statistics for DC-area law schools

'Dear Alice' #2:
More of 'Dear Alice . . .'

The words below were addressed to me at the JURIST site, out of the U. of Pittsburgh School of law, where I allowed my ONE HELL journal to be used for 14 months under the title "Taking to the law." I wrote my journal as I tried to cope with my "one hell" year: nine months as a first-year law student, after 20 years as a real-life, full-time mom.

Alice Marie Beard

Alice Marie Beard, 1999
|ONE HELL| |headnotes| |Oct| |Nov| |Dec| |Jan| |Feb| |Mar| |Apr| |May| |coda|
update, 2004|
Two hours with Justice Clarence Thomas|
Minus the sugar coating| |Letters from older students| |A letter received|
  • I am a law professor. I gave copies of your column to the students in our Collaborative Legal Studies Program. These 18 first-year students are trying a collaborative approach to their first year. So far, we've talked about stress and efficient study and outlining techniques. Next week we'll be discussing how temperament types (a la Myers-Briggs) impact law study and practice. We'll also specifically address competition & collaboration in law studies.
  • I am also fighting my way through the first-year law school maze. The workload is overwhelming because, in addition to school, I work fulltime as a Registered Nurse. I am also the mother of a college student, so I am definitely not in the 25-30 age range. Evening students carry one less class than full-time law school students, but the pressures are even worse because of time and work pressures. In addition, at my law school it is the age of computers. Students must walk with their personal laptop computers at all times because assignments are being posted, changed,or being clarified and class discussions are on-going on the professor's newsgroups or private internet connections. Then there is the barrage of e-mails from other students and student groups all day to wade through to find the essential ones which need to be addressed. Believe me, the class which carries the least credits (3) demands the most time. That course is Legal Writing and Skills. It requires the greatest precision and attention to minute details. I feel like a clock-repair intern, struggling by poor candlelight putting together the very small, intricate pieces of a small watch. I hope the road will have fewer bumps, but I am not sure that it gets better. Every lawyer I have spoken to says s/he only remember how difficult it was.
  • First year you don't understand so it's hard to question. Second year you do understand but, God, do they pile on the work so you don't have time to question. Third year you do understand, and you can manage the work pretty well, but you're so fed-up that you don't care to question.
  • Bail out before it's too late. Get a small sailboat and hit the ocean. Law sucks. Clients lie, cheat and are a pain. Judges are arrogant unfeeling bastards, and the law is slanted to those with the greatest resources. Life is unfair, the law only more so. Write a book; paint a picture; go out in the woods and sing. But stay away, run, from the law. It's the last refuge for the insecure and fearful. I speak from unfortunate experience.
  • During my four-years as a part-time evening law student, a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt hung over my desk. It said, "You must do the thing you think you cannot do." I thought it an appropriate admonition since law students are expected, on a daily basis, to do six impossible things before breakfast.

    We cope with professors who were in short pants when Cardozo ruled in Palzgraf; we read and memorize the names of cases involving such timely issues as hairy hands, broken mill wheels and spring gun traps; we learn to write in a style which renders us forever incapable of using contractions (which matters not since our work product inspires all the hilarity of an obituary) - all of this for the privilege of plunking down yet another huge chunk of change for a bar review course which will teach us the thousand factoids we never learned in law school, but which are absolutely necessary for passing the bar exam.

    I don't know if there is a perfect method by which to train lawyers. But, I do know after my initial foray into the practice of law, that the method employed by law schools is one that actually works.

