ONE HELL: Taking to the Law: A First Year Law School Journey
Early 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.)

This will be nothing like Scott Turow's book ONE L that chronicled his first year of law school at Harvard Law, but it will share my own early thoughts on Catholic University's school of law. Why? Because it's nice to have a place to vent, and, as Ronald Reagan said about the microphone in New Hampshire, "I'm paying for it."

What did I get for $12,000 for the semester? Torts, contracts, civil procedure, and legal research & writing. Three red books and The Bluebook. A professor who earned his law degree in 1959 and who talks about baseball and movies. An associate prof who talks about her 2nd grade daughter who threatens to sue her. Another prof who has tried to assure me that I'm not the only 1st year convinced I'm hearing a foreign language. An instructor who (I'd bet good money) is in Washington with hopes to write about the Supreme Court.

In the first weeks, I felt as if I'd walked into the movie 15 minutes late and missed all the important parts. I felt as if I were in a parallel universe where people used words I knew, but they used them in completely different ways, so much so that it was a different language being spoken. It was as if, before I got to the party, everyone had gotten together and said, "Let's let 'up' mean 'down,' and 'pink' mean 'blue,' and 'tree' mean 'read.' Then, when I arrived and saw a blue book on the floor, someone looked at me and said, "Miss Beard, please tree the pink book that is up on the floor." Imagine the frustration. That is how my first weeks have felt. The education is by "instant immersion." We are told the cases build on each other, but they don't seem to build in any sensible manner, and civil procedure seems more like a game of bingo than anything else: "12-c; 26-g; 36-b. Bingo for Mrs. Kelly! Pick up your prize from Father Mulcahy."

When I was a newspaper reporter, I learned cops sometimes lied. In law school, I'm learning that judges have been known to lie. We spent two days on an 1825 case called Mills v. Wyman. According to the judge, the case involved a man who got sick at sea and died and how someone tried to get the dead man's father to pay a bill for taking care of the son as he lay dying. It was an interesting case, but it had nothing to do with reality. After we spent two days on the case, the professor shared with us some research that showed that the son hadn't died and hadn't even been at sea. This professor said, "Um, maybe the judge was mistaken." [FYI: See Geoffrey R. Watson, In the Tribunal of Conscience: Mills v. Wyman Reconsidered, 71 Tulane L.Rev. 1749 (1997).]

Another professor was less charitable: "The judges do whatever they want; they decide cases however they want, and they sometimes lie. And if a lawyer wins a case for a reason other than the one he wanted, if it goes on appeal, he's going to have to defend the reason the judge gave him the win."

We spent forever learning under what conditions the use of spring-gun traps would be legal -- in daylight, with a sign, if children could read -- with me all the while wanting to scream, "SPRING-GUN TRAPS ARE ALWAYS ILLEGAL!" And, of course, that's eventually the point we got to, but it took us over a week to get to that point. (Bird v. Holbrook, an 1825 English case.) We learned that the most important case in tort law involves two dogs fighting (Brown v. Kendall, an 1850 Massachusetts case), and the most important case in civil procedure involved a train (Erie v. Tompkins, a 1938 U.S. Supreme Court case).

In contracts we're learning we should stay on the right path if we don't want to get lost in the forest. Hey, don't laugh: That last tidbit is one of the few things I've actually learned so far. It was like the day as an undergrad studying political science when Professor Joe Parker drawled, "When you've got 'em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow," and I thought, "Hey, now I get it!" ... In contracts, the paths in the forest are expectation, restitution, and reliance. To recover, pick one, and follow the path.

In an early exercise in contracts we were to look around the room and come up with a list of the contracts around us. I listed my contract with the university, the teacher's contract with the university, the contracts the university had made with the various builders who built the room we sat in, the university's contract with the electric company to provide power. The prof asked a student to name a contract. A young female student said something about a contract between the students and this professor, that we would be good students and the professor would be a good teacher. I thought, "Duh?" I did not laugh out loud. The teacher didn't laugh, but she smiled and asked questions until the student looked foolish even to herself. Finally, the student said that maybe the contract was that we students would provide laughter for the professor. Welcome to the "Socratic method."

There are about 40,000 people across the U.S. now going thru this initiation by immersion process. For reasons as varied as people can be, we each have chosen to begin law school. By now, most of the 40,000 have made their way thru the case of the uncle who promised to pay his nephew for not drinking and smoking, and the case of the trust-fund-kid who kicked the kid with the bad leg. (Hamer v. Sidway, an 1891 New York case; Vosburg v. Putney, an 1891 Wisconsin case.) While the 40,000 are not using the same books, a few cases are considered "rites of passage" for all first years. I've been told that, when I get to property next semester, there will be a case about a fox jumping over a fence. (Pierson v. Post, an 1805 New York case.)

The physical plant is excellent: The library is gorgeous and has wonderful views of the blue and gold dome of the Basilica. Most classrooms are modified so a student can plug in his/her lap top computer; most seats in the library have set ups for portable computers. However, it's not perfect: Perhaps because of the three-story enclosed atrium, the temperature system seems difficult to control; the air conditioning runs so cold that folks need long johns in August. There is one auditorium-style room that seats 300, with a movable wall that can divide the room into two rooms; most (perhaps all) first-year students have three of their four classes in those half-auditorium rooms. As an auditorium, it's good. As two classrooms, it becomes two classrooms poorly designed for the law school teaching method and two rooms with awful acoustics.

