[As some of you may know, I became a lawyer in my mid-fifties. The process of becoming one has therefore probably remained clearer in my memory than it might have been if I had done it in my twenties. I’ve even occasionally blogged about certain aspects of law school that seemed to me to remain relevant to life outside the law. This piece, and the one to follow, appeared in “The Getting Old Blog” about four years ago. But who digs back in the archives that far? So here they are again, in slightly different form — because they’re still useful to me, even now that I’ve embarked “On Being Old.” This lesson is instructive. The next one will be illustrative.]
WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU’RE TOO NERVOUS TO DO IT
In England I believe it’s known as “reading law.” That makes it sound very grand, although I understand you can get right to it after finishing secondary school, as long as you’ve passed three A Levels in “hard” — that is traditional academic — subjects. Here in the United States, it’s just called, quite casually, “going to law school.” But you need four years of college or university education and an undergraduate degree in something or other in order to apply.
Nonetheless, unlike many other graduate programs, and contrary to what you may have thought, law school is much more a glorified trade school than an immersion in higher thought. When you finally acquire the J.D. degree — “J.D.” meaning juris doctor, or doctor of law — you’re not yet entitled to practice. 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. degree for. It’s your entry ticket to “sitting for the bar.”
“Sitting for the bar” means you register to take, and then actually take, a two-day examination — three days if you’re sitting for two state bars at a time. Each day’s part is six hours in length, with an hour’s break after the first three hours 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 bar exam at the same time, in addition to 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 the practice of law, and find out how little you really learned about it in law school. You will either (1) become an associate at a private law firm; (2) find a municipal, state or federal government job as a lawyer; (3) go what is called “in house” as a member of the legal staff of a corporation; or (4) “hang up your own shingle” — quaint phrase — usually because none of the other three possibilities have panned out.
But let’s back up. Although I don’t know what’s involved in learning how to be a plumber or electrician, 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. The specific choice of first-year course work may vary from law school to law school. In the end, however, all law schools will cover the six courses we took during my first year. Four of them ran from September through May: Property Law, Contract Law, Tort Law, and Civil Procedure. A fifth course, in Criminal Law, 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 year.
That’s right: five examinations at the end of the first year — and the first and only examinations we would have on each of those five subjects. Each exam lasted three hours, and consisted of three long-paragraph accounts of complicated hypothetical fact situations which between them raised every possible legal 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 legal issue we had spotted. Bathroom break? Take it at your peril! Leaving the room would mean 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 year-long course. Doing poorly in any exam adversely affected one’s class rank, an extremely important consideration in securing a first job — unless one of your parents or relatives knew somebody.
Understandably, there was much growing tension in the classroom as the weeks of May rolled by. Many of us, myself included, were there on federally backed student loans which would need to be repaid irrespective of the outcome of these exams. Some students 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 exam was 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 may have been a bit past thirty but certainly no more than thirty-five. This was only her second year as a member of the law faculty. It was known that she had taught fourth grade for a few years before going to law school; she 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 an auditorium full of twenty-somethings, plus me. What’s more, although she taught Civil Procedure — which governs courtroom practice in civil cases –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 we met with us, she did a quick review of what we might anticipate could be on the Civil Procedure exam. At last she put down her pointer and 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 so many other aspects of life, that I’ve never forgotten it, although by now I’ve forgotten almost everything I memorized that year.
“You may be so nervous,” she said, “that you’re too nervous to study. So this is what you 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, as old as the mothers of my classmates. They called me Mrs. Mishkin very politely, but not one of them had invited me into a study group at the beginning of the year. I had to do all the class outlines by myself. I hadn’t taken an exam, except the one in Criminal Law, for twenty-seven years. The word “nervous” doesn’t begin to describe my state of mind. My husband had been out of work for well over a year. 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 after the grades were in on all five exams, I found myself tied for first place in a class of 345. That rank opened doors for interviews in major Boston law firms, despite my age. One of those interviews — and all it takes is one — one of those interviews led to a job that brought money into our family again, paid for braces, sneakers, music lessons, good private schools.
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. There would be many more nervous-making situations ahead, beginning with sitting for the bar. Then came standing up in court in front of judges known to be misogynist. Leaving a marriage after twenty-two years. Being let go in my sixties and having to find respectable, interesting work again at that age. More recently needing to pull myself up from a nearly fatal medical experience and its aftermath. But I’ve never forgotten that when you’re too nervous to do something, just do it. The nervousness will go away. And then who knows what good things will happen next?