  • I finished law school in 1976 and think about it less and less as time goes by. [I am reminded] of my dismay when I thought I heard my Brooklyn born, first semester torts professor say something about the "tortology." I couldn't even begin to grasp what this meant as he was simply saying "tautology," but I had to be on guard for any new usage -- no matter how improbable.
  • As a first-year law student (some 8 years ago) I remember vowing never to look back and say, "That wasn't so bad" because it really was. I once heard an analogy that first-year law school was like walking across a board 6 inches wide. The reality is that the board is sitting on the ground, and you could easily run across it, but the institution of first-year law creates the illusion that it is suspended 50 feet in the air.
  • I was an untraditional student with two young children, ages 3 and 6 when I started law school in the 70s. It was time when women were just getting admitted to law schools in any numbers, and not only did we have families and school to deal with, we also had to deal with the question of whether women could be "good" lawyers! Would we cry when a judge yelled at us? Would we get pregnant and quit our job at the big firm? Thankfully, these questions have all been answered in the negative, and women now occupy their rightful place in the profession.
  • I am a 1983 [law school] graduate. I firmly believe that it is a cash cow for the University. I was 50 when I graduated, and I managed to find employment in public interest law. I worked as an RN at the time, so I avoided the student loans. I'm not sure it was worth missing my daughter's field hockey games, or the band concerts and much else. However, it has been an interesting career.
  • Although I'm 16 years out of law school, I vividly recall the emotions and the overwork of first year. What my 16 years of law practice have taught me is that (1) law school actually did give me some background in the law that I needed to be a lawyer, but (2) the law school experience has absolutely nothing to do with the law practice experience. All of the things I most despised about law school (and I hated almost everything about law school) have nothing to do with the practice.
  • There is no light at the end of the first-year tunnel; the second year is equally stressful and equally demanding.
  • In the law firm where I'm working, [this was] the key question in the interview: They asked me how many hours of study I put in during law school. I said 24 hours minus 5 hours of sleep and 1 hour for each of the three meals. I got hired and found out that's exactly how they work in the firm.

    But remember the story of Mary and Martha. There is always a tendency to become so work-oriented like Martha in law school. If you carry on this tendency once you become a lawyer, you will miss the point of it all.

  • How many [law students] see their future as personal injury attorneys forced to advertise for clients on TV? How many feel they will add to society rather than just "get RICH" at the expense of others?
  • There's an adage about lawyering that seems to spell doom: If you love law school, you'll hate practicing law, and if you hate law school, you'll love practicing law. Different muscles are used for each, that is true, but I found that fact kept me in better intellectual shape overall. Being an older student was a particular advantage and even the terror of the first semester was informed by perspective. Having a baby is a good bit harder than those first year exams.
  • 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. As I handed in my midterm, I wondered what this was all for. No epiphany was forthcoming. No warm fuzzy excuses came to mind. Instead, just fear of the step that I had taken. I find solace in this:
    a. I came here for a reason. I haven't forgotten it.
    b. People have survived law school. Thousands of them, in fact.
    c. ...and some of them are happy with what they are doing. Extremely happy, and fulfilled. Ok, so I've met just two of them :), but they assure me that there are more "out there." [I forgot to ask where "out there" was, darnit.]
  • Like kids eagerly awaiting Christimas and getting caught up in the spirit of the season, so it is for first-year law students getting into the exam season. Unfortunately the law students are not filled with glee; they are filled with fear and self-doubts. We fear the inevitable separation of the men from the boys. This will be the period of atonement and we are wondering if we have the mettle to make it through to the next stage.

    For part-time/evening law students, this is a very stressful time. As Christmas time and the Year approache, we are not permitted the time off required to study before the exams. We are still holding down full-time jobs, staying up until all ungodly hours, leaving the library at the midnight closing hour, just trying to get those legal research papers done and trying to stay alive.

  • I made it through the first year and I'm now wondering how. My father died and the sorrow I felt was only confused by guilt because I had to leave my mother and return to school. Trying to get make-up notes was like pulling teeth because, now, the others in my section had the proverbial " competitive advantage."

    Fear is the motivator and debt the end result. This major life change, however, has its purpose. As an older student coming back to school, I see how many of these young students were raised, and I know I did a very good job raising my children. For some, being so self-serving may have monetary relief, but they'll miss out on the real essence of life. Others may not gain that great monetary goal, but they'll be helping those who cannot help themselves. This will be their reward.

    In my second year, I see a greater division among groups. If they talked to you the first year, it was because they had too. Now, if they made law journal and you did not take the time to try, something must be wrong with you, so you may only get that whisper of hello as they hurry by.

