The article below is from "The New York Times On the Web."
It appeared November 26, 1999. CLICK to see the source.

Miss Beard's J.D. is from George Mason University.

November 26, 1999


Student's Online Chronicle Becomes a Lesson Itself

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

Thus begins the latest entry in Alice Marie Beard's online chronicle of the life of a first year law school student. 

Beard is a first-year at Catholic University of America's Columbus School of Law in Washington, and this is November, the time that the terror of facing first semester examinations sets in. 

Like legions of first-years before her, Alice is going through the ordeal of law boot camp, a place where she has to grapple with concepts like personal vs. subject matter jurisdiction. She lives in fear of one course taught by a professor of the old "stand and deliver" school, in which students are expected to be prepared to rise at any moment and present a cogent legal argument before a classroom of people relieved that they were not called on. 

If she can survive next month's exams, she has a chance of going on to become a lawyer. If not, Alice Marie Beard will have accumulated many thousands of dollars of debt to prove she can't cut it. 

Small wonder she feels guilty about sleeping instead of memorizing contract law and that she has turned to what she calls "venting": writing monthly accounts of life as a first-year. 

The chronicle, which is published on Jurist, a Web site aimed at the legal community, has developed a following since it first appeared in October. Among its fans are Ann L. Iijima, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. Iijima, who visited the site after reading about it on a law e-mail list, now uses Alice's diary in a class aimed at getting law students to support each other rather than succumb to the intense competition that marks so much of law school life. 

"Seeing Alice talk about some of the very things they are experiencing and seeing it in print makes it easier for them to be honest with themselves," Iijima said. 

The only thing her students wonder, she adds, is whether Alice is for real, because they find it hard to believe that a genuine first year law school student could have time for anything other than drowning in study. 

The answer is that Beard is, indeed, a real first year, and that she considers her chronicle, taken from notes she jots down on a laptop that is her constant companion, therapeutic. "It seems to be smarter to write and put it online than open my front door and scream 'aaargh!,'" she said in a telephone interview. 

Beard is what administrators call a "non-traditional" student, meaning someone not fresh out of undergraduate school. A 49-year-old from Bethesda, Md., who likes to describe herself as "nothin' but a mom" for 20 years, Beard graduated from college in Indiana years ago and worked briefly as a reporter on weekly newspapers before settling into the life of a suburban mother. 

Last year, after deciding the children were old enough that she could strike out on her own, Beard, who is married to lawyer, resolved to fulfill an old ambition and apply to law school herself. She is attracted to public interest law, especially areas dealing with children and families. 

Beard's musings about law school life were discovered by Bernard J. Hibbitts, director of Jurist, when Beard contacted him by e-mail several months ago to tell him about a case she thought would interest him. Hibbitts, associate dean for communications and information technology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, where Jurist is based, then visited Beard's home page and, amid a lot of information on genealogy, a personal interest of Beard's, found a link to something with the understated title of "Early Thoughts on Law School." 

Alice had intended the essay as a letter to distant cousins who visit her site, but Hibbitts thought it would appeal to Jurist readers, too. For a while, he had been toying with the idea of publishing a first year chronicle, a kind of turn-of-the-millennium "One L," the book, still devoured by law students, published by the lawyer and writer Scott Turow 22 years ago, after his harrowing first year at Harvard Law School. 

Hibbitts, who thought it would be nice contemporary touch to have a nontraditional student write the column, received Alice's permission to reprint the chronicle, gave it the name "Taking to the Law" and began publishing responses. Among them is the anonymous note from "name withheld," who identifies him/herself as a first-year studentat Stanford: 

"This sounds painfully familiar. As I recover from a particularly harsh midterm (foisted on us by well-meaning Civ Pro professors), I can't even imagine how finals will be." 

Alice is the first to understand. Sometimes, she said in the telephone interview, panic seizes her. "I'm worried if I can pass a single course," she said. "It's been decades since I sat in a class." 

But, she added, there have been some rewards as well. She likes her classmates a lot, describing them as "treasures" in her chronicle. Even though most are a generation younger, "they treat me as just one more first-year student," she writes. "On my birthday, one brought a cake for me to share with classmates." 

And then, she also has the reward of getting warm answers to her column. Occasionally, they include assistance. 

One e-mail message sent privately to Beard, for example, came from a law professor concerned that the neophyte was struggling with an arcane distinction in the law. He tried to explain the concept. "And he said, 'If you don't understand this, please contact me again,'" Beard said. 

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company

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