March 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.)

My life is in transition, and transition times are the most confusing. My role is no longer "mother," yet I have no clearly defined new role. I have been in transition since a year ago when I applied to law school. When I was "just a mom," I got little respect even tho I was doing something worthwhile. Now I'm a law student; I'm worthless as teats on a boar hog, but I get more respect than moms.

One day I took the subway to school. Leaving the station, I saw a politely dressed, slender woman of about 40. She was skillfully shepherding three children thru the DC subway system. Perched on the back of her head was the cap of a Church of Brethren woman. It was as small as a muffin and so sheer it might have gone unnoticed. My years of genealogy research kicked in, and I asked, "Brethren?" The lady smiled and said with a bit of a German lilt, "Yes, from Lancaster." She meant Lancaster, PA, home to many Anabaptists. I wanted to talk Yoders, Cripes, Huffords, Shivelys, and Studebakers, but my life had left that stage. All I could do was shake hands, say, "from Indiana," and cross the street to get to class and do what I could to make it thru this transition.

Behind the scenes at the law school, something was happening that spilled into my world on Valentine's Day. One of the kids imagined that my "thoughts" were invading her privacy. She complained to an administrator. The interim dean first spoke with the university's general counsel and then instructed two assistant-deans (one a lawyer) to call me in for a meeting. Thus, an assistant dean sent me a Valentine: "Please make an appointment to see me and Dean so-and-so." I arrived at the meeting with a smile, and with no lawyer at my side. A man 15 years my junior had before him an inch-thick stack of pages that had been printed from my personal web site. Someone had highlighted various passages with a yellow highlighter. He hemmed and he hawed, and I said, "Cut to the chase." With a lawyer at his side, at the request of the interim dean, he said, "We think you're doing okay so far, but we have some suggestions."

My response was instantaneous. I stood. My smile vanished, and I said, "This meeting is OVER. If you have anything more to say, contact my attorney." I was hurt and insulted. As I wrote to my old friend Randy, "The man could not have offended me more if he'd shoved his hand up my sweater." Randy and I went from kindergarten thru high school together, and he wrote back, "What did you say? Was your second word 'you'?"

I asked to see the interim dean. He and I are the same age, both graduated from high school in 1968 in Midwestern cities with big rubber factories. Since 1968, we'd traveled different routes to get to the same room, on the same March day in 2000. He said it was not a First Amendment issue. In the law school world of "spot the issue," I said I knew: The First Amendment doesn't apply at private schools. [The controlling cases are
Lloyd Corp. v. Tanner, 407 U.S. 551 (1972) and Pruneyard Shopping Center v. Robins, 447 U.S. 74 (1980).]

I tried to explain my position: I had done nothing wrong, and I had paid them $24,500. We've got a contract: offer + acceptance + consideration. And, the reasonable first-year law student would be intimidated by being called in by a couple of deans. The law school's intimidation, intended or not, was hurting me. The meeting with the two assistant deans had been the Friday before a paper was due; the meeting with the interim dean was two days before the rewrite was due.

It seemed like another instance of the law school having great consideration for the kids, but none for a woman trying to rebuild a life after 20 years as a mom doing community service. I'd begun venting online because I felt like an outsider at the law school; I'm from 20 to 28 years older than the other 31 students in my section. The response the law school had chosen to my private writing was making me feel more like an outsider.

I experienced a few classroom successes in the past month, to the surprise of some of the kids. In criminal law, chance had me present a 1964 perfect self-defense case out of Colorado, People v. LaVoie. Man in car was forced off the road by man in another car; men got out of their cars; aggressor driver advanced on first man once outside their cars; first man had a gun and a license to carry; fearing for his life, first man shot dead the aggressor. The prof said, "Miss Beard, a hypothetical: You are his lawyer, and he says to you, 'I wasn't afraid. I'm glad I shot the man.' What would you do?" I answered, "I'd try to make sure he did NOT say that. As soon as I saw him, I'd say, 'First, do not speak to me at all. Listen carefully to what I say. IF you feared for your life, you have a perfect self-defense case.' I'd explain the law to him. Then, I'd ask him if he had feared for his life." Some in the class groaned and saw me as a bad person; the professor, however, indicated there was some hope that I was learning. [Click here for a similar case from 1865, found in my genealogy sleuthing days.]

In property, we worked on the Fair Housing Act. To prove discrimination, you've got to prove that the person doing the discriminating knew that the "victim" was a member of a protected class. A light went off in my brain: To prove the case, the lawyer had to prove each element. I asked, "Might there be some circumstance when a lawyer would want to advise a client to politely, graciously make clear he is a member of a protected class?" Again, the class groaned. My question was not politically correct for the kids. The prof is out of Yale, Class of '71. He didn't give his answer, but he flattered me by speaking to me after class as if he thought I might not be as dumb as my grades said.