  • I am currently in my third year of law school. It is so important to keep up your law school friendships, as they will keep you sane. As well, part of you feels that no one quite understands what exactly you are going through and as such, words of support made by non-law persons feel meaningless
  • What [law students describe as] "faking" is, in fact, the antechambre of understanding: The words and the notions are there, but they are not yet linked. The learning method you propose is to read the questions first, then the corresponding paragraph. In my practice as a lecturer in law, this is the basic skill I teach my first-year students. To understand the working of the law, quite a lot of material needs to be reviewed. Yet, not every bit is relevant at every moment during a course. As a student, you have to be as selective as the practicing lawyer, dealing with extravagant workloads.
  • I am a 1L. I feel like I have given up my normal life. When I go out to have a drink, I feel guilty. I have no real social life, and I just recently picked up an admission form for the MBA program, just in case. I call my parents every night to complain about this experience and how it has already changed me.
  • [After surviving exams,] for 2 straight weeks (maybe more) I woke up in the wee hours of the morning in a panic because of (1) something I forgot to say on an exam, (2) an issue I just spotted that I didn't spot during the exam, or (3) being convinced that I have failed miserably and have nothing else that I really want to do with my life. Finally, the nightmares have pretty much stopped, but I still have that pit in my stomach about forthcoming grades.
  • I've just completed my 2nd Year fall semester exams, so now I'm officially halfway done, and I think I may actually be seeing a smidgen of light at the end of the tunnel. If I can offer [a first-year law student] one bit of advice, it is this: Find yourself a good clerking opportunity after you finish your first year. Good does NOT necessarily mean high pay in a big firm. My saving grace after my first year was a summer spent clerking with a very small law firm (only three lawyers) who gave me real work to do. In addition to the standard research and memo writing, I also got the opportunity to write petitions and opinion letters to clients. Seeing the "real world" side of law helped remind me why I was in law school in the first place. I may be one of the weird ones. Yes, first year of law school was very difficult (and I was coming back to school after being a professional and running my own business), but I honestly can say that I loved it. For all the hell and stress, I loved the experience. I may have been blessed with the best classmates on the planet. We are certainly a collaborative group, and people are willing to share ideas (and study aids) freely. That atmosphere makes all the difference in the world. There's plenty of time to be cutthroat. As we repeat often around [my school], "Remember, you will be working with these people for the rest of your career. Someday one of your classmates may be a judge, and judges have long memories. Why be a jerk now?"
  • [At the law school I attend], we do not have advisors either. And when asked about help, they look at you like you are from outer space. I am a mom of 2 wonderful children who encourage me and are very proud of their mom. It's scary because they keep asking if I have my "report card" yet. I think I might be in trouble. I came from the field of education. The Socratic method offended me about the first 6 weeks of law school; then it was only irritating. In the real world we call that socially unacceptable. However, in law school they call it necessary. I have been scared, frustrated, angry, tired, etc... this semester.
  • I am a "non-traditional" mommy-forever first-year law student, 45, single parent of 3, two grown and a 10-year-old still at home. My lawyer friends said I was nuts to try but have been my biggest supporters. My friends have been ignored but understanding and encouraging and, yet, my mother still thinks I will find a good husband in the deal and not have to put myself through this anymore! My children have been my biggest supporters, and I have the only child in the 5th grade who asks for a legal case as a bedtime story! "Torts Mom, tell me about cherry Torts," he giggles! It was an old dream tucked high upon the shelf behind the wedding veil and the baby's first shoes.
  • After 20 years as a successful computer programmer, I breezed through law school with top 10% grades. I then found no market for middle-aged entry-level attorneys. The business model of most law firms demands young people to work 60 hours per week, neglect their families, and eventually quit in frustration because they won't make partner. Starting a solo practice is just as tough unless you have experience running a small business.

    Luckily, I could go back to my old trade. I have found happiness putting legal services on the web.

