May 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.)

When I was a child, I used to write to a couple of old, great aunts: first Aunt Linnie, who lived above a "Grab It Here" store in Frankfort, IN, and later Aunt Edith, who lived next to an H&R Block office in Ft. Wayne. Sometimes, so much would happen that I had no time to write, and when I did begin to write them, I didn't know where to begin. That's the way my life has been since my last thoughts just over six weeks ago. Among other things, I spent two hours with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and I'm working at getting the Navajo Nation Supreme Court to come to Catholic University's law school to sit in session during the next academic year. [CLICK HERE]

My first-year of law school is over. It ended with a property exam, and the Rule Against Perpetuities probably was too remote for me.

While I was taking the exam, Justice Antonin Scalia was giving a speech downstairs. Unfortunately, his wisdom did not leak thru the ceiling. But it made for nice leftover snacks after the exam. That evening, I listened to Akhil Reed Amar talk about freedom of speech. At 49, having spent some young years as a reporter and a couple of years as editor of a little newspaper before journalism grad school, Amar's words offered nothing new for me, but at least he didn't mention tacking or adverse possession or Jee v. Audley. The biggest thing I got out of property is, "What you don't possess, you can't convey," and property ownership is about both space and time. A person can own different parts of the time line of a piece of property, just as he can own different aspects of the physical being of the property.

Our grades aren't up yet, but the grades for another property class are: Out of about 60 students, 27 have C's, D's, or F's. Don't let anyone tell you that you can't fail a class in law school. Check out the grade board, and you'll find plenty of F's. For those who graduate, 32 of every 100 who take the bar exam will flunk it on the first try if the CUA flunk-rate continues as most recently reported. Many won't pass it on the second try either. Some will never pass any bar. This year's third-years just graduated; they're celebrating by studying for the bar exam, and a third of them will be doing it again in six months. [Update, April 2002: The most current report shows 38 of every 100 CUA grads flunking the Maryland bar, in a state where, overall, 25 of every 100 test takers failed the bar exam.]

Law school wouldn't be bad except for the exams. When exam time comes, everyone's mood changes, student and professor alike. First semester, I hadn't noticed how little the profs liked exams. This semester, I could see it. They have to write the exams, then grade them. They have to read unreadable handwriting, and they know there's a person on the other side of the blue book with hopes and dreams, but they're stuck with what the person got in the blue book. One morning, I was getting on the elevator as a prof was getting off. I hadn't had him for a class, but we'd spoken before. I said, "You look as if you like the exam period as little as we students like it." He said, "I hate it. I wish there were a way we could do away with it." He wondered if, since the law school is on the honor code, at the end of each semester each student might be asked to sign a statement: "I have learned the substance of this course adequately." As he said, "You've got to pass the bar anyway, so why lie about whether you know it?" The prof also wondered how fair it is to give a grade based on one exam and added, "Sometimes I've seen a student do poorly on an exam even when I'm sure he knows the subject. On occasion, I've told a student that I knew his grade was no reflection of what he knew, and that I'd write a recommendation if he needed one."

My final week during the exam period, when I was eating Ramen Noodle Soup dry and straight from the bag, I thought, "WHY am I doing this to myself?"

The first exam had been for constitutional law. It was a morning exam; I was nervous as usual, and I'd tried to calm myself with a glass of wine. Unfortunately, I'd had no breakfast, and one glass of wine is my limit. Before I went into the exam room, I was slapping my face with cold water. If you're gonna drink wine before a morning exam, pour it over Cheerios. The exam had two big questions. The individual rights question dealt with abortion and assisted suicide. Exactly two years before the exam I'd been in Paris standing in line to get up the Eiffel Tower, and I'd gotten into an abortion argument with another American woman. Trying to stop the arguing, two men had stood between us as our voices rose. You'd have thought that in two years I'd have learned the issue well enough to nail the question, but I don't think I did. The structure of government question was a complicated one, with some emphasis on the commerce clause, and a variation on the 1952 steel seizure case where President Truman tried to take over the steel mills, and a little something about how the federal government can't commandeer state or local executives, which I saw as a call to mention Printz v. U.S. At least that's how I saw the question thru my glass of wine.

My main trouble on the exams is providing details. I know it. I could feel it all semester in con law. If I do see the "bottom line," I get to it too quickly, and law professors like details. As one explained, "Assume I can read but don't know anything. Write your exam from that perspective." Law professors want exams written differently from how editors want stories written.

