April thoughts on law school

- by Alice Marie Beard,
written while a first-year law student
at The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC
(Ms. Beard went on to earn her J.D. from George Mason U.)

It's been a month of ups and downs, times when I've felt good about being a first-year student at Catholic University's law school, and times when I've hated the place. We have two weeks of classes before exams. I don't sense the stress that permeated the place at this point in the first semester. Rather, I sense hostility and disgust, and I've got a share of it myself. A young man from one of my first semester classes said it best: "I saw one of my college professors recently. He congratulated me for being in law school. I told him, 'Before I began law school, I wanted to be a lawyer. Now, I don't.'" That thrill of a year ago that came with tearing open thick envelopes has been replaced with the thought of, "Dear God! What have I done?" As a third-year female said, "You come in here thinking your life is your own. By the end of the first semester, you realize you have given up your life. Because of the cost of the tuition, you couldn't quit if you wanted to."

When we returned from spring break, there wasn't the same enthusiasm as when we returned from Christmas break. Many had spent the week producing writing samples to audition for law review. Before the break, students had purchased "packets." There was no research involved; the packets included everything needed for the attempted write-on -- everything but time, writing skills, and computer-like recall of how to Bluebook citations. Our first class after the spring break was property. It is our small-section class, just the 32 of us in Section E. The Monday after the break, only 20 students were in class. After class, I found the others: They'd been working to beat the deadline for auditioning for law review. Some were stretched out on benches in the atrium; a couple were on the floor, leaning against a wall; one was sitting on the steps, head on his knees. Because I hadn't tried for law review, they looked funny to me, like participants at the end of a dancathon, like something out of They Shoot Horses, Don't They? Then I remembered: That movie wasn't funny. Like the dancers in the movie, the law students were spewed about after a dance for survival. Each saw the chance to put "law review" on a resume as necessary for survival in the high stakes game of being a lawyer. One of the young men said, "I feel as if I just gave birth, and it wasn't pretty."

Several of us grumbled about having to return after spring break. The Hoosier farm boy said he'd worked the farm on his break. He'd shoveled manure, sowed his wild oats Hoosier-style (plowed and planted 11 acres), and said the only day of his break when he thought law school would be better was the day 27 head of dairy cattle got loose, and he had to round them up. Like any Hoosier farm kid over 10, he knew each cow was worth $2,000, and if a farmer's cow was loose on the road and got hit by a car, the farmer lost the cow, and the farmer was liable for damage on the car that hit the cow.

One of my joys this semester has been sitting next to that Hoosier farm boy in property. There's a comfort from "being with your own," being with someone who understands your ways and words. We were working on the law of nuisance and dealing with the case of a cement company that was annoying its neighbors. (Boomer v. Atlantic Cement: Give the complainers permanent payment rather than close down the plant.) The prof explained, "A nuisance is a right thing in a wrong place, like a pig in a parlor." I looked at my new friend and whispered, "In Indiana, sometimes you have a pig in a parlor." He understood and said, "Sometimes." Imagine your best brood sow sick and unable to tend to her new litter. You just might put the piglets in your parlor so you can care for them. Most in my class wouldn't understand that. The Hoosier farm boy was one of my smiles this month. He'll be working this summer for a DC firm that does agriculture law.

Our property prof has tried some innovative teaching. If you're a tenured professor with a 30-year-old Yale Law degree, you teach as you wish. The semester began with us forming small groups. Each day's assigned reading came with a set of questions written by the prof. Each class began with ten minutes of group time when we discussed answers within our own groups. Then, each group had an assigned spokesperson for the day. Each class, someone from every group had to answer one of the questions. The first few questions were easy, and we learned to volunteer early so as to avoid having to answer one of the prof's latter word-trick questions. Thruout the semester, some have complained about the prof's class format. In our other classes, we've become accustomed to a lecture format interrupted by the grilling of some unlucky few during each class. With 64 in each substantive class, the odds are against having to present in a class on any given day. With 32 in the property class, and with the further division into small groups, it's hard to hide.

We 32 have been together since mid-August. Five days a week, week after week. This semester, two of our four classes are "just us." Imagine 31 kids and a crabby old lady on a bus ride across the country, together for months. Imagine 31 kids and the old lady at an all-summer camp, and it's August. We're sick of smelling each other's dirty socks. One afternoon a young woman spoke in class. Her voice sounds whiny to my Hoosier ears. All I could think was, "I can't stand the sound of her voice another second!" The Army veteran has annoyed some students for being too smart. He's always prepared; he's always ready to present; he always understands. We just hate him! More than once, a professor has turned to the Army vet for an answer when no one else has had it. Professors are human; they get tired of dragging answers out. In criminal law, Madeleine Albright's son-in-law posed a hypothetical on conspiracy, an "inchoate" crime. The hypothetical would have had us all planning this Army vet's murder. I laughed and said, "It might help the curve." He'll be working at the Pentagon for the summer.