  • I just finished a Contracts exam. ... I have taken 3 exams and have 1 more to go. If I never see anything else about U.C.C. Sec. 2-207, I will be happy! I came out of the test wondering what the devil I am doing here. I made the high [grade] in the class on the practice exam and probably the low [grade] on this monster. We have been told not to talk to each other about our answers because it will distress us the whole holiday if we didn't see the same issues, but what about if you feel it in your bones that you bombed it? Oh well, last but not least is Civil Procedure. Our grades won't come out until we pay our money for the next semester. I wonder if I can get a full refund?!
  • No matter what your age or family status, the law school experience is remarkably the same. I was 25 and married when I started law school but suffered the same as younger single students and older students with children. If anything, I think maturity helps since you've seen and experienced enough to know that law school is not the be all and end all of the universe. ... Don't get too hung up on the injustice of the cases: You should already have known that there is injustice everywhere.
  • I'm not a law student or a lawyer, nor am I mother. I'm a woman about [50] who got a doctorate in English in her late 20s and has been teaching, first in universities and now, for the last 15 years, in independent high schools. I've got a job I love, can't afford to leave, but wonder about. It's good, but it doesn't change all that much. Were any of us "made" to do the same thing for 40 or 45 years? Don't even good jobs begin to feel like Thoreau's vision of "quiet desperation" when you do them again and again? ("Habit is a great deadener," wrote Proust. Beckett echoed). Shouldn't mid-life be a time when, rather than settling in, we take on new challenges, try something new?
    • I am just turned 41, never married and no children. Two years ago I realized that, if I were on my death bed, I would be sorry that I had not at least tried law [school]. So I took the review course for the [LSAT] (an absolute waste of money for me), filled in my dots, and sent out my money. I ended up at [a state university] living in the school dorms. Why? Because it is the best law degree that my money could buy from the schools that I applied to. I, too, questioned why I took this route when I received my first grades. I rarely had to study as an undergraduate, and I did study here--and my grades were worse. Since my loans are $18,500 for the first year, I wondered if I should leave, but I recalled why I was here: Not because it offers a chance at a good paycheck, but because every job I have had I have ended up working on the legal side. Mortgage lending at a bank, reading construction contracts, insurance, explaining the lastest gov't edicts. I have been lucky enough to find a small firm that is willing to let me "hang out" and see what they really do.

      Our classes have 85-90 people per section (2) except for LRW [legal research & writing], which is 22. As an older student with the 23, 24, 25 year olds, I do find it difficult. Because I am slow to open up, it is even more difficult. I chose to live in the [student housing] so that I would be forced to know at least 3 other people. I have not been able to get together with a study group although that doesn't seem to be the "thing" here. However, alcohol does seem to be the thing.

      I am constantly amazed at the naivte of the students (and sometimes at the professors.) At the same time I am amazed at the intelligence and wonder how I got in. Law school is a rarefied atmosphere, to be sure.

      Our appellate briefs are done, just handed that in, now only for the oral arguments! Someone tell me, is there any law firm that uses CRAC or IRAC? No law firm that I have talked to admits that they use that, or even have time to read all the repetition required when writing using that layout.

    • I am a 1L. At this point in the semester, I can honestly say that law school sucks. I am glad that we are a little more than half of the semester through. At one point, I didn't think I could make it. This is the part that kills me, because I am very far from being a quitter. However, after the "grades depression" swept through, as my civ pro prof. calls it, I was drained. I had no energy to read all the cases, brief every case, etc. I started finding shortcuts. Along the way I've discovered that grades in law school are just numbers. Being a great lawyer has nothing to do with your grades. (Our civ pro prof reminds us quite often). The funniest part is how some students say the most intellectually lacking comments and yet made Dean's List. I sit there and just stare in amazement. How can someone say something so intellectually unchallening and be in the top 10% of the class? I've discovered some of these people have found short cuts too. No one ever said it would be easy, but no one told me it would be this hard, either.
    • A few people have talked about not focusing on marks; however, unfortunately, they are the most important factor in getting you a job. I did well all through my course, even early on when a lot of people don't do so well. This meant that I had a lot of offers from big firms which is what I hoped to achieve.

