December 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.)

Classes ended today. One orientation week followed by fifteen weeks of classes, and this segment of law school is over. Like the other 31 students in my section, I now have three full days to pull together enough details to pass a torts exam. Then, I'll have five days to eat, sleep, and dream contracts. Four days after that, I'll have to walk in and convince a professor I finally understood the difference between personal jurisdiction and subject matter jurisdiction. Someone has said that my task will be to squawk like a lawyer enough that my words convince a professor who is wading thru 130 exams that I can squawk like a lawyer about as much as most of the others in my first-year law class.

Before Thanksgiving the mood among first years was one of stress and tension, but after Thanksgiving it seemed to have become one of quiet resignation. The focus had changed. The focus was no longer on being prepped for each class: The focus was on the exams. In the stand-and-deliver torts class, we returned ill prepared. The professor said in disgust, "Did ANYONE read this case?" I considered standing and apologizing: "No sir. We are tired of fighting. Our hearts are sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, we shall fight no more forever." I wasn't sure he'd catch the humor, so I kept my mouth shut.

Back in August, the end of the orientation week came when the professors were "rolled out" at a reception. In November the real end of classes came when the dollies filled with exams were rolled out in the library. On them were the REAL red books to be concerned with: bound copies of old exams. The exams became our focus as we remembered that, in a law school course, the grade is based on only the final exam, taken with complete anonymity. Until the exam results come in, no one knows who the best and the brightest in the class is. Is it the Army veteran who always has the answer in class? The woman who can spend 30 minutes asking for an exacting explanation on a point in contract law? The man who passed up admits to Fordham and U. of Minn. to come to Catholic? The Navy Reservist with the sail boat? The Army 2nd lieutenant with plans to move to Indiana? Or is the best in the class one who has never spoken up? The first we will know is with these December exams. Years back, law students had no exams until the end of the first year. The December exams were "practice exams." Little by little the norm became semester exams rather than whole-year exams. In the DC area, Georgetown was the last to give up the practice of whole-year exams. Their last whole-year exams were about a dozen years ago. A friend still blames his excess weight on the stress of whole-year exams during his first year at Georgetown.

Weight gains and losses have been byproducts of this first semester. Many have gained weight; a few have lost. The typical gain has been about ten pounds. One man admitted gaining and losing twenty pounds. Rumor has it that another man has gained sixty pounds. We aren't taking care of our health. We don't exercise. We eat too much junk food. And the only reason we got our flu shots was because our Jewish mother interrupted her lecture to tell us to walk across the atrium after class and get flu shots.

In the middle of the month, we were embarrassed by taking an exam in our lawyering skills class. We had been told it was not an exam, "only a little quiz." At the end of the "little quiz," 32 students who had been smart enough to get into a second-tier law school walked into the hall and said, "Oh, my God!" It was filled with details that one either knew or didn't; there was no "figuring it out." Did we know the various reporters? Lawyers Edition, Supreme Court Reporter, North Eastern, Veterans Appeals, Federal. What's the USCCAN? The USCS? What's Shepard's? What's it do for you? What's the Federal Register? Which citator does West put out? Given a bunch of authorities relevant to a case, put them in exact order of precedential value. Bluebook some citations. Oh, sorry, one's a trick question because there's no law review by the exact name we're giving you, but figure it out. Who's the Solicitor General? Having done my best, I spent the final ten minutes trying to remember the Solicitor General's name. My mind played charades with me: First name, short and sounds Biblical. Last name, there's a man combing his mustache. What is it? What is it? Ten minutes after the class as I put my books in the back of my mom-style station wagon, I thought, "WAXMAN! Damnit!" Seth Waxman walks in the shoes once filled by Thurgood Marshall, and that's one name I'll never forget again.