The "curve" in law school is ever present. Each student has an "index number," a combination of our undergrad GPAs and our LSAT scores. For this first year, we were arranged by section so that each section has a spread of students from high to low index numbers. In some ways, we were "set up" from the start. The law school had a good idea which students in a section would get high grades and which would get low grades. The arrangement guarantees that the smart students have weak students to compete against to get the good grades that the law school predicted they would get. No one should be surprised at the grades; it's a set up. An old friend who's a lawyer said, "My feeling is that they used the bottom 90 per cent so there could be a top ten per cent to fawn over." But a student in another section who's in the top ten per cent offers the other side: "I don't like being around stupid students." There's a truth that the smart students need to understand: They may be on scholarship, but we full-paying students are paying the bills. The law school doesn't get enough of "them" to have a full class. At the same time, those of us in the bottom 90 per cent have to understand that we will learn better around smarter students. And everyone has to understand that there will always be a top ten per cent, and a bottom ten per cent.

Constitutional law has been our heavy class this semester, 90 minutes three times a week. As the Air Force 2nd Lt. who'll be a Philadelphia August bride said, "I feel as if all I'm doing is reading this book." We're expected to see the "tests" that Supreme Court justices have used in deciding cases. I'm not exceedingly persuaded that the "tests" are anything more than subjective guises that let justices decide however they want. Our con law prof is also a Yale Law man; he and my neighbor were in the same class. Early in the semester the prof was disappointed that we weren't enthusiastically volunteering to discuss these Supreme Court cases. We were in a "muddle," as the prof said. He was trying humor; he was trying history; he was trying to compare how American's view laws and rules as compared to how German's view laws and rules. Most of us wanted to sit silent. Finally he said, "It's as if you want me to run this class like a review session." From the Navy Reservist at the back of the bus came, "Works for me!" Since then, the class has seemed like the prof trying to carry 64 of us on his back thru a 1500 page book.

I don't know that I'm "getting" whatever I'm supposed to "get" to pass an exam in con law, but it's been a class with bright spots this past month. One of my shocks as a product of the '50s and '60s is how this society moved to a president claiming that partial birth abortion is a "right" for women. Sixteen years ago, I gave birth to my daughter at home on a beautiful spring morn. My community service that year was pumping extra breast milk for premature babies at Georgetown University Hospital. As payback, the hospital gave luncheons and lectures every couple of months, and they let us see the babies that our milk was helping to keep alive. The babies were tiny, some just over a pound. Many were three months premature, and most were making it. Even the tiniest ones sucked their thumbs and cried in pain or discomfort, or smiled occasionally. In 1984, no politician would have argued that the mothers of those babies could have killed the babies on the very days they were born. In 1999, thirty-four US senators and one boy from Arkansas would have argued the mothers could have killed those babies even as they were being born. Con law showed the reasoning of how we got from my youth to today:

In 1965, the justices made up the idea of "penumbral rights" in a case called Griswald. That case allowed married people to be counseled about artificial birth control. "Penumbral rights" were a little of this and a little of that, all mixed into magical swamp gas, kind of a "two plus two is greater than four." As the prof explained it, I sat in the front row dumbfounded and said, "They just made that up!" Then in 1972 came Eisenstadt. This case was supposed to have been contraception v. conception, but the court moved it to bearing a child v. NOT bearing a child. I thought, "Why didn't someone say, 'Excuse me. Could we just deal with the problem of THIS case?" Eisenstadt cleared the path for Roe v. Wade which said that the 14th Amendment allows for abortion. And courtesy of Roe, we got to a US president defending the practice of killing babies as they are being born, because the law says that an unborn person is not a person. As the prof explained the logic, detail by detail, he was careful to be unbiased and neutral until he got to the very end. At the point of babies being killed as they were being born, this quiet Catholic man working on a doctorate in religion said bluntly, "This is killing a baby." Since I'd arrived in August, I'd seen this Catholic institution bend over backwards so as not to offend any "other side." Sometimes I felt as a black man might have felt if he'd been at Howard's law school in the '40s and had to tolerate professors saying we needed to respect both sides of Plessy v. Ferguson. For once, I felt as if I were at a Catholic law school.

