Thursday, January 13, 2011

9 Things I Wish I Knew Before Law School

A friend wrote this the day she was going to find out whether she passed the bar exam...

9 Things I Wish I Knew Before Law School

Three years ago I was a college graduate (GO TROJANS!), working an office job and daydreaming about the past four years where all I had to do was drink, smoke, and attend class just enough to slip by with an A- average. I never liked to work, I was always better at school. And at 22, I hated the idea of growing up. Yes, I admit I suffered from the Peter Pan complex. Regardless, I sat around scheming up ways I could get back to that old college lifestyle. Then it hit me. I could go to graduate school. And law school was the obvious choice considering I’m absolutely terrible at mathematics and science and I would sooner slit my throat than go into teaching. So it was decided more or less. I took the LSAT, applied, and got accepted. I was pretty stoked that summer; I quit my job, took a long trip to the east coast with some friends, and relaxed by the pool. I had a plan, I was doing something. But looking back on it now, I can’t say with absolute certainty that I made the right decision. These are the nine things I wish I knew before I spent three years in law school.

1…the LSAT in no way prepares you. I hated studying for the LSAT. Basically the test involved three categories: reading comprehension, critical reasoning, and logic games. I really hated the logic games. They might sound fun because they have the word “game” in them, but trust me, they’re not. Logic games are supposed to test your analytical reasoning abilities. More than anything, they made me angry. Here’s an example. Among the inventory at a certain vintage furniture store are seven lamps. Each lamp has either a ceramic or wood base, and each lamp comes with either a brown, red, or green shade. Then it will give you three to five more clues. (1) More lamps have a ceramic base than a wood base; (2) Every red lamp shade is paired with a ceramic base; and (3) No lamp with a wood base has a brown shade. Then it will ask which (a-e) statement cannot be true: (a) five lamps have red shades; (b) five lamps have a ceramic base; (c) five lamps have brown shades; (d) four lamps have a wood base; (e) four lamps have green shades. And this question is not the worst of it. In my studying, I saw logic games with many more variables floating around. It was insane. I wouldn’t be complaining if I thought that by doing these games I would learn some invaluable knowledge that would end up helping me in law school and in a career as an attorney. But the truth is, the LSAT is a ridiculous test without any merit. After graduating law school and passing the most difficult bar exam in the country, I still don’t think I could get better than a 160 on that stupid standardized test.

2…there is no right answer. It’s true. Professors try to trap you into answering a question that really has no answer. I think it may be the only joy they get out of teaching. The best answer you can give in a situation like this is “it depends.” It will always depend. It depends on the facts, it depends on the application of the law to the facts, and it depends on how well you can argue. Professors are merciless when they set their sights on you. Some of them will stay on you for an entire lecture, asking you everything from your opinion on a case to your political affiliations. And you will always be wrong in some way. There is no being right; essentially there is no satisfaction. As law students, we all go through this. You might think that would produce some kind of class solidarity but it doesn’t. If we’re not the one under the gun, then we’re secretly hoping that the student who is messes up in some profound way that makes us look better. And we’re not above helping that happen.

3…law students are cutthroat and antagonistic. You put one hundred over-achievers in a room together and tell them only one person can “cali” (top grade) a class and you are going to have some dissension. And that’s putting it lightly. I knew kids who would do almost anything to get that grade. Getting those grades meant snagging coveted on-campus interviews with big firms, which could lead to summer associate positions, prestigious externships and law journal invites. Some students were downright malicious in their endeavors. I heard this one guy John left his computer in the library unattended for a few minutes so he could go outside and smoke. When he came back all his notes had been deleted. I always suspected the perpetrator was Karen, this girl who sat in the front row and always had something to say in class. She sat next to John and they always seemed to vie for the professor’s attention. I guess she figured she was a shoe-in for the cali with John out of the way. And she probably would have been, if not for me. No one wanted to give poor John the notes and Karen relied on that. But what she didn’t count on was my intervention. I gave him the notes publically and he was thankful. But I didn’t do it because I felt sorry for him. I could have honestly cared less about John. I just wanted Karen to lose; to me that kind of behavior is downright wicked. In my mind she deserved it, even if she was never proven guilty in a court of law. There was another incident spring semester of my first year where a student came late to a final because of car trouble. The professor allowed her extra time to finish the exam. Students revolted; literally they were up in arms about it. In my tenure at law school I was never once targeted for sabotage, nor was I ever the object of my fellow students’ derision. I suppose that was because they never considered me a threat. And I’m okay with that.