      Regardless of how you go, appreciate the experience. Knowledge of the law and how to approach legal problems is incredibly empowering.

    • After twenty years as an Air Force C-130 pilot, I retired. I entered law school, and I passed the Bar. I [was] offered and accepted a job in the aerospace industry, in a position very similar to the one I held as a military officer.

      The first year is a cull exercise. The courses are set up to show you what to expect in your chosen profession. (D+ in torts; recovered nicely in that one; good thing my goal was not to be a personal injury attorney.)

    • I just finished my first semester at law school. I did not perform as well on my exams as I had wished. My highest grade was a B, and my lowest grade was a C-. I thought about leaving because you hear about how important grades are. But I tried to think about the past and about what really is important to me. I had performed well in college with a GPA close to a 4.00. Not only that, but I remember what it was like to receive those grades and how they were so unfullfilling in the long-run. The grades were like a quick high, and I found a quick fixation to them. In college I finally realized that they don't provide happiness to you for the entire semester.
    • One thing to remember in writing law school exam responses -- especially important for those who have a background in writing, and treasure well-constructed essays -- is this: Don't spend time in the exam thinking about composition, sentence structure, etc. You are not graded on how well you write. Law school exams typically are graded on the basis of "issue-spotting." The more issues you spot, the more points you get. Caring about writing is a detriment in law school exams. The key is to scribble down as many issues as possible, and don't worry about composition.
    • My first semester in law school I got a C- in Contracts and an A in Torts (the only A in the class). Go figure! My last semester in law school I had a 3.5 average. Again, go figure.

      I never recommend study aids. However, I make one exception. It is a book on how to write bar exam essays. It is by Mary Campbell Gallagher.

    • I just completed my first semester as a 45-year-old evening division student at a top tier law school. It was a shock to get the first C+ of my life in Torts. The only course I ever got a C+ in was Phys. Ed. I had to do a reality check. Here I am, 20 years since my last university experience, holding down a full time job.... So what's a C+ mean to me? I put a lot of hard work into my C+. In fact, I cherish my C+.

      The next Sunday, as I was spending a pleasant day in the library researching post-verdict jury interview rules for my Lawyering Process course, I was approached by a friend. He is a young foreign lawyer, quite brilliant, who has argued before the highest Court in his country. An advocate of democracy in a country that is struggling with the rule of law, he is taking a Masters in Law at our fine institution. Turns out he got a C+ too. He felt better that I had gotten a lousy grade, and I felt better that he was graded as poorly as I. Misery loves company.

    • [In law school] you are on a strict curve. As we were told by the Profs in 1L, "If all 90 of you produced a perfect exam blue book, there will still be only 7-9 A's, 7-9 F's, etc."

      While I never joined a study group, those I talked to who did saw a great improvement in their grades.

      Law school is to train you in a different and very circumspect way of thinking about a subject most have only a cursory understanding of. The quicker you immerse yourself in the language and thinking patterns of the profession, the sooner your grades will improve.

      The law school is the cash cow for the rest of the institution. Only solution is to transfer to a state funded institution.

      ALL PROSPECTIVE LAW STUDENTS SHOULD KNOW THIS: The law school you graduate from cannot prevent you from being a great lawyer. Unless you are somewhat certain an expensive education will guarantee you opportunities in the profession, find the least expensive school available and grab a seat, graduate, pass the bar, and do your thing!