[FYI: Carhart v. Stenberg at 8th Circuit; Stenberg v. Carhart at Supreme Court, argued April 25, 2000. Decided June 28, 2000: Stenberg v. Carhart; Justice Thomas' dissent: "To reach its decision, the majority must take a series of indefensible steps."]

This journal itself is impacting my own experience as a first-year law student. There's been a bit of unpleasantness because of publicity surrounding this journal: some e-mail from bogus accounts, a few unsigned messages in my mail folder, some shunning, some ostracism, a few jeers as I walked down the hall, a confrontation by a group of students accusing me of "devaluing their degrees," some complaints to the newly-elected SBA president. I have asked for help; one associate dean has helped in one situation. There is a truth that Marshall McLuhan understood: One cannot write about something without in some way impacting on it; the "reporter" impacts the situation in some way. I suspect that my young classmates at CUA have no idea who McLuhan was.

We've already bid adieu to one of our professors: Our "good shepherd" during this first year, our lawyering skills professor. He taught us how to do basic legal research, how to think thru the system of the various courts, the court reporters, and the basic "system" of the law. He began with us a week before the other professors saw us, and he left us three weeks before the other profs will. We began last semester by writing a simple memorandum as a summer associate might be asked to write to a partner. At the start, we were given all the cases we were allowed to use. We finished by researching and writing a brief appealing a case to a federal court of appeals, and defending our briefs in oral arguments. Our hypothetical was a variation of United States v. Dickerson, a case which the Supreme Court will hear April 19. [FYI: Decided June 26, 2000] The question is whether Miranda is absolute, or whether a law Congress passed after the Miranda decision should be enforced. We'd written two briefs on the same hypothetical. The first pretended to be at the lower court where I argued for the defendant. On appeal, we switched sides, and I argued for the government.

Oral arguments day: I'd dreaded this day since last September when I learned about it. I was going to have to stand and speak for ten minutes. I can't stand and speak in public. In third grade, I was to recite the poem "Yellow Butterfly." I knew the poem. I'd stood before my mirror and recited it. I'd said it over and over as I'd walked the half-mile to school that day. I stood in class to say, "My poem is The Yellow Butterfly," but I choked on "yellow." It came out "yaller." There I stood, an eight-year-old unable to speak. Forty years later, I was still afraid. The day before orals, there was a switch in pairing; suddenly my opposition was one of the students who'd passed up admits to two first-tier law schools. I only barely got in at Catholic, and I'd hoped for more even competition. My opponent was nice. I fixed the button on his suit before we went before the judges. One asked me to define "prophylactic," and my brain said, "Nope, Alice. No joke now." I was able to speak, and no one asked me to say "yellow." I left feeling good. My "opponent" and I hugged in the hall and went down stairs to a reception in the atrium.

We talk about who the best in our section is. We don't know for sure, but the bets lean towards two: The Air Force 2nd Lt. who will spend her summer in an unpaid internship for a judge in the 7th Circuit (Judge Posner's court). And a young black woman. When the second name came up, I said, "Isn't it ironic. Forty years ago, she likely wouldn't have gotten into a law school." The class musician hadn't understood my point and piped in with, "She'd have been just as smart 40 years ago." I said, "Yes, and that would have been the tragedy 40 years ago. She wouldn't have gotten in to study law, and we wouldn't have had the advantage of having her brights in our section." Occasionally, with repeated effort, the law does get it right.

This week our con law class will go to the Supreme Court to hear oral arguments. I've still got to do my taxes and pay bills. The interim dean just sent thru some practice questions I need to do if I hope to get anything out of his study session which I bid on in the school auction. My daughter's sick. I'm worried about my 82-year-old dad who's recuping from surgery. I need to get my gray roots colored, and there's always reading to do. When I saw Randy online, that boy I began kindergarten with when we were just four years old, I said, "I believed that if we worked hard and did everything they told us, life would be easy by now." Randy said, "I remember thinking I couldn't wait to be an adult." Randy's heading back home for Easter; I'll be hitting the books, and life ain't easy just because you're almost 50.

As I've been "reading the law" since August, I've come up with a slogan that lawyers should remember: "Periods are free!" Shorten your sentences, gentle lawyers. I'll write again after the exams are over. And, even if I should flunk out, it's been one hell of a ride at the amusement park!

Alice Marie Beard
April 15, 2000


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In her mid-fifties, after a quarter-of-a-century as a housewife and mom,
Alice Beard graduated from a law school that ranked # 38
and passed a bar exam that only 57% passed.