Our crim law prof had given some basic advice for his exam: Look for the dead bodies, and remember the mnemonic for felony murder: BARKER. Arf! Arf! The man would stand in class and bark like a dog to remind us that burglary, arson, rape, kidnap, escape, and robbery were upgraded to felony murder if someone died. His exam had a big question that was a hypothetical with "Star Wars" characters. One of the multiple choice questions was a puzzler: In the phrase "purposely entered at night," does that mean "purposely at night" or "knowingly at night"? Please write if you're sure of the answer. [One wag wrote. CLICK for his words.]

A few hours before that exam, I'd met a neighbor, a woman who lives at the other end of the parkway. She was pushing two babies in a stroller, and I said hello as I sat on my front steps and she walked by. She's a lawyer out of Georgetown, but she hasn't practiced law in a few years. She said that she began questioning the legal profession when she was making big bucks writing reams of crap about the meaning of two words: expected versus intended. This had to do with environmental protection, insurance companies, and compliance with federal regulations. She realized her heart wasn't in it when she saw that the pollution was continuing, but the lawyers on both sides were getting rich even as the environment continued to suffer. Now, she is rearing three children: 7, 4, and 1. We talked about "what next" if I do continue with law school. She said she'd once considered family law, but then she realized it dealt with the breakup of families. She suggested wills, estates, and trusts as good choices for women coming from years with families. I'd add property to the list because property law can benefit and help safeguard families.

I was at the Supreme Court twice since last I wrote. The morning the court heard a prison reform case and an 8th Amendment case, it was cold and raining, but most of the 64 students in my con law class showed up by 7:30 to stand in line outside the Supreme Court and hope to get inside at 10 a.m. We should have arrived by 6:30 if we wanted to get in. The day got colder; the rain got worse, and I was wearing blue suede shoes and a dress. According to how far back I was in line, I should not have gotten in, but I stayed in the cold and rain as the kids left, two or three at a time, until I stood at the front of the line with the Marine's wife and the musician. The three of us stood together in the cold rain for three hours. The musician told of Haydn and the 600 pieces he had written to be played by a prince with no musical abilities. The Marine's wife sang to us in Portuguese. I told some of my dead people stories from my years as a genealogist. Nine from our class got inside. When we got in, we were just glad to get in out of the cold rain. The court room was large, with impressive columns. The justices sat before us: Thomas silent. Ginsberg sounding grandmotherly. Breyer argumentative. Scalia gruff. O'Conner like the "Good Witch of the North." Hearing the justices quiz the lawyers seemed like sitting in a law class. Justice Breyer came up with repeated hypotheticals, as a professor would, as if his object were to trick the attorney before him, or as if he were talking thru the attorneys to other justices.

Justice Clarence Thomas (photo by Alice Marie Beard)Two days later, 14 of us CUA law students got inside the Court building with ease. We'd been invited by Justice Clarence Thomas. Why? Back in October, there was a brunch after the Red Mass. Justice Thomas had posed with any law student who wanted a picture. Time ran out. Afterwards, he invited those who didn't get a picture. Thus, on Holy Thursday, 14 of us were ushered into a large room with a high ceiling and dark, paneled walls to await Justice Thomas. He spoke for two hours, offered to answer any questions we had, and said he hoped to meet with CUA law students again. I wrote elsewhere of that morning. CLICK HERE.

There were moments over the year when I felt fully accepted by some of the students, more often by the young men in my section. One afternoon, I sat at the neighborhood bar with the Hoosier and a young man whose "claim to fame" was that he had gone to college with Justice Scalia's son and Colin Powell's daughter. My classmates asked for beer; I asked for a wine list. However, there were other times when my being a middle-aged returning mom with the ways of a middle-aged mom had me mismatched with the law school. I did not "act like a first-year." Here are some glimpses:

  • A third-year female about 25 years old confronted me in the cafeteria one lunch time with an edge of hostility. I'd never seen her before: "Why are you in law school at your age? How old are your children? You won't have much earning capacity when you get out." Her words surprised me. I said, "If I do manage to finish with a degree, I figure I'll still have 20 good years left. You're 25. You could be dead in less than 20 years yourself, you know. Things happen."
  • In criminal law, a young man commented about "a bunch of geriatrics who are 60 years old." I blurted out, "A 60-year-old is not a geriatric."
  • I lost track of the number of kids who don't know what "just a mom"s do, or the number of kids I told to get married if they were already shacked up, or the number of times I told young women that the size of the man's character is more important than the size of the rock he could afford, or the number of self-defined Catholic girls who argued with me about "partial birth abortion." I'd tell them that being Catholic is about more than lighting candles. They'd say, "There are all kinds of Catholics," and I'd say, "Eventually, when you have too many differences with the Pope, you're not a Catholic."

