Starting Law School: An Early “Disaster” Teaches Me A Lesson

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The first step was going to pick up my student ID, and even that required a pep talk.  I can totally do this.  I knew exactly where I was supposed to go but I still checked the address seven times once I got off the train.  I was sure that this whole law school thing would be a series of failures that would end with me deeply in debt and back at my job as an administrative assistant.

As I approached the elevator, I spotted two other 1Ls.  To me, they looked brilliant. Look at those erudite faces– I think I can see their brains through their skulls.  I could picture both of them crossing the stage in three short years to deliver a valedictory speech.  I hoped I would make it to graduation without flunking out to run a Quiznos franchise.

I got my ID.  I’d hoped I would look professional, like someone destined to be a great lawyer.  When I looked at my tiny face in that little square, I thought I looked like a love child of Harry Potter and Shirley Feeney.  Well, this isn’t about looks, I thought, as I shoved the ID to the back of my wallet behind my driver’s license, which wasn’t much better, except if I squinted I looked like Demi Moore in Ghost in that picture.  (By squint, I meant close my eyes and hum that Righteous Brothers’ song.)

The second step was the writing test.  We were all corralled into large lecture halls the Saturday before school started.  Large sheets of pink legal-sized papers were passed out.  I took extra just in case there was a math component, and I needed scratch paper.  The assignment was to compare two fictitious legal systems.  I stared at the directions so long that they no longer looked like letters in the English language.  Sweat beaded on my temples as I thought about the repercussions of failing the intro writing assessment.

Before I’d written a word, other new law students were turning in their assignments and heading out into the August sunshine.

Write something, I commanded.  So, I did.  I wrote two pages of analysis that I thought was good enough to land me in the middle of the pack of 170 law students.  I was the second to last student to finish the exercise– the guy who finished after me was never seen again.

The following Monday was the first day of school.  My hand cramped during Torts as I scrambled to write Every. Single. Word. that the professor said.  The movement of my hand across the paper distracted me from thinking about how I was probably going to fail out of law school because who did I think I was trying to be a lawyer?  I was still writing the holding of Summers v. Tice when everything went quiet.  I looked up and the director of the writing program had come to make an announcement.  “Check your mailbox for the results of your writing assignment.  Those of you who have been flagged as ‘struggling writers’ are required to attend writing clinics for the next three Saturdays,” she explained.

After class, I stalled so no one would see me check my mailbox.  I stuck my hand into my mail folder without looking at it.   I stuffed the papers into my backpack. I watched other students joking about the “Saturday school,” laughing about how humiliating it would be to have to do that.  “I’m pretty sure that’s for ESL students,” a jock with a red Indiana sweatshirt sneered.

Public transportation offered the perfect cloak of anonymity.  I sat next to a man who seemed like his most recent contact with running water was before I’d taken the LSAT; he was in no position to judge me for choking on the writing test.

At the Belmont stop I was ready to look.  I saw the note first: “Please plan to attend the writing clinic.”

I stared at the words so long I almost missed my stop.  A lawyer who can’t write— this is going to be a disaster.

It was months before I understood what the real disaster was: the feeling that I didn’t deserve to be there– that persistent belief that I didn’t belong, couldn’t do it, and wouldn’t succeed.  But I did.  And it wasn’t a disaster at all.  It was the start of my career.


64 thoughts on “Starting Law School: An Early “Disaster” Teaches Me A Lesson

  1. Although it wasn’t law school, I experienced those same feelings just a few weeks ago at a local writer’s convention.
    I was intimidated. I was scared. I was convinced that people would see my fear and declare me a fraud.
    I hope my experience proves to be the beginning of a career like yours did 🙂

  2. Thanks for sharing this. I know that feeling, oh so very well. I am the Queen of self-doubt, but writing through something (even if that something is writing) has always helped me. (p.s….you need to add the “be” to “be there” in your final paragraph! And you can totally edit my reply to get rid of this part of my reply!)

  3. I’ve felt that way in so many instances; in music, writing, acting “will they all realize I’m a fraud or something?” and it was all ridiculous because they were probably all feeling that way too. But we never know that at the time, do we? It’s the wisdom and self awareness that comes with age that allows all that to finally sink in.

  4. Wow. Thanks for sharing. I was all ready to hear how you didn’t need the class but it shows such strength of character to see how someone faces a setback or hurdle but the true success it to keep showing up despite the fear and temporary setbacks.

  5. The thought of you… amazing writer…ever being required to attend Saturday school for writing is both preposterous and strangely hope-inducing. Thank you for sharing this story 🙂

  6. I started law school 10 months after I was married and one month after my oldest was born. For good measure, I was moved to a more demanding position at work to work for a Captain that nobody else wanted to, but hey, don can get along with anyone so screw him. It was actually a good move since I worked straight days and it gave me more time to study. I think I had a mini nervous break down at one point before school started and I recall distinctly sitting in a Contracts class thinking, “what the fuck are you doing to yourself?” I wanted so badly to quit and save myself the school loan debt, but that’s what everybody expected would happen so, I stuck with it. I worked full time as a police officer with a fairly new wife and a brand new baby and diddlefucked my way through law school in spite of myself. This long comment needs to be a post on my own blog dammit! Lol. Great work having to attend the writing class. Did they need you to be a teacher or something?

  7. This brings me back to my first year of law school — I remember being so intimidated. Writing in particular was tough because they want everyone to follow the same formula. I resisted at first (and my grades suffered). Gradually, I learned to see the law school writing formula as a tool. I found little ways to interject my own writing style, but man, it was a process. 🙂 Keep at it!

  8. I’m sure you didn’t see it this way then, but now, would you say that those writing classes were helpful, that they helped to develop your passion for writing?

  9. And succeed you did. Wow, this makes me think of my first week of law school. Within the first three days I got lost on the subway, took the worst ID picture in the history of student IDs, didn’t realize that my 1L seminar had a writing assignment that had to be completed before the first day of school, and made a total fool of myself answering a question about reading that I hadn’t done, because I didn’t know I had to. I think those early law school days may very well bring out the crazy in us all…

  10. Oh the irony of needing a writing class… maybe just so you could stiffen it up for law writing (which Ive always experienced as non-emotive and tight.)

  11. I didn’t go to law school, but I did go to a reasonably prestigious private school called Whitman College. Emphasis was on a traditional liberal arts education, so a course called “Core” was required of every student, covering a selection of Western literature. I had earned my associate’s, so I felt a bit strange transferring as a junior and being required to take a course with freshmen.

    I decided to take on a persuasive writing style, instead of repeatedly citing other scholarly sources. But I wasn’t confident with it, and so I paid many dues at the Writing Center, struggling to assert myself and articulate my ideas.

    I like to think it paid off exponentially for my skills. My instructor was a jerk, though, a professor that gossiped and whined about us to his main History class. (Uh oh, you fool, someone squealed on you at the Writing Center, muhahahaha!)

    • They did teach me to keep it simple. The problem with my writing was trying too hard and making very complex sentences when simple ones will do. I do still struggle with that, but less than before those sessions.

  12. Oh, the irony. You could write circles around so many I read.
    ALSO – I flunked my first writing test in grad school. It was humiliating.

  13. Wait, wasn’t that everyone’s first day? Actually, my school didn’t have that writing class. I wish they did. Maybe then, by 3rd year, the people in one of my classes would have had the ability to write better than toddlers and then the teacher wouldn’t have had the school tell her she couldn’t fail half the class for incomprehensible papers.

    Oh, and we’ve all come a long way. With age and experience, comes confidence in our own abilities. Sometimes. 😉

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