failed their first or second try and have to try again.]

Only when you’ve at last “passed the bar” may you finally proceed to practice law (and find out how little you really learned about it in school) either by (1) becoming an associate at a private law firm; (2) finding a municipal, state or federal government job as a lawyer; (3) going “in-house” as a member of the legal staff of a corporation; or  (4) “hanging up your own shingle” (quaint phrase), usually because the other three possibilities didn’t pan out.

But let’s back up. I don’t know what’s involved in learning how to be a plumber or electrician, but I imagine the subject matter to be mastered for those trades must be broken down into manageable bits. So it is in law school.  Allegedly learning how to be a lawyer is broken down into various subject matters to be mastered, most of them in year-long courses.  Although the specific choice of first-year course work may vary from law school to law school, during my first year we took four courses that ran from September through May — Property Law, Contract Law, Tort Law, Civil Procedure — plus a fifth, Criminal Law, that was tested at the end of the first semester and replaced in the spring by Constitutional Law, which was tested at the end of May together with the four that had run for the whole academic year.

That’s right, five examinations at the end of the first year — and  the first and only examinations we would have on those five subjects. Each exam lasted three hours, and consisted of three complicated hypothetical situations which between them raised every possible issue that had arisen in any case discussed or even mentioned in that course since September.  We were advised to write for an hour on each hypothetical, but for no more than an hour, quickly identifying and explaining every issue we had spotted. [Bathroom break? Take it at your peril!  Leaving the room meant less time to write, fewer issues spotted.]  Brilliance on one hypothetical did not compensate for ignorance on another. Failing an exam meant having to repeat the course.  Doing poorly in any exam adversely affected one’s class rank — an extremely important consideration in securing a first job.

Understandably, there was much growing tension in the classroom as the weeks of May rolled by.  Many of us were there on federally funded student loans, which would need to be repaid irrespective of the outcome on these exams.  Others were the first in their families to go to graduate school.  Not making it would mean not making a family’s dream come true. The school had thoughtfully provided a ten-day study period following the end of classes before the first exams were scheduled to take place.  But how do you study when you’re too nervous to focus on anything except the possibility of impending doom?

The youngest of our professors was an attractive woman who was a bit past thirty but certainly no more than thirty-five.  This was only her second year as a member of the law faculty.  She had taught fourth grade for a few years before going to law school, and brought a touch of the kindly and patient manner with which one instructs young children to teaching us, which was perhaps an error of style when addressing a roomful of twenty-somethings, plus me.  What’s more, although she taught Civil Procedure, she had never actually practiced law.  She may not have even sat for a bar. She was slender, shapely, had great legs, and wore high heels to show them off — which was much appreciated by the young men in the class but did nothing to enhance her reputation as a professor to be respected for her knowledge.

On the final day she met with us, she did a quick review of what we might anticipate could be on the Civil Prodedure exam.  At last she put down her pointer and her chalk, turned to us and said she knew we were all very nervous.  She had been through it herself not so long before, so she understood completely.

And then this pretty woman with the gorgeous gams said something so important, and so applicable to every other aspect of life that I’ve never forgotten it, although by now I’ve forgotten almost everything else I memorized that year.  “You may be so nervous,” she said, “that you’re too nervous to study.  So this is what to do.”

Now no one was looking at her legs.  We were all listening very carefully.

What you should do when you’re too nervous to study,” she said, “is study. And then the nervousness will go away.”

I was nearly fifty-two, hadn’t taken an exam (except the one in Criminal Law) for twenty-seven years, and “nervous” doesn’t begin to describe my state of mind.  My husband was out of work, I had two adolescent children, I had done this all on loans.  But I took her advice.  And studied. And studied. And studied some more.  And the nervousness did go away.

When the class rankings were posted that summer after the grades were in on all five exams, I found myself tied for first in a class of 345.  That rank opened doors for interviews in major Boston law firms, despite my age. One of those interviews led to a job that brought money into our family again, paid for braces, good private schools, music lessons.

That’s why what I heard on the last day of the Civil Procedure class in May 1983 was the most useful lesson I learned in law school.  Try it yourself.

When you’re too nervous to do something, do it.  And the nervousness will go away.

And then who knows what good things will happen next?

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