Soon after the "quiz," I had a major crisis of faith about whether I should be in law school. As usual with civil procedure, I walked in thinking I understood personal jurisdiction v. subject matter jurisdiction, and I understood less as the class went on. That day was worse than usual because of a migraine. I couldn't make my eyes focus, and I wanted to pop my eyeballs out. I left the class feeling completely lost, in that class and the other three. I'd been told to appear that afternoon in the legal career services office, and I appeared, migraine and all. I asked the woman, "Have you ever before helped to place a woman my age who has been nothing but a mom for the twenty years before law school?" She said, "I've helped place older women." That didn't answer my question. I pressed again, and she said, "I've helped place women who were changing careers." But still, she did not answer my question:

"Yes or no: Have you ever before worked with a woman my age who has been nothing but a mom for twenty years before coming to law school?"

She finally answered, "Well, no, but that doesn't mean I couldn't help you. Here's a book on how to write a resume." My unkind thought was, "Lady, I could probably help YOU write your resume." Instead, I said, "Thank you," and left.

I found the 2nd-year thirty-something president of Phi Alpha Delta Law Fraternity and cried on his shoulder. I left the school that day after throwing away my mail folder and emptying my locker; I did not intend to return. I felt completely lost. At the request of the president of PAD, a phone call came that evening from Catholic's 2nd-year law student who is walking just ahead of me on the same path. My age, she also began law school after twenty years as a full-time mom. And what she told me was that the path doesn't get any easier. She said she has emptied her locker more than once, with no intention of returning. She said her low point came when she realized she needed to be part of a study group and had to go to folks young enough to be her children and ask, "May I join in?" Her fear was that the students might respond like kids on the playground: "Game's locked." Unlike the 2nd-year student, I never asked to "join in any reindeer games."

My informal study group/cheering squad has been a small group of mature, male lawyers. They may see me as a novelty act, but they have gone out of their way to teach me and to discuss cases with me. One case in contracts left me scratching my head. I wrote to a former judge/law professor, and he kindly wrote me a three-page letter explaining the court's logic. While I've been left confused in civil procedure, other lawyers have kept me abreast of recent, newsworthy cases that have been won or lost on some lawyer's proper understanding of the rules of civil procedure. (For example, my "study group" made sure I was aware of the judge's decision in a city suit against gun manufacturers. The plaintiff lost to the defendant's Rule 12(b)(6) motion, failure to state a claim. The judge's opinion is a quick read that I put online, and it's an example of failure to state a claim: CLICK HERE for the decision.)

As I work at my transition from twenty years on the planet of "Nothing-but-a-mom," I recall a conversation from twenty years ago, at the start of my "mommy journey." I was a new mom at a small, nothing-fancy party. I chanced to have a conversation with a woman whose name was then unknown to me, and the fact that she knew it was unknown made for the best conversation. She was a school teacher. She had been "nothing but a mom" for many years; she had five children. Before she began "mommy-ing," she had worked with computers. The computer world had changed dramatically by the time she tried to return. She knew my son was a newborn, and she said with honesty, "You will never get back to where you would have been if you didn't take time off." Had she remained in the field of computers, she'd be tops in that field; she is brilliant. Instead, she "mommied," and she eventually came up on the other side of the "mommy divider" as a school teacher. After we'd talked almost an hour, I held out my hand and said, "I'm sorry. I'm Alice Beard. I didn't get your name." She took my hand and said, "Frances Liddy," as in Mrs. G. Gordon Liddy. Mrs. Liddy knew what it was like for a woman to take the old pieces and try to put them back together again because she had done it.

While trying to put my old pieces back together again, I did something that was being done by about 15,000 other first-year law students from coast to coast: I spent three weekend days in review sessions run by a company called "barbri." The company dominates in the area of preparation for the bar exam, and they've moved into helping students pass classes while in law school. Students who register in advance for barbri's bar preparation classes may attend barbri exam review lectures. Each lecture lasts about six hours. The lectures most often are seen on video on a big screen, in a big room, filled with law students who come to learn enough to pass an exam. By the time we got to a barbri review, we'd read the cases and heard the lectures from the professors. Barbri's task was to hang it all together and, in effect, to put it into outline form for us. We arrived ready to take notes for five or six hours at breakneck speed. Cases weren't discussed; they were mentioned only by first name to back up a point. Some of the case names elicited laughter. I could imagine 15,000 first-year law students across the nation laughing at the same point in the lecture.