Only one professor demands that students stand when presenting a case. I have him, but I've yet to be asked to "stand and deliver." The fact that the other professors do not use the "stand and deliver" approach does not, however, mean that they've grown soft. The best way for a student to assure that he will be questioned during EVERY class is to arrive in class unprepared one day and chance to have the professor call on him. "I didn't read it" doesn't wash too well with law school profs. One student is living on a sailboat; during a recent bad storm, he spent the night trying to save his boat, and he arrived the next day not having done the readings. Chance had the professor call on him; now the professor is like a duck on a bug everyday with that poor man. The student hasn't since had to say, "I didn't read it."

(If you have a question in those early days, make sure to meet with the professor privately and say, "I'm embarrassed to ask because I fear I'll look stupid." He'll say, "You're new. There are no stupid questions." You'll ask the question, which will give him the chance to respond in such a way that suggests he sees you as the biggest dunderhead first-year student he was ever given. Go ahead and fall for it; it's a little like sticking your fingers into a Chinese finger trap.)

We are divided into sections with each section having about 30 students. Each section meets by itself for the legal research and writing class. For the other three classes, we are joined with another section -- a different 'nother section for each of the three other classes. The students we are first getting to know the best are those in our section since we have all four classes with those other 30 students. I am by far the oldest in my section. While there are other first years older than I am, in my section I am the only student older than 30. Not only am I old enough to be the mom of any other student in my section, I'm older than some of the students' moms.

Most of the students are under 25, but the ages range up to past 55. We are predominately white, but there is a generous flavoring of black, brown, yellow, and "mocha." Just over half the class is female. There is the student from South Korea who intends to return to Korea to practice law in the Korean corporate world. There is the man who just returned from three years in the Peace Corps where he lived in a mud hut. There is the Navy Reservist who says that if you fall asleep in a Navy class, the answer to give is, "The answer is three, Sir," because Navy officers can't count higher than two, so the answer will confuse the officer. (In civil procedure we've learned that, if you fall asleep during a trial, the first thing to say when you wake up is, "I object.") There is the student who belonged to the same gym as Supreme Court Justices Rehnquist and Scalia. He said, "Once you've seen their naked butts, it's hard to be impressed with them." He opined that Rehnquist has a good butt for a man past 70, but that Scalia has a bad butt. (Actually, he described Scalia's butt in greater detail, but even I have some limits.) There is the young Puerto Rican woman who learned to speak English only three years ago; the middle-aged Russian Jewish woman who speaks precise but strongly accented English; the innocent Marine wife from small-town America; the man who acquired a police record with his work to get clean needles to drug addicts so as to reduce the spread of HIV; the former middle-school English teacher; the professional violinist; the gay man with a long-term husband; another gay man who's single and looking for a date for Saturday night. There's the American man who'd hoped to live out his life in communist U.S.S.R. who is back in America with his Siberian wife and Russian-speaking sons. There's the man with the varied past who once lived with monks and once drove a truck. There's the divorcing mom of young children who works full-time as an R.N. We are liberal Catholics, conservative Catholics, and failed Catholics; Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and more. And, slowly, we are getting to know each other as people, as individuals beyond the guy with red hair, or the middle-aged mom with a mouth.

Among my disappointments?
(1) I'd hoped to find a distinctly "Catholic flavor" at the law school. It is not here. Yes, there is a crucifix on the wall in every classroom. Yes, there is a chapel in the law school where noon day mass is said three times a week. However, there's a good chance that a student saying that abortion is murder would be laughed at, or seen as eccentric. There's no indication that, in regard to Roe v. Wade and the decisions it spawned, Catholic Law sees itself as Charles Hamilton Houston had Howard Law become for Plessy v. Ferguson. If Roe v. Wade and its progeny ever are overturned or limited, it won't be because Catholic Law took any active role.
(2) The advising at Catholic is poor to nonexistent. If there is any system of faculty advisers, I've yet to learn what it is. Another law school to which I had been accepted had assigned me an adviser by July, obviously before school started. Officially, Catholic's position is that a student is welcome to seek advice from any faculty member. In practice, what it means is that we are half way into the first semester, and the only first-year law students with faculty advisors are those who are in the special "institutes." And, while faculty members are readily available in the minutes immediately after class, Catholic does not encourage faculty members to maintain an "open door" policy. Their offices are in a secluded area, guarded by a receptionist; their office phone numbers are not listed or generally available; there is no usable online directory of e-mail addresses, and professors are seldom seen in areas where students congregate other than as they "pass thru." Do NOT come to Catholic's law school expecting to find an open-door policy with professors. The building itself seems to have been designed to put barriers between students and professors.
(3) There is an informally run student mentor program; however, perhaps because it is informal and run on a volunteer basis, I've seen no evidence that it exists in practice. If you come to Catholic, you had best expect to make it on your own, without any faculty adviser and without any "big brother/big sister."

My advice? If you are at the "applying stage" and want an admit to Catholic, if you have roughly a 3.0 GPA in today's world of inflated grade point averages and roughly a 155 on the LSAT, you can count on getting an offer of admission from Catholic. If your numbers are lower, remember to count your application for admission as your first case, and briefly explain the elephants standing in the living room before you go on to show the two-story family room that you built by hand. If you have been admitted and know you'll be going to Catholic, watch two movies before getting here: A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS and A CIVIL ACTION. Then, pack your long johns for the cold building.

More later. The three red books are calling to me.

Alice Marie Beard
Oct. 1, 1999



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

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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.