February thoughts on law school

- by Alice Marie Beard,

written February 2000, 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.)

On the 5th of September 1998, I came close to drowning at Ocean City, MD. I was spending the day with a childhood friend. She'd married a nice boy from the University of Notre Dame and moved on to a life that includes a vacation home in Ocean City. We were two moms jumping the waves when we separated. I bounced into a riptide and was carried a half-mile south before thinking, "Maybe this wasn't such a good idea." Too late, I realized it was too late. I'm not a strong swimmer. When I would come up for air, all I could do was gasp; there was no spare second to cry for help. At a distance of about a quarter of a football field, I was seen by some mother's son who was spending his summer as a lifeguard. Thrice when I came up, I saw him, the blue zinc oxide across his nose. The third time, he looked puzzled and shouted, "Are you all right?" I went under before I could say, "No."

That mother's son swam into the riptide and grabbed me while I was under water. He had an orange torpedo-shaped floatation device on a rope. We surfaced, and he said, "Hold this. We're going under again." Those "torpedo tubes" are hard to hold against a riptide; there was no way to put an arm thru any hole, and when we went under again, I feared I'd lose my grip. After we went under together a few times, another lifeguard got to us. I realized how bad things were when the new lifeguard said, "My name's Sean. What's yours?" I recalled first aid training from my days as a Camp Fire leader and remembered that first rule: First, calm the victim. On the next "upbeat" of the riptide, I signaled this new mother's son that I was calm: "I'm Alice. I'm a mom in Bethesda."

Those two mother's sons saved my life that day, walked me back onto the beach, and I don't even know who they are.

The first semester at Catholic University's law school had been hard for me, and the proof was in the grades. In some ways that first semester, too late, I'd realized it was too late. As the grades started coming in, I had to face the reality that I was caught in a riptide that I could not swim out of on my own. I considered withdrawing rather than paying another $12,000-plus to have the riptide of law school officially pronounce me dead. On Jan. 20, with a week and a day to make the decision, I sent an e-mail to nine administrators and professors: "I need advice fast about whether to remain enrolled."

Two people responded. The first was the professor who had been assigned as my advisor after the first assigned advisor had not responded to my repeated attempts to contact her. I had tried several times to meet the new advisor; he'd had time only to meet for a handshake. His response to my request for advice was to e-mail an assistant dean, with a copy to me: "It is obvious that Ms. Beard needs serious academic counseling and that, rightly or wrongly, she has lost confidence in me because we have been unable to connect. ... Issues about learning styles and techniques, particularly for mature students, are not things that I am familiar with. ... I hope you are able to arrange for her to receive appropriate guidance."

[FOLLOW UP: There was never any further "advisor" offered. There was never any "academic counseling" offered. Twenty-four days after my plea for help, the administrators at Catholic's law school turned their efforts to "suggesting" how I should write this online journal.]

The person who did respond to my SOS was my civil procedure professor. He sent thru the message, "Hang in there.  Please make an appointment to see me next week."

I'd passed everything, but my grades weren't good. The civ pro prof listened as I admitted that what was hardest for me was the reading of this new language. I told him the administration's offer was to let me withdraw up to the end of the fourth week at no cost of tuition. He asked, "What do YOU want?" I said, "I'd like to learn how to make it thru law school." He pulled a book off his shelf: Reading Skills for Law Students, by Craig K. Mayfield. "There are others like you," he said. "They didn't print the book waiting for just one student to come along."

His advice followed the words of one of my new professors: "Even if you'd been out of school only five years, it would take some time to get your grades up to where they should be. As a returning student, expect it to take three semesters -- the one you just finished, this one, and the first semester of your second year. Hiring individuals know this about students who begin law school after having been out of school for some years. If you stick it out, you should see a slow but definite increase in the grades." He told of an older man he'd had as a student a few years back. The student had earned a D from him. Three semesters later, the student returned to show off his A's. "He told me that I'd been wrong about him, but he wasn't recalling correctly. I had told him that if he stuck it out, he'd be making A's."