The torts lecturer got a laugh when he joked about Palsgraf v. Long Island R.R. [See also: palsgraf] I was at George Mason to hear that lecture; the hall was filled with George Mason students and a large crew of Georgetown students. I may have been the only student there from Catholic who saw Palsgraf in another light: CUA's professor had told more of the story than the case books tell, more even than reading the court case will tell you. The 1928 case had a woman (Helen Palsgraf) injured at a railroad station. A man carrying explosives had been pushed onto the crowded train. He dropped the explosives; they exploded. As a result of the explosion, a woman standing some distance from him was injured, badly. She sued the railroad. She lost. No foreseeability, no duty owed. The opinion of the honorable judge talked about a set of scales falling on the woman. The professor told us about a researcher who went to the real records and found that there NEVER had been a set of scales. The woman was injured in another way. The professor also told us that the woman whom law students laugh at spent the rest of her life working on her hands and knees to pay off her medical bills. And the prof told us that the explosives had most likely been sticks of dynamite used by the railroad. Somehow, the case does not seem funny to me. It seems like a dishonest decision made by a judge who wrote a less than truthful opinion to try to make his decision look okay for generations to come. When the prof presented the case, he seemed almost apologetic: "Now, look, you've just got to understand the principle behind it, not whether the judge was telling the truth." I don't laugh when I hear about the Palsgraf case. Instead, I wonder how her lawyers might have played things differently to have gotten the woman a decent outcome.

  • To read a note with contradictory info, CLICK HERE.
  • For more consideration about whether CUA's prof was right, CLICK HERE.
  • To see Helen "Lena" Palsgraf on the 1920 Census:
    CLICK HERE (line 13).
  • To see Helen "Lena" Palsgraf on the 1930 Census:
    CLICK HERE (line 38).

For my mom and dad's 50th wedding anniversary, I phoned Mom and told her that I'd begun law school. I hadn't told her because I kept remembering the scene from The Paper Chase: A student gave a dumb answer, and the professor told the student to phone home and tell his mother there was serious doubt that he would become a lawyer. If Mom didn't know I'd started law school, Mom would not need an explanation if I flunked out. However, Mom is 78 and has been "just a mom" for 55 years; her grape vine had already informed her how I was spending my days, and she said, "A lot of people are back in school and doing new things at your age."

Mom went on to talk about the old oak tree at the corner of her house. It's in bad shape. She'd called a man out to handle the problem. He'd agreed to do it at one price; she said, "Fine. You've got the job." The man thought on it a little longer and said it would be fifty dollars more. Mom told him to leave. She said some of the tree may fall, "maybe on us, maybe in MaryBeth's yard. We'll see." I told her I'd have to leave for my torts class. Mom asked, "What's torts?" I said, "Umm, you know the man who raised his price fifty dollars after he had agreed to do the work? Well, that's a contracts case. But if the tree falls onto MaryBeth's yard and damages something of hers, that would be a tort case."

After my final class today, I did my Friday usual: I went to Bunker Hill Elementary School to tutor third graders. And there was Regina. My struggles to pass exams pale in comparison to Regina's struggles. She is ten years old and homeless. Her dad died when she was 17 days old. A year ago, she and her brother were found surviving on their own like "Box Car Children." Their mother had been overwhelmed by her own problems, and she left them to fend for themselves. Now Regina lives in a group home, separated from her brother, and cared for by shift workers. No mom, not even a foster mom. The closest thing she has to a mom is her 3rd grade teacher. Regina's lost, tired of being made fun of, and feeling betrayed by the system. However, despite it all, she wants to be a police officer. Regina's troubles put mine in perspective.

As I begin my final preparations for exams, I am comforted by the words of my professor with the cowboy boots: "You've got to believe that whatever got you to this point will get you the rest of the way." It reminded me of the John Candy movie Cool Runnings and its philosophy: "Be what you is, and not what you ain't. Folks that does this is the happiest lot." I'm not gonna be able to stay in this race trying to count in German.

Merry Christmas to all! As the year 2000 starts, I'll stop back to say whether I'm still in the race.

Alice Marie Beard
December 3, 1999


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IV. not a law journal
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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 ranked # 38
and passed a bar exam that only 57% passed.