    • I am a "mature" 1L (wife, mother of five, grandmother of 4). I am a student at Oklahoma City University School of Law. Throughout my acceptance to the school, orientation, and first year, I have felt accepted and very much a part of life here. We have a number of older students sprinkled among the younger ones. It's a good mix.
    • My section had its share of ill-mannered people last year. Wanting to make law review, combined with the lack of sleep, and a dose of immaturity tends to bring out the worst in a lot of the twenty-something crowd.
    • Some thoughts from a 42-year-old 3L evening-division student working full time:
      1. Don't get too hung up memorizing all the intricate details of the cases. I began book briefing about halfway into the first semester. Case details almost never count for much on the exams. What does matter most is black letter law.
      2. Outline with #1 in mind. It is much better to have a shorter outline focused on black letter law, that only briefly mentions cases, than a lengthy one where the cases are written out in exhaustive detail. Also, the shorter the outline, the more review repetitions you can do while studying.
      3. Buy all the study aids and casebriefs you want. Use them to amplify and clarify your outline and in preparation for class.
      4. Try to get into a study group. Mine has varied in composition over the last three years, but I usually do better in those classes where I can do at least some group study to help clarify points. The age and IQs of the participants matter less than the willingness to spend the time doing it, coming prepared to work, and not wanting to spend the whole time talking and gossiping.
    • [from an undergraduate professor] I have recommended that my pre-law undergraduates read your essays in order to get an idea of what "it's really like."
    • I am an older 1L (just turned 47) with two children. They love the opportunity to ask, "Hey Mom, is your homework done?" Unfortunately, the answer is always "no", because I am a 1L.

      I think there are nine "over 40" in our class of 162. We are divided into 3 sections, and I am quite sure I'm the oldest in mine. We had four exams first semester (torts, criminal, contracts, and civil procedure) and will have 4 more this semester. The fall exams were a horrible experience. After each exam, I felt lost. (And I must admit I was quite discourged to hear others sounding not only positive, but quite exuberant about how they thought they did.) I knew I had put something on the paper, but I had no real feeling for how I did. It was very disconcerting. Before we know it, spring semester exams will be upon us. I am meeting a classmate at the library tomorrow to begin our look at previous exams given by our professors. The rest of this week will be spent in catching up on the reading I skipped last week when my trial brief was due.

      In spite of the difficulties, I am enjoying the challenge. Most of my classmates seem to accept me as a peer, and the group of "older students" has become friends in spite of our different sections. We grab a quick cup of coffee and share a few minutes of commisserating between classes.

    • It was my experience that the first year of law school is the toughest.

      The experience of law school is very valuable whether or not you choose to practice after graduation. Having decided that the practice of law was not for me, I went back to school and am pursuing a degree in criminalistics, which is a chemistry degree first and foremost. The legal background is a real asset.

    • The most abiding lesson I have taken from my law school experience is never to assume that your law professors will treat you fairly & decently. In my own case, I sweated and worked my proverbial socks off for 3 long, stressful years, passed all my exams, some with pretty good grades, some with so-so grades but passes nevertheless. Yet 6 weeks before graduation, my law school saw fit to disqualify me for grade point average drop of a mere 0.15 of 1 point. This was done without warning and having waited till my graduation ceremony ticket had been purchased. Needless to say, the devastation this brought to my life, including everyone in my family, can never be put right. I eventually recovered sufficiently to earn a much better law degree elsewhere, with distinction. But the very deep trauma resulting from my first law school experience will be carried with me to my grave. There was no justification, moral or otherwise, for my treatment.
  • I'm 33, and getting ready to start my first year of law school. This is the culmination of a lifelong dream and one I've been looking forward to for months. While I have no wife or children, I fear the enormous school debt that will come from attending a private school for three years. I also dislike the fact that I have to make salary a strong consideration point for my first job as a result. But what's most important to me is that I become a lawyer, and I feel as prepared as I can be for day one of class. This probably translates into: "I'm in for the shock of my life!"
  • I just finished my second year of law school. It will take me four years to finish because I work full-time and go to law school in the evenings. I am 35 years old, married, and have a 7-month- old baby girl. It had been 9 years since graduate school. I also had to deal with younger "kids" and being accepted. I remember finishing my first-year law exams. It was terrible. However, as I was on the plane back to visit my family, it dawned on me that I was doing something I had wanted to do since I was 20 years old -- become a lawyer. My grades after my first year were better than I had feared, and they were slightly better this year. I'm still struggling with the fact that we have to spend 15 weeks reading, briefing, and attending class, and it all boils down to just one 3-4 hour exam.

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