In constitutional law, we plodded thru
the case about President Truman trying to seize the steel mills during the Korean War. The prof wanted the "key word phrase" from a concurring opinion. The words seemed obvious. One smart student after another guessed, with no indication of any comprehension. After a dozen guesses, I spoke more in annoyance than brilliance: "Workable government." The prof said, "RIGHT, Miss Beard!" I heard a few audible gasps from the back of the classroom because, after all, "Miss Beard is the class dummy."

Look, I'm not smart, but I do get an occasional right answer, and it's a real thrill when I do.

But my answers are far from all right. One day in property I made the law school gaff of exposing that I hadn't read the case. The topic was division of assets upon divorce. I asked about "celebrity goodwill," putting a dollar value on a spouse's professional fame. Had I read the case, I'd have known the answer. The prof asked me about that day's case, and I admitted he'd caught me.

In con law I volunteered to present
the case about an Illinois dairy wanting to sell milk in Wisconsin; it dealt with the commerce clause of the Constitution. I presented the case only to have the prof want more than I had to give. This prof is also from Yale, and Yale has the reputation of producing the best law professors. Like my property teacher from Yale, this man works at teaching in a non-threatening way. He has "no fault pass." The trick is that, if you pass, he will politely call on the person sitting next to you, so the pressure to have the guts to try comes from the person sitting next to you. I had volunteered so as to avoid being asked to present a harder case, but this man specializes in picking apart the tiniest details, and I didn't see the details within the details. As a student who passed up admission offers from two first-tier law schools said later, "If you volunteer in his class, it's like a bear trap. He never lets you go."

We'd had a 1994 case dealing with where to send your garbage. The musician in our class, a man who has performed in some of America's finest concert halls, was asked to explain Justice O'Connor's reasoning in a concurrence: "Well, they only give us one sentence in the book; so, based on hyperbole and extraction . . ." and the musician tried to guess what the judge had been thinking. We seldom look at whole opinions. We read tiny snippets of judge's decisions and are expected to get a paragraph of thought from only a sentence.

There was a fund raiser auction in February. Lunch with the priest-professor went for $600. Poker with the professor who is Madeleine Albright's son-in-law went for $800. Dinner and a movie with a torts professor went for $900. I bid on a study session with the interim dean, a constitutional law professor before his stint as interim dean: Eight students, 320 bucks. When I saw him, I joked that I'd bought him like a piece of meat, but I'd respect him in the morning. If I'm still welcome at the study session, I'm hoping it will supplement the tapes I've been listening too. I'm trying for enough understanding to manage a C from the man who likes details.

Our seventh week of the semester ended with a BBQ. As I headed for burgers and beer, I walked by a student who had entertained himself much of the year by laughing at me. He was not in my section, but we'd had contracts together first semester. As usual, when he saw me, there was the laugh. He is one of the kids, fresh from college and about 22; he has the years of a man, but the manners of a child. I'd had a week of two or three right answers, and I was finally tired of the derisiveness he'd offered since September. I asked him, "Why do you laugh at me?" I expected him to deny it. No, instead he said, "I'm not laughing at you, Alice; I'm laughing WITH you. When you speak in class, it's so funny because you don't understand." The young woman sitting across from him glanced at him in disgust and said, "He treats everyone that way." I looked at this kid and gave him an education that he'd been unable to buy with his $24,500 tuition: "You may graduate in the top ten per cent of the class; I may never graduate at all. But if you walk into a job interview with your know-it-all, smart-ass attitude, no one will want you." A few days later, the young woman said, "He's improved." Some of these kids have more to learn than a law professor can teach.

I suspect I was admitted in part for "flavor." I'm a genuine Catholic mom; this is Catholic University's law school. Some of these kids still need a mom. However, sometimes a mom is a pain in the ass. Just ask my kids.

Summer looms, and students are appearing in suits, headed for job interviews thruout the day. Few first years will get paying positions this summer; most first years spend the summer in unpaid, learning jobs. Several in my section will be in Poland in the school's "summer abroad" program. I've no idea what I'll do this summer.

I am in transition, and I'm not sure where this transition will take me. A couple of years back, my son was going thru some tough times. For Christmas, I gave him a sterling silver belt buckle. Engraved on the inside are the words, "Listen to God." These days, I'm trying to listen to hear what He wants me to do with the second half of my adult life.

Alice Marie Beard
March 13, 2000


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the other parts of
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II. live people stories
III. letters home
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.