More 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.)

Please forgive me, Father, for I have sinned: I have slept.

Well, no, this is not really a confession, but these days I feel guilty for sleeping. I should be studying during that time. Yesterday began my eleventh week of law school; five weeks from today I shall sit for my first exam. The stress among the first-year students is like a thick, sticky substance flowing among us and threatening to suffocate us. An assistant dean joked that law professors think one of their purposes is to make students feel stressed, because that's how the professors themselves felt in law school. I fear I am at least two weeks behind in what I should be understanding: What the professors are convinced I should have known two weeks ago is only now beginning to dawn on me. The assistant dean saw that as no problem: "Only TWO weeks behind? You mean you've learned ANYTHING this semester?"

The talk of exams began in early October. Since then, there has been a steady build up of stress among the first-year students. The "exam talk season" opened with a free lecture by a man with the vaudeville-sounding name "Professor Whitebread." That's his real name, and he's a real professor. He teaches at a law school in California, and he gives his "how to beat the exams" lecture at various law schools across the country. The point that stood out for me was about "open book" exams: "Open book exams are a lie. If you have to open the book, you're dead."

The same day the vaudevillian professor lectured us about exams, he also lectured law students at George Washington and Howard. Indeed, there is an overlap among Washington, DC, law schools. When some Catholic U. law students met at the Capitol to be inducted into the legal fraternity Phi Alpha Delta, there also were George Washington and Howard law students. Catholic and Georgetown share one professor, a priest. I often do my research at Howard's law library; there are Howard students who research at Catholic. Some from Catholic frequent George Mason or American for their research.

If you want to go to law school "inside the Capital Beltway," close enough that you can visit the Supreme Court with ease, you have six choices: The "Lion King" Georgetown and the Lion King's wannabe George Washington, followed by George Mason, American, Catholic, and Howard. Catholic is closest to the National Shrine and two subway stops from the Capitol and the Supreme Court. Georgetown is a short walk from the Capitol and the Supreme Court. George Washington is closest to the White House, the Kennedy Center, and the bars in Georgetown. Howard is closest to the National Zoo and Rock Creek Park. George Mason is closest to Arlington Cemetery and the bars and pubs in Arlington; while officially in Virginia, the area used to be part of DC. American is closest to, well, nothing. All but American are on subway routes.

An advantage of going to law school inside the Washington, DC, beltway comes on the first Sunday in October when there is the annual Red Mass. It is a Catholic church service with special prayers for judges and lawyers. Catholic churches thruout the world have the same Red Mass, but in Washington, DC, the group of judges and lawyers includes the members of the Supreme Court and the Attorney General. The church service is open to the public; anyone can be at St. Matthew's Cathedral to see the Supreme Court justices and Janet Reno step out of their limousines, guarded by Federal Marshalls. After the church service comes the Red Mass Brunch, sponsored by the John Carroll Society. Catholic's law school encourages its students to attend the brunch as a group, and the highlight of the brunch was a group photo with Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. I was within three feet of the justices, could see the obvious warmth between Scalia and Thomas, and could hear Scalia joke, "If I'd known I was going to have my picture taken, I wouldn't have worn white socks." No, his socks were not white; I looked.

Red Mass Brunch, October 1999:
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas
and CUA President Fr. David O'Connell,

Sunday, October 3, 1999
[photo by Scavone Photography of Alexandria, VA; used with permission]

Folks say farmers are big gamblers: They take out big loans and bet that the weather will be kind to them and help them turn their investments into more money than they borrowed. Most law students could compete with farmers as big gamblers. Like Evita Peron and the best hog farmers in Indiana, we've walked in and said, "Give me credit; I'll find ways of paying." When we borrowed the money, we were convinced we could turn the investment into a law degree, not with good weather, but with good minds. Because our tuition is so high ($24,500 a year in 1999) and because the cost of living in DC is so high, law students at Catholic are eligible to borrow $38,500 per year: $8,500 in a federally guaranteed loan with the government paying the interest while we are in school; $10,000 in a federally guaranteed loan on which we pay the interest at all times, and $20,000 in commercial loans. The federal loans are open to any student who has never defaulted on a federally guaranteed student loan; the commercial loans are available to those with good credit ratings. Most students have borrowed at least a few thousand dollars. (A few thousand here, a few thousand there, and you're talking real money.) More than a few students have placed huge bets on their ability to survive law school and have borrowed the full $38,500 to cover tuition and living expenses.

My concern when I hear about the big loans of some of the young students is that they may be trapped into being a kind of lawyer that they never intended to be. One third-year student talked about her plans to work for a firm doing family and domestic law, "because there need to be more, good family law attorneys." I asked if she had considered a stint in a prosecutor's office: "You could have major impact on families that way. Lots of issues dealing directly with children and maltreatment of children come thru a prosecutor's office." Her answer was a dollars and cents answer: "I have big loans and couldn't afford to work in a prosecutor's office. My friend has worked a few years in the prosecutor's office in Baltimore. She makes only $38,000. I couldn't pay off my student loans." Other students already make it clear in class discussions that they will do "whatever the client wants," without regard to any individual sense of right or wrong. It may be that it would be harder for a lawyer with enormous debt to look at a client and say, "I won't do that. It goes against my grain. Find another lawyer."