Socially, I fit in more with law professors than with young students. In the outside world, those are the people with whom I associate, but in the world of law school, there is the awkwardness of "How does one deal with a student like Alice?"

Three days after the property exam, I walked into a small social event with about 20 lawyers, several who are law professors. I was greeted with, "Tell me what the Rule Against Perpetuities is." The short answer is, "No future interest is valid unless it can be shown that it will necessarily vest, if at all, not later than 21 years after some life in being at the creation of the interest." The better answer I found at a web site: "It's the most complicated damn legal rule ever!"

I sat down and soaked my feet in a hot tub with some law professors, and the next day, I sat thru Continuing Legal Education classes taught by some of the lawyers at the party. Sitting next to me in the CLE class was a lawyer who slept the entire day. He'd paid his money; he would get his certificate, and that fulfilled his state's requirement for continuing legal education.

Law school's not as easy as paying your money, sleeping thru class, and getting a CLE certificate, and learning in general is not easy after 20 years of being the one to decide how to run my days. It was tough to try to get the system down; it was tough to try to keep up with the kids. I spent this year relearning how to learn in classroom conditions and with books. It was over a quarter of a century ago when I walked across the stage to pick up my undergrad diploma, and the last I sat in a class before law school was in grad school in 1978. Law school is nothing like graduate school. In some ways, the first year of law school compares to the first year of college, with a dose of kindergarten and boot camp thrown in. That mixture is strange for someone who is not accustomed to being bossed around. When I worked with the Sinsinawa Dominican nuns, the Sister who ran the adult education school insisted we never tell a student how long it might take him to be ready to pass the GED. "It would scare the student," she reasoned, "and he will give up." Had someone told me how hard it would be to relearn how to learn, how hard it would be to try to fit in with kids young enough to be my children, it would have scared me off, and I'd have missed an amazing year.

I may have flunked out; I don't know yet. If so, I'll not see it as failure. Women my age who put their lives back in order after 20 years of service as a mom do it different ways. My way was to come to law school. Who I am now is not who I was in August of '99 when I began law school.

As I understand, a few more than just distant cousins and far away friends have been reading my writing for a while. Now, I'm going to ask for something in return. There are many things more important than whether I survive law school: There's a 21-year-old young man in a hospital in D.C. He's been in a coma since an auto accident in early May. I want you to honestly and sincerely pray for him, in whatever way you pray. I met him when he was a shy, little five-year-old. He was one of the first members of Camp Fire 4-260. I was there when he made his First Communion and when he was confirmed. I was there when he played on the neighborhood baseball team. I was there when he walked across the stage at Constitution Hall to accept his high-school diploma. I've never known that young man to be anything other than gentle, helpful, and bright. The last I knew, he was in college and volunteering as a science teacher for young kids. Then, an accident intervened. Now, he's in a coma. He has good doctors; his own dad's a doctor. What he needs is God's help. His name is Ted. Please pray for him.

Alice Marie Beard
June 1, 2000

Not all 32 returned to CUA's law school in the fall of 2000: One withdrew mid-second semester. One had been disappointed much of the year and was trying to transfer to Georgetown or University of Virginia. One had complained about the poorly run first-year moot court event, the non-working computer labs, the high tuition, and the disappointing Institute for Communications Law; he wanted to transfer to a state school. Another transferred to Richmond. One returned, but not by choice; she had tried for a transfer to the slightly better-rated American.

Me? I passed up a trip to Paris for a trip to Las Vegas to hear lectures by Second Amendment academics and go shooting in the desert with W.E.B. Griffin. I'll be back studying the law in August 2001, at a better-rated law school.

Ted? He has improved vastly, but he still has a long way to go. Keep praying.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by,
and that has made all the difference.


Off-site links:

CLICK HERE to see what came next!
Mr. Charleton Heston and Alice


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.