4…law school professors are either showoffs or prudes. Most of them fall into one or both of these categories. Now I will preface this by admitting that I am far from a star student. I say this only to dispose of my possible bias on this subject right away. I was the student who sat in the back of every classroom in the seat closest to the door. I did this because I felt that it was the most advantageous seat. In this seat I could slip into class late or conversely leave class early when I didn’t want to be there. I was also out of the general sightline of the professor when he looked for volunteers. Essentially I could control when and if I spoke in class. Of course this backfired in one of my classes where the professor had an index-card calling system. But I digress. In law school, I have found that many professors just flaunt their exceptional knowledge on a particular subject rather than actually teach their students to obtain the same exceptional knowledge. One professor in particular comes to mind. He would lecture for classes on end about the philosophy behind the law, leaving only a few minutes to teach the much more important application of the law. The minutes in between would be filled with him either mocking students or answering their cell phones. In short, I had to learn that subject for the first time in my bar prep class the summer after I graduated.
Law professors also tend to be prudes. Tradition and rules are of utmost importance to them. If you’re demeanor, etiquette and pronunciation aren’t superb you can get put on a shortlist they keep next to their class roster. Basically they decide then and there that they have absolutely no respect for you and you shouldn’t be in law school wasting their time. I had this one professor who couldn’t stand when people came in late. She would stop her lecture and stare at the clock, then stare at the kid, then back at the clock. The lecture wouldn’t resume again until after the kid booted up his laptop. She would ask if he was all set before continuing. I heard that it was very embarrassing. It never actually happened to me because I sat close to the door.

5…if you don’t get invited onto law review, you’re done. This is sadly true. Of course there are a few people out there who can find a job through dumb luck or family connections, but for most of us it’s a defeating process. In this job climate, the only dry resumes getting more than a first glance are resumes from those on law review. Even journal writers are being passed up. I should know. It seems sort of unfair to the students at the top 16% who don’t even get an invite. It’s like their future is made up then and there. If I had known this after my first year, I can’t say with any amount of confidence that I would have finished up the last two years. What would be the point of racking up more debt when you have little to no chance of getting a job after everything is said and done? There isn’t one.

6…the economy will suck when you graduate. Eh, this may have been foreseeable but it certainly wasn’t expressed to me in words I understood at the time. I’m not sure if knowledge of this fact would have actually deterred me though. I was pretty dead-set on going back to school and reclaiming that student lifestyle. But perhaps I would have gone for a degree that took longer to complete. That way I would still be in school now instead of scouring internet job sites for work that is probably beneath me.

7…smart debt is just as bad as regular debt. Smart debt aka student loan debt is really not worth knowing the difference between mens rea and actus reus. They call it smart debt because you are borrowing money to go to school and improve yourself. At least that’s the idea. But those with JDs and no jobs aren’t feeling very much improved. We hate that we’re in debt thousands of dollars. It’s an uneasy feeling that forces you to compromise what you want for anything that will pay. If only I were one of those lucky few who got to keep their scholarship after the first year of school. That would have made this time a lot less stressful.

8…the bar exam is expensive and deceitful. At the time I was applying for law school, I really didn’t think much about the bar exam. It was always this distant hurdle in my future that I honestly didn’t know whether I would ever have to confront. I had a vague notion of it but not enough to inspire panic or cause me to change my mind. It was more than three years off. I figured by the time I had to take it, I would be such an expert on everything law that it wouldn’t be a problem. But then in the blink of an eye, I was graduating. Those three years went by fast and I had to decide what bar prep program to enroll in, where to take the actual test, and where I was going to stay for that three day period. Most students book a hotel room near the testing center and because I really wanted to pass the test on the first try, I decided to do what most were doing. Like an idiot, I chose a testing center in the middle of a tourist destination during Comic Con. But it wasn’t the testing center I was despising in the days following the test. It was the MBE (multiple choice) section of the exam. It was deceitful. Choice A looked like the right answer, it was essentially right, but then Choice D would be an even better, more complete answer. And the question asked for the BEST answer. I mean yes I get it. They’re trying to punish those who don’t read through all their choices. Still, I found it kind of slippery nonetheless. It made me doubt that I caught all their tricks.

9…waiting for bar exam results is tortuous and mind-numbing. It takes four months for the bar exam to be graded and returned to the applicants. That is a long time to live in limbo. And no one wants to give you a job when you’re sitting in that limbo. You’re too qualified to be a law clerk yet you’re a license short of being an attorney. So you just sit around, waiting and keeping yourself busy with random tasks. And as the big day draws nearer, you start to panic a little. What if I didn’t pass? Do I really want to go through this whole process again? How could it really be any different? You start to think about what you will do if you didn’t pass. I could be a bartender, or a sales clerk, or a writer. Of course none of those require a JD and all of those could have been done right out of high school.

To all of those thinking of going to law school, give it a second thought, and maybe a third one too.

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