But the debt is frightening. While I have not borrowed the maximum, I've borrowed more than I can afford to lose. On days when I sit in class confused, I think, "Dear God, WHAT have I done?" Since the semester began, there has been a sensation of "faking it." Like every other member of my class, I was suddenly in a place where another language was being spoken, and I was expected to function as if I understood what was being said. There are many times in class when a student is called on and expected to "deliver" when it is clear the student does not fully understand what is being discussed. It is as if the law school process encourages us to "fake it." Some might call the process being forced to learn to "think on our feet," but it encourages law students to pretend knowledge and ability we do not have. One student/professor exchange summed up law school: We had been working our way thru problems dealing with issue preclusion. Several students and the professor had spoken, but the exact answer was not completely clear. A student asked, "So, is the answer yes or no?" The professor deadpanned, "If you're looking for answers, you came to the wrong place."

Before I got to law school, I believed I could read. I am no longer sure I know how to read. For 90 minutes in a contracts class, we worked on understanding one 51-word sentence in the Uniform Commercial Code. [For any lawyer reading, it was section 2-207, subsection 1.] In exasperation and surely sounding like a petulant child, I finally asked, "But HOW do we know this means written expressions only, and not oral expressions?" The answer: "Because I told you so, and because 25 law review articles say so." The answer wasn't given with sarcasm; it was offered in the tone of the Good Witch of the North looking down and taking pity on the Munchkins, acknowledging the ambiguity of the language.

One word that had me tricked for a while was "noticed." I'd read a case and sometimes find the expression that someone had "noticed" another person. I saw the comment as insignificant, on the order of me noticing my neighbor when I went outside for the morning newspaper. Wrong. Like so many other words, "notice" has a different meaning in law.

As I work at learning how to read again, I've joined a group of law students who tutor children at the local elementary school: Bunker Hill. Once a week I go into a third grade class and help a child learn the secrets of decoding written words. What surprised me was that what the third graders are doing is not so different from what we are doing in law school: They must take words that make no sense to them and try to figure them out. I find myself teaching the children how to "fake it" like a law student: If you can't remember enough of what you read by the time you need to answer the question, look back at what you read. In fact, read the questions first; then you'll know what you are reading for. Figure out what the important words are in the question and find those matching words in the text you read; often that's where you'll find the answer. If you have to say what the main idea of a paragraph is, don't be concerned that your answer is not just like your friend's; we all have different ways of saying something, and there's no one "right" answer. Do you suppose there are "canned briefs" for third grade texts?

Law school has intruded into my dreams of late. One night I dreamed of motions and pleadings. I filed for a summary judgment, then a directed verdict, then for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict. More often I have the nightmare that I have not gone to class for a month, and I need to find a way to make up the work, but the professors have no idea I was ever enrolled in their classes.

And law school intrudes even as I drive. I don't like seat belts and have seldom used them over the years. However, these days when I get into the driver's seat, I think, "The burden of putting on my seat belt is small. There is some probability that there could be an accident, and, if there were an accident, there could be great injury to someone else. The small burden is less than the probability times the possible great injury, and I'd be called negligent. And in Maryland, there's the issue of my having to use a seat belt by law, so the standard of a reasonable person has already been established. Best to use the seat belt."

Catholic has an honor code that sometimes seems absurd. Officially, the basic idea is (1) do not cheat and (2) do privately report any suspected cheating to a designated dean. What it becomes for first years is a reason to fear talking to classmates: "In case my talking with you might be seen as cheating, I'll just not talk with you." This shows especially in our legal research class. It is the smallest class, with only the 32 students of our section E. Educationally, it was likely designed to serve as a "homeroom," yet it is the class where students most fear talking with other students about our work. We are learning to do legal research by using workbooks and doing "scavenger hunt" exercises, and we are writing legal memoranda. From an educational perspective, these are activities that might be learned best in small groups, with each of four or five bouncing ideas off one another. Most of the younger students came of age after teachers began using "group learning" for everything from grammar to trigonometry. The educational philosophy is that it is one more way for a student to learn: Tell the student; have the student read what you told him; have him manipulate what you told him; tell it to him again; have him try it out in a small group, and let the students teach and reinforce each other. However, according to the rules under which we are playing, if I missed something that the professor tried to teach me dealing with finding something in the library, I may not ask a classmate. To do so would have us both in violation of "the code." Instead, I must wait to ask the professor.

As a group of first years, we continue trudging along. One man had his pickup truck stolen from in front of the law school; it was recovered. Another had his car stolen; it hasn't turned up and will set him back a few thousand dollars. One man has finally moved his wife down from Boston. One woman learned she was five months pregnant; she had dismissed the weight gain as a byproduct of law school. Another woman is wrapping up details for her Christmas wedding. I made it thru my daughter surviving her first homecoming dance. The surprising thing is that what otherwise would be major life events become minor sidebar stories in our lives. We ignore these life events and instead talk about why the judge found the tug boat owners negligent in T. J. Hooper, over six decades ago.

As part of a study skills workshop, first-year students took a test to determine our individual learning styles. I learned my learning style is the direct opposite of most law professors and, therefore, pretty much opposite of what most law professors want in their students. Law professors tend to be introverted and linear, and they move from point A to point B to point C. I tend to be extroverted and do a "fly over" of the whole forest first, followed by checking out tree D, tree F, tree A, and tree M as they happen to catch my interest. While the assistant dean who taught the study skills workshop may acknowledge that my way of learning is also learning and not laziness, unless I find a way to see all the trees and put them in the right order before exam time, I foresee a forest filled with many F trees.

And now, I must move back to the books, and the notes, and the fantasy outlines. In civil procedure today, the professor said, "A goal of this semester is that you know the difference between personal jurisdiction and subject matter jurisdiction. If you blow that on your final, you're dead." Not wanting to die, I'm gonna try to figure that out before sleep overtakes me and I begin sinning again. I'll get back with you next month.

Alice Marie Beard
Nov. 2, 1999


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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.