I sat in awe in constitutional law as a student presented a case with perfection. Every detail was in place. Later, as I tried to decide whether to withdraw or continue, I told an assistant dean about the perfection. She said, "Are you sure what she presented was her own? I'd wonder about a perfect presentation this early in the semester in constitutional law. We'd like you to get it from the case books, but when you can't, use the study aids." Here was an assistant dean recommending case briefs and Nutshells.

As I collected advice, it was like standing at a roulette table, deciding whether to risk more money or walk away, but old loves and old dreams die hard. I put down another twelve-thousand-plus to try a semester of constitutional law, criminal law, property law, and more lawyering skills. And I made sure my bottle of Excedrin Migraine was handy.

Some of what I must do is admit that I'd been doing something before I began law school. I'd been running a household and a family for twenty years; I'd managed details and plans and been the glue that held all the pieces together. If I attempt to continue that job, it means I'm attempting law school while continuing work that kept my days full before law school. Another reality I must face is that I am not a strong reader. I read slowly, and I read with ease only if what I am reading is written well. Few cases in the case books are well written. My old high-school English teacher would have flunked many judges if they'd presented her with their written opinions. This semester I'll be using study aids.

I must also deal with a law school mistake: Someone goofed in putting a middle-aged 20-year-veteran-mom in a section with no other student over 30. There are other older students among the first-year students. However, the others are in sections with at least one other older student. People bond for reasons of commonality; law students form study partnerships with folks they bond with. I like the students in my section, but finding common ground has been difficult: Only one other woman has borne a child; one man is a dad; one went to Purdue and knows of my grandparents' hometown of Rossville; one went to Notre Dame and knows of my hometown of Mishawaka; one is married to a Marine, like my son; one is a gifted musician, like my son; one worked as a journalist, as I did as a young woman. These are thin threads to build from, even for this genealogist who could knock on any door in rural Indiana and schmooze her way into a stranger's attic. I've yet to schmooze my way into a study partner.

Then, there is the reality that there are "classes" of law students at Catholic. There are four special "institutes" or "programs": communications, international, public policy, and religion. Institute and program students were assigned advisors early, and some contend that those students get special handling by the law school and special attention from some professors. I am not in one of the special programs; I was one of the students offered admission to "complete the class" and balance the law school's budget.

I've learned that class participation is no predictor of grades. Some students who spent class time playing Solitaire on their computers pulled in A's. Some who regularly slept thru classes got decent grades. (Some joked that one professor was so confusing that the ones ahead of the game were the ones who had tuned out the prof one way or another. The prof would walk into class and say, "Umm, you know what I spent half of the last class explaining? Well, disregard what I said. I explained it wrong. Now, let me explain it right.") The ABA requires class attendance, but there was no relation between class participation and grades. I finally understood something I'd seen as odd when I visited law schools a year ago: Law students seldom volunteer to speak in class because there is no benefit to class participation; there's only risk.

When we must speak in class, it is often to come up with answers we don't have. It becomes a case of having to think of SOME answer and argue for it when we have no answer. In constitutional law, a student told the professor that she didn't know the answer. He shot back, "But anyway, come up with an answer."

In property the prof asked, "How do you stop a trespasser if a sign or fence won't?" From opposite sides of the room, the Navy Reservist and I joked in unison, "Shoot 'em." The professor said, "I guess you've had torts and the spring gun case." There was still some humor. Being a Yale man (class of '71), our property prof opted to walk his own path. Most property classes begin with "the fox case" (Pierson v. Post). Our book began with the case; it involves two men going to court to see who was the rightful owner of a fox on the run. Most lawyers began their study of property law with the fox case, and most say the case was of little value. However, it's "traditional." The Yale man ignored it, and we began our study of property law by researching land transfers in a local land office, finding one piece of paper that transferred title of one piece of land from one owner to another.

In criminal law we spent a day hunting for details in statutes. The Harvard man (class of '86) delighted in poking fun at the best known man from Yale's class of '73 as we read sections from the U.S. Code dealing with obstruction of justice, witness tampering, perjury, subornation of perjury, and false declarations before grand jury or court. The prof would call on students to argue first against the man from Yale and then for him. The Navy Reservist had made one point for the Yale man. A bit later, the prof returned to the student and referred to him as being "for" the Yale man. The Navy man choked and said, "ME? No, I'm not for him!" Even a first-year law student has some standards. Harvard won that round; apparently all Harvard Law grads know the meaning of the word "is."

An assistant dean told me that, when she was in law school at Catholic, there was an older woman in her class. On the first day, the woman sat at the front of the class. The professor -- a man still teaching at Catholic -- said to the woman, "You should have left that spot for one of the male students." Whoever that woman was, she kept her seat. Last semester, I'd tended to sit at the back of the class, apart and by myself. This semester, I'm sitting front and center.

I stopped in at the computer lab between classes one day, hoping to find Randy online and joke with that old boy I'd beaten up in third grade who'd gone on to be captain of the football team before leaving town for Cornell. Instead, I found a young man from one of my first-semester courses and asked him how the first semester had gone: "Sucked, but it's over. Now this one sucks." Not everyone was loving law school.

These kids are outscoring me on exams, yet there have been times when I've been stunned by their lack of foundational knowledge. In criminal law, the prof asked what the First Amendment was about. It was a day I'd decided to sit back and watch. No one had the answer. The prof finally had to answer his own question. In constitutional law, the prof asked, "What event overturned Dred Scott?" With begging and coaxing, he got the answer that every fifth grader should know. In civil procedure, the prof was teaching the questions to ask to determine whether a case had already been decided. The scenario he created had a husband and a wife suffering a loss; first time, the husband sued; second time, the wife wanted to sue. The prof asked, "Is it the same person?" Two in the class said, "Yes." In frustration, I jumped up and shouted, "NO! We've gone beyond that!" But, they outscore me.

Y'all have a good month. Thanks to a Cripe/Ulrich cousin for sending what appears to be proof that U.S. presidents used to sign land purchases; that surprised the prof. (Click here to see it.) I'll be spending the month in D.C. competing with the kids and trying the law school version of holding on to a life preserver. And, I'll keep remembering that I've already had some successes: Twenty-one years ago this month, I gave birth to a baby boy who's now a U.S. Marine. Happy birthday, son! OORAH!!!

Alice Marie Beard
February 1, 2000

To the next month>

P.S. Altho the man teaching property for CUA's law school seemed surprised, as a genealogist I've seen many documents that show that U.S. presidents used to sign land purchases. I am not an authority on presidential signatures; however, among the land documents I have seen that appear to have presidential signatures is Casper Hufford's land patent as recorded 23-Oct-1805 at the Fairfield Co. Land Recorder's Office in Lancaster, OH. The Grantor was Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States of America. The patent was signed by Jefferson and Secretary of State, James Madison. The land sold for $2.00 an acre, and Casper bought a half section -- 320 acres.

Another such document is the land patent issued to Casper's son Solomon of Fairfield Co. Ohio:

Know Ye, That Solomon Huffort, of Fairfield county, having deposited in the treasury a certificate of the register of the land office at Chilicothe, whereby it appears that he has made full payment for the northwest quarter of lot or section number thirty-four of township number sixteen, in range seventeen, of the lands directed to be sold at Chilicothe by the act of Congress entitled, "An act providing for the sale of the lands of the United States in the territory northwest of the Ohio and above the mouth of Kentucky river, and of the acts amendatory of the same." There is granted by the United States unto the said Solomon Huffort, the quarter lot or section of land above described, to have and to hold the said quarter lot or section of land with the appurtenances unto the said Solomon Huffort, his.........heirs and assigns, forever.

In testimony whereof, I have caused these letters to be made patent, and the seal of the United States to be hereunto affixed.

Given under my hand at the city of Washington, the twenty-fifty day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and eleven, and of the Independence of the United States of America the thirty-sixth.

By the President                  JAMES MADISON

Casper Hufford was the son of Christian Hoffarth/Hufford. To see what happens to long-term lease-holders when there's a change of "who's got the power," step into my world of genealogical research: Christian Hoffarth.

CLICK HERE to see a reproduction of a land document with President Andrew Jackson's signature.

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the other parts of
Alice's place:
I. dead people stories
II. live people stories
III. letters home
IV. not a law journal
V. Camp Fire

email Alice

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.